Welcome to the second installment of our series focusing on mambo bell patterns that are based on a 2:3 clave. This month we’ll explore rhythms and variations that can be substituted for the traditional bell pattern.

This article’s inspiration came from performances I’ve done with Afro-Cuban musicians, as well as discussions I’ve had with them regarding what approach to take when playing with two or more percussionists. As a jazz drummer who has high regard for this style, I felt that it was important to fit into the mambo’s rhythmic fabric and phrasing without destroying its integrity and beauty.

I’ve come to learn that in many ways it’s easier to perform this style when you have the help and “weight” of congas, bongos, and timbales accompanying the composition. I also learned that this style comprises equal parts jazz and Afro-Cuban phrasing, and that it’s perfectly fine to play with a looser, jazz-like approach on the drumset in conjunction with the traditional percussion instruments. Perhaps viewing mambo through this lens can help lead to improvisations that are less repetitive or static and more conversational in nature.

A perfect example of this looser approach can be heard in the mambo style of Elvin Jones on the seminal John Coltrane recording A Love Supreme. Elvin’s playing with Coltrane reflects both traditional mambo and improvisation in a very elegant way. Another excellent example of this type of fusion can be heard in Peter Erskine’s mambo playing with large and small ensembles. Both drumming legends present a thread of consistency in that their rhythmic ideas and choices relate back to the composition and are in the musical moment.

As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, Dizzy Gillespie and conguero Chano Pozo helped usher mambo playing into the jazz lexicon during the late 1940s by combining traditional mambo rhythms with the modern rhythmic approach of bebop. Compared to traditional mambo, this new combination netted more of a flexible rhythmic phrasing that could be played with a straight or swung feel.

Dizzy Gillespie’s important 1954 recording, Afro, illustrates this combination. The composition “Manteca Theme,” cowritten by Gillespie, Chano Pozo, and Gil Fuller, is featured on this album and is considered by many to be the first jazz piece that’s based on a 2:3 clave pattern.

The following two-measure horn rhythms are transcribed from the introduction of “Manteca Theme.” These rhythms are followed by bell pattern variations that are loosely based on the original three transcriptions.

Once you can play each of the transcribed horn rhythms and bell patterns with control, return to Part 1 of this series, and try combining this new material with the previous left-hand phrases and foot variations. The looser, more improvised bell patterns coupled with the traditional rhythms underneath make for a perfect combination.

Horn Rhythms

Bell Pattern Variations

Remember to take your time when combining the hands and feet. Be patient with your progress, and practice each example with a metronome. A good starting tempo would be 84 bpm or slower. Next time we’ll examine jazz adaptations of the mambo bell rhythm in 3/2. Enjoy!


Steve Fidyk has performed with Terell Stafford, Tim Warfield, Dick Oatts, Doc Severinsen, Wayne Bergeron, Phil Wilson, and Maureen McGovern, and he’s a member of the jazz studies faculty at Temple University in Philadelphia. For more information, including how to sign up for lessons via Skype, visit stevefidyk.com.