On The Beat (Part 8)
South America: home of Latin rhythms and countless rhythmic influences is this month's port of call for Nigel Lord on his rhythm programming journey.
IF YOU'RE GOING TO BE DENIED THAT EXOTIC SOUTH AMERICAN HOLIDAY AGAIN THIS YEAR, A GUIDED TOUR OF THE CONTINENT'S RHYTHMS MAY BE THE BEST SUBSTITUTE YOU (AND YOUR MUSIC) WILL GET.
AS A CLASSIC example of the melting-pot syndrome - which so often expresses itself when people of disparate cultures are brought together under conditions of relative hardship - there can be little to compare with the development of the style of music we have come to Know as Latin-American. Any study of the diverse musical elements which came together and suffused the South American subcontinent over a century ago reveals a breadth of influence quite unparalleled in Western music terms.
As is often the case, however, trying to establish a coherent structure to this melange becomes something of a nightmare. The cross-fertilisation of cultures that can occur in an area containing some 30 separate countries each using variations of two different European languages as well as having well-established relations with continents as diverse as Africa and the United States, becomes quite overwhelming in its complexity.
And the situation is further complicated by the fact that much of the evolution of Latin music has taken place during the 20th century, when continuously improving systems of communication have left virtually no corner of the globe unaffected by the cultures that surround it. This has resulted in styles of music which themselves have absorbed strong Latin influences being 'fed back' into the melting pot of South America to complete a cycle, the beginning of which it is impossible to fathom.
As if things weren't difficult enough, we must also take account of the public perception of Latin American music - particularly in Britain. This, to a large extent, has been shaped by the kind of black and white B-movies made during the '30s and '40s which featured big bands playing their own, rather sanitised version of Latin music. You know the kind of thing: against a background of muted trumpets and a slow, loping rhythm, some dusky chanteuse would slide her way though an audience of perspiring, overweight males sat at candlelit tables with their rather embarrassed wives.
The rhythms, of course, could be found on any self-respecting home organ. The intention, no doubt, was to give the instruments a more exotic feel, but with sambas, rumbas and tangos in amongst the quicksteps and foxtrots, it was difficult to know whether to play them or use them to call the police.
In recent years, things have improved somewhat: TV coverage of the carnivals (particularly in Brazil) has begun to raise public awareness of the intensity of Latin rhythm and its grip over everyday life in South America. And of course, with the rising interest in world music over the past decade, many musicians are at last beginning to look to Latin America as a 'source' in their unselfconsciously plagiaristic approach to music - check out David Byrne's compilation Brazil Classics 1; Beleza Tropical.
In the States it has always been different. Over the last 50 or 60 years, the US has acted as a huge watershed for Latin music, becoming one of its principal markets and absorbing it into its own indigenous music styles. Primarily, of course, this was due to the huge influx of Latino immigrants to the US over a century or so, but it also has much to do with the ready adaptability of the rhythms which go to make up the broad range of Latin music.
It is by restricting ourselves to an examination of these rhythms that we are able to simplify our study of Latin music to a practicable level. This is due in no small part to the historical association (through the slave trade) of Africa with the countries of Cuba and Brazil. However, whereas Cuba drew the major part of its European influence from Spain (as did the majority of Latin America). Brazil was historically aligned with Portugal. As we shall see over the next couple of months, this factor was largely responsible for the emergence of a more fluid, laid-back style in Brazil, whilst Cuban rhythm is characterised by a driving beat and an altogether harder edge.
But Spanish or Portugese, the single spark that could be said to have lit the flame of Latin American music actually came about by the wonderfully off-chance meeting of African polyrhythms with traditional European folk music. That the two were able to combine successfully was due to a large extent to Spain and Portugal's Moorish heritage which made it possible for their music to fuse with many African rhythms without crushing them under the weight of a strict four-beat structure - as was the case with most Afro-American fusions.
But of all the South American countries, it is probably fair to say that the black heart of Africa beats more insistently in Cuban music than in any other Latin style. Indeed the fundamental structure of Cuban music, the 2-3 or 3-2 rhythm provided by the claves, can be shown to have evolved from the call and response structure of much African music.
Likewise, many of the instruments which have evolved in Cuban music over the years have their origins in African culture - the guiro and the quijada for example, and, of course the claves. In addition, it was Cuban musicians such as Arsenio Rodriguez who were responsible for popularising African rhythms such as the Congolese "mamba" during the '40s.
Though there is considerable freedom for expression and improvisation - particularly on the drum instruments such as the congas, bongos and timbales/cowbell - the rhythms themselves are disciplined and highly structured. And it's because of this that adapting them for drum machines becomes a realistic proposition. Indeed, given the human feel parameters which are now being introduced on all but the most basic machines, it is possible to produce some quite impressive results.
The only real problem (for those without access to a sampler) would be the availability of the right instruments, and, where these do exist, having a sufficiently wide variation of sounds for each of them to produce an authentic part. The two conga drums, for example, need a minimum of six different sounds if they are to be really convincing. And whilst many machines these days have a tuning facility which makes it possible to achieve the effect of two differently pitched drums, few offer the choice of closed, open and slap sounds used in traditional Cuban rhythm.
Fortunately, it is possible to program machines in such a way that even without a full complement of sounds, we can achieve the basic feel of a rhythm, and a number of these techniques have been employed in this month's examples. Of course, even with these concessions, there is a minimum standard of machine on which it will be possible to program these rhythms, but even those without the necessary instruments might like to try experimenting with the sounds they do have at their disposal - substituting tom-toms for congas and hi-hats for maracas for example.
One of the most striking aspects of all Latin rhythm lies in its cumulative effect on the listener. Most patterns are fairly unspectacular in themselves and rely on repetition and a slight raising of intensity over a period of time. In this respect, Cuban rhythms are no different. So, after each one of the patterns has been programmed, let it run for quite a while before deciding if you like it. I think you'll find that you will.
If, on the other hand, you find you've no use for a rhythm which doesn't have the bass and snare drums hammering away at the front, you might like to try adding either of the two extra patterns I've included with each of this month's examples. They're all fairly basic in structure, but this is intended to prevent the main rhythm being masked out. Alternatively, of course, you could write your own parts, perhaps using other instruments.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 (Viewing) | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19 | Part 20 | Part 21 | Part 22 | Part 23 | Part 24 | Part 25 | Part 26 | Part 26 | Part 27 | Part 28 | Part 29 | Part 30 | Part 31 | Part 32 | Part 33 | Part 34 | Part 35
Feature by Nigel Lord
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