Materiales: A Digital Salsa Exhibit

Salsa band in rehearsal with eight people in the frame. Person in the middle is wearing a blue shirt and dancing
Salsa workshop band in rehearsal, Johnny Colon School of Music, New York, New York. United States New York, 1982. New York, New York, June 2. Photograph

Marks, Morton, and Jefferson Miller. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

How do everyday objects affect us over time?

From listening to salsa at a family gathering to creating posters for upcoming performances, people connect with salsa culture in many ways.

Salsa is more than music or dance. It is a form of expressing culture, a way to preserve history: a refuge. By thinking about salsa in this way, we can start to understand the different aspects that make up salsa history and culture. There are aspects of salsa that are not tangible objects, such as syncopation and montunos.[1] Yet, tangible items like instruments and concert posters help us learn more about how salsa plays a role in history as people interact and create its culture.

Cuban American DJ and historian, Pablo Yglecias explains: “Album covers provide us with a visual companion to the evolving soundtrack of Latin identity” (!Cocinando! 2005).

This digital exhibit explores the remarkable objects that played and continue to play a central role in salsa history and culture.

A set of two claves rest on a black surface. They are made of a light wood that is ribbed near the metallic end of each clave.
Claves, used by Mongo Santamaría.

Retrieved from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Gift of Nancy Santamaria 1970s.

Object Spotlight


The main instrument families of salsa are strings, brass, and percussion. A few of these include the guitar, tres, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, double bass, piano, congas, bongos, timbales, claves, cowbell, and güiro. However, there are many more instruments that can be a part of different subgenres of salsa. Explore many of these instruments in the mini-exhibit below. The claves and the trombones are two examples of instruments that are important in salsa.


The claves are vital to salsa because of the role the instrument plays in keeping the ensemble together. The claves play rhythms that everyone else references. Clave is not only the name of the instrument—it is also the name of the rhythm that most salsa music is built on. This means that clave rhythms are at the musical core of salsa. The two main clave rhythms are often referred to as “2-3” and “3-2”. Salsa music is generally played in units made of two measures, with each measure containing four beats. The numbers reference how many times the clave rhythm is felt in each measure of music: 3 or 2. The claves and congas are percussion instruments that work together to set the rhythmic backbone for salsa. You can hear the claves and congas clearly in songs like “Abre Que Voy” by Los Van Van, although sometimes the rhythms are hidden or imagined. Singers, instrumentalists, and dancers listen to percussion or feel percussion rhythms to know when to sing, play, or move.

A brass trombone rests on a white surface.
Trombone. European. Mid-19th century.

The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, 1889.


Trombones and other brass instruments are important to salsa’s melodies, rhythms, and group dynamics. The trombone is one of the main brass instruments in salsa. You can hear it in “La Murga” (1972) by Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe. Often, salsa groups will have two trombonists. These trombonists will play alongside with the trumpets and saxophones. Many salsa songs also feature a call-and-response melodic format. This is when one instrument will play a tune, and another instrument will respond with the same (or a similar) phrase. In salsa, the trombones are often a part of the call-and-response. Trombonists may also play solos in salsa songs. Johnny Colon’s “Merecumbe” and Eddie Palmieri’s “Páginas De Mujer” are just two examples of salsa songs that feature trombone solos. However, trombonists won’t always have solos. Sometimes, brass instruments accent important rhythmic parts of the melody played by other instruments or sung by the sonero.

CELIA CRUZ & WILLIE COLON wearing all white posing together
Celia Cruz & Willie Colon Only They Could Have Made This Album vaya LP.

vinylmeister / Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Visual Arts

Album Covers

Salsa is as visual as it is auditory. Just as salsa sounds changed and adapted over time, so did the artwork. Visual arts can act as a window into the past, allowing one to view elements of the ever-changing Latin identity and social commentary on historical events. They support, critique, and document change. Examples can be seen in album cover art, promotional event flyers, photographs, and decorative elements. Often, salsa visuals carry subliminal or deeper messages about society, tying back to themes like religion, culture, and gender. Explore many of these visual art components in the Tangible Heritage exhibit below.

Album cover art is a great example of visual art that is important to salsa. Album covers are what package and deliver music alongside its social and cultural themes to the world.

The time periods ranging from the 1930s to the 1990s are particularly interesting to look at. In the early decades ranging from the 30s to early 60s, independent record labels presented Latin music using caricatures. Caricatures were often sexist, racist, and simplified early forms of salsa to an exotic and flashy stereotype. Early marketing for salsa tried both to appeal to a broader US market and to the Latin community. For this reason, cultural food and nostalgic folk references appeared on records during this time juxtaposed to the caricatures. During the 50s, independent labels like RCA and Capitol Records looked to “glamorous” photographs for visual aid compared to the cartoon style of the previous years. Examples of album covers during the earlier years of salsa marketing include Arsenio Rodríguez’s Sabroso y caliente (1957), Tito Puente’s Dance The Cha Cha Cha (1956).

American culture, politics, and ways of life shifted drastically during the 60s and so did salsa. Notably, in 1961, US and Cuban relations were severed, and Cuban salsa bands stopped visiting important salsa spots like New York City. Mainly Puerto Rican, but also Dominican, Colombian, and other Latin American sounds influenced salsa during this time, challenging the notions of what salsa should sound like. As rhythms and ensembles changed, questions arose about what this type of music was and how it should be marketed. Artists like Izzy Sanabria noticed these complexities and decided to take it into his own hands by creating high quality album covers that reflected themes that mattered to the Latin communities both in the US and Latin America. Examples of themes included civil rights, growing up in el barrio [2], personal and political liberation, and ethnic pride. Additionally, mixed media, collages, and fine art replaced the dominant styles used in the past.

