If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that many a post here have been dedicated to explaining how to build and achieve a better connection with the music when we dance casino. To me, having musical awareness, or musicality, is one of the fundamental features of any good casino dancer, as I’ve posited in this previous blog post. The execution of one turn pattern after another, from the beginning of the song to the end and without regard for what changes may be occurring in the song, has its roots in most classes we take, where what is emphasized is the learning of a turn pattern, and nothing else. So, when a song plays, we become extensions of what we are taught: we do a lot of dancing, but not a lot of listening. I have even jokingly referred to this as “dance virus” and given it a name: turnpatternitis.
This post, like many others before which title begins with “Musicality,” seeks to build on this premise of being more musical when we dance, rather than putting most of the emphasis on the turn patterns that we do.
This, then, will be another post about turnpatternitis. This time, however, I want to focus more on how to avoid it during the montuno section of the song. The answer, as you may have gleaned from the title of this post, is in the mambo section.
Before I begin, however, I want to summarize what I have already said about turnpatternitis so that we are all on the same page if you haven’t read that post—I strongly suggest that you do because this post will make a lot more sense if you have. In the case that you have read it, this will be a refresher.
The music to which we dance casino, or the variations of son montuno that people have come to call “timba” or “salsa”, has two main sections. There is an introduction, also known as the largo or the canto, where the singer(s) tell a story about something. This section feels relatively calmer than the section that follows it: the montuno. In the montuno, the instrumentation picks up, the song feels more aggressive, and there is a call and response between the singer and the chorus.
That is, very broadly speaking, the structure that son montuno songs follow. Here’s an example. Listen to the first minute of the following song. Get a feel for it. Then fast forward to 2:45 and you’ll see how it changes as it enters the montuno:
With this rudimentary knowledge of how son montuno songs work, we are better equipped to deal with the cravings created by turnpatternitis—the compulsion to do one turn pattern after another. Knowing that the song has a toned-down largo, we can now choose to remain in closed/social position, do paseos (moves that have you moving around the room as you dance), and get a feel for the person with whom we are dancing. That way, when the montuno comes, we have a better idea of what kind of leading/following skills our partner has and can thus adjust our expectations accordingly as we begin to then do more complicated stuff during the montuno.
This structural knowledge should serve as a stepping stone to get us to ponder further about what it happening in the music when we are dancing. Indeed, it’s not all black and white. As I have explained in other posts, during the montuno other things can happen. There can be a rumba guaguancó break, exhorting you to whip out your guaguancó moves. You can have a solo section, which is a great place to do a tornillo. In some songs, it can change back to that largo section feel, signaling the end the song and thus a change of pace and a return to what you were doing in the introduction.
And then you can have a mambo section, which, in the absence of solos, almost always occurs.
A reference to Perez Prado’s mambo, which relied heavily on wind and brass instruments, the mambo section is the name that many musicians give to the section of the song where the wind and brass instruments—trumpets, trombones, sax, flutes, etc.—take center stage, so to speak. That is, they become the prominent instruments of the section. You may have heard musicians actually referring to this section explicitly in their songs. For instance, Alexander Abreu often shouts, “¡Camina por arriba del mambo!” like in this video at 1:57:
Similarly, you can hear another explicit reference to the mambo section in the famous Adalberto Alvarez’s song, “Para bailar casino”, here at 1:28.
As you may have noticed when you played those two songs at the suggested time stamps, and just like I described above, the wind and brass instruments were what the band emphasized. In fact, the singer saying “mambo” is very much a cue for the band to progress into the mambo section.
You may be saying, “Alright. So, we learned something new. There’s a mambo section during the montuno where the wind and brass instruments get emphasized. But how can I apply that piece of knowledge to my dancing? How can I use this to be more musical?”
To begin answering those questions, I want to first talk about what happens before the mambo section so that we can understand why there is a mambo section to begin with. The idea here is that if we understand what is happening in the song, we can also understand why we may want to do something different when we’re dancing during the mambo section, just like when there is a solo or a rumba guaguancó break.
Let’s get to it.
The first that you should know is that the mambo section is not specifically something that happens in the montuno. A lot of songs begin by emphasizing their wind and brass instruments. Take the “Para bailar casino” song cited above. There’s a good 21 seconds at the beginning of the song where the predominant instruments are wind and brass ones. However, for the purposes of this one post, I want to focus on mambo sections that occur during the montuno. I promise that I will write more about other things that can happen in the largo / canto section—what comes before the montuno—and how to adjust to those changes.
Returing to the montuno, one of the things that characterizes this section of the song, besides the more up-beat feel in relation to introduction, is the call and response that occurs between the singer and the chorus. Essentially, the chorus has a line that gets repeated over and over again—the estribillo—while the singer sings in between these lines. Let’s return, yet again, to “Para bailar casino” for an example:
Singer: ¿Dónde está María? ¿Dónde está Fernando?
Chorus: Bailando, mamá, bailando casino.
Singer: ¿Y dónde está la gente que me está escuchando?
