The following list offers some of the greatest Salsa songs ever recorded. This compilation does not pretend to be a fixed ranking but rather an opportunity to explore the particular sounds that have shaped Salsa music. I hope this list of top Salsa songs helps you to discover the essence of one of the most vibrant rhythms in Latin music.
10. Joe Cuba Sextet & Cheo Feliciano - "El Raton"
An iconic song in Salsa music, "El Raton" offers a soft piano introduction that brings an air of mystery to a melody that soon after becomes an authentic ecstasy of sounds. A wonderful track to fully appreciate the talent of Cheo Feliciano, one of the best singers in Salsa history.
9. Gilberto Santa Rosa - "Conciencia"
Even though modern Salsa tends to be quite different from the old classic stuff, there are artists who still preserve the rhythm's original flavor. One of these artists is Gilberto Santa Rosa and his single "Conciencia" is an expression of the artist's attention to keep up the essence of Salsa music. "Conciencia" was the song that made Gilberto Santa Rosa a Salsa superstar.
8. Justo Betancourt - "P'a Bravo Yo"
If there is a song that achieved everything Salsa is about, this song is "P'a Bravo Yo." With the marvelous voice of the Cuban singer Justo Betancourt, "P'a Bravo Yo" is an explosion from beginning to end. Without any doubt, one of the greatest Salsa songs in history.
7. La Sonora Ponceña - "Yambeque"
An institution in Salsa music, La Sonora Ponceña has been shaping the sounds of Salsa since the 1950s. "Yambeque" is one of the top Salsa songs this Puerto Rican band has produced. Look out for the percussion solo improvisation in the middle of it.
6. Oscar D'Leon - "Lloraras"
The 'Lion of Salsa,' Oscar D'Leon is Venezuela's best Salsa singer and one of the greatest voices of this rhythm. "Lloraras" is a short song with an exuberant beat that keeps you dancing from beginning to end.
5. Fania All Stars - "Quitate Tu"
In a way, "Quitate Tu" became the song that covered everything that the Fania All Stars did. This single brought together the best voices of the Fania phenomenon and became one of the greatest Salsa songs especially after the live performance the band delivered at the legendary Cheetah in New York City.
4. Ismael Rivera - "Las Caras Lindas"
Known as 'El Sonero Mayor,' Ismael Rivera is considered one of the best voices in Salsa music. His particular voice and his honest, simple way of singing allowed Rivera to create a brand around himself. "Las Caras Lindas," a single that highlights the pride of his Afro-American roots, is by far one of his most popular Salsa songs.
3. Hector Lavoe - "Mi Gente"
To many, Hector Lavoe is considered the most important Salsa singer in history. His unique nasal voice and the feeling he used to incorporate into his songs made of him one of the greatest personalities in Salsa. One of his most famous hits is "Mi Gente," a song that captured Salsa fans all over the world.
2. El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico - "El Menu"
There is a reason why El Gran Combo is known as 'The University of Salsa.' Decades of great music has transformed this Puerto Rican band in one of the most beloved names in Salsa. "El Menu" consolidated the musical sound of this group and it is always considered among the band's top Salsa songs.
1. Ruben Blades - "Pedro Navaja"
Over the years, "Pedro Navaja" has been considered by many as one of the greatest Salsa songs ever recorded. In fact, Salsa critics usually treat this single as an important step in the evolution of Salsa music. "Pedro Navaja" is probably the best story ever told in a Salsa single and the musical progression that goes along with the lyrics is plain fantastic.
Born: August 21, 1962 in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Quote from Gilberto Santa Rosa: "One of my goals is to perform the first Salsa Symphony that would tour the world."
Trivia: An ardent fan of Tito Rodriguez, Santa Rosa has acquired an extensive collection of Rodriguez memorabilia, including clothing, music and furniture.
Early Years: Gilberto Santa Rosa grew up in the Santurce area of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital. Always interested in music, Santa Rosa performed his first professional concert at age 14 with the help of his teacher, Mario Ortiz.
Lead Tenor: In 1976 Santa Rosa made his recording debut as a backup singer with the Mario Ortiz Orchestra and soon after became the lead singer for La Grande Orchestra, followed by a stint with the Puerto Rican All-Stars in 1979. During the 1980’s he also recorded with the orchestras of Tommy Olivencia, Willie Rosario and El Gran Combo.
