Musicality: When Son and Chachachá Come Together; or “The Basics of Son Montuno Dancing”

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In my previous article, I attempted to make a case about one of the advantages of learning to dance to the conga sound (which emphasizes the second and forth count). Unlike the clave, the conga is more explicit in most songs to which you listen nowadays. Therefore, if you are a beginner trying to learn how to keep a beat, learning to follow the conga’s sound functions, to this effect, much better than if you were to try finding the sound of the clave which, because it is implicit, you cannot hear.

There is another advantage to following the conga sound, which I will make a case for in this piece. And this advantage is that, by following the conga, you not only learn the preferred count for dancing the Cuban dance called son (which is danced on the 2), but you also learn the correct way of stepping to the music when you are dancing chachachá.

And to do this, I will talk about son montuno.

Son montuno, or variations of son montuno, is what we listen to today when we dance casino or salsa, or even son. We really don’t dance to “just” son because son as we know it today has a bi-partite structure that characterizes it. That is, it has an introduction, and then it has a montuno section—hence “son montuno.” Son montuno existed before the 1940s, when it was really consolidated by Arsenio Rodríguez, and if you listen to Sexteto Habanero, for example, who were the first ones which were allowed to record son, you will find examples of the montuno, pre-1940s. But what Sexteto Habanero played was already a combination of the son sound that had come from the eastern parts of Cuba, and the more Afro-Cuban sounds of the western parts of the island. So today it is really hard to find music that is “just” son—meaning, it doesn’t have a montuno. But even though it is hard to find, it is not impossible. Here is an example:

The only difference between the son montuno I will be talking about today and the other “son montunos” which I have used in examples in other blog posts (and called it “son”) is the following: this particular style of playing son montuno is a bit slower in the overall “feel” of the song. A good example of this is Maykel Blanco’s rendition of Chappottín’s “Yo como candela”. (I use Blanco’s song for two reasons: because of the decades of difference in the recording, Blanco’s version has a much better quality than the original. And two, I want you, the reader, to see that even today even the most hardcore of “timba” bands delves into this type of music, so I do not see a reason as to why, we, as dancers, should not.)

So, as you can see, the overall “feel” of this song is much slower than most of the songs you are used to listening to. But they are all son montuno. This song, just like the other ones, has an introduction (which lasts to about 1:28), and then a montuno, which you can recognize by the entrance of the cowbell and the call-and-response. (It is important to note here that during the montuno, this song does do some other things, like have a piano solo, the solo being a very common thing to do back in the day. Today we have less solos and more “mambos”, which is what the Cubans call the brass sections that typically happen between call-and-responses during the montuno.)

Just like in any other song we listen to today, the entrance of the montuno is characterized by the cowbell and the call-and-response between singer (also known as sonero) and the chorus. The following video is another example of the type of son montuno that I am talking about (the slower one). Notice how the “feel” of the song is, again, slower, and yet the cool dude with the glasses, at 2:29, picks up the cowbell and starts banging into it as singer and chorus engage in call-and-response. This song is one of Arsenio´s classics:

You might have noticed when you were watching the video that after the montuno started, the camera turned to the dancers. If you were looking at their footwork between 2:32 and 2:45, you might have noticed, also, that they were doing their chachachá step.

Why?

Well, that’s what I am about to explain to you now, and this is where knowing how to step to the conga comes into play.

Let me begin this with another musical example. I want to give an example of another son montuno song: “Arroz con habichuela” by El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico. In this song, which has the typical slow son montuno feel I am describing, the montuno begins at around 2:19, with the entrance of the cowbell, and, from there, there is a long montuno until the song ends. No solos, but certainly brass mambos. Have a listen, if you want through the whole song, though I would say, for the purposes of this, until minute 3.

What follows is better understood if you have read the piece I wrote about dancing to the conga. If you have not, I strongly recommend that you do so before continuing, for I will not be explaining again these concepts in this post (click here for piece). Make sure that you have a good grasp of the basics of how to dance to the conga, otherwise you might have a really hard time understanding what I am trying to do here. I also suggest that you dance along with me, so that you “feel” it better (there is only so much writing about music can do).

At any rate, here is a video of me dancing to the conga during the largo of “Arroz con habichuela”. (Again, please do note that I am not a professional with the camera.)

Doing you basic son step to the conga here feels natural during the largo.

But what happens when you get to the montuno and you keep doing the same step? Take a look at this video, and try to do it with me:

If you did it with me, or if you have a good ear for music, you probably noticed that this step felt very slow in comparison to the music. That is, the music felt that it was now somehow going faster (this is true for every song montuno song). But it really wasn’t. The clave pattern—explicit in this song—did not acquire a faster tempo. What happened was that the other instruments started to do other things, and the cowbell came in.

So the slowness that you felt in your dancing in relation to the music was your mind telling you that you needed to compensate somehow for how “fast” the music felt and how “slow” you were going.

This attempt to “compensate” is what brings about the “chachachá” step. The chachachá step allows you to “fill in” your steps with what is happening in the music more than the son step does. Let’s take a look at how a chachachá step looks like when we’re dancing to the montuno of the same song:

As I dance to this type of song during the montuno, that feels much, much better. The music “feels” a bit faster and I, in turn, am compensating it with the faster chachachá footwork.

This is why dancing son montuno (of the slow type) becomes a combination of son and chachachá footwork. With this said, the reason we do not do chachachá steps in song with a montuno, like “Carita de pasaporte” by Havana D’Primera, is that the song’s tempo is not as slow, and therefore, come the montuno, we do not need to compensate.

The other thing I want to clarify from here is that the chachachá step existed before chachachá, as a musical genre existed. I cannot remember where I read what I am about to tell you, so I am sorry for the lack of citation, but according to Enrique Jorrin, the creator of chachachá, the name of the genre came about as he watched what the people were doing with their feet when he played “La engañadora”—the first chachachá song. So, people already knew this step I am calling “chachachá step” because that is how we know it today. And the reason they already knew it, and why they applied it to Jorrín’s novel music was because they already had been using it when dancing son montuno. (This makes more sense when we take into consideration that chachachá is a genre of the 50s, and the son montuno that I am referring to here, as coined by Arsenio Rodríguez, was from the 40s. Also, a friend of mine told me the three quick steps that people call “chachachá” are also common on some of the Afro-Cuban folkloric dancing, so there is that, too.)

Because the chachachá step came about as a way of compensating for how fast the montuno felt against the slower son step, this means that the chachachá step stemmed from the son step. Because the son step is done, typically, a contratiempo—that is, on the 2—and by extent, following the conga, then the chachachá step, likewise, is done a contratiempo (following the conga.)

Therefore, if you learn how to do your son step following the conga’s marcha, all you have to do in order to do your chachachá step is follow that marcha as well. Switching from son to chachachá, in turn, will make you realize that chachachá cannot happen in just any count. It has to happen on the 2, just like son, for the two to be compatible together, since one feeds off the other, depening on the section of the song you are dancing. Imagine if the chachachá step began on 1, while the son step beings on 2. It’d be a disaster. Here is an example where I alternate between son and chachachá. Notice how it all falls within the conga’s marcha, as explained by my previous piece:

If you want musical proof that the chachachá step goes with the conga’s accent (specially the open tone which happens on 4), all you have to do is listen to the Benny Moré’s classic “Santa Isabel de las Lajas” (a song about his hometown) in which the trombone, throughout the song, plays the chachachá step. Take a listen to the first thirty seconds:

This is a great song to learn chachachá’s basic step, for all you have to do is follow the pattern of the trombone with your feet, just like I do in this video:

As you can see, when my feet do the chachachá—three steps in quick sucession—I am doing it during the open tone of the conga. Similarly, I would finish my son step on the open tone.

The following is a video of a son montuno song which shows the transition from the son step (in the largo) to chachachá (in the montuno). The switch happens at 0:30:

At the end of the day, there is nothing that says that you have to switch to chachachá during the montuno when you are dancing to these types of songs. But again, this is what naturally feels more comfortable as you try to accommodate with your feet what is happening in the music.

On the other hand, like I said before, this type of son montuno does belong to an older generation and is not as common today. And this older style of son montuno does have solos in the middle of a montuno, which means that the “feel” during these section makes the dancer want to go back to the son step. For the next video, here is my suggestion. Watch it standing up, and mirror me. As you do so, try to see if you can hear when the montuno comes in and start doing your chachachá step, and then take a look at my footwork to check if you did it correctly. Likewise, when there is a solo, switch to son and check back with me. The big hint of when there is a montuno or not is the cowbell. So, in simple terms: no cowbell? Do son. Cowbell? Do chachachá And always follow the conga:

Last but not least, in case you want proof that I am not making this stuff up, do take a look at the following video. You will notice the same thing I have been telling you. That is, they switch between son and chachachá depending on what the musicians are doing. (Do notice how the uploader of this video titled it “son and cha cha” because she didn’t know that this was actually son montuno.)

And this one, too:

A note, before finishing: What I have taught you here is simply how to do your basic step in par with the music. It is up to you now to go ahead and find videos—or people—that can teach you how to carry out a son montuno song on your own. It’s actually not that hard to dance it, once you understand the basics of what you’re doing. Here is a video of myself dancing with someone after she had taken, literally, only two son montuno workshops with me.

On the other hand, I do hope that you are appreciating all the time that I am putting into these posts, from making and editing these videos to writing these posts. What you are getting here is knowledge that you would typically pay good money to get at workshops, and even then the instructors there would not go as deeply into these topics as I am doing. And I am giving this information out–information that some of you, as instructors, will take and charge people forfor free So, every now and then a “Thank you”, however small, does help. So, if you found this piece helpful in any way, please do leave me a comment down below letting me know.

And I do hope all of this has helped.

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