GetWittet! Learn the 3 big mistakes drummers make trying to play Cuban salsa/songo.

published earlier, wrong category; many readers were unable to see it. Tbw

Common mistakes, erroneous assumptions…and sound like a Cuban drummer.

(1) playing the samba & bossa (South American) in a salsa & songo (Cuban) context; (2) confusing dance hall rhumba, like the rollicking rhythm you employ on society gigs, with the essential West African ancient voice/drum, clavé-driven rumba, which evolved in Cuba into salsa, songo, etc (3) playing 1 on the bass drum, and usually some variation of 4-on-the-floor when salsa/songo is characterized by the absence of 1. The kick kicks on the ‘and’ of 2 and on 4, often with emphasis on the 4.

Tips for learning Afro-Cuban rhythms on drumset.

Drummers make the terminal error of assuming that one “Latin beat” will work in all situations. The erroneous assumption is understandably perpetrated by those who have little exposure to Cuban music, especially salsa, rumbo, songo etc. Rather, drummers learn sambas and bossa novas from South America.

It’s true. The further north you reside, the less you hear of Cuban music. Up here we’ve all been bombarded with South American music since the Great Samba Scare perpetrated by Sergio Mendes’ Brazil 66 on The Ed Sullivan Show. It’s a rich tradition that marches to the future, the surdo opening and closing , clocking at around 120 bpm.

A passing glance to Cuban music and a generic Latin drum beat

If drummers would listen—give more than a nod to Brazilian and Cuban musical traditions—they’d realize that all-fours feel of the South American groove (I simplify greatly) is very much a reflection of the human gait in a march, which would be carnival, whereas in Cuban salsa, the omission on bass drum of beat-1 spells a lurch that syncopates from the ground up. Sure, both sides can cite funky handwork but, if you listen for a moment, you will see that the rhythmic pulse of the two styles, samba and salsa, is at odds.

Okay, Who’s the Bossa?

Lucky you: a Get Wittet rant about the misuse of, and misconception surrounding the S. American bossa nova.

Yes, I agree. The snare “clock” tone (the result of jam block or cross-stick on snare) resembles superficially the Cuban clavé. Superficially. The bossa, at root, however, is an even, 4-to-the-bar rhythm.

I get gas when I hear drummers describing the bossa snare or LP Jam Block part as clavé. It’s not a clavé. Call it what you want, call me an ambulance. The real-deal clavé hails from West Africa and the ancient rumba (not ballroom rhumba, see below) call/response tradition set to the venerable 2-bar clavé.

See, the clavé is not just a beat, wherein you can suggest that the bossa sounds much like it; rather, it’s a 2-bar phrase that organizes the arrangement of Cuban salsa/songo and how the players will improvise along that ancient “grid”.

Start by omitting 1 on the kick.

When you address Cuban music, other than ballroom Cuban, not playing ’1′ is an awkward and for some impossible feat. After all, western music is founded on ’1′. We base everything on one: the pickup into the song, the fills, which resolve on 1; the endings, often concluding an entire song on 1, and so on.

In Cuban music, we play off the 1, the bass drum landing (and I’ll repeat this later) on the ‘and’ of beat-2 and on beat-4. The one is not simply a hole in the arrangement; it might be stated by stick on closed hat or on bell or on block. But not on bass drum unless it’s a matter of nailing-it.

Instead of proclaiming 1 on bass drum, but, rather, the “and” of 2, and then coming down on beat-4, you’re in the game. The paradox is that the omission of ’1′ on the bass drum makes the ’1′ that much more emphatic.

You will notice that sometimes I will play the usual “and of 1” and then 4 on kick. Others I will do the Ignaceo Berroa-style (with Batacumbele), stating the expected “and” of 2 on kick but leave the kick tacet on beat-4; in other words it goes unplayed on 4. When I do play 4 on kick, the tension releases.

Trust me, if you have trouble with this, you are in good company. I remember well the day I finally mastered it, relaxed, and, as it turns out, was playing to a Batacumbele tune; I’d succeeded in not only abandoning beat-1 but, miraculously somehow I was playing in-clavé.

The confusion of rhumba vs rumba

Today the confusion of the two similarly named forms constitutes the biggest crime against Cuban music since it is perpetuated in grade and early high school text books.

Ballroom Cuban, as played at the Palladium (fifties and sixties Mecca) in addition to clavé-driven styles), is often Spanish-influenced. Today, we hear tell of the dance rhythms, mostly Spanish-influenced, on television dance competitions.