Izzy Sanabria approached album covers with oxymorons in mind, showcasing both the nurturing sides of living in el barrio as well as the dangers that came with it. He also understood that white Americans perceived Latinos as bad and dangerous and refuted those perceptions in the form of satire. Sanabria took inspirations from gangster, cowboy western movies, and comics to visualize a playful take on the perception of being seen as the “other.” Examples of these include Willie Colon’s La Gran Fuga/The Big Break (1980) and Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe’s Cosa Nuestra (1969). Artists of the time like Sanabria and Ely Besalel changed the way salsa was consumed, experienced, and perceived.
The next generation of artists from the 70s onwards continued to experiment with surrealism and science fiction imagery. At the same time, there was a push for both lyrics and rhythms to reflect salsa “roots.” Visuals responding to these requests resulted in specific packaging for different types of salsa such as salsa romántica and salsa dura. Still photographs in addition to cultural and religious references became the norm once again. Representation of women on album covers today still adopt sexist visual stereotypes. However, there have been women like La Lupe and La India who defied and continue to defy stereotypes and address issues of agency, independence, and dynamism from the women's perspective in their lyrics.

The evolution of album cover art showcases the changing of music and Latino experiences both in the US and Latin America. Creating album covers can be thought of as a form of dancing — A call and response from creator to consumer. Conversations arise with a simple visual representation of sounds and livelihoods.

Tangible Heritage

Engage with the many tangible items that make up salsa. Go at your own pace, go at your own beat.

Dance to the Beat of Your Own Drum

Music is more than what we hear. Physical instruments, performance attire, marketing artwork, and other materials are each a vital part of the musical experience.

Do you want to learn more about the objects that make up salsa in the United States today?

  • Listen to salsa music and focus on the instruments. Notice how different instruments make different sounds. Try to identify which instruments are a part of each song. Listen for what role the instrument plays in the ensemble. Is it always one consistent rhythm? Does it have solos? Are there similar melodies played by different instruments? Then, look up the song to learn more about who the musicians are and which instruments are in the ensemble.
  • Find salsa events in your local community. Many towns, cities, and communities feature salsa events, including dancing and live music. Attend one (or many!) events and notice the materials that are necessary. What does the stage and audio set up look like? What type of artwork is used for the promotional posters? What do the musicians’ instruments or dancers’ attire look like? Keep a memento from the event and start to build a personal exhibition of the local salsa community.
  • Watch recordings of salsa performances. Famous, notorious, and local salsa performers are recorded through video on several physical and digital platforms. How is salsa visually represented in these performances? Notice how the cameras highlight certain physical elements, including the stage, the performers’ clothing, and instruments. Consider the lighting of the venue and the editing of the video and how they accentuate the music or dance of the performance.
  • Explore other online materials that connect material history, culture, and music to the world around us. For example, peruse the Smithsonian’s Latino Music Collections Sampler or reflect on the Museum of the City of New York’s Rhythm & Power: Salsa in New York exhibition.

The "Oíste? Listening to the Salsa Stories of Afro Latin Music" project was authored by interns, fellows, and scholars with the Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education including Elisa Alfonso, Marjorie Justine Antonio, Hermán Luis Chávez, Melissa Hurtado, and Jade Ryerson ,and designed by Hermán Luis Chávez and Melissa Hurtado.

Acknowledgements: Alejandro Garcia-Maldonado, Alexandra Tarantino, Alison Russell, Amanda Schramm, Andres Espinoza, Angelita Alvino, Barbara Little, Blanca Stransky, Cynthia Hernandez, Derrick León Washington, Eleanor Mahoney, Elisa Alfonso, Ella Wagner, Frances Aparicio, Herman Luis Chavez, Jade Ryerson, James Barry, James Nyman, Jessica Dauterive, Laura Phillips Alvarez, Marcos Echeverria Ortiz, Marjorie Justine Antonio, Megan Springate, Melissa Hurtado, Michael Birenbaum Quintero, Naomi Torres, Noel Lopez, Paloma Bolasny, Roberta Wendel, Sarah Lane, and Teresa Moyer.

[1] Montuno refers to a rhythm that is repeated in salsa music, typically played on the piano in an ostinato, or repeating, fashion. Son montuno is a type of Cuban song that preceded salsa music, while the montuno rhythm is in many salsa songs that include or reinterpret this musical technique. Montuno is pronounced mohn-TOO-noh. 

[2] El Barrio, which translates to The Neighborhood, refers to an area of New York City in East Harlem where many Puerto Ricans migrated to, creating an ethnic enclave. Also known as Spanish Harlem, El Barrio became the largest Puerto Rican enclave in the United States. Though “el barrio” means “the neighborhood” when generally translated, its capitalization to El Barrio refers to the specific barrio of Spanish Harlem in New York City.  

Berrios-Miranda, Marisol. "Salsa music as expressive liberation." Centro Journal 16, no. 2 (2004): 158-173. 

Espinoza Agurto, Andrés. Salsa Consciente: Politics, Poetics, and Latinidad in the Meta-Barrio. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2021. 

Scher, Philip and Yglesias, Pablo. Visual Clave: The Expression of the Latino/A Experience through Album Cover Art: 1940-90. Gallery Guide. Jordan Schitzer Museum of Art, 2019. 

Washington, Derrick León. “How to Curate an Interactive History Exhibition In 11 Easy Steps (The New York City Version).” Museum of the City of New York, 207. 

Washington, Derrick León, Priscilla Renta, and Sydney Hutchinson, eds. Rhythm & Power: Performing Salsa in Puerto Rican and Latino Communities. Centro Press, Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College of the City University of New York, 2017. 

Yglesias, Pablo. ¡Cocinando!: Fifty Years of Latin Album Cover Art. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005. 

Last updated: August 9, 2023