The Bass in the Cuban Son

    The emphasis of research on percussion instruments in Cuban musical genres has left the underdog instruments almost unnoticed.  The importance of the bass in the Cuban son can not be overlooked, however.  The role of the bass in son influenced the bass's purpose and function in future Cuban musical genres.  Questions to be answered in this essay are what constitutes a bass and what is its role in the Cuban son.  After listing and describing documented bass instruments that have been used in the son, I will attempt to explain why certain instruments may have been used and how ensemble size, prohibition of African instruments, social acceptance of a more “cultured” African genre, and commercialization helped determine an instrument's use.  In addressing the role of the bass, I will analyze what a son bassist plays and deduce whether the bass's role is harmonic and/or rhythmic.

    PhotobucketThere are five instruments that have been documented in the use of the son: the marímbula, botija, serrucho, contrabajo, and bajo.  Each is considered a bass instrument which produces different timbres and serves different roles.  The botija is an earthenware jug, as shown in Image 1.  The botija was initially used to bring over kerosene from Spain.1  After the kerosene was used, the botija was then used to hide and keep money underground and it was also buried to prevent the passage of humidity to the floors of the houses built in low or muddy lands.2  Botijas were dug up for various reasons and is documented as being used as a musical instrument in the last third of the nineteenth century in groups of guaracha, son, and danzón.3  The botija was used as a rural bass instrument.  It is filled with water to specific levels and is blown into to produce bass pitches.4  It was also played by inserting one end of a reed-like stick into the botija and the other end was held in between the player's teeth.5  The reed was used to guide the emission of air, allowing dexterity to play while moving away or near the opening of the botija while blowing.6  The botija was used all over Cuba and was used during the early part of the son's development, but is not noted to be used much after the year 1919.7

    The most common bass instrument used in early son was the marímbula, shown in Image 2.Photobucket  The son evolved from the late nineteenth century genre changüí, which used a marímbula as its bass instrument.8  Fernando Ortiz once suggested that Afrocubans would prefer the marímbula because of their “aesthetic preference for combining instrumental timbers drawn from three different domains: metal, skin and wood.”9  The marímbula satisfies the metal domain and the bass timbre.  The marímbula was used in various size ensembles, although the bigger the ensemble, the harder it is for the marímbula to be heard through the ensemble.  This is probably why the contrabajo became the preferred bass instrument as ensembles grew in size over the years.  In 1927, the marímbula ceases to be used in the formation of new son groups until 1962, although few existing bands still continued to use them. 

    The marímbula is an African instrument consisting anywhere from four to nine metal keys which are mounted on a box resonator.10 11  The player sits on the marímbula and plucks the keys.12  The recording of La Muerte Es Muy Natural by Los Tutankaman is one of the few recordings I found of a son group using a marímbula as its bass instrument.  From this recording it is clear to hear how limiting the marímbula is and why it was eventually replaced by the contrabajo.  The marímbula resonates like a marimba, but the attack of the pluck is less percussive and less precise sounding than the marimba, which is struck with relatively hard, round mallets.  The sound produced by the marímbula is small and would be easily drowned out if used in a large ensemble.

    Out of all the sources written on the son, very little is written about the serrucho, or handsaw, being used as a bass instrument.  In the city of Matanzas, the sextet Sonora Matancera, formerly known as El Son De La Tuna, performed at a political function using the serrucho as a bass instrument.13  This is worth noting because the marímbula was usually replaced by a “cultured” instrument such as the contrabajo when performed for the upper class.

    As mentioned earlier, the contrabajo, or string bass, became the standard bass instrument used in son groups.  In 1923, Sexteto Habanero and Sexteto Lira de Redención were the first to use a contrabajo in their ensembles.  After 1923, there is a significant increase in use of the contrabajo over any other bass instrument.  This increase in use is due largely to the change in group sizes.  The formation of sextets and septets consisted of brass and more percussion than the early son and necessitated the need for a louder bass instrument.14  Later son groups of the 1940's, known as conjuntos, consisted of bongos, congas, piano, tres, claves, cowbell, and auxiliary percussion, almost pushing the limits of the acoustic contrabajo.15  The preference of the contrabajo is also due to the type of audience a son group was after.  In 1923, the Sexteto Habanero switched from a botija to a contrabajo at the same time the group was introduced into the salons of the high Creole bourgeoisie.16  The contrabajo was also the preferred bass instrument for Sexteto Cuba who was a favorite among the female high societies of Havana.17

    The 1960's allowed for a new bass instrument to be used.  The bajo, or electric bass, was used to project through the constantly-growing ensembles.  In the sixties, Ampeg created the Baby Bass (Image 3) which became a sensation in Latin America.18Photobucket  The Baby Bass was a preferred instrument to Cubans over electric bass guitars because it provided a “deep thump” in ensembles.19  Orquesta Estrella Cubanas was among the first to use a bajo in their ensemble.20  This is understandably so, since it would be hard for a contrabajo to compete with three violins, a piano, a flute, timbales, a güiro, tumbadora, and three singers.21  The use of piano also alleviated the bass of being the only supporting harmonic instrument, allowing bass players to play an Ampeg Baby Bass which serves a more percussive function.

