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Afro Cuban Big Band Play Along Series

by Joe McCarthy

Lesson Category: Drumset
Skill Levels: Advanced

Download Lesson PDF

Afro Cuban Big Band Play-Along Series

Featuring: 2008 Latin Grammy Award Winner, Joe McCarthy

Welcome to the Afro-Cuban Big Band Play-Along series, based upon my new play-along Book/CD, published by Alfred Music (Afro-Cuban Big Band Play-Along #31883 available at refer to the book for transcriptions and additional analysis as well as the accompanying CD for play-along options.

We will be dealing with what I consider to be three of the predominant groove categories of mainstream Afro-Cuban music: Cha Cha Cha, Mambo, and Bembe; also known as 12/8 Afro-Cuban. I have included DVD performances of 3 tunes from the Play-Along Book, one representing each of these categories. Download the charts and see how I interpreted the tunes. If you already have the book or the CD, you will notice the DVD performance is slightly different than the play-along. I believe as evolving musicians we should always strive for musical growth and find different ways to approach the same tunes, don't get locked into one way of playing. Record yourself playing with the play-along tracks and see what works and what doesn't. This will be a good time to evaluate your performance with the track and address any musical issues; time, balance on the kit, interpretation and set-ups of the figures, supporting the soloist, fills, solos, etc.

Tune #1 "Soul Sauce" (Cha Cha Cha)

"Soul Sauce" is the title track of vibraphonist Cal Tjader's most popular recording, selling over 100,000 copies. We have expanded upon Alain Mallet's funky arrangement, capitalizing on the modern slant of Cha Cha. The straight quarter note bell pulse synonymous with Cha Cha is not present the first time through the head. I opted for a lighter hi-hat groove and move to the driving quarter groove in the left foot and the bongo bell in the left hand on the repeat when the horns enter. I started the vibe solo with the hi-hat groove again, moving to more of a half note cowbell groove, continually building with the solo. The trumpet solo introduces a groove known as boogaloo or shing-a-ling, which is a funky eight note groove with a displaced third and fourth beat. The trumpet solo returns to Cha Cha, leading us to the breakdown section which contains solo trading between the drums and congas. Think of yourself as a timbalero at this point, experimenting with short rhythmic ideas, while adhering to the hits of the vamp, which you may or may not decide to play. The solo section ends with a unison break between drums and congas, back to the head and out. Count carefully at the end, we have added a slight delay!! Be sure to listen to recordings of the great masters and analyze their interpretation of Cha Cha, there are so many ways to combine ideas of the past with what is happening today and tomorrow. Experiment and have fun!!

Tune #2 "Rendezvous" (Mambo)

This tune is a contemporary mambo that incorporates numerous syncopated figures, rhythmic challenges, and the opportunity for a variety of feels throughout the chart. After the opening one bar fill, the band plays a repeated figure on the and of two, experiment with some different phrasing options around this figure. Clear, solid ideas from the drums will keep this figure from "slipping onto the beat." We move to the head with the 2:3 rumba clave in the left foot and the cascara pattern played on the shell of the floor tom (please refer to the book for detailed transcriptions of these). The second time through the head I play the brass punches on the snare with the cascara pattern on the cowbell. The bridge takes us to a feel change. The figures the band play actually cross the clave, meaning a 3:2 clave pulse is implied over the 2:3 clave previously established. The bridge groove I am playing on the DVD is based on guaguancó, in which the melody of the groove can be heard on the 3 cowbells I am playing in the right hand. This groove idea is implied throughout the tune on the congas as well. The solo sections give you the chance to experiment with different groove ideas. The marimba solo starts with an open feel with different colors around the kit, loosely based around guaguancó, building into a songo type groove and moving to the ride cymbal and bongo bell to create momentum under the background figures. The trumpet solo begins with ponche, which is a break that ends one solo and begins another, ending on the fourth beat of the four bar of the phrase. Out of the break I move into a 2:3 mambo groove on the ride cymbal, working to build into the climax with the ensemble figures throughout the trumpet solo. From here we go back to the head and out. You have six bars at the end to solo around the band figures, I was basically playing paradiddles, first as eighth note triplets, resolving each four beat phrase with a group of four sixteenth notes also a paradiddle, creating the illusion of a time shift. Experiment and see what comes to mind. Use the solo sections to try some different groove combinations to see what works best in this setting. As always, consult recordings of the masters to hear groove ideas and development of solos through the use of density, silence, colors and rhythmic variation.

"Afro Green" (12/8 Afro-Cuban)

Afro Green is another Dave Samuels composition, originally recorded on Camino Nuevo, and later adapted for big band. The drum intro on the DVD is different from the CD. I am playing a groove based on Bata rhythms, which incorporate the playing of duple and triple rhythms simultaneously, anchored by the 6/8 clave in the left foot. I move to dotted quarters in the left foot until we begin the melody, there I alternate between the foot bell and hi-hat in quarter notes as the bass drum plays the repeated rhythmic figure with the piano (refer to the book for an ex. of this). Notice in the bridge the melody is in "4" while the bass is in a "3" feel. I am playing a funk groove with the bass that is built upon the "3" feel. The last part of the bridge I go to the ride cymbal and bongo bell, while the left foot alternates between the hi-hat and foot bell again. (Refer to the book for transcriptions of these) The solo section is in a true "6", not the four dotted quarters previously established. The tenor solo begins with a loose swinging feel, which weaves in and out of hints of Afro-Cuban rhythms and a lot of interaction with the soloist. The marimba solo stays in the 12/8 feel, again with a lot of interaction, before fading into the vamp for the final solo. The last solo is on congas over the repeated vamp, which ends with a 6/8 clave call into the bridge. The last section of the tune gives you another chance to improvise over the band. The original theme is stated and the remainder of the phrase is yours to compliment and finish the idea. Continue building until the descent into the ritardando in the final measure. I believe the concept of the 12/8 Afro-Cuban feel goes hand in hand with the straight ahead swinging feel. Combine some of your swinging comping ideas with the 6/8 bell pattern and you will begin to hear all of these rhythms together, greatly increasing your flexibility and breaking down the barrier of style separation. Our goal should be to use everything available to us to best compliment the music.

I hope you have enjoyed working through these tunes. Please visit my website and contact me with any questions or comments at

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