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Salsa and Cooking in Thailand


  • Salsa and Cooking in Thailand

    By Dr. Roland Amoussou, aka Dr. Salsa

    Bridging the culture gap
    It is a challenging exercise to relate Salsa music, a mix of African traditional elements, Caribbean (mostly Cuban) creativity and Western modernity, to Tom Yum, the most famous of Thai dishes.

    At first, this comparison might appear irrelevant or weird. And yet, the idea came to my mind as a result of more than five years of dancing and teaching Salsa in Bangkok as a hobby. In was interesting to observe local Thai people performing and interacting socially to this very “exotic” genre.

    One of the things that I noticed is the recurrent concern expressed by many dancers. Most of them seem to be facing three major challenges in their Salsa experience: the tempo, the basic time step, and picking up the first beat of the eight count.

    The usual complaint that I hear is: “I’m still confused. I don’t understand the music”… And after a while, some of them just give up and they disappear for ever from the Salsa scene, which is very sad.

    Recently, I felt very touched when a fast-learner Japanese wife of one of my Thai Salsa students confided to me: “I don’t know why my husband can’t follow the beat…What can we do to help him?”

    This article is dedicated to my students as well as all Salsa lovers in Thailand who are struggling to understand the fundamental elements of Salsa music and dance.

    My main purpose is to share the idea that we don’t need to be a cook to enjoy Tom Yum. Similarly, it is not necessary to be a musician to enjoy the real Salsa.

    In this short essay, I will start by highlighting the surprisingly close similarities between Salsa and Tom Yum, before pointing out the differences that generate the present metaphor. After that, I will explain the characteristics of Salsa music and rhythm that need to keep in mind to truly have fun in doing Salsa as a social dance. Finally I will share some Salsa dance tips.

    (I) Salsa Music and Tom Yum Similarities

    It is very interesting to realize that Salsa and Tom Yum have many unexpected similarities.

    Firstly both terms refer to a dish, i.e., something eatable. Originally, “Salsa” is a popular Spanish and Italian word meaning “sauce”. The sauce is made of different ingredients (such as tomato, chilies, shallots, onions, garlic etc) that help spicing up main courses like pasta, pizza or rice. There are different variants of “Salsa” depending on the ingredients, the country were it is made and the nature of the main course.

    “Tom Yam” is a popular Thai word that designates a hot and sour soup.

    It is made of different ingredients (such as fish sauce, shallots, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, tamarind, chilies, palm oil and coconut milk) that give it, its particular flavor. It can be eaten as such or with main dishes such as steam rice. Like Salsa, they are different kinds of Tom Yum depending on the soup ingredients. It may be clear (without coconut milk) or with coconut milk (tom yum num khon). The most famous variety of Tom Yum is Tom Yum Kung (in this case, the main ingredients are shrimp and mushrooms).

    (II) Salsa and Tom Yum, the Cooking Controversy

    Here, let me refer to late Tito Puente (April 20, 1923 – May 31, 2000).

    I wonder if the legendary Salsa artist ever visited Thailand… He was once asked a question by a journalist referring to Salsa’s original use to mean sauce. He gave this answer which became famous: “I’m a musician, not a cook” (see

    Although it is important to draw a clear line between Salsa music and Salsa cuisine, underlying the differences between, “Salsa” and “Tom Yum” may be very helpful to better understand Salsa music and dance in Thailand.

    Indeed, while the word “Tom Yum” is still used to refer only to the well-know Thai soup (and to a successful Thai movie), “Salsa” was taken from its original context to designate a particular style of music developed during the 1960’s and 1980’s in New York city areas by Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants to the United States. It is a hybrid of various Latin styles mixed with pop, jazz, rock and R&B (See Salsa music – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, see also previous columns of “Dr Salsa” in

    In its characteristics and composition, “Salsa” music has kept all the specific features of the “Salsa” sauce, as a mix and fusion of different spicy ingredients and constituents.

    As far as Tom Yam is concerned, may be in the future, the expression Tom yum will be used to refer to a new modern dance in Thailand… At the present, Salsa music and Tom Yum will be related only for metaphoric purposes.

    (III) Cooking Characteristics of Salsa Music

    Tito Puente was Correct in Principle but Wrong in Fact

    Tito Puente’s famous statement: “I’m a musician, not a cook” was correct in principle, but wrong in fact. For the purpose of my argument I will adopt a broader view of Salsa as supported by singer-turned-politician Ruben Blades from Panama who once claimed that “Salsa is not a music it is a Concept”.

    By the way our “Salsa Concept” came from that historical statement.

    At the beginning of the recorded salsa modern history Cuban singer Ignacio Pinero coined the expression “Echale Salsita!” (Make it spicy!), as a protest against tasteless dishes. He was followed in this protest by Celia Cruz who is renowned for the famous catchphrase “Azucar”! In this line, los Van Van have released their memorable “El Negro esta cuccinando”

    More recently, well-know Colombian Salsa Band “La Sonora Carrusseles” gave some meat to the bone in a very tasty and spicy Salsa song entitled “Cocinando la Salsa” (cooking salsa) (see track n. 12 of the Album “Xtreme Salsa”, Edilatina / Edimusica). There are many other available Salsa songs highlighting salsa music as a cooking concept.

    Salsa Music Composition is like Cooking

    Indeed, Salsa music composition (like any music composition) is like haute cuisine. Music composers are comparable to chefs whose job is to mix or blend different ingredients to please our senses.

