Volume 11, December 2019
The Downbeat Bites the Dust: Learning and Teaching Bass Grooves in Cuban Popular Music

by Sarah Lahasky


1 In 4/4 time, the cinquillo rhythm begins with a quarter note, followed by an eighth note, quarter note, eighth note, quarter note.

2 Listen to "Almendra" by Abelardo Valdés, one of the most famous Cuban danzones, for a clear example of the cinquillo rhythm.

3 It is worth noting that the exact origin of mambo is still disputed among performers and scholars today.

4 The botija is an aerophone that resembles a large jug with two openings. The player sounds the instrument by blowing into one of the openings.

5 The marimbula is a large lamellophone that is used as a bass instrument in various music styles throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. The player often sits on the large resonating box and plucks the attached metal plates from between their legs. 

6 There is some discrepancy between Sublette and Blanco's historical accounts of the switch from botija to double bass. Blanco records the Sexteto Habanero having appeared with double bass in 1925, and the Botón de Oro, formed in 1924, included bassist Alberto Vasconcelos (30). In any case, the bass quickly became a staple of son groups in the late 1920s and beyond.

7 Abelardo Valdés's "Almendra" is one such example.

8 This phrase comes from "tocar al lado," which literally means "to play on the side." However, "al lado" is modified to "a'lao" to more closely resemble the colloquial pronunciation of Cuban Spanish (Hermida 2018b, personal communication).

9 For an example of Rodríguez's melodic bass lines, listen to "No toque el guao" from 1948. As you listen, you will hear the bass line follow the melodic contour and the rhythm to the vocals of "se hin-cha." For a transcription, see García 2006: 44.

10 Perna writes that Ortiz "reports the term timba as the name for a type of gambling, and as part of the expression 'tener timba,' meaning to be able to do something difficult or meritorious" (2005: 101). It seems that timba has had various meanings since that time and was only later incorporated into Afro-Cuban barrio (neighborhood) slang to reference a party.

11 NG La Banda's song "La Bruja" (The Witch) from 1994 is a good example of the new virtuosic bass lines in timba, including more syncopations, glissandos, dead notes, and slaps.

12 One such example is Yoedis Oconor playing baby bass in the timba orchestra Clave Cubana Timbera (CCT). 

13 The timeline rhythm of the clave is the most obvious starting point since the instrument's role is essentially just that: to give the other instrumentalists a sense of where they are rhythmically.

14 While the timeline is an important starting point, other rhythm section instruments, such as piano and guitar, also play a crucial role in determining the rhythmic patterns of the bass line. The idea is generally to keep an interlocking polyrhythmic pattern, so if the piano or guitar switches to playing on the off-beats, the bass can abandon the anticipated pattern (Hermida 2018b, personal communication).

15 As Arango and Mastrantones explain, this rumba-derived clave differs from son clave due to the third note falling on the "and" of four rather than directly on beat four. 

16 At the time of this writing, José Hermida was in the process of creating his own bass method book for popular Cuban dance music styles, incorporating ideas from various methods mentioned here in addition to his own teaching and playing techniques (Hermida 2018d, personal communication).