Aldo Mazza is best known through his work as a clinician and founder of the KoSA workshops, and as a longtime member of the Canadian ensemble Répercussion. Born in Italy and raised in Canada, Mazza has called Montreal home for some time, but performing and teaching has led him all over. He has made Cuban music a particular focus, traveling to Cuba and leading study programs there several times a year since 2001. His new method book/video package is a concise resource for Cuban rhythms as he learned them from the masters.
Cuban Rhythms for Percussion and Drumset covers the country’s most popular dances, and is focused around an understanding of clave and conga technique from which the pulse in Cuban music is derived. “The way I designed the book and the way I teach my students,” Mazza explains, “is to first understand the idea of clave. Once that is understood, the next thing, for any musician, is to learn basic technique of the conga, just to know where it is coming from and why. Changuito used to call it ‘la mano secreta,’ the secret left hand. Once that is understood, all musicians have to know the rhythms and what the percussion does.”
Mazza believes that the clave is a more universal concept than some might initially think. “Whatever melody you are singing or composing,” he explains, “that tells you what the clave is, and not just in Cuban music. In Cuban music it’s of course extremely strong. In Brazilian music it’s also strong—not as strong, but it’s there. Most other music—pop, rock—there’s a clave in there as well, and it all has to do with oral architecture. In music composition you have themes, question and response, tension and release—the basic building blocks for a melody, and that is the clave. The clave is part of the melody.”
The video portion of Cuban Rhythms focuses on conga technique, and Mazza believes that after understanding the basics of the instrument, learning other parts in a Cuban ensemble should be simple. “One of the most famous errors in studying congas in North America,” he says, “is playing heel-toe—it’s palm-toe. That basic action is fundamental. This idea is really essential, but it’s the most complicated one to have under your belt. Once you get that, though, the rest comes a lot easier.”
The book presents Cuban rhythms in progressive order of difficulty and distills them to the essentials. “It is what it is, and that’s the music,” Mazza says. “Things like the cha-cha-cha would be quite easy to get together, but there are different levels. For instance, some of the mozambique and conga comparsa ideas for the drumset are quite advanced, but they’re easily put together because we do it step by step.”
In tackling the mozambique, for example, the congas are written first with only the clave, then the bell is added, and then two bombo—or folkloric Cuban bass drum—parts complete the ensemble. The drumset prep exercises begin with a tom and snare pattern, then the bell is added, followed by a full-kit pattern for either a 3:2 or 2:3 clave. For some of the rhythms (son montuno, mambo, salsa) Mazza includes drumset parts that work with a bongo, conga, or timbale player so as not to double parts.
The patterns are mapped out simply enough that a proficient reader could work through Cuban Rhythms as a traditional method book. But to communicate authentic feels, seventy-five play-along tracks are included on the DVD. For the rhythms with full ensemble tracks, there’s a track each for the verse and chorus pattern, and a track with an AB form alternating between the two. Full-band play-alongs include charts by Giraldo Piloto of the Cuban timba group Klimax, with full written parts for bongo, conga, and drumset with timbales.
Mazza has high hopes for the future, envisioning the book becoming part of Cuban school curriculums. “I think Cuban Rhythms will become a new reference
point,” he says, “and that others will discard the old incorrect language and way of teaching and learning. I feel it’s part of a solution in learning this music in a more structured way.”
Mazza’s suggested approach for drumset players is to first learn all the ensemble parts to each rhythm, followed by independence exercises, then eventual integration into full drumset patterns. “The second step for the drumset player [is to work through] the preparatory exercises, to be able to attack and play these rhythms effectively,” Mazza explains. “They’re independence exercises, very similar to, if you’re going to play jazz, you work with the [Jim] Chapin book or Syncopation to understand the medium. The third step is, having learned the traditional rhythm, then the independence exercises, the drumset player takes all those things and adapts them to the drumset. Now it makes sense. You’re not learning a rhythm—you’re working in the concept. If it’s approached like that, you can learn it quickly, and it opens up a better way to play that music more comfortably.”