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

by Sarah Lahasky

2. Danzón

The danzón is one of the various surviving popular music styles that developed in Cuba in the 19th century. While the earliest known reference to the dance form was in 1840, the Cuban danzón peaked in popularity in the 1920s and 1930s (Madrid and Moore 2013: 3-4). Though originally danced by Afro-Cubans on the Western side of the island (particularly in Havana and the genre's birth-city of Matanzas), the danzón has a mixed history of both European and African elements. Stemming from the French contradanse, the playing style is reflective of the European classical tradition, as danzón ensembles, called orquesta típicas, generally use sheet music, which creates a relatively fixed form (Sublette 2004: 343). The danzón has included the European-derived double bass at least since its growing popularity in the early 1900s, in addition to a combination of other European string and wind instruments and African-derived percussion (4). According to Carlos del Puerto, the danzón "was one of the first typical Cuban styles which had its own rhythm and corresponding bass line" (Puerto and Vergara 1994: 1). Because of this, the danzón bass rhythm, along with that of the son tradicional, are perhaps the two most fundamental patterns that influenced most other proceeding bass lines in popular Cuban dance forms (1). The basic danzón rhythmic line consists of a two-measure cell, with the timbales playing a cinquillo1 rhythm in the first measure followed by four quarter notes (Hermida 2018a, personal communication).2 The bass line plays half notes against the cinquillo rhythm, and then a tresillo rhythm against the timbales' quarter notes.

As the danzón became popular in the 1920s and 1930s, composers and musicians such as Antonio Arcaño began experimenting with the form and style. Arcaño's band, known as Arcaño y sus Maravillas, added extended harmonies and often performed with a larger group of string instruments, usually including more violins and a cello in addition to the existing ensemble (Madrid and Moore 2013: 64-65). Arcaño's bassist, Israel "Cachao" López, along with his brother, cellist Orestes López, are credited with creating a new section in danzón called the mambo (Monroy Romero 2017: 35). This led to the up-beat, standalone genre of mambo, which some believe began with the brothers' 1938 danzón entitled "Mambo"3 ("López, Israel 'Cachao'" 2006). Additionally, Cachao experimented with "descargas," or jam sessions with more improvisation and virtuosic playing that broke away from the confines of traditional danzón accompaniment music. For example, his 1958 song entitled "Canta contrabajo" represents an unprecedented highlighting of the bass in the danzón ensemble (Puerto and Vergara 1994: 7). Cachao's descargas paved the way for more freedom for bassists in not only proceeding popular Cuban music styles, but also in various styles from the United States like jazz and funk (Sublette 2004: 451). Bassists in diverse musical groups across the Americas began treating the bass line as both a rhythmic and melodic instrument instead of continuing to outline the chordal progressions with primarily walking bass lines (451). Cachao is thus seen as a significant and influential figure of bass playing in the 20th century, and the danzón is an important piece of that development ("López, Israel 'Cachao'").