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Salsa: Ear Training

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Dancing to Montunos: Extras

Rhythmic Variations
The challenge facing every pianist, guitarist, violinist, or tresero is how to play the montuno, a repeated rhythmic pattern of two to four chords, in a manner that remains fresh and engaging throughout the duration of a song. This is done mainly by variations on a theme. Apart from changes in chord progression and voicings which affect the melodic perception, the variations most likely to concern a dancer the most are the rhythmic ones which can have a profound effect on clave feel.

Here are a couple more piano montunos which contain some of the variations described in this section:

Reducing Contratiempo
The pianist can opt to play a rhythm with less upbeat (aka. offbeat) accentuation, by moving some of the notes of the 3-side earlier.


Figure 8.12 Montuno with reduced contratiempo

In the example above the last two notes of the 3-side have been shifted earlier; which has the effect of moving the couplet from spanning the boundary between one clave phrase and the next, to spanning the point of rhythmic tension. It has also caused more emphasis to be placed on the ponché.

This is one of my favourite alternatives which I use when I feel a balanced (contratiempo vs. non-contratiempo) montuno is required. It coincidentally reflects the 'traditional' son footwork pattern (see later).

occurs when a chord, defined as a group of three or more notes played simultaneously, is broken down and its component notes are played singly and in sequence.

[Strictly speaking arpeggiation, if defined this way, does not occur in all instances in the playing of montunos. What happens is more like broken chords: single notes of a chord played not necessarily in sequence. However the term 'arpeggiation' has been applied to montuno playing before, so I have chosen to do the same.]


Figure 8.13 Montuno arpeggiation examples

The run of single notes is represented in examples 1 to 3, above, as two smaller asterisks (denoting the beginning and end of the run rhythm) joined by a phrase mark. You may have already picked up on the arpeggiation phenomenon over the course of the listening and tapping practices with some of the tracks provided.

It is an adornment commonly employed by pianists, who must remain mindful that the more arpeggiation is used, the more it dissipates the clave feel of the montuno. This is clear in Example 3, where the arpeggiation rhythm runs through the spaces necessarily left void (beats 5 and 8) for the creation of the contratiempo feel on the 3-side.

If we were to take this to an extreme and arpeggiate everything, we would end up with an even patter of notes with no spaces and no clave feel at all!

Ponché Run
The pianist can choose to strengthen the transition from the end of the 3-side to the beginning of the 2-side, by playing a run of three notes coincident with the ponché (third beat of the son clave 3-side) to the start of the next bar where the step rhythm begins again.


Figure 8.14 Montuno ponché run

The diagram is "unrectified" to illustrate how the run links the ponché to the next phrase (in 2-3 son clave) and reinforces the conga open tone cue. In melodic terms, the three-note run often melodically comprises simply the root note or a chromatic run ending on the root note.

This is a melodic as well as a rhythmic motif leading into a resolution at the opening of the 2-side; whose end coincides with the beginning of the dance step rhythm; which contributes to the feel of rhythmic stability of the 2-side; and thus makes the phrasing more apparent to the dancer.

Savouring History
The features pointing to the development of the highly contratiempo rhythm now known as the montuno or guajeo have been comprehensively decribed by David F.García in his book 'Arsenio Rodríguez and the Transnational Flows of Latin Popular Music' (published 2006 by Temple University Press).

Dr.García through extensive field research elucidates the missing link between our modern-day montuno pattern and the mambo/modern son dance rhythm (the latter from which our salsa dance rhythm is arguably derived). That missing link is the little known, and not often seen son montuno dance rhythm as detailed below.


Figure 8.15 Montuno correlated with son montuno dance rhythm

There is as yet no indication that the asymmetric son montuno form was more prevalent, nor more true to the son's evolutionary ancestors. It is important to understand that the son montuno is different from 'modern' son as is commonly danced today.

What this dance form does indicate, is the significance of the last beat of the 2-side (beat 4+) and the bombó (middle beat of the clave 3-side) which are both emphasised in the montuno rhythm; features that would not be obvious if one were to juxtapose the montuno and the salsa or mambo/modern son dance rhythm.

The montuno rhythm had already achieved its contratiempo form by 1943; popularised by the great Cuban bandleaders Antonio Arcaño and Arsenio Rodríguez, who referred to the feel and effect of the rhythm as the 'mambo flavour'. This mambo flavour was deployed in their renditions of the son montuno.

The word 'mambo', as used to describe the international music and dance phenomenon, would only begin to enter mainstream media five years later.


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society