Top Salsa Artists

Marc Anthony

If Ricky Martin is the Latin crossover star that wears tight leather and does Pepsi ads, Marc Anthony is the one wearing the black silk and smoking a cigarette. Anthony established himself in the ’90s as a contemporary Salsa superstar, and more recently, his English crossover recordings have expanded his overall audience. Universally respected for his clear and emotional singing style, he’s always brought integrity to his music whether singing a shamelessly revealing romantic ballad or cutting loose with some hot Salsa. He’s a “NuyoRican” (Puerto Rican from New York City) whose English vocals display no accent. Now visible as a film actor as well, Anthony exudes a cool downtown New York persona, and his mix of contemporary dance ballads and salsa works easily in his hands.
- Robert Leaver

Tito Puente

Most of the rock generation is familiar with Tito Puente through Santana’s cover of “Oye Como Va” and his appearance in The Mambo Kings. By venturing closer to the source, they will discover what Latin jazz fans have known for years: Puente’s intoxicating mix of Big Band jazz and Latin music creates Mambo madness at its finest. Tito Puente is credited with fusing Cuban charangas with Big Band swing and Bop. Puente always had one eye on dance fans and indeed, his music puts the ghost of St. Vitus in your body. But his other eye was planted on jazz fans — he loved arranging for composers such as Horace Silver and his soulmate Dizzy Gillespie. There are many similarities between Puente and Diz’s various big bands — chief among them the spirit of global brotherhood that they celebrate. But Tito Puente never let his jazz side distract from his music’s mass popularity; when the Big Band era was long gone, Puente not only kept his band together but saw it thrive. With more than a hundred albums to his credit, at least one or two should be a part of every collection.
- Nick Dedina
Hector Lavoe
He started out as a skinny 17-year-old from Puerto Rico on the streets of New York, hungry and ready to sing. He ended both a celebrity and a broken man, wasted by a long struggle with drug abuse, personal tragedies and AIDS. Born Hector Juan Perez in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1946, Lavoe pursued singing as a kid, gigging with a 10-piece band by the time he was 14 years old. Against his father’s wishes, he moved to New York, where he met Johnny Pacheco of Fania Records. Pacheco introduced Lavoe to Willie Colon, and the two recorded more than 10 groundbreaking albums over eight years. Lavoe’s erratic behavior and drug use forced Colon to dissolve the band in 1974, but Lavoe continued recording and packing stadiums in Latin America for the next decade. But he wasn’t able to kick his heroin habit and he contracted HIV as a result, and in 1987 his 17-year-old son, Hector Jr., was accidentally killed. Five years after a suicide attempt, Lavoe succumbed to AIDS in 1993. The public outpouring of grief was vast: Lavoe’s voice had been as fine as a reed pen, and his knack for phrasing incomparable. He has been called a “singer’s singer,” but he was also known for his kindness and wit.
- Sarah Bardeen
Celia Cruz
As Salsa’s greatest icon, Cruz garnered all sorts of respect, from a Smithsonian lifetime achievement award to her own street in Miami, to the title “The Queen of Salsa.” Her singing is deep and soulful, with expressive improvisations influenced by her Cuban upbringing. You’re expected to dance to her music, with its jumping piano chords twinkling over tight conga rhythms, spicy percussion, blazing horn sections, and, atop it all, Cruz’s searing vocals. Cream-of-the-crop Afro-Cuban ensembles such as the Fania All-Stars, Willie Colon, Ray Barreto, Johnny Pacheco and Tito Puente always had to work with Cruz. Her popularity reached its peak with the movie Mambo Kings. Cruz died in 2003.
Gilberto Santa Rosa
Gilberto Santa Rosa became a salsero the old-fashioned way: he worked for it. Unlike younger crops of singers who are pretty faces first and singers second, Santa Rosa came on the scene in the 1970s. He climbed up through the ranks, putting in time with unknown orchestras and, when he was lucky, with bigger names like the Puerto Rico All-Stars, Tommy Olivencia and Willie Rosario. He released his first album with his own orchestra in 1986 but it wasn’t until 1990 that Santa Rosa made a huge dent in the charts with Punto de Vista. The barnstorming hits “Vivir Sin Ella” and “Perdoname” established him, and his 1991 follow-up Perspectiva confirmed he wasn’t a one-hit wonder.
- Sarah Bardeen

Jerry Rivera
He’s as beefy as a quarterback but the only heavy hitting Jerry Rivera does these days is on the dancefloor. He’s been one of the hottest young guns of salsa romantica since 1992′s Cuenta Conmigo took off.
- Sarah Bardeen