I know that it confuses many drummers. They hear about a “rhumba” and go to youtube and hear some guy in a hat demonstrating songo and referring to its derivation in rumba.  Or rhumba. The former is the sheet; the latter is a dance rhythm. The guy on youtube, perhaps, doesn’t know how to distinguish between his rhumba dance and his rumba clavé.

Dance rhythms, such as “bolero”, “beguine” and especially “rhumba”, have little resemblance to, for example, guaguanço, a member of the rumba family and, thus, driven by the clavé. When someone talks about “rhumba” it’s easy to get confused. Thus we see drummers inflicting the 2-measure rumba clavé with the ebony sticks or jam block on the essentially 1-bar rhumba. Thus we have a distinctly and obviously non Afro-Cuban 2-bar phrase ornamenting a rolling 4-on-the-floor feel that is dancer-friendly.

Forget about rhumba – when getting into salsa/songo.

You want to study rumba and the ancient clavé.

Understandably, this goes right over the heads of many drummers.

It takes a lot of listening, unfortunately the scourge of many drummers who feel their time might be better spent mastering clever (and in the instance of, say, Thomas Lang, great) and nimble fusion fills, blast beats, etc. If you take a little time and listen to a lot of salsa, played by a traditional ensemble without drumset, you will hear clearly the role of the timbale, conga, guiro, etc. In addition, you will hear a true linear rhythm, arguably, etched long before the term hit American culture.

I repeat the key

Salsa not only features the clavé. That music is mapped out entirely by adherence to the clavé.

So no matter how closely the bossa clicking pattern resembles the son clavé, it is not. The gentle, breezy vibe, sometimes termed apartment music, is not born of Africa. Not born of drums, either. You can’t play drums in apartments. Sure, through a haze at a party it might harken to the old country but only in a haze.

Perhaps more interesting than repeating what’s become the obvious is the way I learned to play bossa from watching and listening to Joey Heredia, who counts in 2 and lands the bass drum on 2. It doesn’t always work unless the accompanying musicians are hip and experienced but it feels really good and liberates the drummer from the tedious clocking the time. For now, forget the hybrid reggae-bossa.  Do write me, however, at if you’d like a better, clearer explanation or video examples of this funky alternative.  In fact, Heredia and is like (if such exists!) have shaped a new form of bossa–not your dad’s bossa nova–that can erupt in a slick backbeat, while maintaining the 2-pulse. I thank him, and the many Brazilian drummers–especially the guy (Roberto Silva?) who played with Edberto Gismonti circa 1980 on No Caipira.  On this album, one of my all time 20 favorites, you have it all. It’s a compendium of folkloric and urban drums and percussion, sometimes set in simulated jungles, sometimes within an orchestra, others with a quartet. You hear not only Brazilian but Argentine bandoneon (Argentine accordion, again over simplifying).  You will never forget this album; Egberto delivers stunningly intricate, beautifully melodic Brazilian music, which sometimes erupts into a chaos that he resolves with such a fine touch you get shivers.

If you listen to even a bit or piece of this album, you will see why (given my experiences in Venice, CA, below, catching Joey Heredia in 1988) why I bristle at those who would blindly play some “hybrid Latin groove”. Ain’t such a thing unless you, sorry, don’t know what what on this wide earth you’re doing. I’m an old cat and I’m just beginning to learn. I’m humbled each time I listen to a Portinho or otherwise master of Brazilian, or Changuito or Heredia or Negro, each masters of Cuban music. Frankly, I don’t understand–maybe it’s dyslexia–what Negro is doing when he melds the ancient 6/8 rumba with the 4/4 contemporary songo; but he’s so smooth. When Heredia displays that dichotomy, which I hint at during various fills on the video clip (s), I get it.

The samba bass drum ostinato is not the one-beat-fits-all. Go beyond it….

Tell me if I’m wrong. Someone calls out “Latin” and taps out a mid-tempo. The bass player & drummer immediately launch into a samba ostinato: so much boom, b-boom, b-boom, etc. This happens to work nicely, thank you, for samba and, to a certain extent, bossa nova. The bass drum ostinato has been portrayed in youtube clips as the basis of samba, against which drummers juxtapose single and double paradiddles, wide-spanning triplets over 2 or whatever, and single-stroke rolls–in other words the same chops those drummers trot out in every other circumstance. The other trait, which used to be a collective movement among drummers was soloing over a samba ostinato; not so clever of late, you know? Not since 1973 or something. My dear friend, and my late editor at Modern Drummer, Bill Miller, used to laugh about the drummers he’d encounter up the east coast when playing in his organ trio “still soloing against the samba bass drum”. If I’d done that with the Argentine composer’s band during my 5-year tenure, or in the batucada band (2-years), I’d have been laughed off stage. In the batucada band I was laughed at for the first 2-months anyway!

