Improvisation in Salsa Part 1: “Soneros” vs. Singers


I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the art of improvisation in Salsa music, performed by “soneros”, is dying.

These days, most Salsa singers don’t improvise much. And I have to say, this is not a new disease for the younger generation. This has been occurring in Salsa forever. It just seems that with the evolution of Salsa the art of improvisation of both singers and soloists has disappeared.

Singers and “Soneros”

There are many singers that can sing with a great voice. Some can sing with good “clave” and great “soneos” in the recordings. But when they come to perform live, many just sing the very same “soneos” they sang on the record.

Tito Rodriguez playing maracas.
Tito Rodriguez, despite being partly a percussionist, didn’t improvise much in his songs.

Some orchestras almost force their singers to improvise by extending the length of their songs. This used to happen a lot when Salsa bands lead by non-singers used this practice in live performances. Willie Colon, Harlow, Barretto, El Gran Combo, Sonora Ponceña, Willie Rosario, and Dimension Latina, are among these bands.

The good “soneros” raise up to the challenge of coming up with new “soneos”. The bad ones just repeat and recycle previous “soneos”.

The word “Sonero” comes, obviously, from Cuba. It describes a person that sings the Cuban “Son”. Improvising is an integral part of the chorus-and-respond structure of the “Son”. Therefore, a good “sonero” is one that can not only sing well but also improvise well.

On the other hand, many Pop-Salsa singers prefer to play the songs almost exactly as they were recorded. They don’t add a single additional note. When that happens, Salsa loses part of its original essence to become…well…just pop music.

Singers Have Been Around as long as “Soneros”

Tommy Olivencia and "soneros" Chamaco Ramirez
Chamaco Ramirez (r) here with Tommy Olivencia (l), was one of the best contemporary “soneros”.

The Salsa I grew up with was that of the late ’60s, the ’70s, and the ’80s. Salsa bands then had singers that were great “soneros”. I had the pleasure to see “soneros” like Ismael Rivera, Pete “El Conde”, Hector Lavoe, Justo Betancourt, Oscar D’Leon, Chamaco Ramirez, Luigi Texidor, Charlie Aponte, and many others who could keep coming up with new “soneos” if the song extended.

But it wasn’t always like this. In the video below, Elias Lopes talks about how the great Tito Rodriguez wasn’t much of an improviser. As neither was Santos Colon, particularly in his time as the main singer of the Tito Puente orchestra. Other Puente singers like Gilberto Monroig and Vicentico Valdes were in the same camp as Santitos.

Elias Lopes makes the case that percussionist turned singers seem to make for good “soneros”. This, he argues, could be because of their keen sense of the “clave”. Ismael Rivera is his case in point. Pete “El Conde” and Cheo Feliciano had some percussion background as well.

Ismael Rivera and Benny More; Two Great “Soneros”

“Maelo” and Benny are two of the best improvisers of all time. I found this video where the late Puerto Rican trumpeter and bandleader Elias Lopez discusses with the late Puerto Rican comedian Shorty Castro, a friendly improvisation duel between Ismael Rivera and Benny Moré.

Benny, who besides “El Barbaro del Ritmo” was called at times “El Sonero Mayor” began improvising with Coritjo y Su Combo, alternating with Ismael Rivera. Per Lopes story, Ismael Rivera won hands down. And it was Benny Moré himself who went to Ismael and baptized him on the spot as “El Sonero Mayor”.

There are still a few singers that can and do improvise when needed. In my next blog, I’ll write about my favorite ones.

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  1. Juan A. Gotay says

    The word “Soneo” doesn’t exist. The Soneros are musicians that pay ,Changui, Capetillo, Son and Sonmontuno. Ignacio Pinero, Bass Player was a sonero, Bolonia was a sonero,Arsenio RodrigguezmTreseso was a sonero. The nuyorrican confused the singer for sonero. Milta Siva was a guarachera, so Celia Cruz, Cascarita, Machito and Tito Rodriguez. Soneros, cantantes cubanos: Barroso, Miguelito Cuni, Matamoro, Carlos Embales, Tabernito, Tito Gomez y Reverside, Roberto Faz, Cheito Nunez Ect. The Decimas/ Espinela is the base of improvisation in the Son.
    Sir, Vicentico Valdes was a hell of sonero, guarachero and bolerista. You neve saw him in person, see La Guira recording.Ache

    1. Hector Aviles says

      Juan, thanks for your comments. Perhaps referring to son singers as soneros is not the correct use of the term, it its certainly widely accepted. Something I’ll investigate further.
      Thanks again!

  2. […] established in Part 1 of this blog series that improvisation in Salsa is dying. I also mentioned a few of the best […]

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