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

by Sarah Lahasky

7. Conclusion

Bass lines in popular Cuban dance music have become more stylized, more syncopated, and more virtuosic over the last century, thanks to important figures such as Cachao, PiƱeiro, and Rodríguez. Though the middle class-influenced danzón began with simple harmonic and rhythmic structures, bass playing in popular Cuban music developed through son and other genres into highly virtuosic playing with extended techniques and complex rhythmic structures by the end of the twentieth century. International music trends, like jazz and hip hop, have influenced recent styles of virtuosic bass playing, such as that of timba, in popular Cuban dance music today. Cuba's emphasis on Western music education has also played an important role in preparing musicians for the new technical demands of the instrument in these styles. While an all-inclusive historical and pedagogical resource does not exist for learning about the role of the bass in popular Cuban dance music, a combination of existing methods will likely provide a reasonable starting point for the interested student. For the Western classically-trained bassist without prior familiarity to popular Cuban music styles, an understanding of the clave pattern and dance steps are of special importance to grasping the stylistic nuances. Once one understands and feels the dance steps and rhythms in the percussion, the bass groove makes more sense despite its opposite tendencies from emphasizing the downbeat in Western classical music.

While more research is necessary to develop the ideal pedagogical method for popular Cuban dance music, this paper hopefully provides an initial orientation regarding current resources. Having knowledge of the development of the bass line in Cuban musics over the last century is imperative to understanding the more recent stylistic changes. Like with learning any music style, it is also valuable to recognize the social, political, and economic factors that have contributed to the musical characteristics and changes of the genre. Learning popular Cuban dance music styles through clave, dance, a combination of method books, and cultural context will help to ensure that the groove will lock in with the other musicians even in the absence of a strong downbeat, and the band will not ever have to stop for the bassist again.