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On The Beat (Part 10)

Part 10 of this rhythm programming series covers a selection of fascinating rhythms indigenous to the exotic countries of South America. Nigel Lord gets a studio tan.


WHILST THERE CAN be no doubt as to the domination of Latin American music by the rhythmic giants of Cuba and Brazil, no examination of the music of this immense region could be considered complete without at least a glance at a handful of rhythms indigenous to other countries which share a South American identity. And, of course, it is but a small step from here to tackling some of the fascinating crossover styles of Afro-Cuban, Salsa, Latin-jazz - and maybe even a few hybrids thrown in for good measure.

Now, you may be thinking this sounds like a tall order for a single article - and you'd be right. So this month I'll be keeping the preamble to a minimum and launching straight into the examples. Hopefully, the more emotive dissertations of the last couple of months will be enough to sustain interest through this final article on Latin rhythmic form (there could easily have been a dozen more). But if not, well, next month I promise we'll be returning to something a little more mainstream.

Right, to business. And we're starting off with a rhythm which takes us beyond the South American mainland to an island which has long been saddled with the kind of "paradise in the sun" imagery which takes no account of the hardship of everyday life and the relative poverty of the country. The fact remains, however, that Trinidad and that most joyous of musics, calypso, are inextricably linked in the public consciousness, and the sheer infectiousness of the rhythm is unlikely to dispel that image.

Somewhat akin to the Cuban Rumba in its rhythmic feel (and its position within Trindadian society), the Calypso is played at all tempi, though most commonly at a medium to fast pace. The claves figure quite prominently in most calypso rhythms, but unlike Cuban music do not preserve their strict 3-2 (or 2-3) structure. As you will see from Pattern 1, the first bar is repeated throughout the pattern, as indeed, it is for the other instruments.

Just to recap on a couple of the instruments encountered here: the tumba is the larger (and therefore lower-pitched) of the conga pair, and is easily simulated by detuning a standard conga voice by about a fifth. In the absence of a tuning facility, you could try using an open-sounding tom-tom, and this applies to the conga itself. Having a slapped conga voice for the third of this group of instruments would make life much easier, but again, you could try experimenting with tom sounds - or even a tom sound mixed with the open conga voice.

As I explained in the Cuban article a couple of months ago, Paila is the name given to the striking of a drumstick on the shell of a timbale, and in the almost certain absence of this from your machine, could be simulated by a sidestick or rimshot with perhaps just a little of the conventional timbale sound mixed in to give it a slight ring. Those of you with samplers (but without timbales) might try scouring the kitchen for suitable metallic objects to hit, or failing that, any kind of large(ish) steel container will probably make a passable substitute.

Unlike the previous two articles, the bass/snare drum parts I've come up with this month have been included with the rhythm proper. However, this isn't intended to imply they have to be programmed along with the rest of the pattern, or that you shouldn't try adding your own parts if these prove unsuitable in any way. The change in the bass/snare part in bar four, for example, might be quite inappropriate in many settings and could easily be replaced by something less pronounced.

Also, though I have previously pointed out that determining overall the level for each instrument has to be left to the individual programmer, you can take it that the dynamics for groups of instruments are interrelated. In other words, within the conga group, for example, a medium dynamic slap conga needs to be louder than a low dynamic open conga or open tumba. And the same is true of the bongos or the timbale and tamborim pairs we'll encounter in later examples.

We move next to Puerto Rico and an interesting little rhythm known as Plena. In Pattern 2 we see the return of the 3-2 Cuban clave structure and the reappearance of the tamborim from last month's Brazilian feature. As you may remember, this hand-held drum looks rather like a tamborine without the jingles, and is played with a stick in one hand while the fingers of the other are used to dampen the sound on certain strokes. The two sounds it produces - open and closed strokes - are fairly easy to replicate using double- and single-headed tom sounds, for example, but these will need to be tuned fairly high to achieve the rather dry "poppy" sound of the real instrument.

