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

by Sarah Lahasky

3. Son

Unlike the danzón, the son developed in Oriente, on the Eastern side of the island (Moore 2010: 91). Additionally, it began as a rural style. The first manifestations of son did not include the double bass, but rather a botija4 or marimbula5 (92). After the genre's popularity grew to urban centers, the double bass replaced the other bass instruments "in an attempt to appeal to middle-class tastes and to allow for greater harmonic possibilities" (92). Sublette suggests that the first band to replace the botija with double bass was the Sexteto Habanero in 1923 (Sublette 2004: 341). The new leader of the band, Gerardo Martínez, sang and played double bass for the group (Blanco 1992: 32).6

The son is, like most Cuban dance forms, a creolized mix of African and European-derived elements. In comparison to the danzón, the son emphasizes certain African elements more apparently. For instance, performers do not use sheet music, and the songs are more improvisatory and cyclical, with built-in solo sections for particular instruments (91). One such section, the montuno section, typically includes a call-and-response from the sonero (song leader) and chorus. While the chorus is repetitive and fixed, the sonero often improvises lines, which mimics a rural style of Cuban improvisatory poetry singing known as controversias (Uribe 2006: 19). After the spread of son in Cuba, danzón composers also began adding a montuno section to their works,7 exemplifying the pervasive influence of the son in genres that came both before and after its popularization (Madrid and Moore 2013: 58). The foundational rhythmic pattern for the bass is syncopated, however unlike the syncopated cinquillo pattern of the danzón, the son bass line avoids emphasis on beat one of every measure. Also known as an anticipated bass or "tocar a'lao,"8 this groove instead emphasizes the up-beat of two and the downbeat of four.

While early son typically incorporated string instruments, percussion, and voice, a new type of son with trumpets, piano, and eventually timbales and congas became popular in the 1940s and 1950s, around the same time that the danzón was losing popularity (Moore 2010: 97-98). Referred to as conjunto, this new son style also gave rise to more elaborate syncopated bass lines, thanks to tres player and band leader Arsenio Rodríguez (100). While the prior conventional son bass lines almost exclusively played the root and fifth of the chords, Rodríguez's bass lines rose and fell with the melodic line, giving it more of a "singing" feel (García 2006: 45).9 In terms of rhythmic innovation, Rodríguez used a "claved bass" pattern, which consisted of an asymmetrical, two-measure cell that aligned with the clave instead of the repeated one-measure pattern that other composers were using at the time (Monroy Romero 2017: 26).

An important bassist to the development of son is Ignacio Piñeiro, who doubled as the band leader of the Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro, formed in 1927 (Blanco 1992: 44). The Septeto Nacional is known for mixing various other styles, such as rumba and guajira, with son clave and montuno sections (González and Casanella 2013: 362-63). This fusion of son with other genres is perhaps a result, in part, of Piñeiro's background in playing with rumba groups before leading the Septeto Nacional (Roy 2002: 132-33). Between the popularity of Rodríguez's syncopated and claved bass lines and Piñeiro's leadership and decision-making roles in the Septeto Nacional, the son became a central space for the development of bass lines in popular Cuban music in the first half of the twentieth century.