Why mention this? Because it’s still a heavily guarded misapprehension, misconception of what drummers ought to do and where.

Horrid though true, even though your ensemble comes to a full stop, after which the pianist states, in box car letters, a montuno, which signals the shape of things to come, often drummers launch into the aforementioned Latin 101 bass drum ostinato: boom, b-boom, b-boom, b-boom

I learned the hard/Heredia way

Specifically I traveled to Los Angeles, first in 1988, and experienced a life-changing performance: drummer Joey Heredia playing a largely salsa repertoire at a restaurant/club with a pick-up band. Herein I witnessed the absence-of-1 by one of the great exponents, known more for his Porcaro-influenced funk. He motored through salsa arrangements, for example “Footprints”, giving them the songo of their life!

When he cut to Brazilian rhythms, especially bossa, he came down a little harder on 2. Again, I felt a curious absence of 1, not just the stress on 2, and asked my pal, Ron Sures (great LA bassist) what I was hearing. I’d never heard this quasi-reggae up north.

“No, it’s just a bossa done the way we do it here”, Ron replied.

Now this made a little sense to me. I’d worked for a year with well-known Canadian artist, Ian Tamblyn, who insisted that if we were to move on, I ought to learn reggae to the core—not just superficially. He handed me a cassette: the soundtrack to the film Rockers. This is a compendium of reggae stretching way back.

To this day, the lyrics and lilt of “Police and Thieves” comes to mind. This is the old-school one-drop reggae, an expression that connotes the omission of beat-1 and the bass drum displaced to beat-2, with the snare drum cross-stick coming down hard on 1 instead, as in drop the 1!” You could think of it as regular 4/4 with the bass drum and snare drum roles reversed.

Not all drummers grasp this easily. After playing a few years, drummers feel the bass drum on 1 and 3, the snare on 2 and 4 in their sleep. Ask them to do exactly the opposite (the snare 1, bass drum on 2) and although their mind might grasp it at least in principle, their legs buckle and their feet protest.

Segue to salsa

If you can make your mind and body forget the (possibly) years of learning how to nail 1 and, instead omit it, you’re on your way. Resolving fills is extremely difficult. That’s one reason I made this clip: to show how the drummer has to think when 1 is not an option.

Eventually you find that the big wait has its advantages.

When I returned north from LA, I told everybody exuberantly, including the veterans, who knew infinitely more than me: I played the cassette tape I’d made of Joey Heredia. Nobody knew what I was on about. I told them about the rumba—the indigenous W African > Cuban music (there are variations) played in-clavé.

They responded, “No, the rumba (ie rhumba) is like this (they play a dance hall rhythm that sounds roughly like a beguine, a bolero, and certainly nothing to do with the clavé). That tape sounds like the kitchen sink.

Frustrated I set out on my own. Joey had admonished me to, “Just listen to as much salsa as you can; the parts will come to you”.

The revelation as to what playing in-clavé meant took 2-years of listening daily, incessantly, to Heredia, to Batacumbele (Puerto Rican hit band, Ignaceo Berroa, drums), a bit to Los Van Van (to me not as clearly represented), etc.

See it’s not just a matter of learning about the cascara, the 2-3 clavé, the striking of the kick on the ‘and’ of 2 and on 4 to coincide with the bass part (which plays 1-4, 1-5 intervals), but internalizing it.

Playing in-clavé is a confusing concept to young drummers, just as it was to me for two years. In loose terms, it’s aligning yourself with the 2-measure phrase and not switch the 2-3 for a catholic 3-2, or if you state a street clavé, which displaces the second measure of the 2-3 clavé an eighth rest—in other words, places the bass drum not on 3 but on the ‘and’ of 3, you stay with it. It’s hard and even Cubans mess it up and have arguments.

The other aspect is that you align your tom fills so that they sound appropriate to the clavé. On the above mentioned version, for example, your tom fill ought to catch the ‘and’ of 3, or set it up nicely, which is just one simplistic example. I try in the video to give several examples. I nail 1 occasionally, and get into a bit of trouble; the trick is recovering in Cuban mode.

