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Afro-Cuban Folkloric Rhythms

by Curtis Lanoue

Afro-Cuban music, although commonly thought of by most Americans as the rhumbas and mambos of Desi Arnaz and Xavier Cugat or by musicians as the Latin Jazz of Tito Puente, is as varied as America’s jazz music. Much Afro-Cuban music comes straight from Africa and is merely different from its African parents because it is played in Cuba. The most famous of these rhythms are those for the batá drums of Cuba’s Santería religion.

There are also African inspired rhythms that were created or modified in Cuba (rumba and the Congo rhythms that will be discussed later) along with musical hybrids of African and European parentage (mainly the popular music of Cuba often called “salsa”). For all, the African area of origin is the Western Coast, most notably the Congo region and what is now Nigeria. The two families of rhythms discussed here, rumba and Congo, are all performed on three separate drums usually with clave and catá and are not complete until performed with singing and dancing. As always when discussing Afro-Cuban music, we must begin with clave.

Clave refers both to the sticks that are played against each other and the rhythms they play. This clave rhythm is at the heart of all Cuban music and must be completely internalized to be able to play any of the parts. Clave is a two bar pattern that can be played reversed. That is, the most common form of clave contains three beats in the first bar and two in the second. This is referred to as 3/2 clave. If we begin a phrase on the second measure, the result is 2/3 clave. Both are played with about the same frequency, although in folkloric music, it is mainly 3/2 clave that is played.

When analyzing each of the following rhythms, clave is apparent almost immediately. The different drum parts will usually line up for a specific stroke of clave. This stroke is the second one when in 3/2. This “bombo” beat is the only stroke of clave given a name. When dealing with rumba, the two non-improvising drums will have a bass together on the bombo. Whatever the case, clave should always be played or felt when practicing these patterns. A sufficient level of practice is only reached when one can play the patterns while tapping clave.

The instruments used in these rhythms are generally: clave, catá, and three conga drums. The catá is usually two sticks played against the side of one of the drums or a woodblock-type instrument. Other terms for catá, depending upon the region of Cuba, are palitos, guagua, and cáscara. The salidor and tres golpes drums, lowest and middle respectively, play prescribed patterns in rumba while the quinto, highest drum, solos. Usually, the quinto interacts with the singers and dancers and not the other two drums. The salidor and tres golpes many times will have complex conversations with each other or play several variations on their basic patterns. According to John Amira, this happens mainly in the Matanzas style of rumba while the Havana style sticks closer to the patterns. In Congo based rhythms, the caja, lowest drum, improvises around a basic pattern while the mula and cachimbo, middle and highest, take roles similar to the salidor and tres golpes in rumba.

The three rhythms of rumba are guaguancó, yambú, and columbia. All are performed with singers and dancers as well as the percussion parts. Often, the music is played spontaneously whenever drums, or anything else that makes noise, are around. These improvised jam sessions are called rumbones and take place on a daily basis in Cuba. The most common rhythm of rumba is the guaguancó.

The structure of a guaguancó song has basically three parts. The first is called the diana, where the lead singer, or gallo, sings syllables like “na”, “ay”, “e”, etc. Following this vocal flourish is the verse sung either by the gallo or the gallo with one or two other voices in harmony. Between phrases, there may be more, short diana-type phrases. Following the verse, the other voices, or coro, sing a repeated pattern (often composed spur of the moment by the gallo, who calls the others in) with the gallo improvising a response. The coro and response are the same length. This call-response section is called the estibillo. Following the estribillo may be a quinto solo which can then be followed by a truncated version of the estribillo or a new one entirely. Dancers often start at the entrance of the coro in the estribillo section. The guaguancó dance imitates the male chicken’s trying to impregnate the female. When he is successful, the movement of the the pelvis is termed vacunao.

The more relaxed yambú was originally played on packing crates in the shipyards of Havana and Matanzas. The wooden drums, or cajones, date from colonial times when actual drums were prohibited by the government. There are usually two or three cajon parts which closely resemble the rhythms of guaguancó. Yambú, however, is played much slower and its dancing imitates old couples as opposed to the sensuality of the guaguancó. As the saying goes, “El yambú no se vacuna”--there is no vacunao in yambú. I have seen rumbones where the group started out with a yambú, but after awhile, the speed picked up so much that the dancers were “vacunando”. This is an exception to the rule.

