Sunday, November 6, 2011

Music Workshop: Thinking in Six

J.S. Bach:  Handing over a minuet to Anibal Troilo
to add the cruzado.  See the smirk on his face?

Today's workshop is on the vals.  [Translated into German here.]

Our goal in this workshop is to improve our ability to improvise away from the pulse in three, and understand the African cross rhythm (cruzado) that makes the tango waltz (vals cruzado) so unique and fun for dancers.

A waltz or "vals" in Spanish has 3 beats per phrase, right?

Well, that is the smallest view of what the vals is.

Six better describes the vals.

If we were to compare vals to a language, then a word is 3 beats, a phrase is 6 and a sentence is 12 beats.  Just like in language, when you first went to school and learned about words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs, you were already practicing these things without knowing what they were.  Similarly, you may be doing very complex steps in your vals, but perhaps it will be helpful now that you are more advanced to understand more about what you are doing.  The more long-range goal is for tango dancers to construct poems and short stories that delight their partners via knowing musical phrasing.

So let's get started.

I am going to start with an example out of  Europe to help demonstrate thinking in six, but the objective is not praise the huge and known influence of Europe but to uncover the African "cruzado" rhythm (via Peru).  On our way to Argentina, we are going to start in Europe, go to Africa and then use the trade-winds to ultimately land in Buenos Aires.

The vals cruzado is a waltz within a waltz from Africa (3 beats against six), but Europe had a similar phenomena that did not make it to Argentina: The Baroque dance and music (below) is also in six-beat phrases. In the following example, if one thinks in 6, notice what happens on 2 and 6!  This is a common form of Baroque dancing in which dancers bob down on the beats 2 and 6 of each phrase--clear six beat phrases!

As I mentioned earlier, if you count in six, they are bobbing slightly down on 2 and 6.  That is the typical cross rhythm of their dance.  The "cruzado" (meaning cross) is a sub-rhythm of the Argentine vals that at times is found also in Baroque, but Baroque was not the "cruzado" (cross rhythm) influence -- Africa brought that influence.  In Latin percussion we call this counter rhythm the "trecillo" -- a part of the Afro-clave rhythm of nearly all of the forms of music in Latin America, including tango.  The cruzado started in 6/8 sacred rhythms in Africa.  I will write more about that later in a blog in which I will demonstrate the African influence with instruments and the Afro-clave in other forms of Latin American music as it relates to tango.

Many people, including musicians, are not aware intellectually of this sub-rhythm; so let me explain:  The vals cruzado has a waltz within a waltz.  Sometimes it is very explicit, sometimes subtle, the cruzado (cross rhythm) is always there, and is the distinctive element of what makes the vals the "tango waltz" --  also called the vals criollo from its African roots.   To be sure, many musicians do not seem to know this, but it is nonetheless the fact.  They often feel it, but are not aware of its origins.

Percussionists (tango dancers) need to know about these rhythms.  You are percussively expressing yourself, striking your instrument (the floor) as a part of the tango orchestra.  So my fellow percussionists, if you think in 3, a waltz has its emphasis on the first beat of each group of three (1**/1** etc.).  If you think in 6 beat phrases (as the above dancers above have to), the same emphasis is 1**4**/1**4**).  You will feel he musical phrasing more easily if you feel this in six.  Practice counting at times when you are listening to the vals.

Now let's add the African influence, also called the trecillo, by dancing on 1*3*5*/1*3*5*/1*3*5*/etc.*   You must feel this first before being able to eventually feel the upbeat of this (which is the true cruzado).

For those used to watching young, flashy dancers, the following clip with very few views on YouTube will not be immediate appealing.  However, this older couple are truly dancing 3 against six many times.  I found this video clip because I was looking for someone dancing to Anibal Troilo's "Un Placer."  I discovered Héctor and María Eugenia, dancing in this clear example of a very explicit cruzado rhythm in the vals.  Check this out!

Now, go back and start a little before the 1 minute 30 mark.  Here you will see how Hector does not only the cruzado against what she is doing but he has a very nice poetic pause in the middle of it all. Wonderful!  Then keep going until the end of the song which ends with the cruzado being slammed out by the orchestra throughout the whole last phrase.

Okay, one more?

Here is a wonderful example of this within a vals with "percussionists" Julio Balmaceda and Corina playing the dance floor.  Please focus again, just for this workshop, on counting in six.  If you pay attention you will observe many times when they both dance this cruzado, the cross-rhythm, together or when one does and the other stays with the bass (1**4**/1**/4**).

I recommend that you go back and look at watch him at the 56-second mark stay in the cross rhythm (1*3*5*/1*3*5*/1*3*5*/etc.) for a long while as she stays in the normal vals rhythm (1**4**/1*34**/1**4**/etc.).

This weekend, if you are out dancing, pay attention to the Saints watching over the dance floor -- all the dead musicians that have made your world of dance and music so enjoyable.  Among the many friendly spirits will see many great Argentine musicians.  Behind them you will see a guy wearing a really cheesy wig.  That's Bach.  And if you really pay attention, when he watches vals cruzado he is smiling a lot more than usual.  Among the friendly spirits, please pay attention to the African drummers who are playing the cruzado rhythm -- the three African beats playing against the six European beats of the vals cruzado!

*Musicians only:  The cruzado rhythm perhaps came to Argentina via Peru, but probably from Africa to Peru first.  This rhythm really is NOT understood by calling it a "hemiola," a European concept.  The Peruvian cruzado is an upbeat crossing rhythm 3 against 6 beats.  So the down beat cross rhythm is (1*3*5*/1*3*5*/1*3*5*/etc.) and the upbeat cross rhythm is (*2*4*6/*2*4*6).  The reason this is so danceable is that the pulse is on 1 and 4: (1**4**/1**/4**).  Extremely wonderful dance music have these elements: Reggie (exactly the same upbeat curzado).  Others are close:

  • Traditional jazz:  (1**4*6/1*4**6/1**4**/etc.).   The down beat (1) is played, but the 2nd beat is clearly in the feeling of jazz.  The above rhythm is the cymbal rhythm of the drummer. (You must count fast to get the sense of this rhythm, but start slow.)
  • Hip-hop and Kizomba are the down-beat cruzado rhythm (changed to the 4-beat feel, called the "trecillo" in Spanish.  Tango dancers know this as the 3/3/2 rhythm.

Comment or "like" Tango Therapist's (Musicians who Dance Tango) Facebook page at this link or
Comment at Google+ Link to posts

Photo credit: