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

by Sarah Lahasky

6. For the Western Classically-Trained Bassist

For musicians with little exposure to popular Cuban dance music, Zaldivia suggested a practical approach. Instead of learning and interpreting the music and rhythms in a similar vein to how Western classical music is taught in the US, she emphasized becoming familiar with each dance before trying to play them. During my first bass lesson with her, she had me dance the steps of the cha-cha-chá and danzón with the bass in hand before actually playing any notes on the instrument (Zaldivia 2018b, personal communication). Repeatedly throughout subsequent lessons, Zaldivia emphasized that until I understood the interpretation of the music by the dancers, I would not be able to play the music in an appropriate style. Thus, according to Zaldivia, one additional (and crucial) way for Western classically-trained bassists to learn popular Cuban styles is to learn and understand the dances before the chords, harmonies, etc. This approach makes sense especially for learning to feel the anticipated bass in son. The dancers begin their step on beat four, aligning with the "bajo tocado a la'o" (Zaldivia 2018b, personal communication). Thus, although beginning on beat four initially feels counterintuitive to the Western classically-trained bassist, becoming comfortable with the dance steps reverses the feeling of fighting the clave, and beat four begins to feel like the strong beat.

An additional strategy for becoming comfortable with the asymmetrical feeling of the clave is to start with that rhythm instead of the bass groove. On the first day of lessons with Hermida, he pulled out a box full of claves from behind the piano and explained to me that all of his students who want to learn popular Cuban music from him start by learning to play clave. Once a student understands the pattern on its own, he finds that they are more successful in understanding how the anticipated bass fits with that rhythm. Using clave instead of a metronome to learn one's part reflects the tendencies of other African and African-derived musics. Whereas the Western classical inclination is to divide everything into stressed beats and measures, African musics more commonly use rhythmic relationships between two or more instruments to keep track of time (Chernoff 1979: 51).13 Timeline instruments, including clave and bells, are often played in African and African-derived styles for the primary function of assisting other musicians to mark their place in the music. Thus, it is imperative for the bassist to understand how their part interlocks with the clave in order to lock in the groove.14

There are also various method books that have attempted to provide resources and technical exercises to bassists who are unfamiliar with the playing style of Cuban popular music. While some of these method books are more helpful than others, none of them are likely an ideal option on their own for learning and understanding the broad scope of popular Cuban dance music. For instance, Lincoln Goines and Robby Ameen's Funkifying the Clave: Afro-Cuban Grooves for Bass and Drums provides very basic information (usually a sentence or two) about various different genres such as the mambo, son, and cha-cha-chá (Ameen and Goines 1993). The target audience of the book is primarily for jazz players who want to "spice up" their grooves rather than bassists who want to learn the various Afro-Cuban styles. By contrast, Carlos del Puerto and Silvio Vergara's The True Cuban Bass remains focused on Cuban styles rather than jazz modifications (1994). The book is bilingual, which suggests that the target audience may include bassists in Cuba who are unfamiliar with playing popular music styles. However, like Goines and Ameen's book, The True Cuban Bass provides minimal social or historical context and also assumes that the reader has a general understanding of Cuban musical features such as clave, tumbao, and the montuno section, among others. NG La Banda's bass player, Feliciano Arango, along with Cherina Mastrantones have published a method book focused on timba, entitled Cuban Timba: A Contemporary Bass Technique. Like del Puerto and Vergara's book, this one is also bilingual, and provides short and focused exercises to learn and understand important historical and technical features of timba, such as its historical connection to son, dead notes, and playing the guaguancó15 clave pattern (2008). Arango and Mastrantones's book is a useful resource for bassists who are both interested in timba as an independent music style, in addition to the possibilities of applying timba techniques to other styles. As the authors explain in Part Three: "We know that Timba with its rich tumbao, can be fused with many other styles, and we have selected a few Jazz standards to show a way that the Timba flavor can be fused with other forms of music that are not related to Cuban Popular Dance Music" (Arango and Mastrantones 2008: 64). Uribe's The Essence of Afro-Cuban Percussion and Drum Set is amenable to the Cuban music outsider, as it provides a bit more context and more detailed explanations for various rhythmic patterns from a wider variety of popular Cuban dance music genres (2006). However, as its title suggests, the book is geared towards percussionists rather than bass players. The most comprehensive method book series for bass is likely Kevin Moore's Beyond Salsa Bass: The Cuban Timba Revolution books, which first appeared in the 2000s and include genres that are left out of the other books mentioned, such as changüí and mozambique. This is José Hermida's preferred method book series to use with his students as a primary teaching resource (Hermida 2018a, personal communication).16 On a more practical note, the eventual 7-volume series is not easily affordable to the average music student who may have only a general interest in popular Cuban music styles, since each book costs $30 and audio examples for each volume are an additional charge. In sum, there is not an easily-accessible resource for Western classically-trained bassists to find accurate contextual information, audio, and transcriptions in one place. However, when paired together there are numerous resources that may provide a helpful starting point for understanding the historical development, rhythmic patterns, and playing techniques for students without access to a teacher who performs Cuban music.