Ever thought of putting a "salsa" group together? Go for it! Salsa is becoming increasingly popular in all aspects of today's music scene. Thanks to some of the recent recordings by artist such as "Ricky Martin" and others alike, Latin percussion has generated much interest and respect by educators throughout the world.
Perhaps one of the biggest concerns that arises when forming a salsa band with regards to Latin percussion is the selection of instruments that are appropriate for that ensemble. Depending on the size of your group (i.e. horn section, guitar, bass guitar, and piano) the number of percussionists can vary. For my particular situation I like to use the following in my percussion section: one bongo player, one timbale player, a conga player, and a drum set player (not always used by salsa bands). This might sound and look like a big percussion section but I have grown to really enjoy the intensity and musical contributions that each member has given to the band. You do not necessarily have to go with this big of a section. You could get by with the following: timbales, congas, and drum set (if you only have three people to work with); or congas and drum set (if you only have two). If you only have two players, try to have bongos available for the conga player to use from time to time, and have a timbale attached to the drum set for the occasional fill and solo during those fiery moments in a song.
The following is a recommended list of Latin percussion instruments to use in your group:
Bongos (wood)-Should also have a bongo cowbell as part of their required duties.
Congas (wood)-Quinto (11") and a conga (11.75")
Timbales-14" and 15" (timbale bell and cha cha bell attached to the timbale rod)
Drum Set-Up to the desecration of the teacher (if you are not using a timbale player, have a timbale available for the set player).
Tuning is also is big question when dealing with Latin percussion instruments. The answer to this question varies from player to player and teacher to teacher. One of the most common problems that I have found among most situations is the fact that the heads on the hand percussion instruments are not tight enough. This makes it very difficult to achieve the proper sounds on both instruments. If the top head is too loose, slaps on the congas are extremely difficult to execute and the bongos get lost in the mix. Have the conga head tight enough that you can produce consistent slaps and good open tones. The best way to make sure that you are tuning these instruments appropriately is to contact your local pro or to ask your local dealer for assistance. Of course another way is to listen to recordings of Latin music and try tuning your instruments to the sounds your are hearing on the recordings. As far as heads are concerned, I recommend calf skin heads for the bongos and congas (although there are some great substitutes for these heads (synthetic) that are available for most brands of instruments).
The musical example I have written is a four bar phrase that you can use to play along with some friends. This groove can be used as a big "jam" session and can also be used as a "solo" section if you want to have someone play over the changes.
I hope that this information, though short and concise, has helped you better understand some of questions regarding the use of Latin percussion in your program. Good luck and pass the salsa. As an added note, in my band I like to use four timbales: 12", 13", 14", and 15". Along with the timbales I have cowbells and jam blocks attachments on my timbales and I use the Zildjian "Azuka" cymbals for solos and ensemble hits.