When I began there were no instructional manuals with play-along CDs. I would have given my left arm (naw, I wouldn’t) to have had someone explain the bass drum part; that would have been a relief.

After all I’ve said, you wanna mix salsa and samba?

One mistake “western” players make, aside from slipping from a salsa groove to a samba, which, if it’s not written sounds silly, is playing the salsa parts as if they’re Pink Floyd. Men with hats on the web do this. Don’t swing the songo parts too much; There’s ample time for that later when you explore the clavé in 4/4 and inject a sort of triplet, 3-over-2 feel to your fills. I do this a couple of times in the clip as best I’m able. I’m by no means a pro Latin player but I can get by.

At one of the Cuban resorts I sat in with a band—they forced me, seriously—and I surprised them by waiting until I could feel the clavé, in this instance a 2-3/street, tap it out, and then enter correctly. I could see this look: Guy’s a journalist with drum magazines, says he’s a player; wonder if he can get as far as the first chorus. Well, they started off and I waited at least 4-measures, at which time I knew where the clavé sat, tapped it out (it was a 2-3 rumba clavé) on my sticks and entered appropriately. Their initial look of apprehension transformed into broad grins and, particularly with the bass player, I immediately bonded.

It’s not like I go around these days saying I played with a Cuban band. Although I played in an Argentine composer’s band playing jazz tango and, yes, lots of salsa—popular in those parts. And I played two years in a batucada band (S American, long story).

Rather, back to Cuba and the resort experience, it’s more like, due to all my listening and playing-along, I made it and stayed in-clavé. It was really funky. Many drummers more chop handy than me could do it…IF they listened to salsa and did their homework.

Donald Johnson, in a sense my teacher locally (our lessons are informal), the legendary military band musician (mostly on drumset for 30-some years) told me a story yesterday that rang the same way: “Do you know Peter XYZ? I thought you’d know him, Bruce. He came to me saying he wanted to learn how to play jazz. Good player but he didn’t want to listen to the music. How are you going to play jazz if you don’t listen to jazz?”

Exactly. Ditto for songo.

The music will carry you, steer you, if you know the vocabulary—and how the clavé  is steering you.

Tip: Leave out the 1

You can do it. I’m repeating myself because it’s that important.

Omit the ’1′. Sure you hit the ’1′, sometimes nail the pig as I do on the accompanying clip. I’m playing a variety of fills and grooves you might do well to check out closely. All are derived from me going out to obscure community halls, soccer clubs, even, and checking out touring salsa bands that would never cut it in a downtown bar.

Check out the repeated timbale figure, played on the Roto Tom. State the motif then restate, all within the confines of the clavé. Maybe “confines” is not the right word but, certainly, you must keep to your side of the white line on the highway.

You’ll hear the first tom pick up the tail-end of one of the traditional salsa conga patterns. ust as I do on the clip.

Another thing: You will hear the snare accent, rimshot on 2—a sort of backbeat. That’s me copying Joey Heredia and, while the figure is now common currency, the origin, as I discovered during my two years (doing homework) listening almost exclusively to salsa, is the conga pattern.

Similarly, the cascara played on the outer shell (paia) of the timbale (or on the pretty lacquered side alls of your floor tom!) is prominent here. The more observant listener will notice that I’m going for an “in the cracks” execution, splitting the difference between 4/4 and 6/8. I’m hinting at that dichotomy, as well, in a couple of fills: that’s directly out of Heredia, as it were.

On the closed hi-hat, on the cowbell (not my favorite generic cowbell; I prefer the LP Black Beauty for pitch, tone, and sustain; I broke mine) and elsewhere I nod to the clavé—maybe strike the top or bottom side of the figure. It’s my way of blinking an eye and indicating I know where I am but it’s not clever; it’s me trying to cover the waterfront. In fact, I’m trying to extricate the most essential parts I hear in salsa bands and bring them to drumset.

What I do is not new. It’s obsessive and maybe healthier than things I used to do. I’m tapping into a pulse that provides a buzz, a rush stronger than anything you can imagine. It starts with listening and progresses to challenging your tendencies to smack 1 on bass drum, 2 on snare, and so forth. The lurch and the omission of one comprise a groove that’s as powerful as any out there—and we ought to hear more of it out there! Tbw