Conjuntos, Son Montuno, and the Clave

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Conjuntos, Son Montuno, and the Clave

Postby Thomas Altmann » Thu Aug 20, 2020 4:37 pm

Ladies & Gentlemen (I'm not sure whether we have any "ladies" at all on this forum, but it shouldn't matter, anyway):

In a thread initiated by our member Faniatic [], I declared the Cuban conjunto after Arsenio Rodríguez as the "home of clave", with the septetos, namely Ignacio Piñeiro's Septeto Nacional, representing a formative period. I was echoing a common opinion first introduced to me by one of my teachers, and put in written words by Ned Sublette:
"The word clave seems to have begun to refer to the rhythmic concept sometime in the late 1940s or early '50s, as a more educated generation of popular musicians built on the innovations of Arsenio." (Cuba and It's Music, 2004:474)
Anybody who listens to the music of Arsenio's conjuntos, especially the original one from 1944-1950, will recognize its rhythmical strength, which can by and large be ascribed to its clave alignment. This is generally true of the montuno-only numbers, like "Dame un cachito pa' huelé" or "El reloj de Pastora".

A closer listening, however, will reveal that, although most of the material is perfect in terms of clave, an estimated ratio of 10% shows horizontal clave jumps, vertical cross-clave phrasing, or often a clave ambiguity or -indifference in any other sections than the plain montuno. This causes me to question and modify my own statement.
In my intention to base my bongo practice program on solid ground, I started re-listening to a lot of conjunto music from the 1940s to 1960s. It included:
- Arsenio Rodríguez y su Conjunto
- Chappottín y sus Estrellas
- Conjunto Modelo
- Las Estrellas de Chocolate
- René Álvarez y su conjunto Los Astros
- Nelo Sosa y su Conjunto Colonial
- Conjunto Niagara
- Conjunto Kubavana
- Conjunto Casino
- Conjunto Jovenes del Cayo

So far, I listened carefully to two CDs of Arsenio, Chappottín's "Sabor Tropical" and selected tracks from other records, and made some notes. I even started to write an article, when I realized that it would require listening to, and researching a substantially greater amount of recordings to make representative statements. I decided that it would make a wonderful subject for a dissertation of young students, who could grab an academic degree with this effort. The only problem is that "young students" generally have less working experience with the clave.
The purpose of such a work would be to detect clave inconsistencies in Son Montunos, Rumbas and Guarachas of the conjunto era, collect statistics, and make a comparison to the music of the septetos, as well as to US-American Salsa. It could very well turn out that, for example, Ignacio Piñeiro was actually more accurate with the clave than many conjunto musicians, composers and arrangers. It could also show that what I (and probably most of us) have learned about the clave, is rather the product of a simplified standardization that had started with Mario Bauza and evolved during the history of North American Salsa. Salsa, in turn, was based a great deal on Cuban conjunto music.
It could also turn out that people like myself have paid considerably more attention to the clave than the originators of Son and Salsa themselves. It might show that Cuban musicians disregarded the clave more often than I assumed. Perhaps they simply composed some nice songs like anyone else in the world, while clave actually was of secondary concern. Remember that some of the greatest music of humankind was never designed to be in clave, anyway.

I am definitely talking about the Son complex here. In Afro-Cuban music (Lukumí, Abakuá, Bantú etc), as well as in Rumba and Conga, clave is indisputably paramount.

Here are some of my findings:

Conjunto Arsenio Rodríguez:
- No me llores mas:
This composition of Lilí Martínez has the coro ("No me llores, no me llores mas") in a 2-3 feel conflicting with the rest of the tune, which on the whole makes more sense in 3-2 clave.
- Lo que dice usted (comp. Jesús Guerra):
Clean 2-3 clave until the end of the tres solo, the end of which is oddly phrased by Lilí, causing the 2-3 cierre break and the subsequent montuno jump the clave. Lilí's solo ending sounds so logical and familiar that its effect goes unnoticed. Musically O.K., but not smart clave-wise.
- Chicharronero (Lilí Martínez)
Intro and verse in 2-3 with correct transition to the 3-2 estribillo. However, the trumpet part in the intro is in 3-2 and crosses the underlying guajeo, thus neutralizing the clave feel.
Chappottín y sus Estrellas:
- Canallón (Felix Amaro Ferrer)
The introduction comprises of a 3-2 and a 2-3 section, which connects correctly with the 2-3 estribillo and a 3-2 guia. What is inconsistent, is the fact that the 2-3 intro section is repeated as an extro in the opposite clave direction (3-2).
Estrellas de Chocolate:
- Ven y ven
Conguero and bandleader Félix "Chocolate" Alfonso obviously composed the song in 3-2 clave. However, tresero Papi Oviedo repeatedly syncopates the second measure, otherwise typical for a 2-3 clave; so it is crossed (to my ears).

I know that I could name more examples for clave "violations" in classic Son Montunos, at least for what is commonly taught. But I could also list the many songs that are not only beautiful but also masterly constructed.

