“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 follow the rules.”
Tune into your local Latin music station 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. Somehow, Dominican bassists have been given permission to let loose and pepper their tracks with high-speed melodic riffs, random 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, setting hips into motion around the Americas with its tight horn licks and driving, fouron- the-floor beat.
A typical merengue song has two parts. In the first, “straightahead” (derecho) section, the bass plays a quarter-note walking line, usually outlining simple tonic-dominant progressions. The bass uses extremely short, percussive notes alternating 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 marimbula, a bass thumb-piano used in traditional merengue.) In the second section, 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 aggressive, 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 mimicking 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 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 usually 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 on guitars, guira (metal scraper), and bongos, and the bass is a very prominent part of the sound. “There are no more basic bass lines in bachata anymore,” says Max “Trueno” Santos. He’s a member of Aventura, a band that came out of the Dominican community in the South Bronx in 1994 and has since become one of the most popular acts in Latin America. Apart from the basic rhythm (Ex. 5), bachata bassists use many of the same techniques as merengue players, including the redoble.
Slap lines are particularly popular, and they often seem to come out of nowhere, interrupting the silky-smooth groove. One example is Santos’s line on “Cuando Volverás,” from the Aventura album Generation Next [RCA International, 1999], which features a four-bar bass solo full of double thumb-slaps (Ex. 6).
Where did Santos get those funk techniques? “I had two main inspirations,” he says: One was Mimín, the bassist for legendary bachatero Anthony Santos. As for the other, “I was a rocker kid in high school. I loved the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and I bought an instructional video by Flea. That was my breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” Turns out the bass world is smaller than you might think.
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.