This Wednesdays’ night was amazing – I attended a Juan Luis Guerra concert.
Juan Luis is an amazing singer, musician and songwriter, and his band, la 440, is a not any less amazingly talented group of musicians…
I didn’t have even any doubt about enjoying the wonderful Bachata and Merengue tunes, but to my surprise, there was some Cuban music present as well !
But before we get down to the Cuban connection, let’s get to know this fine musician a little bit, shall we? 🙂
Born Juan Luis Guerra Siejas, at Santo Domingo, Dominica Republic, at 1957, he is a son of a basketball player.
He studied literature and philosophy, but later went to study music theory and guitar at the national conservatory at Santo Domingo.
After graduation, Juan Luis attended the Berkley college of music at Boston (USA), where he accidentally met his future wife.
He graduated at 1982 with a diploma in Jazz composition, something which will effect his early career.
At 1984 he released his 1st album, “Soplando”, with a group of local musicians named “la 440”, after the standard guitar tuning of A440. This album was very much influenced by what Juan Luis learned at Berkley, and contains much Jazz, but also Merengue.
His next 2 albums, Mudanza y Acarreo (1985) and Mientras Mas Lo Pienso… Tu (1987), were quite successful, and got the band chosen to represent the Dominican Republic at the OTI (Organization of Iberoamerican Television) festival.
The big breakthrough came in 1990, with the release of his 4th, and maybe most famous, album, Ojala Que Lleva Cafe; Juan Luis Guerra y la 440 received international fame, with the title track holding the top spot of many charts in Latin America for many weeks… The bands’ 1st international tour also took place the same year.
Success kept coming with the release of “Bachata Rosa” at 1991, an album which would put Juan Luis on the international stage, and get him to tour not only South America & the Caribbean, but also Europe and the USA; This album, especially the title track, were also a major turning point for the whole genre of Bachata; Originating at the slums and brothels of Santo Domingo in the late 1960’s, until the early 1990’s this genre was considered crude and shameful, and very few mainstream musicians would play it at the Dominican Republic (and of course, it was very little known outside of it).
Juan Luis Guerra used the more traditional side of the genre, going back more to its origins, the Cuban Bolero, and made the music more romantic rather than sexually oriented, also slowing down the tempo a little.
Bachata Rosa topped Latin American charts and also music charts in the USA and Europe, bringing Bachata to the spotlight, making it mainstream at the Dominican Republic, and introducing it to the world. The album also won a Grammy award.
His 6th album, Arieto, was full of social criticism, with songs like “el costo de la vida”, which dealt with the rising cost of living and poor living conditions in Latin America, Si Saliera Petroleo, about oil shortages, and also 2 tracks using the taino language, the language of one of the native Caribbean tribes, as a form of protest against the colonial past.
The next album, Fogorate, was more traditional, focusing on the rural culture of the Dominican Republic, while Ni Es Lo Mismo, Ni Es Igual, released next won 3 Grammy awards, and made Merengue more popular world wide.
After that, in 2004, Juan Luis released an album which reflected his more religious side, Oara Ti, with the hit Las Avispas winning 2 billboard awards in 2005.
The album released at 2007, La Llave De Mi Corazon, won than 20 different music awards, including 5 Latin Grammy Awards, 6 Premios Casandra awards, 4 billboard Awards, 2 lo nuestro, and one Grammy. The same year Juan Luis won Person of the year award of the Latin recording academy, and also, at 2008, UNESCO artist for peace for his philanthropic efforts for children in need.
The latest album yet, A Son De Guerra, won another Latin Grammy at 2010, and the Bachata hit Bachata en Fukuoka topped many music charts in various parts of the world for a long while.
So, where is the Cuban connection, you might ask?
Well, 1st, I’m sure many of you are familiar with the classic “A Bayamo En Coche” by Adalberto Alvarez y Son 14.
So, as I discovered, Juan Luis and his band covered this wonderful song in a Merengue version at 1985, in the 1st album “Soplando”.
It’s not exactly like the original, but is quite enjoyable non the less.
The next string of Cuban silk running through the wonderful music of Juan Luis Guerra is the fact that many of his Bachata tunes draw much from the roots of the genre, which are found in Cuba, in the Bolero, a romantic, melodic and lyrical rhythm, originating in Santiago De Cuba during the late 1870’s.
Many of the songs written & composed by Juan Luis Guerra y la 440 are in clave, and the clave rhythm can be clearly heard, such as in the following tune, called “Coronita de Flores”:
Also, some of the songs are fusions of various Cuban rhythms, including Son, Bolero, Son Montuno and Mambo.
There are numerous examples of this, such as the following Bolero-Son Montuno called Señales de Humo:
And yet another beautiful Bolero-Son Montuno:
Even some of his pop songs feature Mambo and Son Montuno rhythms, like “La Llave de Mi Corazon”:
Las Pajaritos is very much a Son composition:
Some of his more modern songs, such as Si Saliera Petroleo, even come with a heavy Cuban flavour in the form of Guaguanco rhythms being featured for almost 1/3 of the song!
