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.
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
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.
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.18
The Baby Bass was a preferred instrument to Cubans over electric bass
guitars because it provided a “deep thump” in ensembles.19
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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