South of the Border

The Cha-Cha

by Norbert Goldberg

Today’s drummer must be prepared to handle diverse musical situations. Knowing many different rhythms, and having the ability to play them musically, is one prerequisite to a successful career. Among these rhythms is the Latin cha-cha, which although generally used in dance or club-date playing, should be part of every drummer’s repertoire.

Unless one has spent time listening to Latin music, it is difficult to achieve an authentic feel by studying only the various method books available, or by picking it up from musicians on the job. All three factors must be combined for optimum results.

The drum set is characteristically not a Latin instrument. Therefore, when the drummer is the only percussionist, he must ideally incorporate the tonal and rhythmic elements of the Latin percussion section in his playing. Listening and playing with a bass player familiar with Latin rhythms, will also be helpful in “locking in” the beat. Using this approach, the common cha-cha beat can be modified, resulting in an improved, more authentic effect.

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Notice first that the variation is two measures long, corresponding with the two measure phrases typical in Latin music. The cowbell rhythm is now straight eighths, with the off-beat sounding almost like an echo of the first stroke. This is best accomplished by a strong up-down wrist motion alternating between the mouth and center of the cowbell. A muted sound is desired and can be achieved by playing with the shank of the stick, (the tip plays the off-beats) extending the index finger on the stick and “digging into” the cowbell. The cut of the cymbal can sometimes be used instead of the cowbell. The left hand draws from the conga and timbale rhythms, substituting rim-shots for the slaps, and alternating between snare (snares off) and small tom-tom. An eighth note on the second off-beat is added to the bass drum rhythm, giving it more consistency with the Latin bass pattern.

For a more authentic sound, the bass drum can be used to reinforce a typical Latin bass riff, lending a very cohesive sound to the rhythm section.

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This next example uses a timbale-style press roll and fill on top of a slightly altered bass drum rhythm.
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The hi-hat’s potential in Latin rhythms has not been fully exploited as it is usually not included in these beats. Although not a typical Latin instrument, it can be used for various interesting effects, such as playing on each beat, thus reinforcing the cowbell rhythm. It can provide a maraca-like effect by playing straight eighths with a toe bounce motion. The rhythm and effect of the guiro can also be simulated by using a quarter note pattern and splashing on the first and third beats.

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The guiro rhythm can be used in another way, now being played with the left hand on the hi-hat, while the right stays on the cowbell, hitting occasional rim-shots or tom-tom accents.


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The hi-hat can also be played with the right hand, the left playing either quarter rim-clicks, or tom accents. The hi-hat rhythm, if played on cowbell with the quarter notes on the mouth and eighths on the center, is one often used to accompany the cha-cha. 


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Unfortunately, many drummers limit themselves to a certain style, and are satisfied to label themselves according to the music of their preference. While it is certainly legitimate to prefer one kind of music and excel in it, one should not do so to the exclusion of anything else. There is also something to be said for versatility, both for the enjoyment of the art and for practical reasons as well.

Very often, certain rhythms like the cha-cha are considered corny and unworthy of much attention or study. Hopefully, in realizing the possibilities opening up in the study of these rhythms, this attitude will change.