Musicality: When to Incorporate Rumba Guaguancó During a Casino Dance


Haz clic aquí para español.


One of the earliest pieces I wrote for this blog dealt with the fusion of rumba into casino. In it, I argued that this mixing was happening mostly not as a result of a mimicry of a dance practice in Cuba—outside of some geographical pockets in the island, most of the Cuban population does not know how to dance rumba—but rather as a result of a marketing strategy by dance instructors, mostly in Europe, designed to feed off the desire for the exotic (not-white); that is, the Afro-Cuban.

Now, if you like Afro-Cuban dances, or the idea of them, you may certainly disagree with me on this. However, I do want to make clear that I am not coming from a place of exclusion when I say these things. When it comes to Afro-Cuban dances, I like the secular ones (liking religious ones would be inconsistent with my atheist views). Specifically, I like rumba. And, within rumba: guaguancó. So I’m all up for breaking out the guaguancó steps that I know when I’m dancing casino—but not indiscriminately, which is what many people have been/are being taught to do.

In my case—and this shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who follow this blog—I’m all about dancing guaguancó—or any other secular Afro-Cuban dance—when the music calls for it. For me, it´s all about dancing to the music, adjusting to its changes. If a particular son song is playing, then I´m dancing casino and/or son. But if the son song happens to have an explicit rumba section, then you bet I’m breaking out the rumba moves.

So what I want to talk about today is how to combine casino/son and guaguancó within the same song, not just because it’s a cool thing to do and someone taught it to me, but because it’s musically appropriate. I mention specifically guaguancó because, when songs do switch to rumba, that is usually what they switch to. This won’t be a post showing you the basics of guaguancó dancing. There are many people and YouTube videos already doing that. Rather, what it aims to show you is how to recognize when you are in the musical presence of guaguancó within a song to which you normally dance casino so that, if you know how to dance even a little guaguancó, you might adjust your steps accordingly.

So let’s begin: how do we identify a guaguancó section within a son song?

The simple answer—and this simplicity is what I am going to be emphasizing—is in the pattern of the congas.

Guaguancó is a percussion-based genre of music. In fact, the only melody it has comes from the voice of the rumbero singing during the beginning section of a guaguancó called the diana. Because it’s pretty percussion-heavy, it’s often easy to figure out that the section of a son song has changed dramatically and something else is now being played. A very good example of this guaguancó break happens in Jóvenes clásicos del son’s “Tambor en el alma” from 2:36 to 3:00. Take a listen:

As you heard, during that break, string and wind instruments died down and the percussion-based instruments were the only ones playing. Compared to the rest of the son song, it was pretty clear to hear that, during these thirty seconds, the musicians were playing something different, even if you did not specifically know that it was guaguancó.

But sometimes it is not as clear-cut, and it gets a little trickier because not all the non-percussive instruments in a son song stop playing during a guaguancó section. “La cosita” by Manolito y su Trabuco provides a great example of this. Listen to this song until approximately 1:36:

In the above song, there were two guaguancó sections before 1:36, but it wasn’t entirely percussion-based. The piano was still playing. Trumpets, as well as violins, also had a part. And it makes sense that this happens: the band has all these other instruments that they can add.

If you could not tell that the above song was switching from son to guaguancó within the first minute and a half, then you’re in luck: this post is intended to teach you how exactly to identify the guaguancó section so that you can tease apart son from guaguancó. On the other hand, if you could identify on your own the guaguancó sections, there might not be much I can tell you that you don’t already know; nonetheless, I encourage you to keep reading. You might find something new or useful.

Before I talk about the congas as a way of identifying rumba guaguancó, which is what this post is really about, I want to make a side, but important note: instead of the congas, other people might put emphasis on the clave, arguing that if you hear the rumba clave, then that’s guaguancó. The problem with this is that any clave that you hear is a rumba clave. Indeed, what we know as a “son clave” is, in fact, a yambú clave—yambú being one of the three styles of rumba, the third being columbia (not Colombia). The reason for this is that son has a clave because of its relationships to rumba. As son music from the east traveled to the western parts of Cuba and reached Matanzas, the birthplace of rumba, son adopted the rumba clave and rumba’s bipartite structure with the more aggressive montuno and the call and response. This is what made son montuno, a subgenre of son that truly is the backbone of what we understand today as “salsa” or timba”. (I go into further detail about this and Arsenio Rodríguez’s role into the development of son montuno in this piece.)

So, let’s take a listen to this yambú. As soon as the song begins to play, you will notice that yambú has the same clave as son—or, more correctly said: son has yambú’s clave.