Willie Colon
Willie Colon was there during the 1960s when Salsa, as it eventually became known, was in its developing stages. As part of a young generation of “Nuyoricans” (Puerto Ricans from New York City) along with Eddie Palmieri and Ray Baretto, he helped create this new, vibrant form of music based on the Cuban “conjunto” sound. As a trombone player, he shaped the gritty, aggressive sound of the brass that characterized the New York sound. His first record introduced him to the scene as “El Malo” (the bad one) — a reputation he often lived up to — while he in turn introduced to the public two of the greatest singers in Salsa history: Hector Lavoe and Ruben Blades. Rhythmically, Colon’s music has always been rooted in the Cuban clave beat, full of up-front timbales and punctuating horns that build tension as the cowbell kicks in. Part of his everlasting appeal comes from lyrics that revel in street culture and the gangster image he projects; however, he must be credited with mixing Harlem soul and jazz into his dangerous Salsa.
- Robert Leaver

Frankie Ruiz
Although he was born in New Jersey, it wasn’t until Frankie Ruiz moved to Puerto Rico that he was reborn as one of the 20th century’s great salsa stars. After stints with Orquesta La Solucion and the Tommy Olivencia orchestra, Ruiz became one of the most sought-after solo salsa singers. He was a champion of salsa romantica, and brought that sensual style of music to a new generation of fans who were drawn by his undeniable talents and slender good looks. Unfortunately, the tempestuous Ruiz also romanced drugs, booze and violence; he was jailed in Texas for three years after assaulting a flight attendant. His addictions eventually killed him, and he died in 1998 of liver failure. A true original and towering talent, Ruiz has been sorely missed.
- Sarah Bardeen

Victor Manuelle
Puerto Rican-born upstart Victor Manuelle owes a debt of gratitude to Gilberto Santa Rosa, who took Manuelle under his wing after the talented upstart famously jumped on stage to sing with Santa Rosa at a concert. Santa Rosa was impressed, and Manuelle got a spot in the band. He went on to sing with a clutch of notable bands, including Puerto Rican Power, Domingo Quinones and Eddie Santiago. But Manuelle eventually proved that he could stand on his own two feet when he released a string of top-selling solo albums that have established him as a salsero for the young people.
- Sarah Bardeen

Fania All-Stars
Fania was the New York City record label that first and foremost promoted Salsa as a new musical form. In 1970, they organized a weekend of concerts featuring most of the artists on the label playing long jams, or “descargas,” of their hits. Ray Barretto, Celia Cruz, Willie Colon, and Hector Lavoe were joined by Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente and other notables all under the direction of flautist/arranger Johnny Pacheco on the historical recording Live at the Red Garter. Their second outing provided material for the Live at the Cheetah record and the cult classic film Our Latin Thing, which powerfully documents not only an amazing show, but life in the Latin barrios and the nascent Salsa culture circa 1971. The Fania All-Stars went on to pack Yankee Stadium in the Bronx with African guest artist Manu Dibango, and played to an enthusiastic audience in Kinshasa, Zaire prior to the Muhammed Ali – George Foreman fight. Numerous studio crossover albums that featured jazz and pop guest artists followed these historic performances, but only the live recordings remain as classics.
- Robert Leaver

She doesn’t have a voice on the order of her hero, Celia Cruz, but India’s passionate, emotive delivery has secured her a place in the salsa pantheon. She’s toured and recorded with Eddie Palmieri, flirted with pop and even sung jazz standards on a 1996 release.
- Sarah Bardeen

Grupo Niche
This high-energy band burst onto the scene in the ’80s, helping make the town of Cali, Colombia the epicenter of danceable Salsa. Their large brass frontline is energized by a full complement of drums and percussion. Many talented singers started with Niche before launching solo careers.
- Robert Leaver

Israel “Cachao” Lopez
Cuban bass player and composer Israel “Cachao” Lopez began his career in Havana in the 1930s. He and his brother, coming from a musical family noted for bassists, are credited with writing the first Mambo musical arrangements for the Arcano y sus Maravillas. Watching Cachao thump, coax, and tease the strings of his large, upright bass is to see a true master at work. Perhaps his most notable contribution to the evolution of Cuban music are his classic ’50s jam session (or “descarga”) recordings, which still serve as advanced music lessons for aspiring musicians. Playing a wide range of Cuban styles, his ensemble’s horn players and rhythm section would incorporate jazz elements on these incendiary tracks. Migrating from Havana to New York (and later, Las Vegas), he was living in Miami when actor Andy Garcia produced the Master Sessions recordings; coupled with a documentary film of a live performance, he introduced a new public to the sophisticated, diverse history of Cuban music. The prolific composer and acknowledged father of mambo died on March 22, 2008, at the age of 89.
- Robert Leaver

