Sunday, April 12, 2009

Percussionists: How to Keep Salsa Dancers Happy


Watch the clave: make sure you keep the Tumbao pattern and the clave "in sync" with each other. If the song is using a 2/3 clave, play the basic Tumbao pattern (HandTap-SlapTap-HandTap-OpenOpen, HandTap-Slap-OpenOpen-Hand-OpenOpen), but if the song using a 3/2 clave pattern, play the Tumbao pattern in reverse order (HandTap-Slap-OpenOpen-Hand-OpenOpen, HandTap-SlapTap-HandTap-OpenOpen).

If you are not sure, try both (quickly). Also monitor the song... listen throughout the song... see if it is still feeling right. If a whole bunch of dancers are beginning to struggle finding the beat... stop playing! Play gentler, turn the mics down, move onto the cowbell or bongos, etc.

Too often non-salsa dancing congo percussionists miss this important aspect of matching the Tumbao to the clave. The net result is a sound that seems fine but just doens't feel right to the dancers. Particularly beginners... they will really struggle to find the starting beat (due to the overlapping rhythms).


"More cowbell" might be a great skit, but match the cowbell in salsa to when it is needed. In the mambo section, go nuts. But in a salsa romantica, the start of a slowly building song, etc, yeah... just go easy on that bad boy! There is nothing wrong with ceasing with the cowbell for a bar or two, having a listen, and then going again if you feel like it and it still suits the song.


I can't get enough of the bongos, and I have a great respect for those of you out there who can jam on them and get the crowd going. Personally, I like playing the bongos as much as I can in a salsa song... since it is a fairly subtle instrument, it complements most songs. And yeah, when the time is right, letting rip with a freestyle jam is all good. The one word of caution I have is that in Bachata, I would tone the jamming down a bit... a lot of dancers (even if they don't know it themselves yet) really listen to the bongos for the timing... and when you take that away from them (to jam), it can cause a few dance floor disasters!


Again, you really need to be a good percussionist to use shakers well. Unless you can hold your timing and keep shakers really tight, I say leave this for your own practice sessions.

Letting Others "have a go"

One of the biggest problems I have when playing at salsa clubs is that a lot of people (about one per night usually) will come and ask me if they can have a go. If I ask them closed questions such as "have you played before" or "do you know what this instrument is called" they normally reply with a simple yes or no. So, I now ask more open questions, but normally don't let anyone play. There are two reasons for this: one, they normally can't play at all, and it really annoys all the dancers (making me look bad in the process!), and two, I kind of like my instruments and don't like watching them get violated by people who just have no idea (but who do wear rather spiky jewellery on their hands).

Yes, it's tough love, but I just say no :(


  1. Great content - I love it (especially when you talk about the instruments and breaking down the metrics [since I'm an Engineer])! Ever thought about sharing your passion and information on addicted2salsa? I'm sure the world would love to learn more from you.



  2. Hi Anthony! Yes, I do have an engineering background... you can tell, huh?!

    Hey, thanks very much for recommending this site to I see they have put it on the front page. Thanks for that... really appreciated.

    An analytical mind can be both very good and very bad for salsa I find. I love breaking things down (and then it all makes sense). But then I also have to "let go" and let the music and the muscle memory take over. It took me a long time to figure that out (and I still struggle with "over-thinking" things sometimes)!

    As for this blog, I will continue to add articles on a regular basis. I am fortunate enough to now live in Sydney, Australia, where there are some very good dancers and musicians. I am sure I will learn a lot... and everything I learn will be posted here!

  3. Maybe I'm missing something, but the conga patterns you described for 2/3 and 3/2 clave are the same (and thus the other one is not reversed). Should I assume the first one is right?

  4. Hi (to the poster above)... yes you are right, thanks, and well spotted! I have fixed the post to list the tumbao pattern in the correct order now, and hopefully the next time I get a chance, I will explain this a bit more, including posting recordings of each conga pattern played. Thanks again!