Gilberto Santa Rosa Orchestra: Forming his own band in 1986, he signed with Combo Records and went on to record a continuous string of hits, including “De Amor Y Salsa", “Vivir Sin Ella” and “Good Vibration”.
Carnegie Hall: In 1990 Santa Rosa signed with CBS Sony (Sony Discos), where his first album, Punto de Vista, went platinum, and which contains the classic “Vivir Sin Ella”. He followed up with another hit album, Perspectiva in 1991. In 1995, Santa Rosa became the first Puerto Rican singer of tropical music to perform at Carnegie Hall.
And the Hits Go On: 1996 saw the release of Expresion, followed by Romantica in 2001 and Viceversa in 2002 which went on to become a hit in Latin communities from the US through all of Latin America. Many albums followed after with more Salsa Hits.
A True "Sonero": A sonero is an improvising salsa singer, and Santa Rosa is considered one of the true ‘soneros” of his generation. He is known for his exceptional interpretation of ‘salsa romantica’ as well as a great singer of the “tropical” style of music.
La Sonora Ponceña has left a permanent imprint in Salsa music. With nearly 60 years of musical history, this Puerto Rican band has become a point of reference for Salsa fans all over the world. La Sonora Ponceña's unique music flavor and enormous compilation of hits have made of this band an institution in Salsa music.
The Birth: In 1944, in the city of Ponce, Puerto Rico, musician Enrique "Quique" Lucca formed a quintet group named Orquesta Internacional. Ten years after that first experiment, Lucca added new members to the original group changing the musical style of it. This transformation came with a new name: La Sonora Ponceña.
Papo Lucca: By the 1960s, the band was already popular in Puerto Rico thanks in part to Papo Lucca, Enrique's son and youngest member of the band, who captured audiences with his piano playing skills. With his enormous musical talent, Papo Lucca wrote the arrangements for Hachero Pa Un Palo, the first album recorded by La Sonora Ponceña back in 1962.
Hachero Pa Un Palo and the following album, Fuego en el 23, opened the doors for the band to New York's vibrant Salsa scene. During the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, La Ponceña produced several hits that included "Prende el Fogón," "Changuiri" and "Juana Bayona."
Building the Myth: The 1975's release of Tiene Pimienta represented an important step in the band's musical evolution. That album marked the beginning of Papo Lucca's experimentation with electronic keyboards and Latin Jazz influences.
In 1979, La Sonora Ponceña produced La Ceiba, a new album featuring Celia Cruz that exposed the band to a more international audience. Louie Ramirez, La Ponceña's producer at that time, played a major role in this exposure that was further consolidated in the following album New Heights.
By the 1980s, La Sonora Ponceña was already one of the most prestigious Salsa bands in the world. During that decade, the band consolidated its sound through several albums such as Determination, Jubilee and Back to Work.
Since the 1990s, La Sonora Ponceña's musical production has continued at a slower pace. That, however, has not hurt the myth that has been built around this Salsa band. Today, La Sonora Ponceña still brings its music all over the world.
The Secret to La Sonora Ponceña's Unique Sound: La Sonora Ponceña has built a special sound based on very innovate elements. The following are the reasons behind the band's unique Salsa flavor:
Essential Sonora Ponceña Albums: Considering the band's long musical career, hit compilation albums represent the best option to start a journey through La Sonora Ponceña's music. The following three albums include some of the best songs the band has ever produced:
Born: October 21, 1925 (or 1924) in Havana(Santos Suarez), Cuba (There's some controversy about the date; Cruz was very secretive about her age)
Died: July 16, 2003 in Fort Lee, New Jersey
Trivia: Celia Cruz' trademark cry of "Azucar" (sugar) is the punchline of a joke she often told at her perfomances. She told it so often, that after years, she would come on stage and just yell "Azucar"!
Watching Celia Cruz perform leaves no doubt that this is a woman in her natural element. Weren't rumba and mambo made for Cruz to sing? To realize how extraordinary Celia Cruz was, you need to take a step back and think about how few women there are in salsa - bet you only need one hand to count them!
Cruz was the first female salsa mega-star. To this day she remains the most important and influential woman of not just salsa, but of Afro-Cuban music in general.
Celia Cruz - Early Days: Celia Cruz was born Ursula Hilaria Celia Caridad Cruz Alfonso in Havana. She was the second of 4 children, although there were 14 other children in the household. She started singing at an early age, winning musical contest and small prizes. She often told the story about her first pair of shoes, purchased for her by a tourist for whom she sang.