Tito Nieves
Known for his outstanding vocal abilities, Nieves made his reputation with Conjunto Clasico. His powerful voice and wide range hit the mark with “I Like It Like That.” In both English and Spanish, he belts it out.
- Robert Leaver

Eddie Santiago
This slender Puerto Rican-born singer has seen his career blossom from innumerable gigs with small-time local bands to superstar status, playing to sold-out soccer stadiums in Mexico City. Santiago enjoyed a string of hits through the 1980s and ’90s, and he experienced another surge in popularity when Sony Discos signed him in 1999. He’s best known for his salsa romantica style and his lovely, clear voice that stops somewhere just shy of alto.
- Sarah Bardeen

Ruben Blades
Ruben Blades is the Renaissance man of Salsa. A Panamanian who eventually went to Harvard Law School, he became the unlikely star of the New York Latin scene in the mid-1970s. This “Latin Springsteen” began singing with Willie Colon around that time, and their collaboration album Siembra stands as the most popular Salsa recording of all time. “Pedro Navaja,” an irresistible Latin everyman of the barrio, captivated all of Latin America with its Salsa-fied “Mack the Knife” theme. Blades’ lyrics often contain a historical poetry that relates to Pan-American themes, and his easy delivery underscores his natural voice as he tackles political themes with self-effacing humor. He has also recorded in English and has enjoyed modest success as an actor in film and television. In more recent years, he has experimented in other styles of Latin music while devoting his energy to his new political party in Panama and his subsequent bid for the presidency.
- Robert Leaver

El Gran Combo De Puerto Rico
Formed in 1962, El Gran Combo are the kings of the classic Salsa rhythm and a source of pride for all Puerto Ricans. Formed when Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera disbanded, their mission has always been to make people dance. Although the band’s personnel has changed over the years, the sound remains the same: a heavy rhythm section consisting of congas, timbales, bass, the bandleader on piano, a trio of vocalists offering rich chorus support, and a big brass section of trumpets, saxophones and trombone. Lyrics generally pertain to everyday life — the streets, food, love interest — and often possess a comical bent. Among their many famous songs are “Brujeria (Witchcraft),” “El Menu,” and “Un Verano en Nueva York (A Summer In New York).” El Gran Combo have a reputation as a powerful live band, and their extraordinary choreography inspires spontaneous dance fever.
- Robert Leaver

Cheo Feliciano
From his start as a valet for the legendary Tito Rodriguez, Cheo Feliciano went on to sing with Joe Cuba and Eddie Palmieri. Salsa’s king of romance has remained popular throughout the years by singing his time-tested material. His suave voice and elegant manner exude pure sentimentality.
- Robert Leaver

Mongo Santamaria
Revered as the best conga player in the world, Mongo Santamaria debuted in America as part of Perez Prado’s orchestra in the 1950s. According to some, his frenetic playing bordered on being a religious experience. When Latin Jazz fever hit the West Coast in the mid-’50s, Santamaria jumped ship from Tito Puente’s band to work with Cal Tjader. His own solo records exuded a brand of hot jazz, soul and Afro-Cuban rhythms as seen on the now standard Afro Blue as well as his 1963 hit version of Watermelon Man. Successful in bringing traditional Cuban instrumentation to a popular jazz format, Mongo Santamaria is still in fine form today (as seen on 1995′s Mongo Returns). Those conga solos will blow your mind.
- Nick Dedina

Oscar D’Leon
Oscar D’Leon is one of the true giants in the history of Salsa. He earned the respect of the Latin music world in the 1970s as an orchestra leader while also playing bass and singing up-tempo versions of classic Son in a voice reminiscent of legendary Cuban singer Beny More. His performances in Cuba in the late ’70s re-inspired musicians there to pursue the Son style, and although it brought with it a scolding from the Miami community, the Venezuelan performer nevertheless made his mark. Featuring a full horn section and his sons on chorus and percussion, his manic performance energy and ecstatically sustained falsetto continues to fill dancefloors worldwide, and his large body of recordings stands as a benchmark for quality Salsa. He’s equally popular in Caracas, Havana, Miami, Paris and London — all places he’s spread his dance fever and left buckets of sweat.
- Robert Leaver