So, as you can see, and just as it is from a geographic stand point, the distance between Havana and Santo Domingo is not that great!
Lately I have been asked several times about how to be a more musical dancer, and how to “anticipate” what’s going on in a song to adapt your dancing to the music…
My obvious answer was (and is…) “listen to as much salsa music as you can”, but some people might not be satisfied with such a solution, and might need a more detailed explanation.
So, without further ado, here is a schematic chart of a typical song structure, some explanations, and an example using a contemporary piece…
One general principle which applies to most salsa songs of all genres is the “probably four” principle.
This term was coined by Don Baarns, a.k.a “the unlikely salsero” – you should definitely visit his music4dancers series on youtube, especially this video.
Most parts of a salsa song, although not in 100% of cases, are based on this rule; many elements take place during 4 or 8 clave cycles, which are, respectably, 8 or 16 bars of music.
When you notice a change, start counting out the bars: 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4, 4-2-3-4, and by the last of them, something has probably changed again… this is due to the fact that salsa music is made in 4/4 timing, meaning that it is mostly structured around some pattern of 4 musical bars, or an n number of such “structures”, with n = 2, 4, or 8 in most cases.
Try it out yourselves!
Some salsa songs, mostly from Cuba, at times have short Afro-Cuban segments of various kinds (for example Rumba Columbia or Yoruba chants), and these are not in 4/4 time but rather in 6/8, like much of the music of African origins!
As you can see in the image above, most of songs have an introduction part; during this part of the song, the listener is introduced to the song, to the melody, to the groove (of various Cuban or other Afro Latin rhythms) and the “atmosphere” of the composition…
There is some percussive action going on during this part, as the intro often is a kind of a preview of the Montuno part of the song, which is the “main” part, when many of the interesting “tricks” the musicians have up their sleeves are revealed.
After an ending note (often a short percussive break) of the introduction comes the “Cuerpo” part of the song.
As the name suggests, this is the “body” of the song, which has most of the lyrics in it, using a structure of verses.
The verses are mainly performed by the main vocalist, but sometimes also by the back vocals supporting it.
Most instruments play their typical patterns, except the piano which may play the melody or some support notes.
Clave is sometimes played, the Conguero plays the 1 bar Tumbao, together with the Bass which plays its typical Tumbao based pattern.
The Bongocero plays the Martillo pattern on the Bongos, the Timbalero plays the typical basic cascara, the guiro sometimes plays its typical pattern as well as the Maraca shakers.
Mostly, no bells are played, and there might be some wind instruments supporting the orchestra as well.
Between the “Cuerpo” and the “Montuno” sections of the song, there’s often a short “bridge” (puente) section, which is a sort of connection between the 2 main parts of the song.
In Timba (Cuban salsa) this might be the 1st gear \ guia in the song.
During this part you might hear a repetition of one of the phrases of the Cuerpo, and some percussionists might change the patterns they play to more energetic and complex ones; there might be some improvisation involved as well, by both percussionists and vocalists, and sometimes even the piano \ keyboard and bass players might have some Coro-Pregon as well.
This is mostly a short section featuring 4, 8 or 16 musical bars in total.
After the bridge, if such is present, starts the Montuno section of the song.
In many salsa songs, including most Timba compositions, this is the “main” part of the song, when most of the “action” takes place, all the “tricks” the musicians keep under the table are revealed, there is much improvisation, and everybody shows their true skills in action.
The instruments providing the rhythmic base start changing their patterns – during the previous parts of the song, especially the Cuerpo, this roles was performed the the Conguero and Bass player, playing Tumbao (and Bass Tumbao, respectively), and sometimes the Clave;
Now they are free to improvise, as the rhythm is now held by the Campanero, which is the Bongocero which now plays the Campana, using the more complex and syncopated pattern which exists for this instrument.
The Timbalero also moves up a notch in the “energy levels” of the song, from playing the basic cascara pattern to playing the more dynamic “cascara mambo”, and also starts paying the Mambo Bell.
The main vocalist, back vocals, and often some instruments (mainly percussion) engage in a typically Cuban “game” of African origin called “Coro-Pregon”, during which somebody “asks a question” (in the form of a note or a phrase) and somebody else “answers” by another sequence of notes or a different phrase.
During this part of the song, most instruments, especially the percussion, have solo sections, time to “free themselves” from the typical patterns they were playing before, and engage in much desired improvisation (which still, mostly, maintains a strong connection to the basic patterns of the instrument).
This is the time for each musician to shine, showing the full potential of their musical skills, taking their playing to the limit, playing with the timing yet getting back “at the last possible moment”.
There might be some additional Coro-Pregon between any given number of instruments, although they mostly play in pairs.
In Timba there might be some more gears \ guias during the Montuno section, as an extension of both elements of Coro-Pregon and improvisation during solo sections.
Another element of the Montuno section is the “Mona \ Mambo” section.
This is the solo \ improvisation part for the horn section, during which the trombones, trumpets, and saxophones take charge, and are most noticeable.