    Musicians use ingredients called beats (unit of sounds) produced by different instruments that they arrange harmoniously in a specific timing (tempo) to create a melody that influences our mood when we hear it. Similarly, Chefs use biological ingredients that they put together in a specific timing (cooking timing) to create a flavor that feeds us and gives us gustative pleasure as we eat it.

    (IV) We Can all Enjoy Salsa Music without Being Musicians

    As everyone knows, it is needless to be an expert in cooking to enjoy the finest dishes or to be an expert in music to enjoy Salsa music and dance.

    But being able to identify the different ingredients and tastes that compose our favorite dishes can make the difference between a plane eater and a gourmet. Being capable of listening and recognizing the multiple instruments in Salsa music can make the difference between a lousy dancer and those who can dance along the music and develop their own creativity at the same time.

    In that, it is no surprise that most of Japanese, who are educated to eat different compositions of a dish separately, instead of mixing them together, were prepared to grasp the essence of “Salsa” music and to create their own “Salsa” style in less than a decade.

    Yet, as too many things are happening in Salsa music, it can still be confusing for many new comers. The following basic elements can help better understand Salsa music.

    Basic Elements for Understanding Salsa Music

    The different elements or ingredients that compose Salsa music can fall in four categories which are: the “narration”, the “principle of call and answer”, the “rhythm pattern” and the “instrumentation”.

    i) The Narration

    The principle of narration in salsa means that there is always a story behind the lyrics. The topics are usually related a love story with specific a person (Maria, Lola, Juliana, Ramona, Roberto and so forth and so on), a country (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Panama etc), a city (New York, Kali, Medellin) or a continent (Africa and America). The song can also be a tribute to an artist or a band. It can be dedicated to animals (a pet, a dog or cat). It can address various themes like being rich or poor or surviving (see “I will survive” by Celia Cruz). Salsa themes are more and more present in Salsa songs as well. Different genres (Erotica, Romantica, Timba or Dura) focus on specific topics and tell different stories. There are always three parts in a Salsa song: a beginning, the story itself and usually a happy end.

    ii) The Call an Answer

    The principle of call answer consists in a gathering of a group of people with a leader addressing the group. The purposes of the gathering were usually social events and celebrations with songs and dances. The leader improvises a song on a particular topic or person, depending on the context. Phrases or sections of the song are answered by the group in chorus according to a preset pattern.

    In modern salsa, this interaction applies between the vocal as well as between the different instruments, or between the vocal making a call in a bar of music, to a specific instrument (piano, drums or conga) for answer by this instrument in the next bars of music. A very good example is Domingo Quiniones, calling Isidro Infante at the Piano, in the Album “Derechos Reservados”, track n. 6 “Tremendo Cuban - Oriente”, RMM 2002. There are many other examples (“El conguero”, “El timbalero”, “El campanero”, “El bongocero” etc.)

    iii) The Rhythmic of Salsa

    Salsa music is structured in a 4/4 measures (or 2 bars of music), i.e., 4 beats per bar of music. The music is phrased in groups of 2 bars, i.e. 8 beats.

    Many different instruments contribute in the characteristic rhythmic of Salsa. From the layman perspective, the interaction of these instruments may seem to be a chaos which understanding may require a ritual initiation. This is partly true.

    The most important instruments that create the “Sabrosura” (flavor) in Salsa music are the claves (two pieces of wood) that form the basis that all other percussion instruments as well as the vocal and other instruments use as common rhythmic basis. The common clave rhythm in salsa is the called 2-3 son Clave.

    Sometimes, the clave is not played out directly, but it is always there. Just like the chilly in Tom Yam. You may not see it in the soup, but you will always feel the burn in your mouth…

    iv) The Instruments of Salsa

    Salsa music uses a very wide variety of instruments, the most important of which are the percussions including claves, guiro, cowbells, bongo, conga, timbales (see

    In addition to the percussion, a variety of melodic instruments are used as accompaniment such as guitar, trumpet and trombones. Piano, violin and xylophones are new imports in Salsa music. The harmonious mix of so many heteroclite instruments from various cultures and styles is a demonstration of the unique versatility and resilience of salsa music.

    (V) Salsa Dance Tips

    As indicated above, the structure of salsa is constituted of two bars of music like in Pop music.

    We thus have 8 beats to go and repeat (1-2-3-4# 5-6-7-8), in each musical sentence, until the end of the song. In pop music, we step on each of the 8 beats non-stop. Conversely in Salsa, the interpretation is done differently by marking a pause (or a tap) on beats 4 and 8. Thus we have to count 1-2-3 (pause or tap on 4) & 5-6-7 (pause or tap on 8).

    What I recommend is, while listening to a piece of salsa music, try to find the tempo of the Bongo which marks beats 4 and 8 by the characteristic sound “doung doung”. This audio time marking is like a “tic-tac” in a clock. It is very helpful to keep the basic time step and dancing precisely on the beats.

    In spite of all the talk, like in any form of art, there is no substitute to practice. It is only after a minimum of months, not to say years of regular listening to salsa songs and a persistent practice of the dance that new comers to Salsa could integrate these principles and start developing their own creativity.

    I truly hope that this talk on “Salsa and Cooking” from Bangkok will be helpful, or at least fuel some more heated debate for fun…

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