Latin Music – A Primer

January 9, 2012

by Rebeca Mauleón

Anyone who loves music, studies it and plays it for a living knows there are no shortcuts to learn. Only life-long commitment and lots of practice to get better.   If you are new to Latin music, you probably have already discovered that there are a number of differences when it comes down to how this music is “felt” as well as played.

THE BASS – First of all, bass players need to feel comfortable with the idea that, in Cuban-based rhythms, the foundation is mostly syncopated, unlike the typical walking bass feel in jazz. Most of the rhythm section in Cuban music – and therefore in Salsa and Latin jazz – puts the main accents of their respective patterns on beats 2+ and 4 (what we often refer to as the tumbao for the bass and the montuno for the piano).

THE PERCUSSION SECTION – The percussion instruments are an entire world unto themselves, with many styles often containing very subtle differences within the individual rhythm patterns. So the musician really needs to have a solid command of Cuban rhythms such as guaracha, mambo, cha-cha-chá, guajira, bolero, son, son-montuno and so on. Within the Salsa and Latin jazz family of rhythms there are also Puerto Rican styles (bomba and plena), Dominican styles (merengue and bachata), Colombian styles (cumbia and vallenato) and so many others. Brazilian music itself contains a seemingly endless number of regional styles – from samba and bossa nova to partido alto, forró, côco, maracatu, baião, chorinho and more. And often what distinguishes all of these rhythms can be as subtle as what one particular drum pattern is doing. Really, every musician interpreting this music should have a reasonable understanding of these rhythms – whether they play percussion or not!

THE IMPORTANCE OF CLAVE – As most of you may also know, Cuban-based music relies on the concept of the clave to serve as an anchor, not only for how all the rhythm patterns are “stacked up,” so to speak, but also how the arrangement is structured. In many of the tunes in this book, you will sometimes notice that the clave direction is specified several times within the song; this is because there are moments in an arrangement where an odd number of measures in a phrase will naturally “shift” the clave’s direction beginning on the next musical phrase. This idea of “three-two” versus “two-three” has its roots in the West African music that is the foundation for most of the music in the Caribbean and Latin America, and it stems from the principle role of how rhythm literally shapes the melody. Until you understand what you are hearing when these clave changes occur, you’ll be missing a big piece of the puzzle. Please see my book, The Salsa Guidebook (Sher Music), for more information on these topics.

THE BRAZILIAN VERSION – While Brazilian music does not necessarily contain the specific notion of the clave, it too is often structured around a feeling of binary patterns – a principle of tension and release that permeates much of the world’s African-influenced music. The good news is that for bass players, at least, most Brazilian rhythms tend to echo a more downbeat-oriented bass line that comes from the bass drum patterns of samba.

GETTING THE RIGHT FEEL – All this being said, the wonderful thing is you don’t necessarily need to be “advanced” as a player to grasp the basics of this music, as long as you have good, solid time and can feel comfortable in a largely syncopated environment. Perhaps the most essential ingredient of all in these genres is the improvisational nature of how the music is played. While many people think of Brazilian music, Salsa music or Latin jazz as simply a bunch of syncopated rhythm patterns, this is a language of continuous expression and improvisation.

Most of the rhythm instruments are required to maintain a fairly repetitive role as they accompany the melody, but at the same time it is important to create variations so the music doesn’t feel redundant. In other words: all players in the rhythm section should follow the principle of finding the balance between stability and variation. Make it solid for the dancers, but make it fun for yourself as a player. And if you are one of the melodic instruments, your sense of phrasing in Latin music should be crisp and right on the money, not lagging behind the time. Since Latin music is largely devoid of swing feel, your interpretation of the rhythmical aspects need to tie in with the driving percussion patterns; it’s got to fit like a glove and maintain that locked groove even when there are twists and turns in the arrangement. But the rhythm should also be flexible, not mechanical. A great way to think about “feel” in Latin music is to practice an exercise of playing three against two in 6/8 meter (as well as two against three), as written here:



This way of phrasing is common because of the prominence of compound meter and cross rhythms in West Africa, so the more comfort level you have with these rhythmical ideas, the more solid your Latin music chops will become.