In Timba you might often hear the main vocalist referring to this part explicitly by shouting “Mambo!”.
Usually, there is no singing during this section.
After this section the song might return to the Montuno section, or have another break, going into the ending.
As Hector says, “Todo Tiene Su Final”, and the salsa song is no exception…
The song’s ending much resembles the introduction; It mostly has the main melody, little singing, and the instruments go back to playing their basic \ typical patterns.
This section is also quite short, and is even absent from some compositions.
The “energy level” of the song drops drastically during this section.
Mostly lasts for 4, 8 or 16 musical bars.
So, let us now look at a fine example of how all the various parts and elements of a salsa song come together to form the whole, using the wonderful “Ahora, Que Buscas?” by the talented Havana De Primera…
00:00 – 00:16 : Intro
Short part with no singing, but with the horns playing melody, percussion playing typical patterns, the atmosphere of the song is set, and everything is yet suave and calm.
Lasts 12 (and not 8 or 16) bars, by the way, which is less common.
00:17 – 02:02 : Cuerpo
Starts by having Alexander singing the 1st verse of the song; You can clearly hear the lyrics of the song in a definite manner, the piano plays melody \ supporting chords (together with the horns which “drop in” once in a while as well) , the percussionists play their typical patterns. After 16 bars of music, at 00:38, the 1st break appears – it’s a Rumba flavoured break (such are in much favor among Cubans), lasting some 8 bars, with a slight horn break on the 6th, 7th and 8th bars of this section.
Another 8 bars in, at 00:59, another break takes place, this time a more Mambo and Son Montuno influenced one, which has a campana playing as well. It lasts 8 bars.
We return to the “regular” cuerpo for some 8 bars more, and then (at 01:21) hear the horns taking charge for a short 8 bars yet again, with a few small breaks on the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th bars of this section.
At 01:30 Alexanders magnificent voice returns for another 16 bars of Cuerpo, marked by a slight horn break on their 8th bar and the 1st bar after this section ends.
At 01:51 we have another 8 bars of Cuerpo; then, at 02:02, at perfect unison with the vocals, the Timbalero plays a short break, and the bongocero goes into playing the Campana, marking the start of the Montuno section !
02:02 – 04:59 \ end of song : Montuno
At 02:14 we can hear some Coro-Pregon, with the back vocals stepping in, with an “answer” to the phrase Alexander just skilfully sang.
At 02:25 we have a short horn & percussion break, after which the Coro-Pregon continues at full swing.
At 02:44 there is a series of breaks led by the horns with some percussion, taking place at 02:45, 02:46, 02:51-02:56, 03:03-03:07 .
At 03:07 we have another Rumba break, which lasts ’till 03:16, with Alexander singing a phrase, and the back vocals “answering” him with a phrase of their own.
At 03:38 we have a small Mambo (Mona) section with the horns mingling with the vocals and percussion (and we have a slight percussion solo at 03:51) .
At 04:21 we can hear yet another Rumba flavored break \ gear (guia), ending (and going back to the “regular” Montuno section) at 04:41) .
This song doesn’t have a very well defined ending, but one can hear that from ~05:00, when Alexander sings “se acabo lo que tu esperaba”, the volume starts dropping, and the song slowly fades out into silence…
P.S: Here is a very useful link – the salsa beat machine, made by Uri Shaked; this wonderful tool allows you to construct the rhythm section of salsa from scratch, having a wealth of musical patterns for the typical salsa instruments…
Today I present you a wonderful orchestra who’s name indicates its geographical origins – Sur Caribe from Santiago De Cuba.
While little known outside of Cuban until the recent 3-4 years, this highly talented band of young musicians, graduates of various musical schools of the Oriente region around Santiago De Cuba, was formed in 1987 by compositor and arranger, graduate of the Ignacio Pinero conservatory at Havana, Ricardo Leyva.
Ricardo brought together 16 youths which constitute this great band, consisting of a piano player, bass player, keyboard \ synthesizer player, Tres player, Conguero, Timbalero, 3 trombone players, a drummer, a guiro player, a minor percussion player and 4 vocalists, 1 of whom is Ricardo himself.
As I mentioned before, although being quite popular in Cuba, and taking part in the “Timba Revolution” of the late 80’s and early 90’s, Sur Caribe was little known outside of the island of freedom; Ricardo decided to take the band to the outside world during the early 2000’s, and so, in 2002, the band’s 1st international album, ” Con To’ ” was released, with much TV coverage, and went into international music stores after becoming quite successful in Cuba itself.
Later albums, such as “Caminando”, “Credeciales” and “Horizonte Proximo” were quite successful as well, and tracks like “La Pelote De La Suerte” or “Lejos De Santiago” continue being played on the dance floors today as well.
Today I present you a song from the group’s latest album, their 12th, “25 Veces Fiesta”, (the 25 year anniversary album of the band’s musical career) “Pide Pa’ Que Tengas”, which has a unique, conga influenced (like much of the band’s music) sound, and a very lively and colorful clip as well, which even has some of the lyrics in it…