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Review: Learning the Rhythms: An Overview Of Instructional Material, Part 1: Books

by David Peñalosa

African drumming is an aural tradition, meaning written music, written text and analysis are not typically used in the process of learning it. The same can be said of Afro-Cuban folkloric drumming and, to some extent, Afro-Cuban band drumming. For those not born in these traditional cultures, however, seeing this music notated and analyzed can help in one's desire to understand it.

In the past ten years, more instructional books, video and audio tapes on African-based percussion and related subjects have been published than in all the previous years combined. This is truly a great time to be a student of this kind of music. Of course, there is no substitute for going to the countries where these art forms originated and learning from the masters while immersing yourself in the music's cultural context. The next best thing would be to learn from, say, a Cuban master who is presently living in the United States.

However, most conga drum students learn from teachers who are themselves students. Learning from a student-teacher has certain risks: their knowledge base is constantly under revision meaning that their understanding and interpretation are bound to change, and then there are student-teachers who plain get it wrong, after all... considering all of the reasons music is played, capturing its essence by analysis is a terrific challenge. Some student-teachers can be extremely helpful in their role as "translators," translating an aural tradition into written music and text. On the other hand, student-teachers have put out instructional books that look sharp but are so full of erroneous information that it makes me shudder, (no books of this type can be found in the Descarga Catalog, fortunately).

Here's an example of some great translating: One of the best explanations of clave (the rhythmic key to much African-based music) I have seen was given by Birger Sulsbruck in his instructional video Latin American Percussion . Here you have a Danish man explaining an Afro-Cuban musical principle to you in English. It's an amusing juxtaposition, but more importantly, it works.

If the masters themselves were the translators, we would have the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, you cannot find commercial instructional material by Cha Cha, Los Muñequitos, Pello El Afrokan, or Changuito. Copies of video-taped private lessons with some of these great masters have been circulating among the drumming community for some time, but that's another story.

The Xylophonic Clave of Cuban Music: An Ethnographic Essay
Fernando Ortiz Fernandez

The late Fernando Ortiz is unquestionably the most respected authority on Afro-Cuban musical instruments. He has written volumes on the subject. One might assume from this book's title that it would include information about the rhythmic principle known as clave. Instead, this book focuses upon the instrument clave itself, those two small hardwood sticks that are used to play the clave rhythm. Ortiz has written an exhaustive essay on the origins of this simple but important musical instrument, omitting the integral relationship the clave rhythm maintains within the music of this field.

The Music of Santeria: Traditional Rhythms of the Bata: The Oru Del Igbodu
John Amira, Steven Cornelius

The Music of Santeria deals with the batá drums. Batá are a set of three hour-glass shaped, double-headed drums brought to Cuba from Nigeria by Yoruba slaves.

In their traditional context the batá are considered to be sacred. The Oru Del Igbodu is a liturgical medley of rhythms dedicated to Yoruba deities known as Orishas. The written transcription of the Oru is a fascinating chapter of this book. The performance on the accompanying CD follows the written transcription verbatim.

Even if one is not planning to ever play batá, analysis of the transcription and tape is a lesson in a highly evolved music based on clave. Without a doubt, batá are the most complex of the Afro-Cuban drum systems and any study of this rich tradition will only complement your overall understanding of African and African-based music.

Latin American Percussion
Birger Sulsbruck

Birger Sulsbruck has done an ample job of explaining the basics of playing the Cuban and Brazilian percussion instruments and rhythms. He demonstrates technique (as best as one can through a book) with photos and clear text. It would be best to use this book in conjunction with the accompanying video. There's a lot of information here.

I'd like to add that folkloric rhythms are often adapted into band arrangements to create a more exotic effect. These adaptations of folkloric rhythms often need to be simplified in order to work in the band setting. Sometimes band percussionists mistakenly take these simplified versions to be the actual rhythms, when in fact they are rhythmic outlines of the more complex folkloric versions. Outside of Cuba, for instance, many professional percussionists don't fully understand folkloric conga drum rhythms.

Sulsbruck gets into a little trouble when attempting to explain guaguancó. He states that "it is not possible to write a quinto solo note for note." First of all, the quinto's phrases are not exactly that of an "anything goes" type of solo, but rather a specific part with many variables. The tumba and conga play specific parts also, of course, but what makes the quinto's part so elusive is that there are several modes within its part and endless variations possible with each of these modes. The transcriptions of quinto riffs in Latin American Percussion should not be accepted as the fundamental patterns for this drum. I would like to say here that it is possible to write down what the quinto plays note for note. It is also possible to explain the quinto phrase's relationship to clave. Be that as it may, the written quinto riffs in this book have value as rhythmic patterns one could incorporate into their musical vocabulary.

