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Rhythm Sense

A Break in Movement
Son Phrasing (Part 1):
Son and Mambo
Son Phrasing (Part 2):
Starting Son, and Clave
Son Phrasing (Part 3):
Son Montuno
Zarabanda: A Context for
Rhythmic Anticipation
Merengue to Salsa
Back To Dance Online
Son Phrasing (Part 3): Son Montuno

At last we've come to the son's second evolution, the son montuno. Bearing a step rhythm with upbeat accentuation, it's rich with African influence, and is so versatile as to accommodate a wide range of phrasing ideas. It is the ideal context for your new-found rhythm skills.


Rhythm Principles
Below is a comparison between the son dance rhythm and that of the son montuno:


Figure 4.1 Comparing the son and son montunuo dance rhythms

What is immediately apparent is that two beats of the son montuno dance pattern: the last step on the clave 2-side, and the first step of the clave 3-side, are delayed to the upbeat. These changes create an asymmetric pattern with upbeat accentuation that is highly indicative of clave orientation. The significance of the son montuno dance rhythm becomes more obvious in juxtaposition with the guajeo (a.k.a. montuno) rhythm:


Figure 4.2 Son dance rhythm accents

The resurgence of son in the form of the son montuno was due in great part to Antonio Arcaño and Arsenio Rodríguez, two iconic Cuban bandleaders of the early 1940s. By 1943 they had both standardised a method of playing rhythmic instruments (see Great Salsa Timeline), the pattern later becoming known as the guajeo or montuno. Arsenio called it playing with 'mambo' feeling.

Dancers adapted the son contratiempo style to suit, by delaying their last step of the clave 2-side and the first step of the clave 3-side to coincide with the montuno rhythm as highlighted in figure 4.2 above (beats 4+ and 6+ respectively). Thus they gave rise to the son montuno dance pattern.

Learning Strategy
We will start with the son step rhythm and simply transform it into the son montuno step rhythm through two successive changes. The changes will be done while dancing to son clave and later validated using piano montunos. Once the son montuno rhythm has been established, we will proceed to address the possibilities in phrasing.

Practice Tracks
All necessary learning tracks can be found in the Index of Tracks page of the Ear Training tutorial series.

For real world music, I find the son revivalist group Sierra Maestra to be very helpful. As for classic son montuno, you can hardly do better than to go directly to the source: 'Antonio Arcaño y sus Maravillas' and 'Arsenio Rodríguez y su Conjunto'.

Transformation Process

1 – Perform the son dance rhythm to a slow-to-medium tempo clave-only track:


Figure 4.3 Son step rhythm to 2-3 son clave

2 – Delay the third step of the 2-side and take it just before the first beat of the clave 3-side sounds:


Figure 4.4 Son montuno dance rhythm 2-side to clave

Note that the rhythmic position of this beat is just before the beginning of the next bar; precisely the same relationship that the rumba clave's ponché has with its following bar of music.

It is a point of rhythmic tension, but unlike the usual cases where sound of the clave's bombó is resolved by a physical step afterwards, the converse happens: the physical step occurs to generate the tension, which is resolved by the sound of the clave. In other words, your footfall anticipates the clave beat, instead of the clave beat anticipating your footfall.

3 – Delay the first step of the 3-side and take it with the bombó:


Figure 4.5 Son montuno dance rhythm 2-side and 3-side to clave

Both the sound of the clave and the first step of the 3-side coincide on the bombó to generate rhythmic tension, which is then resolved by the second step. This is a special instance, as it is the only time rhythmic tension is both made and resolved in the step rhythm.

4 – Validate your son montuno step rhythm
By dancing it to a piano and clave track, and a piano only track. You should find that your footfall synchronises with the piano montuno as highlighted in Figure 4.2 above.

Potential Phrasings

I – "Mambo"
If we accent the first step of each bar, we have:


Figure 4.6 Son montuno dance rhythm, "mambo" phrasing

The accents fall on arguably the two most important beats of the clave: the first beat of the 2-side, and the bombó. Hence stressing the first step of each bear is the equivalent of stressing clave. However, this would overlook the importance of the last step of the 2-side (modified to beat 4+). The phrases are tied together by two consecutive points of rhythmic tension: the 2-side phrase ends with one, and the 3-side phrase begins with another.

II – "Son"
If we accent the last step of each bar and treat it as the beginning of the phrase, we have:


Figure 4.7 Son montuno dance rhythm, "son" phrasing

This phrasing interprets the clave principle more closely, that is, there is a fuerte [strong] side and a debil [weak] side. The strong phrase contains both points of rhythmic tension; while the weak phrase contains steps aligned squarely on the whole beats (without upbeats) and is identical to that of modern son. I think of this as a call-and-response pattern between an African phrase containing upbeat accentuation, and an European phrase which does not.

The important highlight of the last step on the 2-side is accented, as is the ponché. But the bombó is only weakly stressed, as the phrase ends on its resolution.

III – Loo's Serving Suggestion
I use this interpretation quite often:


Figure 4.8 Son montuno dance rhythm, Loo's preferred phrasing

For me, it affords the best of all worlds. I can:

  • literally interpret the clave 2-side;
  • accent the last step of the 2-side more prominently by letting it stand alone;
  • accent the bombó and still end the phrase strongly because of the ponché;
  • agree the beginning of every phrase and accent with the montuno rhythm.

The clearest disadvantages are that smoothness is sacrificed because phrases no longer span over bars of music; and there is diminished call-and-response in the phrasing.

Dancing in Partnership
A beauty of the son montuno is that it can be danced, as a lead or follow, with a partner who is dancing an agreement step rhythm - your partner need not know the son montuno. This is possible because the non-synchronous steps of the son montuno are taken after those of the son (or mambo). In the most challenging scenario:

  • as a follower, you will have to absorb the lead force and move your torso to son timing, half a beat before taking your step on son montuno timing.
  • as a lead, you will have to deliver the lead force to son timing before stepping on son montuno timing.

One of the joys of dancing is in experiencing someone else's interpretation of music. And if you dance with like-minded people, then the converse must be true; that they would enjoy experiencing the phrasing of your dancing.

Thankfully, as so long of both dancers adopt compatible step rhythms, phrasing will remain a very personal and independent facet of the dance phenomenon - the ultimate expression of individuality in a partnered world.


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society