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

by Sarah Lahasky

1. Introduction

It was Wednesday night at rehearsal, and the band stopped again. I lost track of the rhythmic pattern for the countless time. My fifteen years of playing bass lines in the back of the orchestra offered little transfer knowledge for the anticipated bass groove in the salsa tune that the Hispanic Caribbean ensemble was attempting to play. Why was it, I kept asking myself, that I could not seem to keep track of the downbeat in this style of music? While popular Cuban dance music genres represent a hybrid fusion of Western European and African elements (among others), the rhythmic patterns and polyrhythmic textures are more closely related to the latter (Madrid and Moore 2013: 5). Excluding some 20th and 21st century composers, Western European classical music traditionally emphasizes the downbeat, which is especially prominent in orchestral bass parts. As such, the anticipated bass style of Afro-Cuban-influenced dance tunes requires the Western classically-trained player to work against their downbeat-driven intuition and eschew beat one. Adding the intricate rhythmic layers of the clave and other percussion instruments augments the challenge of maintaining a steady groove while avoiding the downbeat.

How can a classically-trained bassist, then, break free of their tendencies from the back of the orchestra and understand the anticipated style that prevails in Afro-Cuban popular music? As bass teachers, how can we facilitate this transition for our students in a less frustrating scenario than what I describe above? This paper aims to answer these questions through historical, descriptive, and ethnographic data. Divided into two sections, the former is primarily historical and descriptive, whereas the latter relies more heavily on ethnography. The first part explores three styles of popular Cuban dance music and the role of the bass in each. Through these case studies, the first section of the paper represents a small yet significant sample of the development of the bass line in popular Cuban music over the course of the last century. I will begin with the danzón, which was one of the first widely-accepted dances in Cuba that mixed European and African elements. Along with the bassists who played and innovated the genre (namely Israel "Cachao" López and his brother, Orestes López), the danzón form and style have greatly influenced popular Cuban dance music today. I will also describe the son, which adopted certain elements from danzón and consequently diminished the popularity of the earlier dance music in the 1940s and 1950s. The son is also responsible for transforming countless other Cuban dance genres with its syncopated bass lines and improvisatory montuno sections. Lastly, I will discuss the timba, a newer genre from the last thirty years that stems primarily from rumba, son and salsa influences, in addition to other Latin American music styles. Timba bass lines represent the crux of complex rhythmic structures and virtuosic performance in popular Afro-Cuban dance music today.

In the second section, I describe the challenges of learning to play popular Cuban dance genres as a Western European classically-trained bassist, and I compare various resources for teaching and learning this style of music outside of Cuba. Using interviews from Cuban bass teachers and performers of popular music from my fieldwork in Havana in June of 2018, this section will also compare pedagogical methods of conservatories and other spaces of music learning in the United States and Cuba. Lastly, I will suggest adaptations or modifications to Western classical bass methods with the anticipated bass groove and polyrhythmic challenges of Cuban popular dance music styles in mind.