    Prohibition of African instruments greatly influenced which instruments were played in son groups.  Throughout the 1910's, the son was socially and politically attacked.22  Instruments associated with the son, such as the bongó, maracas, marímbula, and botija, were routinely confiscated by the police and often destroyed.23  This kind of attack towards the son forced groups to incorporate the more accepted European contrabajo. 

    Before commercialization, it was common to see the more “rural” instruments being used in early son.  At the start of the son's commercialization, instrumentation was not fixed and the botija and marímbula were still the standard bass instruments to use.24  Commercialization allowed for the son to evolve and become standardized and with the advent of sextets and septets; the need for the a bigger bass sound allowed for the contrabajo to become the standard bass instrument.

    Important bass line innovations from son were assimilated into virtually all Cuban musical genres to come.25  Sones generally are in duple meter, follow simple European-derived harmonic patterns, and use Afrocuban rhythms.26  Since the son evolved from the changüí and the instrumentation stayed the same in the early son, the early son's bass pattern comes from the changüí marímbula pattern.  The changüí marímbula pattern, as shown in Example 1, alternates between two or three notes in the key of a song, but it does not necessarily follow the harmonic progression of the son.Photobucket  The main emphasis is placed on the second half of beat four, giving a feel of anticipation, although this is not what is considered an anticipated bass.  This is a general example of early son bass patterns. 

    The 1925 son recording of La Loma de Belén by Sexteto Habanero serves as a prime example of the bass's newer role.  In this recording, the contrabajo plays a tresillo rhythm.  In this recording, the bass serves more of a harmonic purpose than in early son and plays along with the harmonic progression of the song (Example 2).Photobucket  In the tonic part of the phrase, it is common to hear a strict harmonic pattern of scale tones 1-3-5.  In the dominant part of the phrase, it is most common to hear scale degrees 5-2-5.  These patterns provide a solid harmonic foundation for the group while providing a functional rhythmic ostinato.

    Arsenio Rodríguez's creation of the conjunto allowed for new innovations such as anticipated bass derived from the tresillo rhythm and the changüí marímbula rhythm.27  Anticipated bass places an emphasis on the second half of beat two and on beat four, as shown in Example 3.Photobucket  The bass still serves a harmonic role in the conjunto, although its main role is rhythmic.  The piano also allows the bass more freedom from a harmonic role in a conjunto setting, permitting the bass to occasionally anticipate harmonic change as well.

    The instrument used (due to limitations of certain instruments) and the type ensemble it was used in (early son group, sextet, septet, or conjunto) determine the importance of the bass.  The limitation of pitches on rural instruments used in early son forced the bass player to provide more rhythmic support than harmonic support.  Sextets and Septets necessitated the use of a contrabajo, for social and dynamic reasons, which now had two equally important roles of providing a harmonic foundation and rhythmic support.  In conjuntos, the most important role of the bass was to provide the anticipated bass line while having a smaller harmonic role of freedom to anticipate harmonic change as well.

    Although most of the bass instruments from the son are rarely used now, the innovations made by these instruments were long lasting.  Anticipated bass from the late son was the most important innovation, although it is an incorporation of the anticipated changüí marímbula rhythm from early son and the tresillo rhythm from mid-son.  Future Cuban musical genres are indebted to the son bass's contributions.


1) Jesús Blanco Aguilar, Ochenta Años Del Son Y Soneros en el Caribe 1909-1989 (Caracas: Fondo Editorial Tropykos, 1992), 116.
2) Ibid., 116.
3) Ibid., 117.
4) Morton Marks, linear notes to CD, Cuban Counterpoint: History of the Son Montuno. Various Artists, Rounder Records Corp., 1992, 2.
5) Blanco, Ochenta Años, 116.
6) Ibid., 116
7) Ibid., 117
8) José Manuel García, lecture on Topics in World Musical Cultures, 27 October 2008.
9) Marks, Linear notes to Cuban Counterpoint, 2.
10) García, lecture.
11) Marks, Linear notes to Cuban Counterpoint, 2.
12) García, lecture.
13) Blanco, Ochenta Años, 28.
14) Robin Moore, Nationalizing Blackness: Afrocubanismo and Artistic Revolution in Havana, 1920-1940 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), 91.
15) García, lecture.
16) Blanco, Ochenta Años, 27.
17) Ibid., 39.
18) Greg Hopkins and Bill Moore, Ampeg: The Story Behind the Sound. (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Corp., 1999), 102.
19) Ibid., 85.
20) Blanco, Ochenta Años, 93.
21) Ibid., 93.
22) Moore, Nationalizing Blackness, 96.
23) Ibid., 96.
24) Ibid., 91.
25) García, lecture.
26) Moore, Nationalizing Blackness, 90.
27) García, lecture.


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