Fruko is often called the godfather of Colombian Salsa, but his importance is not limited to one musical style. He started playing timbales at age 12 for his country’s principal record label, Discos Fuentes; later, as a bassist, he became the label’s top producer and arranger. In addition to countless recordings with his group Los Tesos, he has also worked with the Latin Brothers and the Cumbia supergroup Sonora Dinamita. Leading the way, he took classic Cuban Son and other Caribbean rhythms and infused them with the energy of New York Salsa, thus creating a vibrant new spin on the Salsa style.
- Robert Leaver

Los Van Van
One could argue that Los Van Van are the most important band in the history of modern Cuban dance music, if only for creating a sound that has conquered dancefloors the world over. At their inception in 1969, they were inspired to mix rock with Cuban Son, and throughout the ’70s, they added trombones to a band that already featured violins, loads of percussion and drums, electric keyboards and bass, giving a contemporary Salsa flavor to their overall sound. Rhythmically, they were the originators of a variant of the Cuban Son called “songo,” and for years they have performed regularly to enthusiastic audiences in Europe, Japan and Latin America; in 1997, they were finally given visas to perform in the U.S., and the reception was ecstatic. Sporting a trio of superb lead singers who also dance, their irresistible chorus sing-alongs are underscored by spine-crawling counter-rhythms that change as songs shift into higher gears. Although their sound has always been contemporary, their popularity in Cuba extends across all generations.
- Robert Leaver

Tito Rojas
The fluid, soaring voice of Rojas — “El Gallo Salsero” (the Salsa cock) — has graced many hits over a career that began in the ’70s. This Puerto Rican singer records straight-ahead Salsa for the dancing-inclined.
- Robert Leaver

Eddie Palmieri

Joe Arroyo
Joe Arroyo is Colombia’s most famous Salsa singer. Throughout his career as a singer with Fruko y Sus Tesos and another Fruko project, the Latin Brothers, his powerful, high-ranging tenor voice has sang of his African heritage, the hopes of his people, and the joy that music brings; he also plays the claves (wooden sticks that keep time) with an intense vigor that best characterizes his live performances. His Salsa includes a mixture of other Caribbean elements — most notably Soca and Merengue (a pair of styles popular in his coastal hometown of Barranquila), as well as the ever-popular Cumbia. With his band La Verdad (The Truth), his popularity spread throughout Latin America and Europe in the 1980s. The infectious mixture of his dance music invigorated a Salsa scene that many felt had grown weak at its New York City vortex.
- Robert Leaver

Founded by Carlos Santana’s younger brother Jorge, Malo rode a crossover wave of Latin Rock and Latin Soul in the early ’70s, but it peaked too fast and crashed hard. They are mostly remembered for the track “Suavecito” and the legions of former members who periodically resurrect the band.
- Robert Leaver

Ray Barretto
Mr. Hardhands himself, Barretto is perhaps the most prolific conga player ever, helping to make the instrument a needed tool for the jazz ensemble’s arsenal. As an accompanist, Barretto forges the most solid grooves, repeating a hard-slapping pattern over and over with the utmost rhythmic perfection — but given a chance to fill or solo, he introduces exciting new rhythms and syncopation to fire up a track. His session work includes dates with Wes Montgomery, Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie and Cannonball Adderley, among many others. He’s also in top form as a Latin player — for a while he led the masterful Salsa of Fania All-Stars, injecting rock and soul elements. This might be what makes him so special: Barretto is never afraid to draw on eclectic sources. In a sense, he has always been the one to make the unconventional the norm.
- Jessy Terry

La Sonora Carruseles
Salsa for the dancers, with a little Soul boogaloo thrown in. Colombia’s response to the generic Salsa emerging from New York and Miami is Sonora Carruseles, whose “heavy Salsa” marks a return to the genre’s classic sound. Top studio musicians join great young talent with a solid rhythmic core, punchy horn arrangements and solid vocals.
- Robert Leaver

Johnny Pacheco

Lalo Rodriguez


Andy Montanez

Puerto Rico-born Andy Montanez was the lead singer with the hugely popular Salsa band El Gran Combo for fifteen years before embarking on a successful solo career. His dedicated fans enjoy his extraordinary abilities as a sonero — a singer who can improvise lyric on the spot.
- Robert Leaver

Jose Alberto “El Canario”