La Sonora Matancera: Her big break came when she became the lead vocalist for Sonora Matancera, the prominent tropical band of its day. She was not a hit, but the band's leader, Rogelio Martinez, remained firm in his belief in Cruz, even after record executives complained that a woman singing that style of music was not going to sell.
Over time, the Cruz and the subsequent CD became a big success and she toured with the band through the 1950s.
Cruz Emigrates to the U.S.: In 1959, Sonora Matancera, along with Cruz, went on tour to Mexico. Castro was now in power following the Cuban revolution and the musicians, rather than returning to Havana, went to the U.S. Cruz became a U.S. citizen in 1961 and, the following year, she married Pedro Knight who a trumpeter with the band.
In 1965, both Cruz and Knight left the band to branch out on their own. Since Cruz' solo career was blossoming while Knight's was languishing, he stopped performing to become her manager.
The Fania Years: In 1966, Cruz and Tito Puente began performing together for Tico records, recording eight albums for the label. A few years later, Cruz performed in Hommy, the Hispanic version of the Who's rock opera Tommy. Her fame was starting to spread in the musical community and it was during this time that she signed with Fania, a new label that was destined to become the most famous salsa label of all time.
A Slow Decade for Cruz: During the 1980s, the public's appetite for salsa started to die down, but Cruz kept busy with tours of Latin America, television appearances and some cameo roles in cinema. In 1987 she received her own star on Hollywood's "Walk of Fame", just one of the many cities worldwide that boasts a star with Celia Cruz' name on it.
Resurgance: The 1990s found Cruz in her late 60s and 70s. Rather than starting to wind down her career, it seems that this was the decade that the ever energetic Cruz reaped some of the most satisfying rewards of a brilliant musical life. These awards included a lifetime achievement awards from both the Smithsonian and the Hispanic Heritage Organization, a street named after her in Miami's Calle Ocho district as well as the distinction of San Francisco declaring October 25th, 1997 as Celia Cruz Day. She went to the White House and received the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton. Celia Cruz was full of life and music, achieving far more than she ever dreamed of as a young girl in Santos Suarez. Despite all the fame and accolades, she remained warm, friendly and down-to-earth. In fact, the only big dream she was not able to achieve was a return to her native Cuba.
Born: Sept. 30, 1946 in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Died: June 29, 1993 in New York City
There are some who say that there is a price to be paid for a gift, the greater the gift, the greater the price. Hector Lavoe’s musical talent was huge. He was called “El Cantante de los Cantantes”, and his talent took him from his hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico to the limelight of New York. It brought him the adulation of a Nuyorican public that found in Lavoe a voice that clarified and celebrated their bicultural identity as well as legendary status in the eyes of the salsa loving public.
In equal measure, the price Lavoe paid was huge. A lifetime struggle with insecurity led to a parallel struggle with drugs, even after bearing the death of his brother by overdose. A fire destroyed his home. His mother-in-law was murdered. He was brutally beaten during a robbery, suffered a nervous breakdown, jumped off a balcony but lived, though physically mangled. His son was killed at 17, accidentally shot by a friend. Lavoe died at the age of 46, penniless, most probably of AIDS.
Hector Lavoe, born Hector Juan Perez Martinez, came from a family of musicians. His father earned a living playing the guitar in local groups; his mother sang constantly around the house. His uncle was one of Ponce’s finest tres players while his grandfather sang “controversies”.
By the time Lavoe was 14, he was earning his own money singing with bands in local venues. With his earning potential putting stars in his eyes, he dropped out of school and decided he was ready for New York City. The family was not pleased – his brother had died there of an overdose. Lavoe felt he had to prove himself to his family and that desire plus the insecurity that he was not good enough, followed him throughout his life.
New York, New York:
Lavoe was one of eight children, so it wasn’t surprising that his sister welcomed him to New York. A week later, a friend took him to see a newly formed sextet perform. Lavoe listened for a while, then got up to show the vocalist what he was doing wrong. The band was so impressed with his ‘lesson’ that they offered him his first New York job. Now that he was performing and being heard, offers followed.
In 1967, Lavoe was introduced to Willie Colon in a meeting that was the start of a collaboration that produced some of the best music to come out of the Fania label. The duos' first album was El Malo and it proved to be a hit. Unfortunately, the success of El Malo was something Lavoe was not ready to handle. Lavoe’s ensuing popularity left him barely able to cope and he turned to drugs.
