Cuban Guitars I

Harmonic subtleties, melodic richness and complex rhythms, are the major ingredients that make Compay Segundo and their friends from the "Buena Vista Social Club" the most outstanding cuban music ambassadors in the world. After reading this analysis of their worldwide hit "Chan Chan" produced by Ry Cooder, you will understand what attracted this American guitarist to the studios in Havana.

Behind the name "Buena Vista Social Club" you will find the most talented Cuban musicians who, since the 1930's have established what we now call the Salsa and Cuban music. It all started in the cuban countryside where musics from Africa, Spain and France (via Haiti) intermingled to give birth in the first part of the XXth century to the "Sound", which is to Cuban music what the Blues is to American music. And like the blues, it's all about everyday life. And like the blues, the acoustic guitar is the most important instrument to accompany the lead vocal. The rest of the band comprises a "tres" or "quatro" little carribean guitars, a double bass and percussions (maracas, guiro, bongos and wood blocks).
So the "Sound" is basically acoustic and the guitar/vocal dialogs are held on a very standard practice of question-answer interplay, where impros are built in for personal expression. You might be familiar with Eliades Ochoa who was mentioned in the Akustik Guitars (n°114) but probably the most famous band ever is the most "ancient" of the Sound's representatives : Compay Segundo, a 90 year old guitarist, composer, singer, performer from the late 40's, the first to record a 78 vinyl in 1937 who received a Gold record 60 years later thanks to Wim Wenders' film and to Ry Cooder who said of him : "He's the last of the greats, a true leader, a pivot". The orignal version of the "trovadores'" style could only be heard in the Cuban countryside and Compay Segundo brought that sound to the city. He is one of the very first to have created the Sound during this past century. In order to develop his unique style, he thought of "customizing" his guitar by adding a 7th string, doubling the G at an octave. He gave it the name "armonico". (Guitarists in Nashville had a very similar idea, but they only added a high G known as the High-G tuning).

His composition "Chan Chan" which is the first track on the BVSC CD is an excellent opportunity to learn more about this style of music. First of all the track is pleasant, the harmonies familiar, the melody easy to remember, the performance even seems quite simple to play. But that's the trick, that everything should seem so straightforward and simple, proves the quality of the performance, by making it appear simple when in reality the performance is full of subtle harmonies and rhythms that only an experienced musician is capable of playing. Rhythmically, Cuban music is one of the most sophisticated styles and those of you who have ever had the opportunity to "jam" with Cuban musicians know what I mean. "Chan Chan" is based on a 4 bar cycle, alternating vocal and instrument.
This month I have put together an exercise in 3 parts : vocal, main theme and rhythmic guitar. We'll look at the solos in Part II. And don't let yourself get away with a "sort of" play. It has to be a perfect "fit" between vocal and guitar. Also be careful not to play "too" fast, anticipation, which is one of the major characteristics, needs to be dealt with accordingly, or you will soon find yourself dragged into an accelerated mode that you can hear a sample of in the original version. Here's a Real Audio sample, as I chose to play it, with the fingers. But if you feel more comfortable with a pick, providing you keep the "groove", then hey, no problemo !

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Studio 124
124 Quai Louis Blériot
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phone : +33 614 629 810
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Studio 124 Publishing
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phone : +33 147 580 681
e-mail :


Studio 124
124 Quai Louis Blériot, 75016 Paris - France
phone : +33 614 629 810, e-mail :
Studio 124 Publishing
Danièle or Véronique, phone : +33 147 580 681, e-mail :
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