Afro-Cuban Rhythms for Drumset
Frank Malabe & Bob Weiner
Book/CD package

Back in the 70s I read a Downbeat magazine interview with Carlos Santana in which he stated that it was necessary to superimpose the rock back-beat over Afro-Cuban rhythms in order to make them palatable to American audiences. Many in the music business agree with that point of view, but others believe that the back-beat actually kills the magic created by clave based music.

So many of the funk rhythms found in popular American music are in fact clave-based in their structure, so rather than put a simple back-beat over an Afro-Cuban rhythm, one would do better wedding a funk beat with an Afro-Cuban rhythm. This has been happening in Cuba for years now with Songó. In more recent times American trap drummers have been getting hip to Songó while exploring the use of other authentic Afro-Cuban rhythms in a variety of different musical situations.

Afro-Cuban Rhythms For the Drumset is a solid instructional book. If you're a set player interested in learning about Afro-Cuban rhythms and their adaptation to drumset, you can't go wrong with this book. There is also a bit of information here on conga drum patterns. I suggest you use the accompanying CD in conjunction with the book.

I appreciate what they say about soloing in folkloric rhythms: "soloing is really speaking as if one were telling a story." I would go one step further and say that the lead drums in folkloric ensembles tend to speak a specific vocabulary. As in Birger Sulsbruck's book, the authors of Afro-Cuban Rhythms For the Drumset don't seem to have the whole picture when it comes to guaguancó quinto. Since this is a book primarily for set players, though, I don't think that's such a big deal.

Rhythms and Techniques for Latin Timbales
Victor Rendon

This is a good introduction to timbales. It could also be of some value to trap set drummers as well. Seven pages are dedicated to patterns created by Jose Luis Quintana, better known as Changuito. As one of the founders of the Cuban group Los Van Van, Changuito is credited as the creator of the post-revolutionary rhythm: Songó.

Timbale Solo Transcriptions
Victor Rendon

Transcribed here are solos by timbale masters Guillermo Barretto, Changuito, Endel Dueno, Nicky Marreo, Manny Oquendo, Tito Puente, Ray Romero and Orestes Vilato.

This is not an instructional video per se, but it can be educational when analyzed. A lot can be learned from re-writing these solos directly under a transcription of clave, or clapping clave while singing the solos. If you're a set drummer, try playing clave with your foot while playing the solos with your sticks. Eventually, you may be able to pick solos off of records yourself and write them down, that is a whole education in itself.

Practical Applications: Using Afro-Caribbean Rhythms on the Drumset
Chuck Silverman
Video, Book/CD Package, Book/Cassette Package

As with Latin American Percussion, Using Afro-Caribbean Rhythms On The Drumset Parts 1-3 has a corresponding instructional video. Between the three-part books and the video, one can learn a lot on the subject.

Chuck Silverman takes rhythms that are usually played by a combination of several percussion instruments and applies them to the trap set. Many of these adaptations are his own creations and are quite tasty.

There's an absence of the "tradition that has gone before" in these books. For example the chapter on Songó has no mention of the rhythm's creator, Changuito, and the chapter on Mozambique does not mention that rhythm's creator, Pello El Afrokan, either. Instead it shows Mozambique adaptations by Steve Gadd and Dave Weckl. Gadd and Weckl are without a doubt two of the greatest jazz/funk drummers alive today, but they use Caribbean patterns in a superficial way. A nicer way to say this is that Gadd and Weckl are two branches of the Mozambique tree. If someone is going to be introduced to the Mozambique, I would prefer that they at least be made aware of that rhythm's roots. The Mozambique pattern presented in Afro-Caribbean Rhythms On The Drumset is the New York version made famous by Manny Oquendo during his tenure in Eddie Palmieri's band in the 1960's.

All things considered, these are good books. Chuck Silverman is an original. He has good ideas for adapting percussion ensemble rhythms to the drum set, and offers helpful advice for practicing habits.

Volume 1 Book/Cassette Package
Volume 1 Book/CD Package
Volume 2 Book/Cassette Package
Volume 3 Book/Cassette Package

Funkifying the Clave: Afro-Cuban Grooves for Bass and Drums
Lincoln Goines & Robbie Ameen
Book/CD package

This is a great book/CD package. (There is also a version available on video.) It makes sense to combine the bass and drums because these two instruments need to work together in order to create a cohesive effect in the rhythm section.

The typical timbale basics are demonstrated, followed by trap drum adaptations. Robby Ameen then offers his own ideas on the topic. This book once and for all puts to rest the idea that one needs to put a simple rock back-beat over Afro-Cuban rhythms in order to make them palatable to American audiences.