Lavoe’s drug use resulted in missed concerts and some barely functioning performances. In 1973, the world was shocked when the announcement was made that Colon and Lavoe were splitting. But the bigger shock was Lavoe’s – he had considered Colon his best friend and was bereft at the split. He felt abandoned, and the insecurities that had plagued him for years now entered center stage. Without Willie and Fania, was he a failure?
He waited for Colon to change his mind for two months and then he cut his first solo album, La Voz (The Voice). Surprised at the success of the album, Lavoe came to realize that the split with Colon had served a purpose. He was now the leader of his own band, and a star in his own right. Colon continued to produce his albums. And the rest, as they say, is history
“Yo Soy Un Jibaro”:
Hector Lavoe had achieved all his ambitions. A legend in his own time, he had the fame and recognition that he had sought when he left Puerto Rico. even the embrace of his father upon his return to Ponce. Lavoe was often called a hick, a ‘jibaro’, to which he took no offense, often proclaiming – “Yes, I am a jibaro of Puerto Rico’. This lack of pretension only enhanced his already burgeoning reputation.
But Lavoe was also paying the price. The series of disasters, culminating in his son's death, was perhaps the reason he jumped off his hotel's balcony. Was it a suicide attempt? Was he pushed? Did he see his son in a vision? These conjectures made their appearance in the Broadway show, Who Killed Hector Lavoe?, produced in the late 1990s.
Hector Lavoe never lost the love and support of his friends and public. He died young, but his music still enjoys vast popularity and even today is the subject of the movie El Cantante starring Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez.
Reggaeton is sweeping the Latin music world with its irrepressible blend of tropical Latin and reggae rhythms. Today many of the most popular reggaeton artists come from Puerto Rico, but you can't keep this music from sailing out to the rest of the world.
The distinctive sound of today's reggaeton is a mix of Jamaican dancehall rhythms, derived from reggae, and Latin merengue, bomba, plena and sometimes salsa. It's heavily percussive beat is called "dembow" and comes from Trinidad's 'soca' music; it fuses electronic dance music, hip-hop elements and Spanish / Spanglish rap to form a compelling, driving sound that has been embraced by hispanic urban youth worldwide.
Roots of Reggaeton:
Historically there has been an invisible line that has segregated Jamaican music and other Latin dance styles. But that line was breached in Panama, a country with a significant Jamaican population that had migrated south to work on the Panama Canal in the early 20th century.
There's a heated debate about whether reggaeton originated in Panama or Puerto Rico. While it seems obvious that the roots are Panamanian, some of the best know (and earliest) purveyors of today's reggaeton sounds come from Puerto Rico, so the confusion is easily understood.
Panamanian El General (Edgardo A. Franco) was one of the pioneers of the Reggaeton sound, returning to Panama from an accounting job in the states to record the new dancehall fusion.
During the 1990s, the reggae sound became more popular in Panama and continued to change as elements of hip hop, rap and other carribean music fused with the older reggae dancehall style.
Puerto Rico Takes Over:
As the mixture of hip hop, rap and reggae caught the imagination of urban youth in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Latin cultural centers in the U.S., the majority of new reggaeton artists catching the public's imagination came from Puerto Rico - to the extent that reggaeton is often thought of as primarily Puerto Rican Music.
Puerto Rico's pioneering rapper, Vico C, started releasing hip hop recordings in the 1980s and over time mixed in urban Panamanian dancehall music. Performing in a suit rather than traditional rapper clothing, Vico added plena and bomba elements to his musical mix. The music caught on and generated a wealth of musical talent bent on expressing the angst, anger and energy of urban life set to a compelling rhythm.
Reggaeton Takes Off:
2004 was the year that reggaeton finally burst out of its confined space. With the release of Daddy Yankee's Barrio Fino, Tego Calderon's El Enemy de los Guasibiri, Ivy Queen's Diva and Real, the reggaeton sensation was off and running and shows no sign of slowing down.
Puerto Rico's large roster of reggaeton artists include, along with those mentioned above, Voltio, Glory, Wisin & Yandel, Don Omar, Luny Tunes, Calle 13 and Hector El Bambino (now Hector the Father). This Puerto Rican invasion has captured the hearts of urban hispanic youth the world over.
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