Apart from being an amateur reggae singer and guitar player and of course one of the biggest fans of Toots and the Maytals, I like to dance. And not only to reggae, but also to salsa music. Now, I just got back from a holiday full of salsa dancing in Amsterdam. And while I don’t think I have to explain the link between Amsterdam and reggae, I think the link between salsa and reggae can use some explanation.
In the last article, I wrote about the unique feel or swing of reggae music, and why that makes you want to dance. It goes without saying that the feel of salsa music, although it also wants to make you dance, is completely different to the one of reggae. I can’t take all the credit I learned a lot from my teacher at my personal best Salsa Amsterdam dancing school. However, there are some interesting familiarities between the two music styles that I would like to discuss.
First of all, both genres have their roots in the Caribbean islands, only a few hundred kilometers away from each other: Jamaica for reggae and Cuba for salsa. Both genres were born out of a mixture of two other genres, one being indigenous, and the other one being non-native.
For reggae, this was Mento and the foreign rhythm and blues. In the case of salsa, Spanish folk music was mixed with the music from the slaves that were kidnapped from Africa. The music of the latter was characterized by rousing rhythms and the question and answer style of singing (the lead singer sings something, which is repeated or answered by the other band members). Hence, the accompanying melodies and chord constructions in this root version of salsa that is called ‘Son’ have a European character; wile the rhythm and the singing have an African character. Mostly former slaves from the Ivory Coast and Angola have had much influence on the Son. It is striking how cheerful and upbeat the music sounds, despite the difficult times that the slaves must have had in Cuba.
The song “Chan, Chan” by the Bueno Vista Social Club is one of favorite examples of the Son music genre:
In addition, percussion plays an important role in both musical styles, as they are the propelling force of the rhythm and thus the feel of the song. Guiros, toms, shakers and especially timbales are vital in a lot of reggae songs. A lot of reggae songs even start with a Timbales fill. For example, check out the beginning of this awesome Bob Marley song (or just the entire song of course):
Here’s a lot of overlap with salsa music percussion: Timbales, guiros, and shakers are, next to congas and bongos, more than regular features in salsa songs.
But what I like most about salsa that I kind of miss in the contemporary reggae scene, is the dance community. During my two and a half weeks in Amsterdam I danced a lot. And what I keep noticing is that in the salsa community, parties are organized specifically as dance events, and where actually everyone dances. In my opinion, that is different to the contemporary reggae communities. The reggae parties are absolutely awesome, but there is not such a strong emphasis on dancing. And that’s why, sometimes, I wish the current-day reggae scene would resemble the old-style sound system trucks reggae parties a little bit more! But then again, there is no place where the atmosphere is better than at the modern reggae parties even though the Salsa Amsterdam scene is incredible!! Plus there are so many beautiful women. Hope to see you there!