Johnny Rivera

Willie Bobo

The sideman of all sidemen, Willie Bobo emerged in the 1950s as a percussionist with Tito Puente’s band. After recording with such Latin hitmakers as Perez Prado and Mongo Santamaria, he began putting out his own records — a mix of Funk, soul and Latin grooves infused into the hits of the day. Thick with horns, congas, and timbales, records like Juicy continue to be perennial favorites at after hours haunts and smoky nightclubs.
- Jon Pruett

Nestor Torres
This Puerto Rican flautist cut his teeth playing with Cuban charanga orchestras in New York, where his sensational improvisations and suave tone established his golden reputation. Torres relocated to Miami and began a crossover career playing Smooth Jazz, occasionally letting the Latin groove take over.
- Robert Leaver

Daniel Santos
Singing with famous Cuban group Sonora Matancera in the late ’40s, Daniel Santos became known as a suave vocalist who broke hearts with his romantic bolero songs. A handsome man associated with bohemian debauchery, “The Chief”‘s strong vocal presence kept him in the spotlight for decades.
- Robert Leaver

Larry Harlow
A legend in the annals of New York Salsa, Harlow is a flamboyant pianist who calls himself “El Judio Maravilloso” (the marvelous Jew). He began playing with Johnny Pacheco in the ’60s before forming his own band that performed a modern version of Arsenio Rodriguez’s classic conjunto sound. His participation with the Fania All-Stars enhanced his star status all the more.
- Robert Leaver

La Sonora Matancera
This long-running son outfit began in 1924 and saw numerous personnel changes through its decades-long history. It will primarily be remembered as Celia Cruz’s launch-pad, and as one of the most influential Cuban bands of the 20th century.
- Sarah Bardeen

El Chicano
The first Chicano rock group to break out of Los Angeles with their national hit, “Viva El Tirado” (1970), they have continued to remain popular as a live band performing internationally. Their combination of rock and jazz guitar techniques, Hammond organ, and vocals in both English and Spanish make them accessible.
- Robert Leaver

Los Mocosos
Veteran Latino musicians from the Mission District of San Francisco, Los Mocosos (the snot-nosed ones) play what they describe as Latin groove. They incorporate Ska, reggae, Salsa, Latin Soul and Funk into high-energy dance music that’s sung in both English and Spanish. Lyrics address political issues and poke fun at popular culture with great humor: “Brown and Proud” is a response to the racism of Proposition 187 in California; “Wetbacks” poses the question “aren’t we all?”; and “Thunderball” turns James Bond inside out. Their strong rhythm section includes congas and timbales, while guitars rock heartily and skank hard, and the horns pack a joyful punch. Los Mocosos embrace many different musical forms, creating original music whose primary purpose is to bring people together.
- Robert Leaver

Guayacan Orquesta
Guayacan Orquesta are popular in Colombia and the world of Salsa for their Big Band sound that’s both bold and brassy. These songs of love, sung in Spanish, are painted brightly with irresistible dance beats.
- Robert Leaver

Ismael Rivera

Tony Vega
The standard bearer of Salsa in the 1990s, Tony Vega’s voice flows smoothly, occasionally rising up with passion and singing of loves, aches and longing. Playing with solid rhythm and brass sections, he adds strings on some of the “romantica” cuts.
- Robert Leaver

Luis Enrique

Salsa Passion

Ismael Miranda

This legendary Salsa singer began his career with pianist Larry Harlow in the ’60s, collaborated with the Fania All Stars in the ’70s, and then moved on to a successful solo career in the ’80s. His inimitable voice and charisma made him one of Salsa’s most recognized singers.
- Robert Leaver

Pete Escovedo
Drummer/percussionist Pete Escovedo has been an important figure on the Latin Jazz scene since the 1960s, when he performed in a sextet with his brothers, as well as with Santana. Influenced heavily by Fusion and Soul music, his long-running band continues to reach an adoring crossover audience.
- Robert Leaver

Michael Stuart

Albita brought her powerful voice from Cuba to America and instantly became a star. Primarily singing in what is known in Cuba as “guajira” (a traditional form of country music backed by guitars and percussion, and the only style of music she recorded in Cuba), she entered a new world of music once she crossed the U.S. border. Merengue, Salsa, and other popular Latin rhythms soon entered into her music, and she continued to solidify her reputation with high-energy live performances. However, her vocal phrasing has remained that of the country singer from Cuba who doesn’t require a microphone to sing her operatic projections. Friends such as Madonna and the Estefans have helped raise her profile as a modern “Latina,” but she hasn’t lost her Cuban essence.
- Robert Leaver