Finally, there is no element more important than your own ears to get you to feel Latin rhythms. LISTEN to as much of this music as you can; take some dance lessons, learn to play a conga drum, a surdo or a cowbell. The more you immerse yourself in this world the more you will know that good rhythm is the key.

SOME NOTES TO BAND DIRECTORS – Sample bass, piano and other instrument patterns are generally given on the right-hand page facing each tune as a guideline. As mentioned earlier, it is implicit in the approach to playing Latin music that the player should evolve the patterns over time by creating variations, but beginning level players may wish to concentrate on the provided patterns first. Before running the tune, I recommend starting with the main repeated section of the song (if there is one). Try having the players lock into a groove and experiment with variations, and then allow the melodic players to take turns soloing over the chord changes. Since this portion of the song tends to be the most vibrant in terms of dynamics, it is a good strategy to let the musicians find the comfort zone of the groove before working on the overall structure of the song.

If you are working with vocalists, it is the repeated refrain of songs in the Cuban or Salsa genres that would also require tweaking, in that the lead vocalist needs to improvise in between the repeated chorus. This refrain section is also referred to as the montuno, and it is here where the ensemble will need to work on changing the comping (accompaniment) patterns to suit the mood. There are different approaches for the rhythm section depending on whether there are call-and-response vocals versus an instrumental solo, and often these changes are dictated by the timbales player (and/or drummer).

RHYTHM SECTION SUGGESTIONS – The general rule for rhythm section dynamics within a song is similar to most popular music in that the drummer(s) create subtle to wide-ranging dynamic changes between sections: softer during the verses, louder during the solos and everywhere in between. But in Cuban-based music, the timbales tend to drive the band with specific calls, fills and breaks, and there are generally three areas of the set that coincide with various sections of the songs: a) during the verses, the timbales player plays the cáscara (sides of the drums), sometimes with the clave pattern on a woodblock; b) during the call-and-response vocals, the timbales player and bongo player play an interlocking cowbell part (these patterns can be shared and also morphed into a 2-bell part played by one drummer), and c) during higher dynamic instrumental solos (trumpet, sax, electric guitar, etc…) the drummer will play the ride cymbal.

For piano and bass solos, however, the drummer typically plays the sides of the drums (cáscara), and for percussion solos the cowbell pattern is a must to anchor the time. There are certainly exceptions and variations to all of these “rules,” so it is highly recommended that all of the players listen to the recordings found on the playlists of the Latin Real Easy Book page of to hear how the rhythm section responds during each section. Drum-set players tend to try to adopt all of the traditional percussion patterns onto the set, and that can be daunting as well as slightly inappropriate, mainly because there are several ways to interpret the specific Latin music styles that are more creative and not necessarily literal. Again, depending on your particular rhythm section, the suggested approach is to be sure to lock in all of the rhythm parts before launching into playing the tune. Once the groove is solid, it will be much easier to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together. Finding the tight rhythmical “zone” is the cornerstone to all Latin music interpretation. If it feels right, the audience will want to dance!

Rebeca Mauleón is an internationally acclaimed musician, bandleader, composer, GRAMMY-nominated producer and educator. As a pianist Mauleon, has recorded or performed with an array of Grammy-winning legends including Tito Puente, Carlos Santana, Steve Winwood, Joe Henderson and Mickey Hart. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Salsa Guidebook and 101 Montunos, and is also musicological consultant and author to National Geographic, Time Life and other important institutions. In 2011 Mauleon was appointed as director of Education at SFJAZZ, and is a tenured professor of Latin American music, composition and Latin Jazz piano, as well as an internationally sought-after as a lecturer and clinician on the subject of Latin American and Afro-Caribbean music history and performance.

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