South Of The Border

Getting The Latin Flavor

by John Rae

There is a vast area overlooked in playing Latin drums. There’s much more to it than working out and memorizing some “authentic” licks. The real difference in listening to a “Latin” Latin drummer and a “non-Latin” Latin drummer is the flavor.

This flavor, or “salsa” distinguishes real “make-you-want-to-dance” Latin music and any other substitute.

This Latin flavor consists primarily of (1) A well defined, eighth-note-based beat. (2) A dry and articulate execution. (3) Attention to clave.

Let’s elaborate on these three points.

(1.) There are various correct beats that can be played for each of the Latin rhythms. For example, in the case of the mambo:

Getting the Latin Flavor 1

Either A, B, or C could be used depending on the tempo. The A beat is usually played at slow to medium mambos. The B best for medium to fast and the C for medium fast to very fast. Obviously there are crossover areas in which either beat could be used. In typical Latin playing, the A beat—even though it could technically be played at a fast tempo has too many consecutive eighth notes to create a relaxed feeling. The C beat could be played at a slower tempo but would have too many spaces for smooth continuity.

Fills and breaks should be taken into consideration. Latin drumming on the drum set is at best, a condensation of what is usually played by two, or more percussionists. If each percussionist played a break or fill whenever the mood struck, there would be confusion and cacophony in the rhythm section. Therefore, not filling in and not playing unnecessary breaks is an added factor in traditional Latin drumming. Find a beat and stay with it.

(2.) To maintain clear definition playing these various syncopated beats, it’s necessary to play with a marcato rather than a legato attack. Because of its very nature the ride cymbal vibrates constantly and tends to obscure rather than define. There is a way to play a separated beat called “dead sticking”. Many years after I had been using the technique, an old, retired vaudeville drummer informed me that it had also been used for muffled or soft playing in theater work.

I discovered “dead sticking” watching timbale players. When they played “paile” (the sides of the timbales), the cowbell or cymbal, the sticks seemed to be pushed into rather than played off the surface. This had a muffling effect but at the same time added a distinctive clarity.

Remember, timbale players use dowels rather than drum sticks, so to simulate that sound, I use the shoulder of the drum stick as the most effective way of playing the accents.

For example, the notation for cha-cha is:



Fig. 3Getting the Latin Flavor 2
And is played on the cymbal this way:Getting the Latin Flavor 3Fig. 4Getting the Latin Flavor 4

Because of the difference in sound between these two stick areas it is not necessary to actually play harder on the accented notes. By allowing the stick to do the work you can save energy for speed and stamina. Note that dead sticking is primarily a wrist motion and all the fingers should be held firmly around the stick.

Dead sticking can also be applied to the cow bell. Play accents on the mouth of the cow bell with the shoulder of the stick and the other notes an inch or two back from the mouth with the tip of the stick.

Getting the Latin Flavor 5

I usually mount my drum set cow bell at an angle pointing away from me. This enables me to play the beat with a smooth arm and wrist motion. The mouth of the bell faces the audience for a cleaner and fuller sound.

Mambos can be played either with or without accents. When playing without accents I find it best to play “shoulder on mouth” for a good, solid beat.

(3.) Now to the discussion of clave. Clave is to the Latin musician what “2 and 4” are to the jazz musician. It is a pulsation that whether played or implied is always present.

The clave for our three previous mambo beats is:

Getting the Latin Flavor 6Notice that in bar #1 of the clave the second and third beats are strongly emphasized in each of the mambo examples.

Getting the Latin Flavor 7

In bar #2, only the up beat of two is emphasized in each example. This natural emphasis (not accents) give the feeling of an on-the-beat bar and an off-the-beat bar. This balance must be maintained throughout the tune. Never play two successive bars of on-the-beat or off-the-beat figures. That would be like playing FIG. 8 as a basic ride beat for a jazz tune.

There are some beats (like the cha-cha) where the clave is not indicted by the cow bell or cymbal beat. Either the bass or the congo drum carries the clave inflection for these beats.
Getting the Latin Flavor 8In Latin bands the clave can be played as is shown in our illustration, or with the bars reversed (second bar then first bar). This so called “reverse clave” is used to match the rhythm of the melody or of some background figure. In non-Latin groups, or when playing American tunes, the clave is played as has been indicated here. The two quarter notes on the first bar seem to anchor the beat. Besides, there is usually no consideration of clave in the melody of non-Latin tunes.

To sum up, you will play with a Latin flavor if you follow these simple rules:

(1.) Stay with the beat.

(2.) Dead stick.

(3.) Clave power!

Next time we will further explore mambos; covering set application, accents, related beats, paile double, and other variations.

Your questions and inquiries are most welcome.

John Rae is the author of “Latin Guide for Drummers” and “Jazz Phrasing For Mallets.” He is the former drummer/ percussionist with Cal Tjader and Charlie Byrd; and vibist/percussionist with George Shearing and Herbie Mann among others.