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THE BASS IN LATIN AMERICA:

Dominican Merengue

& Bachata

BY MARLON BISHOP

“IN OTHER GENRES, YOU HAVE TO obey the laws,” says Pedro Valdez, a top merengue session player based in New York. “But merengue is fun because you do what you want. You don’t have to fol- low the rules.” Tune into your local Latin music sta- tion and you’ll soon see that he’s right. The popular music styles from the Dominican Republic—merengue and bachata—feature some of the craziest bass playing you’ll find anywhere on the radio dial. Some- how, Dominican bassists have been given permission to let loose and pepper their tracks with high-speed melodic riffs, ran- dom slap interludes, and advanced percussive effects—all happening in music that is being sold as commercial pop. Traditional merengue has been played by small accordion-led ensembles in the DR for most of the 20th century, but the sound didn’t have an international impact until after the slick, horn-driven merengue bands arrived. Merengue displaced Puerto Rican salsa as the dominant rhythm in Latin pop music in the ’80s and ’90s, set- ting hips into motion around the Americas with its tight horn licks and driving, four- on-the-floor beat. A typical merengue song has two parts. In the first, “straightahead” (derecho) sec- tion, the bass plays a quarter-note walking line, usually outlining simple tonic-dom- inant progressions. The bass uses extremely short, percussive notes alter-

Ex. 1

nating with occasional long tones used in the walk-up to the next chord, as shown in Ex. 1. (Those short notes are believed to come from the sound of the marim- bula , a bass thumb-piano used in traditional merengue.) In the second sec- tion, called mambo, the percussion heats up, the vocals go into call-and-response, and the bass plays a more syncopated rhythm. In the mambo section, bassists are allowed to go off-script and toss out some funky licks. That’s the old way of playing, at least. As Valdez explains, modern merengue,

sometimes called pacumpá , emerged at the end of the ’90s. It’s faster, more aggres- sive, and usually stays on a single minor chord throughout. The bass groove is just two notes on the “and” of two and four, but the bassist is also responsible for the heavy thump on every beat, almost mim- icking a kick drum, performed with a muted strike with the fingers or thumb on

a low string (Ex. 2). Within that simple structure, however, there’s a wide range of other things the bass does to keep things interesting. “The

bass often does a one or two-bar melodic solo at the end of a verse or section, called

a llamada,” says Valdez. Little slap riffs are

also very common, as is tapping: Every few bars, a bass player may tap and slide the right-index finger high up on the neck, as a percussive effect. Another merengue technique is called the redoble (Ex. 3). It’s

Pedro Valdez
Pedro
Valdez

a lighting-fast muted octuplet doubling the

fills on the tambora drum, and it’s played by doing a muted left-hand tap, thumb slap, and double pop in quick succession— not a beginner’s trick by any means. All of the above elements are present in Ex. 4, transcribed from an improvised line by Pedro Valdez (although I’ve presented them in a more concentrated form than you’d find on an actual song). These days merengue players rarely use a bass with fewer than five strings. “Merengue has become very noisy. You need a lot of power to cut through,” says Valdez, who boosts his mids to get the extra punch needed for such percussive playing. After all, with no drum kit in the band, the bass becomes the rhythmic engine of the music. “When groups have problems keeping time, the bassist if usu- ally the problem,” says Valdez, adding with

a smile, “It makes you feel important.” Whereas merengue is high-energy dance music, bachata is a slow, romantic song genre, but that doesn’t make its bassists any less active. The music is played

Merengue derecho Mambo E7 A E7 A = 120 7 456 5 5 7 7
Merengue derecho
Mambo
E7
A
E7
A
= 120
7
456
5
5
7
7
0
7
5
7
0
7
5
5
• “Weo” by Pedro Valdez. • Tribute to Joe Nicolas, the father of Dominican bass
• “Weo” by Pedro Valdez.
• Tribute to Joe Nicolas, the father of Dominican bass playing.
• Check in with Max Santos and Aventura.
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THE BASS IN LATIN AMERICA

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Ex. 3 Ex. 2 L.H. tap Middle-finger pop Thumb slap Index-finger pop (0) (0) (0)
Ex. 3
Ex. 2
L.H. tap
Middle-finger pop
Thumb slap
Index-finger pop
(0) (0) (0) (0) (0) (0) (0) (0) 0
Ex. 4 Am = 120 T P T P T T P T T H
Ex. 4
Am
= 120
T
P
T
P
T
T
P
T
T
H T
RH
H H
S
5
4
5 7
14
5 7
5 7
(5)
(5)
5
(5)
(5)
5
(5)
(5)
5
(5)
5
5
5
5
(5)
5
(5)
(5)
5 (5)
(5)
5
5 RH S Redoble 9 5 17 16 14 9 5 4 7 7 (5)
5
RH
S Redoble
9
5 17 16 14
9
5 4
7
7
(5)
(5) 5 (5)
(5)(5)(5)(5) (5)(5)(5)(5)
8 7
5
(5)
5
(5)
(5)
5

Ex. 5

(5)(5)(5)(5) (5)(5)(5)(5) 8 7 5 (5) 5 (5) (5) 5 Ex. 5 Marlon Bishop is an

Marlon Bishop is an arts writer and radio producer who reports on global

music for a number of media outlets. He is an Associate Producer of Afropop Worldwide and a Culture Producer at WNYC, New York Public Radio.

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