These drum set patterns are very funky and very danceable, while not compromising their grounding in clave.

For the bass portion of this book/CD package, we are introduced to patterns played by some of the heavies: Cachao, Bobby Rodriguez, Andy Gonzalez, Juan Formell and Sal Cuevas.

Lincoln Goines himself has some hip ideas about playing funky bass within the context of clave.

Covering its roots while looking toward the future, Afro-Cuban Grooves for Bass And Drums is a must for any bass player or drummer wishing to expand their understanding of Latin rhythms.

Salsa: The Rhythm of Latin Music
Charlie Gerard with Marty Sheller
Book/CD package

In the four years preceding the release of Rebeca Mauleon's Salsa Guidebook, the book Salsa: The Rhythm of Latin Music was the definitive English language book on the subject. However, with these two books, and with other instructional materials for that matter, it's not an either/or situation - the more high quality instructional materials one can get their hands on, the better.

Salsa starts out with an excellent preface beginning with "Insiders & Outsiders" followed by "Methods For Research" and ending with "Affiliations & Motives." These topics are an appropriate beginning to a book about a musical hybrid that has served as a cultural crossroads. Here is an excerpt from the preface:

"(Marty) Sheller, who is not a fluent speaker of Spanish, is an insider because he has arranged for nearly all the top names in salsa; he is an outsider because the music makes reference to a lifestyle and culture to which he does not belong. (Frankie) Malabe's background as a Nuyorican who learned the music by hanging out on the streets of the South Bronx gives him an "in" into the music. On the other hand, he finds himself an outsider because of the fact that the musical genres he plays are based on the traditions of Cuba, an island with a culture based on different historical circumstances than his own ancestral home, Puerto Rico."

Chapter Two, "La Clave," is a well written explanation of the rhythmic foundation of salsa. Sub-headings in this chapter include "Arranging In Clave," "The Absence of Clave," and "The Clave Sensibility." Transcriptions demonstrate a melody's relationship to clave. Another example is offered as a melody that goes "out of clave" with ample text explaining why it is considered to be so. This chapter alone is well worth the price of the book. It can be a great help not only to percussionists, but to any musician who wants to incorporate elements of the African rhythmic concept into his or her repertoire.

The rest of the book gives an accurate overview of the basic elements which make up salsa and related folkloric genres such as rumba and the batá drums.

Salsa Guidebook for Piano and Ensemble
Rebeca Mauleon

In the endorsement at the very beginning of the Salsa Guidebook, pianist/arranger Sonny Bravo says "This book will be the salsa Bible for years to come." That pretty much sums it up. Since this book has already been reviewed in the Descarga Newsletter, I'll keep my comments brief.

If you want to expand your understanding of Afro-Cuban rhythms and percussion instruments, especially as they apply to salsa and Latin jazz, then this is the book for you. In the Salsa Guidebook you'll find music charts for the basic rhythms played by the claves, maracas, guiro, cowbell, chekere, congas, bongos and timbales, plus full band scores demonstrating the functions of the piano, bass, strings and wind instruments in the various salsa ensemble settings.

There are many photos of some of the most important musicians in the field, a thorough glossary, discography, and bibliography. Keep this "Bible" at your bedside.

Salsa Sessions
Birger Sulsbruck, Henrik Beck, Karsten Simonsen

Let's say you've studied the principles of salsa and now you have a group of musicians who want to try to play this exciting style of music. Perhaps what you need is a salsa "fake book," that is, a book with detailed charts of salsa tunes. In the past few years there have been some good Latin jazz charts available, but Salsa Sessions is the only book I've come across which has salsa (music for dancing as opposed to concerts) charts.

The 12 songs are well written and follow the cassette (also available) nearly verbatim. Parts are written for a vocal chorus, three horns, piano, bass, congas, bongos, timbales, maracas and guiro. This book is a good starting place for the aspiring salsa musician.

There are some clave problems in this book, though. For instance, the last song "Toca Bonito," is a simple descarga written by Henrik Beck, one of the authors. It's based on a traditional Cuban tumbao. However, Beck wrote the piano montuno as a 2-3 pattern, the break a 3-2 pattern. The conga plays a 2-3 pattern, while the cowbell plays a 3-2 pattern. This particular song is so out of clave that it's best to just leave it alone. What surprises me is that it got past co-author Birger Sulsbruck. Sulsbruck gave such a good explanation on the function of clave in his instructional video.

The material offered here comes from the New York 70's salsa scene. They are classic tunes but sound a bit dated. If I was going to introduce the public to 12 salsa songs I wouldn't pick any of these. Still, this is a good starting point.

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