The columbia is the most distinct of the three rumba rhythms. It is in a fast 6/8 time and is only danced by men; obviously, there is no vacunao. The diana section is called llorao in columbia and often sounds influenced by Arabic wailing.

Example one shows an early form of guaguancó that is no longer played. The clave and catá are timekeepers and identify what side of the two bar pattern the drums should line up on. When the drums come in, they will often come in with the bass stroke on the bombo beat and proceed from there. Sometimes the patterns will start as rolls after which the salidor calls in the other drums with a llamada (see exx 3 and 4).

Example two shows the modern Havana guaguancó. This is the most popular form. Note the only difference in the tres golpes is that the last open is now a touch.

Example three shows a typical Matanzas style guaguancó. While the salidor is showed with a different part than example one, this pattern can also be played over any guaguancó; the important change is the addition of a bass on bombo. The tres golpes now only has one open tone on the first beat of the second measure. This is what defines a Matanzas guaguancó. It also has a much different time keeping part because of its “roll”. This roll is what all the drums start with in many guaguancós.

Example four is a sample llamada. The llamada is what the salidor (whose name derives from salir, which refers to its job of bringing in the other drums) plays to bring in the rest of the drums. Many times, groups will coordinate with each other and develop complex llamadas that all the drums will play together. In this example, all the drums play a roll and then the salidor decides when to come in. Additional sample llamadas are included later.

There are many variations for both the salidor and tres golpes parts. These can be found at the end of all the examples and come from, among other sources, Rebeca Mauleon’s Salsa Guidebook for Piano and Ensemble, lessons with John Amira, and various recordings.

Example five brings us to yambú, which as mentioned before is basically a slow guaguancó. It is sometimes played with son clave or a different son-related clave that is only found in yambú. The main difference, other than how it is danced, is the speed. Many times, it is played on cajones, or wooden box drums. When played with this instrumentation, it is referred to as a rumba de cajones. In this setting, often there will be a large drum that is sat upon playing the salidor part and a quinto cajon. The tres golpes part is often omitted.

Example six begins the last of the rumba rhythms, columbia. This is a Havana columbia and is the most popular version. The clave is merely a 6/8 form of rumba clave. The salidor still has the bass on bombo. This rhythm is always performed fast, and at the faster speeds, the salidor can simplify its pattern as shown. The dance to columbia is said to have started in the sugar plantations where the slaves would have contests to see who could dance the best between the sharp, freshly-cut sugar cane stumps.

Example seven is a Matanzas columbia, which, like guaguancó, is basically just simpler than the Havana style. The time signature for this rhythm can be very confusing. Matanzas columbia often has a 6/8 clave, 4/4 catá, two drums playing in 6/8, and the quinto switching between the two time signatures. The salidor can also play the pattern for ñongo. See below.

Example eight is ñongo, which is an early version of columbia and not played often anymore. This pattern can also be played for a Matanzas columbia with the first first two opens replaced by muffs.

Now are the three Congo rhythms. These rhythms have religious significance, also. The first, palo, is used in ceremonies of the palo monte religion. The yuka and makuta also have religious connections and are where many of the popular rhythms, including mambo, came from.

Example one shows the palo rhythm. The guataca is a hoe blade played by a piece of iron. A cencerro, or cowbell, can take the place of the guataca. This is the main timekeeper. Palo is performed very fast and the improvisation is in the caja, which solos around the rhythm given.

Example two shows palo as played in Matanzas. Note the mula part which plays on the two off-beats of the triplet. This is very difficult and should be practiced very slowly at first. The caja is the same, but can be played with a stick in one hand.

Example three is makuta. Makuta’s influence on popular music is obvious when it is seen with the accompanying dance. This rhythm is not in clave, as the bell pattern is only one bar long.

Example four is yuka. This is a seemingly simple rhythm played with a stick against the rim of the drum and one hand on the head.

These two families of Afro-Cuban rhythms are some of the more common folkloric styles. Others include Arará, batá, conga, yesá, güiro, and Abakuá drumming. The common styles in the popular vein include “salsa”, son, danzón, and songo.


Ranking-Hits Editor: Klaus Reiter ( Last Updated: 23.6.97. WEBCounter by GOWEB