The essence of playing the drumset in Latin American music consists of orchestrating the different percussion parts from the original styles. Before the drumset was incorporated into Afro-Cuban music, it was the “pailas,” aka Cuban timbales, that fulfilled that role, so it’s no surprise that the various patterns performed on the timbales were primary sources of inspiration for drumset players. In fact, Cuban drummers who have made an impact on the international scene, such as Ignacio Berroa, Horacio Hernandez, and Dafnis Prieto, are all great percussionists as well.
There’s an unofficial Cuban protocol in learning Afro-Cuban styles for the drumset where all drummers study the percussion parts that parallel what they play on the kit. Unfortunately, that approach hasn’t been fully incorporated in other countries, where drummers learn Latin styles only through written patterns or through reproducing ideas performed by their favorite players. This article is designed to help bridge the gap between what’s traditionally played on timbales and what’s commonly played on the drumset in Afro-Cuban music.
Cascara, Bell Patterns, and Breaks
There are two very important elements that justify why drummers should learn traditional timbale patterns. First, there’s the cascara and 6/8 bell patterns that come from the rumba tradition. These are the main ride cymbal rhythms used by most Afro-Cuban drummers. Second, all of the main percussion breaks in popular Afro-Cuban styles, such as son, guaracha, danzon, and cha-cha, were originally performed on the timbales. Understanding the different rhythmic, dynamic, and timbre possibilities of the timbales will result in a more authentic delivery when you apply that information to the drumset.
A Little History
The origin of timbales is in Europe, tracing back to orchestral timpani that were brought to Cuba by French orchestras after their migration during the Haitian revolution of the late 1700s. By the end of the 1800s, after a series of transformations, a close version of today’s timbales was in use.
Back then, animal skin was used for drumheads, and the drums were often tuned in fourths. The first recognizable style performed on the timbales was the danzon, which is a combination of three rhythmic patterns—baqueto, paseo, and abanico—that alternated according to the form of the song.
The modern timbale style has been formed by a handful of players. Although there were well-known timbale players before him, I would like to start by mentioning the great Guillermo Barreto (1929–1991), a Cuban percussionist and drummer who played with jazz icons such as Nat King Cole and Stan Kenton and is also credited for adding a crash cymbal to the timbale setup. Barreto participated on many recordings, including Los Amigos: Featuring Cachaíto López and Cuban Jam Sessions in Miniature: Descargas, two highly influential Afro-Cuban albums.
A common timbale pattern from Barreto’s era, and one that’s still widely used in traditional Cuban music today, is cascara. This rhythm was later used in combination with both son or rumba clave. It can be played on the shell, cowbell, or wooblock.
Another master of the timbales is Jose Luis Quintana (1948–), who’s also known as Changuito. Quintana was the timbale player for the popular and influential band Los Van Van for more than twenty years. He is the creator of the songo style, and he’s become the most influential timbalero of all time. Here’s a variation of songo for the drumset.
We can’t discuss timbales without mentioning Ernesto Antonio “Tito” Puente (1923–2000). Tito was not just a timbalero; he was an icon of Latin culture, a bandleader, a showman, a composer, an arranger, and an inspiration for many percussionists. Even though he didn’t create any new rhythmic or musical styles, his extensive recording and performing career contributes to the international exposure of the timbales like no other player’s. A bell pattern used by Puente and many other mambo and salsa players goes as follows:
The late ’80s and the ’90s saw many new ideas come to the timbales. Popular bands in Cuba started to change instrumentation by adding power to the horns, which transformed the percussion section. Now, instead of a traditional timbalero, bands started using drummers who played a combination of drums and timbales. Some players added a wide array of cowbells, which allowed them to create complex melodic lines within the patterns. At the vanguard of this movement was Calixto Oviedo (1955–), a virtuoso musician who developed his style with the band NG La Banda. Calixto is currently living in Sweden.
Here’s a contemporary timbale/drumset pattern that can be used in modern timba music.
Other noteworthy drummers who have incorporated timbales into their kits include Jimmy Branly, Samuel Formell, Hilario Bell, Conrado “Coky” García, Mauricio Herrera, and Angel Pututi Arce. The list of great timbaleros includes Orestes Vilató, Manny Oquendo, Amadito Valdés, Nicky Marrero, Jorge Najaro, Marvin Diz, Ralph Irizarry, and Emilio Del Monte.
Here’s a diagram of the setup I use when playing timbales. You’ll see that it combines elements of a traditional timbale configuration (hembra and macho timbales, cowbells, and woodblocks) with pieces of a drumset (bass drum, snare, and crash).
Here’s a transcription of a contemporary timbale pattern that I use often.
For listening, I recommended checking out the following albums, all of which feature excellent timbale playing.
Cachao, Descargas en Miniatura
Juan Formell y Los Van Van, Aquí el Que Baila Gana
José Luis Cortés y NG La Banda, Échale Limón
Tito Puente, Master Timbalero
Marvin Diz, Habla el Tambor
Cuban-born percussionist Arturo Stable has performed with Dave Samuels, Esperanza Spalding, Paquito D’Rivera, David Sanchez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Miguel Zenón, and the Caribbean Jazz Project. He is the chair of the hand percussion department at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and his latest album, Cuban Crosshatching, features Lionel Loueke on guitar, Seamus Blake on saxophone, and Edward Perez on bass.