Just three percussion instruments – the conga, bongos and timbales – transform a big band into a Latin ensemble full of upbeat melodies and unexpected rhythms.
The fusion occurs every Thursday night in Schoenberg 1345 as the 16 members of the department of ethnomusicology’s LatinJazz Big Band class practices a diverse set list consisting of traditional Latin American songs from the 1930s, as well as modern salsa arrangements. The ensemble has been practicing the songs throughout the quarter in preparation for the upcoming concert June 5. Many students in the ensemble, under the direction of ethnomusicology lecturer Paul De Castro, learned how to play traditional Latin percussion instruments to incorporate Latin rhythms into the songs’ traditional jazz format.
“It’s not that I dislike jazz as it is, but I’ve found that the Afro-Cuban style speaks to me in a stronger way,” De Castro said. “It feels more natural for me to do that than it would to play in the jazz idiom.”
But De Castro also said one of the biggest challenges in forming a Latin jazz band is that in its strictest and most conservative form, the band cannot use a drum set as its main percussion instrument. Instead, his students picked up the basics of traditional Cuban instruments: the conga, bongos and timbales. While musicians only use their hands to play the conga and bongas, the timbales are more similar to a regular drum set in that they utilize sticks. Outside of the percussion section, the band remains similar to other big bands, consisting of four trombones, four trumpets, five saxophones, a piano and a contrabass.
Although the ethnomusicology department’s Latin jazz ensemble has been around since 2003, De Castro has only taught the class for two quarters. Lorenzo Siciliano, a first-year jazz studies student who plays all three percussion instruments in the ensemble, said joining the ensemble was his first time playing Latin instruments as a main form of percussion.
“I’m used to learning jazz studies solely through playing the drum set, so being forced to learn these new percussion instruments definitely threw me off sometimes – I had to learn how to approach the music in a different way,” Siciliano said.
Although Siciliano has had experience with Latin percussion while playing in other ensembles on campus, he said De Castro’s class is the first that spends an entire year solely on Latin jazz. While he and other students now feel comfortable playing the new percussion instruments, he said it will take him a lot longer to master the rhythms.
First-year electrical engineering student Daniel Ferguson also struggled to learn the foreign rhythms he played on the bongos and the conga. Ferguson said his experience with a regular drum set and his Caribbean upbringing familiarized him with the upbeat compositions typical of South American regions, but he still had trouble learning the techniques used with Latin percussion instruments, which differ significantly from a regular drum set, he said.
“The conga, depending on where you place your hands, produces different sounds, so getting that new muscle memory down was hard,” he said. “I still don’t have it down but with the few more practices we have until the performance, I think I can do it.”
Other challenges stem from the large number of members – and different instruments – in the big band. This was the first time that De Castro had directed so many musicians in a single ensemble, with his past directorial experience limited to “little big bands,” a paradoxical term referring to a band of the same format, but with fewer instruments, he said.
“The main thing is to get them to all sound like a unit, so the band should sound like they’re all thinking and breathing and playing with the same intent, and when you have more people, that’s more difficult,” he said.
Ferguson also said tricky timing is more common when dealing with such unfamiliar, complex Latin rhythms. Often, rehearsals are held back so the players can replay songs with more unity.
De Castro said Latin jazz bands also differ from regular big bands in their rhythms’ historical roots. The rhythms of the songs – whose style is coined “Afro-Cuban” – can be clearly traced back to Africa, and even to particular ethnic groups. The biggest influence of Afro-Cuban music is the Yoruba people of Western Africa, which can be traced back through the style’s instruments and rhythms, he said.
“You don’t find that in other music styles,” De Castro said. “In jazz, we know there’s … a strong African influence but it’s been changed and transformed so much that the African roots are obscure, but in Afro-Latin music, and Cuban music in particular, you can trace it directly – you know where they came from.”
In an ode to the music style’s roots, the ensemble learned two songs from the genre’s origin in Cuba in the 1930s. “Cuban Fantasy” and “Zambia” were both written by Frank Grillo and his brother-in-law Mario Bauzá, who are credited with founding the Latin jazz music style, De Castro said.
One way De Castro helps explain the historical contexts to members of the ensemble is through guest visits by prominent Latin musicians, which Ferguson said he appreciates. Guests have included José Arellano, a Chilean composer whose songs had never been performed in the U.S. before, and Alessandra Zepeda, a local Cuban singer who will accompany a song in the big band’s upcoming performance. Ferguson said having such well-seasoned musicians play along with them during rehearsal can teach them strategies to learn the Latin rhythms. Because most of them are from Cuba themselves, they offer firsthand insight to the music’s origins, he said.
“My repertoire is a bit different from other ensemble’s but (my students’) musicianship level is so high, and the quality of instrumentals are so high, that in just eight weeks they’ve been able to master really complex Latin rhythms,” De Castro said.