Chorus: Bailando, mamá, bailando casino.
Now, in a recording, what you’ll get is something that has been written and planned and rehearsed. Everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing and when. But let’s remember that these things come from the oral tradition, before the first recording devices existed. Things were improvised. If you listen to live rumba, which is where this tradition of call and response comes from in Cuba, you’ll see that the singer often feeds the chorus the line that he/she wants the chorus to repeat what he/she improvises over those lines.
And when the music is live and there is improvisation—which is the exact opposite of rehearsal—sometimes the singers get tired of improvising during the call and response, or they run out of material, or they don’t want to make the call and response too long. Whatever the case, what ends up happening is that, often at the singer’s cue, the horns come swooping in and save the day, so that, while they play, the singer can rest and figure out what other lines he/she wants to feed the chorus and improvise over.
This is a very common occurrence in live music. That’s why Cuban musicians, for example, when they play live, seem to go for what feels like ages (often times the song goes over ten minutes!): because they are constantly changing things around, feeding each other new lines, and improvising. This, of course, changes in a recorded song. What improvisation there is has already been rehearsed, and there is no need for the singer to feed the estribillo to the chorus. The chorus already knows what to say and can start on its own. Likewise, the horn section of the band knows when to play, so the singer shouting “mambo!” is a mere formality, and becomes a sort of tribute to the improvisational style of live music that they are trying to reproduce in a recorded setting.
Knowing that the mambo section occurs because it’s intended to provide a respite to the singer before the singer and the chorus engage again in a call and response, we can draw a parallel between what the musicians are doing and what we, as dancers, can do we dance casino.
In other words, we can use the mambo section to take a break, too!
Why? Because if all we are doing during the montuno are turn patterns—with the occasional tornillo if there is a solo or the guaguancó moves if there is a rumba guaguancó break—then we are still falling prey to turnpatternitis; for every time there is a mambo section, something different is happening—and happening for a reason—and we are still indiscriminately doing turn patterns.
I place myself in that group of people still affected by turnpatternitis (I never said I was perfect!). In fact, this is an idea that occurred to me very recently even though it had been, until now, a very unconscious thing that I did. Indeed, watching some of my own videos, I noticed that this was something that I had been doing already, more or less consistently, though it is only now that it finally “clicked.”
So I’m not here to criticize. I’m here to provide possible solutions.
How do we “take a break” like the singers, then? Well, that’s where the paseos come in.
The paseos—Spanish for “strolls”—are what I call “location displacement moves”; that is, these are moves that allow you to switch your location inside the dance floor because you’re “walking” around. This is why casino, like son, cannot be confined to the line. It simply takes too much room!
The mambo section lends itself perfectly for doing paseos, for taking a break from turn patterns and “going out for a stroll” and “recharging” so that, when the section is over and the singer engages the chorus in a call and response again, we start doing turn patterns again. If you haven’t seen videos of paseos, I invite you to watch a couple. See how much you can potentially move around the dance floor:
The two videos above don’t exactly help me make my case here. The first one is danced entirely in the introduction (we’re talking about the montuno here); and the second one is part of an after-workshop demonstration, where the point is to show what was taught, which doesn’t necessarily has to adhere to the music. But we are in luck: some of that video is danced during the mambo section, so you still get a glimpse of what it would feel like in relation to the music, from 1:27 to 1:47.
And here’s a video of myself. Like I said, I had been doing this stuff unconsciously and not always consistently, but you can clearly see from 2:27 to 3:00 where I stop doing turn patterns and begin doing paseos:
As with everything I’ve said in regards to musicality in this blog, what I am suggesting here is not intended to create a “good/bad” way of dancing to the music. People can do whatever they want with the song. At the end of the day, it’s their own interpretation. I’m simply suggesting ways of letting the music ease us into the dance and take away the burden of trying to figure out what we have to do all the time. If we let it, the music can be of tremendous help. All we need to do is listen to it more actively.
Finally, and because practice is the key to becoming better at anything, I’d like to leave you with a list of songs that I’ve chosen so that you can practice listening to the mambo section during the montuno (I’ve pointed where exactly the mambo section appears in each song). This list encompasses songs by both Cuban and non-Cuban musician, and span several decades. Like I’ve been saying in previous posts of this blog, such as this one: they all really are playing son montuno (be it Puerto Rican son montuno, or Cuban son montuno, Colombian son montuno, etc.). It is my hope that the more we learn about the structure of these songs, the more similarities than differences we will notice—and what I’m saying becomes clearer.
So I’ll leave you with the list, and a final reminder to stay vigilant to the effects of turnpatternitis!
Dance to the music, not because the music is playing.
This one has a solo followed by a mambo, so it’s great for doing both a tornillo and paseos. 1:54
This song has a very common use of the mambo which I didn’t go over in the main post but want to mention here: sometimes the horns replace the singer in the call and response, so that you still get a mambo section, but it’s working with the chorus to create a call and response between the instruments and the chorus. 1:58