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Salsa: Ear Training

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Dancing to Bass Tumbaos: Introduction

The bass is the most sublime of instruments - sublime in that you only notice it when it's gone.

Occupying the low end of the frequency spectrum, bass sounds are felt as much as heard, but they do not capture our attention as readily as, for example, high-pitched bell sounds. Recognising this, it is essential that we take the time to learn the location and timbre of the bass tones in a piece of music, before learning of its possible rhythms.

A bass rhythm is also called a tumbao: the same word as that used to describe the rhythms interpreted on a conga e.g. tumbao moderno. Literally translated as 'bass riff', tumbao describes a repeated rhythmic pattern played on a low-pitched instrument like bass, congas, botija [oil jug] or marímbula [thumb piano]. The art of the bassist is to provide the song with a strong yet fluid heart - achieved through a combination of insistent solidity and tasteful variation.

It might seem strange that an instrument of such rhythmic plasticity be selected as the subject of a tutorial so early in Stage II. Surely there should be something easier?

Yes, but given the relative rigidity of the content in the precedeing tutorials, it is time to redress the balance and ensure your understanding of rhythm remains adaptable. Furthermore, basslines are musically ubiquitous, and the things that we learned from the clave and its relationship to the tumbao moderno are directly applicable.

What takes longest to develop, all things else being equal, should be learned first.

There is no time like the present.


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society