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Beyond Salsa: The Bass and Piano in Contemporary Cuban Dance Music


Beyond Salsa: The Bass and Piano in Contemporary Cuban Dance Music

Beyond Salsa: The Bass and Piano in Contemporary Cuban Dance Music

The Latin Pulse with Michael Lazarus: Beyond Salsa: Interaction Between The Bass and Piano in Contemporary Cuban Dance Music

Meet Michael Lazarus

One of the great things about playing timba is that you get the chance to play in a band with multiple drummers. A typical configuration for the rhythm section is bass and piano, congas, timbales and drumset. As a bassist this liberates you because all the subdivisions within the beat are already being articulated by the percussion -so you get to decide which ones to highlight or feature for each particular song. This means you can play off the kick drum part, the whole kit, the timbale part or the congas.  Unlike many types of North American music (rock n’ roll, pop, soul, etc.), where the bass and kick drum are expected to lock with each other as a fundamental part of the groove, in Cuban music the kick drum is an independent voice. One of the funkiest aspects of a timba groove is hearing the kick drum punching through the holes of the bass movement.

While salsa bassists have a standardized, repetitive bombo-ponche (and of 2 and 4) bass movement, which the dancers use as a metronome to count their dance steps, timba bass movement plays off the clave in all kinds of ingenious and different ways (read my first three articles here on BMM). To go off on a tangent for a second, in my opinion this is part of the reason salsa dancers have such a hard time making a transition to Cuban style social dancing, as they are not following the clave per se and use the bass as a crutch.  As Yorgis confirmed in the last article, timba bass can be thought of the art creating of clave based, melodic loops over a specific harmonic progression.

…..which brings us to the piano. If you are playing timba in band you’ll quickly realize that the old school, traditional piano montunos only go so far, and a whole different concept is needed to play up to par with your bass and percussion matrix. Your bass groove is integrated harmonically with the piano and h or she is the one filling the spaces you selectively leave. Hip your piano chair to this with a new series of instructional piano books called Beyond Salsa Piano. It covers the history of Cuban piano movement from the 1910’s all the way to the 80’s (Volumes 1-4) and then beyond salsa into the Cuban timba revolution (Volume 5). In this article we’ll work off excerpts from Volumes 6 & 7, which cover the individual style of Iván “Melón” Lewis. A legend in Cuba, Mr. Lewis is still relatively unknown but in my opinion perhaps the greatest keyboard genius in the history of Latin dance music.

Before taking a listen to the following audio samples, please note that they are stereo separated. The Alaín Pérez bass part is on the right and the Melón piano part is on the left. Use your balance control on your stereo to isolate each channel.

Here we go….

Volume 6 – La Vida Sin Esperanza

Download the audio sample here – la-vida-sin-esperanza-bass

Download the piano transcription here (BSP-Vol6-LaVida)

The bass movement of La Vida Sin Esperanza contains all the trends we previously discussed -heavy downbeats on the 20-side, emphasis on the second stroke of the 3-side, omission of the 1 on the 3-side- and the piano shadows the 1-2-3 movement of the first three quarter notes. Here is the first clue to why the old school salsa approach won’t work. To lock in with the bass (and percussion) the pianist has to essentially memorize the piano part like a classical piece, play it note for note, and understand that it’s a riff that belongs with this specific song. There are more sophisticated approaches to the piano parts like “theme and variations” and “controlled improvisation” but that lies outside the scope of this article (read the Beyond Salsa Piano books).

Volume 7 – Luz Viajera

Download the audio sample here (luz-viajera-bass)

Download the piano transcription here (BSP-Vol7-Luz)

Here in Luz Viajera the bass emphasizes the first stroke of the 2-side of clave (measures 1 and 3). Its cool that the piano leaves a hole for the first quarter note of the phrase. In general the piano ride provides counterpoint to the bass movement.  The and-of-three of the third measure (G minor) is another very interesting place where the piano and bass lock, or the piano goes off into variations.

For both these tunes and for the style in general, the bass movement has a stock theme over the chord changes and then spins off into variations. I hope I’ve spiked your interest enough to play these examples through with your fellow pianist. Cheers.


–       Audio tracks and transcriptions used by permission from Kevin Moore, editor-in-chief of and author of the Beyond Salsa Piano series of instructional books.

–       All content ©2010 Michael P. Lazarus

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