None of the other instruments used here should provide much of a problem; most of them have become standard issue on the better machines in recent years, and those using samplers should find little trouble tracking down any instruments they don't already have on disk. In case it isn't clear, the closely spaced notes in bars two and four of the high bongo line should be programmed as 32nds as should those in the closed hi-hat at the start of bar four.

And speaking of the hi-hat part: programming the closed hi-hat on the off-beat throughout the pattern really does add an extra dimension to the rhythm without intruding too much on the basic structure. Feel quite free, however, to leave it out if you wish, along with the open hi-hat.

The Bomba rhythm in Pattern 3 is also indigenous to Puerto Rico and, again, shares the standard 3-2 clave structure of Cuban music. This pattern has a rather jazzier feel to it, however, which could be developed further with the right bass/snare part and perhaps a ride cymbal line. The bass/snare part I've included does steer it away from that direction somewhat, but gives it a quite distinctive feel nevertheless.

Again, there's nothing too esoteric in the instrument line-up: the two cowbells simply require a pitch change of a few semitones, which shouldn't be a problem for most machines. And though there are two guiro sounds - short and long - these could, at a pinch, be replaced by high and low dynamic sounds respectively.

The Dominican Republic, to the West of Puerto Rico, is home to our next rhythm, the Merengue (Pattern 4), which once again betrays its Cuban associations through its 3-2 clave structure. Such a compelling rhythm is this, I'm afraid I got a little carried away with the instrumentation (as you can see), but it could be slimmed to more compact proportions if you wish. Though I say it myself, the bass/snare part is particularly well suited to this rhythm and as simple as it is, I think you'd be hard put to come up with anything more appropriate.

Though a fairly evenly structured rhythm, dynamically, the bongo part should be allowed to weave its way through the pattern, riding on top of the other instruments without becoming overbearing. Care should also be taken to ensure the rather penetrating sound of the timbales isn't allowed to become too obtrusive.

Pattern 5 comes without the benefit of a title (or an exotic country of origin), for the good and simple reason it is entirely of my own devising. Having said that, it was intended as a 50/50 distillation of Cuban and Brazilian rhythmic forms packaged in a way which would make it useable in a conventional dancefloor setting. Whether it achieves any of these objectives I'll leave to your judgment, but I have to say it is a pattern I have grown rather fond of over the months.

The only programming details worth mentioning are the 32nd notes in the slap conga line and the 64th note flams associated with the open tamborim. Where possible these should be at a lower dynamic level than the notes they lead in to (though in the case of the high bongo it should be programmed as two low dynamic notes followed by a medium dynamic). The closed conga part might add to the problems of those already pressed to find both open and slapped sounds, but could be simulated using a detuned bongo, or simply combined with the slap conga line at a lower dynamic level.

The 3/4 time signature of Pattern 6, the Nueva Onda, is likely to make it somewhat less of a draw on the dance floor, but gives it an intriguing rhythmic slant nonetheless. A pattern associated primarily with Venezuela, it also has strong African connections which probably account for its three-to-the-bar structure (it could just as easily be transcribed in 6/8). By displacing a couple of the snare beats, I've attempted to exaggerate its slightly off-centre feel, but not to the point where it simply becomes a rhythmic oddity. Try it and see what you think.

Having moved into the area of Afro-Latin crossovers, we come to the last of this month's examples. Patterns 7 and 8 are a couple of Afro-Cuban rhythms in 6/8 (though transcribed in 3/4 to keep them in the same tempo range). Rather more conventional than the last example, I see no reason for either of these rhythms not to get the feet moving. The bass drum part in both patterns is pretty distinctive and the snare occurs on a predictable beat in each bar so there should be no difficulty finding the right setting for either of these patterns.

It would also prove interesting to see how easily 6/8 rhythms merge with 4/4 song structures. Provided the two are given enough time (number of bars) to resolve themselves into a rhythmic cycle, some fascinating results can be produced.

