La Mulata Bass Transcription…
La Mulata Bass Transcription: John Benitez’s complete bassline to “La Mulata”.
“La Mulata” is a selection from the Frankie Vasquez/Martin Arroyo record “Los Soneros del Barrio”. The album is a masterpiece and maybe one of the most underrated salsa records of its time, even among other recordings of this particular band. The eponymous album was made in 1999 and was the debut record for this band, and unfortunately was released soon before the untimely passing of pianist Martin Arroyo. The band went on to make other recordings, including “Remembranzas” and “Siguiendo la Tradicion”, both of which became highly regarded albums in their own right.
La Mulata Bass Transcription:
However, there is something undeniably special about this first record.
The album features eleven tracks including rearranged salsa classics with some originals. What is especially intriguing about this recording is there isn’t a single ballad or cha-cha-cha, only relentlessly swinging dance numbers from start to finish. The recording is teeming with hip arranging, beautiful coros and of course the unparalleled singing of Vasquez. Indeed there are strong contributions by all musicians and singers involved. Nevertheless, the most fascinating aspect of this album may indeed be Benitez’s brilliant bass work.
The album is an interesting study because, on one hand, we have a band of top-notch salsa musicians playing the music in a very “tipico” fashion with John Benitez on bass doing quite the opposite. What is incredible is that what John chooses to play doesn’t just work, it works so well that one could not imagine a better part being played there in the first place. According to Benitez his only instruction from the bandleaders was “play what you hear”. What we have on this recording is Benitez unleashed, given full freedom to do whatever he wants with ingenious results. In fact, what he does here could possibly be some of the most creative and nonconformist bass playing on a New York salsa record.
This particular tune demonstrates John’s freedom within the eighth note grid in a very cool way. In the cuerpo, or body, of the song he takes a very rhythmically dense approach with many percussive dead notes that pepper the standard tumbao. The approach is more akin to bassists such as Gary Willis, Rocco Prestia, or even Cuban bassists such as Rafael Paseiro and Feliciano Arrango. This approach is more common in funk, fusion and Timba styles of bass playing, versus the more legato style often associated with salsa. Contrary to the way it may look on paper, the tactic serves as the perfect foil the somewhat scant vibe created by the percussion.
Conversely, when the montuno kicks in he switches tactics and opts for a spare yet highly syncopated method.
The montuno is nothing unusual from the standpoint of the other musicians and the genre itself. It is a I-IV-V-IV progession in F major, one of the most common chord progressions in Latin music found in countless songs and styles across Latin America. However, with his limitless imagination, Benitez is able to take this almost stereotypical chord sequence make it sound as fresh and exciting as anything else out there. To be honest, there really isn’t a clear-cut way of describing what he is doing here. It is neither Salsa nor Timba. In fact, it isn’t really any particular style one could easily label. On the contrary, it seems to be an approach that is entirely his own, constantly creative and never formulaic or cliché.
Every track Benitez touches on this record has something distinctive and inimitable.
His unorthodox approach to otherwise canonical music is a quality that truly sets him apart from the usual dossier of bassists in the style. It is highly recommended that you listen to the entire album to witness firsthand the sheer breadth of what John plays on each song. Every tumbao has something in it that seems to come out of nowhere, forged from the mind of a true master who is aware of everything and fearful of nothing.
This article is an excerpt from the first book John and I collaborated on in 2015 Freedom in the Clave. It can also be found in my second book El Sonero del Barrio. Stay tuned for many more transcription videos to come!