Let me quote a passage from Sublette's above mentioned book, where tresero Pancho Amat inquired sonero Miguelito Cuní about an Arsenio Rodríguez number:
"...'Cuní, you were playing the clave and if you had given it to me, I wouldn't have played it that way, I would have played it backwards from that, because I tend to get confused.' He said, 'No, you're not confused. That other clave is good. It's also good. What you don't know is that Arsenio sometimes made his tunes to get people's goat [pa' chivar]...' [laughs] That sometimes Arsenio made his numbers to annoy people! Tunes that would work with the clave either way, to mess with peoples' heads." (pg. 481)
This could well be; however, all the examples I mentioned had been written by other people than Arsenio. That does not explain away the evident flaws.

Another subject is the bongo repique which is nearly as often played in (what I call:) the basic as in the opposite orientation as well. I cannot see any other rule in it than the musical instinct of the bongocero. Citing Frankie Malabe in Charley Gerard's "Salsa! The Rhythm of Latin Music":
"When you're playing in a band and sometimes the tune might sound both ways - that's where it gets a little tricky. As a result sometimes the drummer might make a mistake. It's a natural thing - I've done it. Sometimes the tune sounds like it's 'this way'. And then after you hear the tune, you'll say: 'Oh no, it's the other way around.' And sometimes it's too late. But it's not a question of that it's going to sound bad. No, it's not a question of that. It's a question of that you made the mistake, and the drummers who do the folklore know it. And that's a small crowd." (1989:27)

While I readily concede that we should open up our categories and just appreciate what had been created for us, and accept what we like, we can still decide what route we want to follow ourselves. Do I conclude that eventually clave doesn't matter anyway? That it is nothing but a neurotic, anti-artistic entrapment?

Surely, I have felt too much joy with the lyricism of clave in well-constructed arrangements or improvisations to skip it altogether. I will learn more bongo licks, but basically stick to the repique I have learned, because it is (also) correct and works in any context. I would just not bite my tongue for having played something "wrong" anymore. As far as arranging is concerned - I don't really arrange a lot of music; but you can bet, no matter how many mistakes I might make harmonically, it will be in clave!

Thomas Altmann
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Re: Conjuntos, Son Montuno, and the Clave

Postby Chtimulato » Mon Aug 24, 2020 7:46 pm

Interesting question(s), Thomas. :)

Please give us time to think about it before answering.

Stay safe, everybody.
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Re: Conjuntos, Son Montuno, and the Clave

Postby Greensail » Fri Sep 11, 2020 8:54 pm

Wow Thomas. So much to consider. I read through several times and have thought about this since read your post soon after you put up. You raise some interesting points. I will say that, with no formal education in this area, I am certainly not qualified to answer your queries. Especially with someone of your wide and thorough knowledge. That said, I may respectfully argue that you are perhaps, over analyzing. While I agree we must fervently respect the origins and traditions of this incredible musical culture we love, I would ask, as long as I respect the tradition, is it wrong to move outside the strict interpretation of the clave? Many years ago I was told by a teacher that with your performance, "you may want to change the world or....simply say how you feel about your day." I may ask, did the artists you reference make a mistake or were they feeling a little different about their performance and were simply exploring the changes. Or, did they just happen to feel it differently that day and wanted to share?
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Re: Conjuntos, Son Montuno, and the Clave

Postby Thomas Altmann » Sat Sep 12, 2020 10:17 am

Thank you for your comments, Greensail. I chose to leave them for others to answer or express their points of view, because I think your position is quite representative for many people, musicians or listeners. Only as far as my person is concerned; I don't feel that my knowledge is wide and thorough. Otherwise I would not research things and discover errors. When you are 20 to 30 and male, that's when you may think you know it all. And yes, I can be a pretty analytical SOB when it comes to defending musicological statements :wink:
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Re: Conjuntos, Son Montuno, and the Clave

Postby Greensail » Mon Sep 28, 2020 12:56 am

Thanks for your consideration Thomas. I can relate as I also tend to be overly analytical about many things. My friends often roll their eyes when I get going. In my work life, I will rarely make a statement unless I include a dozen references, that is, I've done the research. Congas are perhaps my antithesis to that. They are my meditation. Do not mean to suggest that I do not treat the traditions with great respect and indeed work with diligence towards those skills and abilities. In fact, I have spent some time considering your valid points and will continue to do so. Thank you sir for keeping me enlightened.
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Re: Conjuntos, Son Montuno, and the Clave

Postby Siete Leguas » Sun Mar 28, 2021 12:46 pm

After having listened to it dozens of times before, I just realized the clave jumping in Joe Arroyo's classic Colombian salsa banger "La Rebelión" (at 0:57 and 2:10).

Regarding bongó repiques, I tend to play the macho accents on 4+ and 3+ in clave 2-3 - or so I thought. But I have realized that it sometimes does sound more natural to play them the other way around, depending on the track, and I can't really figure out why. To complicate things even more, I have been recently trying to learn rumba quinto, and I have noticed that some of the quinto strokes and phrases have leaked into my bongó playing (for example, accenting 1+ on the 3-side and getting into a "quinto lock"). I don't know if I'm perhaps overanalyzing trying to play things "right" and I should just play what intuitively sounds natural, as Thomas suggested. But I am not sure how good my musical intuition really is, so I am a bit confused now.

Anyway, that quote of the conversation between Pancho Amat and Miguelito Cuní gives me some relief. If two of the most important figures in the Son complex had that kind of discussions, then it's OK for me to have my doubts as well.
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