Like many of the patterns I've included in this series, most of this month's examples have some kind of distinguishing rhythmic feature built into them - usually in the final bar. In some cases this is a bongo or a hi-hat figure, in others it is simply a rearrangement of the bass/snare drum part (as in the Calypso rhythm). But in every case it can be programmed to occur at a musically useful part of the song (the end of a verse or chorus, for example). Just because I've written it here as occurring every fourth bar or whatever, doesn't mean that's where it has to stay. Move it where you will - or delete it altogether. Even if you're happy to copy the patterns verbatim, you should at least try to tailor them to your needs rather than just hitting the play button and letting them run.

Now, the more observant of you might have realised that one of the promised areas of investigation in this month's article - Salsa - has failed to materialise. The reason for this is that having listened long and hard to a wide cross-section of music which could be categorised as Salsa (emanating predominantly from New York), I have heard nothing rhythmically which distinguishes it from Cuban music in general - and Rumba in particular.

I am aware that this may sound a little contentious (if the study of rhythmic form could ever aspire to being contentious), and I'm also aware of the immense differences in broader musical terms which exist between Cuban music and Salsa (not to mention the social implications). But in purely rhythmic terms, the pulse behind Salsa is unequivocally Cuban, both in structure and feel.

This, of course, means that if you are engaged in the writing or playing of Salsa, or have ever considered using it as a perfect up-tempo dance rhythm (which it is), the article on Cuban rhythm in the March issue should provide you with most of what you need to know.

Looking back on all three articles, you may have noticed that Latin American rhythm, once broken down into its component parts, is anything but complicated. The parts associated with each instrument are often straightforward to the point of being obvious. And there are frequently considerable areas of overlap where two or more instruments play broadly similar parts. But, as I've stated before, it is its cumulative effect which distinguishes much Latin rhythm and its capacity for repetition over sustained periods without ever losing its drive or urgency. Which, if you think about it makes it just about the perfect dance rhythm.

So if, like me, you feel all the best funk tracks have already been written, or that house and hip hop have become something of a rhythmic straitjacket, why not give these patterns a try. The key to programming is to enter every part, spend a little time adjusting levels and listening to them for a few minutes before deciding whether you like them or not. The bass and snare lines, though obviously detracting from the authentic flavour of the rhythms, will nevertheless make them that much more acceptable to a listening public, and there's always plenty more going on beneath the surface should you choose to listen.

The inclusion of these more familiar instruments also illustrates just how adaptable Latin rhythm is, and how acceptable it is to Western ears. As much as I love African and Eastern music, there's an inherently alien feel to it which makes it that much more difficult to assimilate to the majority of people (though this is precisely what attracts a great many other people to it). This manifests itself in melodic terms too, but it's usually the rather off-centre rhythmic feel of the music that makes most people feel out of their depth. This is perhaps why every significant crossover venture (from the Brian Eno/David Byrne collaboration My Life In The Bush of Ghosts onward) has attempted to marry Eastern melodic forms with (essentially) Western rhythm, rather than the other way round...

In conclusion, it may seem that three articles dedicated to Latin American rhythm (and only one each to subjects such as funk, reggae and so on), is approaching overkill - or at least, some form of bias on my part. But if you examine the sheer breadth of music emanating from that part of the world, you'll realise that this is by no means disproportionate. With the obvious exception of Africa (which we're hoping to visit' soon), South America is probably the most rhythmically prolific area in the world, and I've simply tried to reflect that in this series.

I firmly believe that in rhythmic terms, western dance music has reached a critical point, which can only be overcome with an injection of new ideas and new thinking. It has always seemed odd to me, given the unselfconsciously plagiaristic attitude of most contemporary writers and musicians, that we have been so slow to tap into such a lucrative vein. Perhaps now is the time.


Read the next part in this series:
On The Beat (Part 11)

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Digital Music Archives Classical Collection

Next article in this issue

Rhodes Model 660 & 760

Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - May 1990

Feature by Nigel Lord

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