South Of The Border

The Mambo

by Norbert Goldberg

Ranking among the most popular Latin rhythms is the mambo. This rhythm, which originated in Cuba, has had much success on the dance floors of the world because of its exciting, driving qualities. Although not as popular today as in the late forties and early fifties when it was introduced, the mambo’s influence is still present in many of today’s musical styles. The Puerto-Rican “salsa” adopted the mambo and other Cuban rhythms, subsequently adding to them new dimensions.

As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, the drummer must ideally function l i k e a Latin percussion section, using and combining the rhythmic elements of each instrument. In order to do this, it is helpful to listen to Latin rhythms in context with the music, breaking down the different parts and examining their function in relation to the whole. While doing that, one must determine the most important elements and try to incorporate them into a workable beat, always striving for a flowing, “swinging” result.

Basic to the mambo and many Latin rhythms is the clave, considered to be the foundation upon which the accompanying rhythms are built. This rhythm, played on the claves can be reversed and begun with the second measure, slightly changing the overall feel.
South of the Border 8_79 1

Aside from the claves, the cowbell plays the most important role in establishing the beat. Typically, a larger cowbell is used for the mambo although the smaller cha-cha bell can be substituted. The cowbell has two playing surfaces, the opening or “mouth,” and the middle. For a truly authentic sound, both should be used, yet good results can be achieved by playing on the mouth alone, phrasing, and accenting the rhythm accordingly. Generally, the cowbell is mounted on the bass drum with the mouth to the right of the drummer, but any way which best suits the individual should be used. Although there are many different variations of the mambo cowbell beat, here are some which seem to sound the best and are among the most common ones. Since the mambo can range from a moderate to a very fast tempo, certain variations will lend themselves more readily to a particular speed. Combine any two numbers below or any number with a letter, listening for the most effective combinations, e.g.: la, 2f, 3h, 4d.
South of the Border 8_79 2South of the Border 8_79 3

The three main skinned instruments used in Latin music are the congas, bongos, and timbales. These instruments are composed of a pair of drums and thus can produce two main tones as well as numerous effects. The timbale player usually plays a mounted cowbell, and with a stick or the fingertips of the other hand plays a simpler counter-rhythm augmented by rim-shots, short rolls, and fills. These can be adapted to the drumset, playing on the snare (snares and muffler off) and tom-toms. The conga rhythm, particularly the open tones and slaps can also be integrated in similar fashion with the left hand.

South of the Border 8_79 4South of the Border 8_79 5Upon listening to authentic mambo, one can notice the bass line, whose syncopated rhythm is essential to the overall feel. This rhythm, which stresses the fourth beat of each measure, can be picked up by the bass drum for added support and extra “punch.” Because there is essentially no down beat, there must be a steady rhythmic backup in order for this variation to be successful. Below are some variations for the bass drum, including the one just mentioned. Practice these first with the cowbell, and then bring in the other hand.

South of the Border 8_79 6

The hi-hat, although not essential to the beat, can play straight eighth notes, quarter notes on every beat, or on two and four. They also duplicate the bass drum rhythm. The following beats are very effective since they utilize and stress the clave rhythm. For a nice change, play the right hand on closed hi-hat; this effect is similar to the “paila” sound, where the sides of the timbales are struck.South of the Border 8_79 7
The rhythms in Latin music are among the most sophisticated in Western music. The sound of Latin percussion sections playing together in rhythmic counterpoint is one of the most vibrant and sensuous in the percussive world. This is especially so in the mambo, which highlights and exemplifies the creative potential of Latin rhythms.