So, when you hear people saying that they are dancing guaguancó because they hear the rumba clave, well, these people don’t really don’t know what they are talking about. Every son song to which we listen and dance has a rumba clave. It just so happens that the clave most associated with son comes from a style of rumba not many people know about or even dance. Indeed, when most people say “rumba clave”, what they really mean is “guaguancó clave,” because that’s the one they are thinking of, as guaguancó is the most popular of the three rumba styles. But it just so happens that there is not only one clave pattern in rumba. Heck, even guaguancó does not have a set clave pattern. Listen to this guaguancó song and tell me what clave you hear:

The reason I want to emphasize this is because it often happens that people who like the idea of rumba—but don’t really understand it musically—will dance to a song like “Mi música” by Alexander Abreu, and at 3:40-3:46, or at 4:31-3:40, hear the guaguancó clave and will take that to be their cue to stop dancing casino and begin throwing down, guaguancó-style.

This is a musical misinterpretation; for what is happening here is not a guaguancó section, but rather instances of gear changes—a choreographed change of instrument and or pattern by one or more members of the rhythm section—that does not result in guaguancó. (For more on gear changes, click here.)

I repeat, hearing the guaguancó clave does not necessarily mean that there is a rumba section in the song. Indeed, would our hypothetical dancer (who dances guaguancó upon hearing the guaguancó clave) dance, in fact, guaguancó when the following song plays? Would anybody, really?

Do you now see how the “clave-equals-rumba” argument is both contradictory and insufficient when trying to identify a guaguancó section within a son song?

That’s where the pattern of the congas comes in. (I do apologize for the long side note about the clave, but I felt that needed to be covered.)

The pattern of the congas in the rumba guaguancó is pretty easy to spot. When you play the video below, start at 3:30. That’s when the instructor is performing the pattern of the congas rather than explaining it step by step. Those three open tones—one from the tumba, and two from the conga—which you keep hearing over and over in the pattern, that is how you really identify a guaguancó section. (If you do not know what an open tone is, or what sound it makes, don’t worry: watch the video from the beginning and it’ll be explained.)

(You might have noticed that the video says “Havana style.” That’s because there is another style, which is from Matanzas that is different in execution, but has a very similar feel—you can look it up. The style that really gets played most of the time when they are combining son and guaguancó, however, is the Havana style.)

Now, if you go to the songs above—Jóvenes clásicos and Manolito—knowing what you know now, and play them in the places I pointed out, you’ll certainly hear the guaguancó sections. Likewise, if you go back to the Alexander Abreu song and listen to those instances where the clave plays the pattern of guaguancó, you will not hear the conga following suit.

The change in the pattern of the conga is—and I’m saying this with a 99% certainty—what dictates the switch from guaguancó to son, and vice versa. Indeed, son’s basic pattern—the marcha—sounds completely different from that of guaguancó. Take a look at the following video showing the basic marcha pattern, beginning at 0:33:

You see? Very different pattern.

Willy Chirino’s “Medias negras” is an outstanding song to practice noticing these switches. For the first eighteen seconds, you can clearly hear the son marcha pattern of the congas, and then it switches to guaguancó, which you can also clearly hear in the pattern of the conga, until it switches back to the son marcha at 0:58.

To put all of this in perspective as far as what all of this looks like when you are dancing, here is a video of myself as we say in Spanish, predicando con el ejemplo (practicing what I preach). There is other stuff I do in this video, namely despelote, but that’s something for another post, which is coming, too.

So that’s pretty much all you really need to know, folks. The congas come to the musical rescue again, as they did in this earlier post.

Again, I’m not advocating against Afro-Cuban dances like rumba being danced alongside casino. I think you can tell that by now pretty clearly. What I am advocating is what I have said, explicitly or otherwise, time and again in this blog: Dance to the music.

So dance casino to the songs of Charanga Habanera, Adalberto, Maykel Blanco, Los Van Van, etc. But if there is a guaguancó break in the song, now you know how to spot it. And when you do, be sure to break out your guaguancó moves, too!

Or don’t, if you don’t know how to dance guaguancó. The Cubans in the video below certainly do not, so they stick to casino. (If you fast-forward the video to 1:17, you’ll recognize the rumba section in the pattern of the congas. You’ll also notice that no one is dancing guaguancó. In other words, don’t believe what most instructors abroad say: not that many Cubans know guaguancó.)

P.S. Here is a listening exercise for those wanting more practice in identifying guaguancó breaks in songs. I am not going to tell you where they are or how long they last, just that the songs do have them. Listen to the congas’ pattern. That’s always going to be the key.