Thursday, April 9, 2009

What is Mambo?

The term "Mambo" is really overloaded from a salsa dancing point of view. Here are the three main meanings that I come across on a fairly regular basis:

Meaning #1 (From a salsa musicians point of view)

Mambo is the "jamming"instrumental section of the song, usually near the end of the song, where improvisation may also take place. The tempo of the music increases (thanks usually to the timbalero increasing the tempo or "drive" of the cowbell on each "on beat"), and the music tends to be louder (known as "forte" within a musical score).

Please note that this is a term used by latin percussionists, it is not a universal musical term.

Even "pop" songs often have a “mambo” section… listen for it next time your CD player breaks and you have to listen to the radio!

You will see how this "meaning of mambo" ties into meaning number #3... keep reading!

Meaning #2 (From a modern salsa dancers point of view)

In dancing terms, salsa danced on two, in a linear (or "slot") style, particularly when the lead breaks back on two, is often referred to as "dancing mambo style".

In terms of "mambo music" for this dance style, to me, I classify this as salsa music that well-suited to dancing on-2 to. The difference between linear-styled salsa music and more traditional cuban styled is the simplicity of the melody and bass lines, the conformance to very structured two-bar phrases (essential for a "light and shade" dance style), a resistance to incorporate any Cumbia or other "jumpy" percussion patterns (such as the Caballo), and a fairly jazzy influence. Mambo salsa music I perceive as being very jazzy, often quite fast, a clear clave, and conga "slaps" on the 2 and the 6.

Some types of music popular within the mambo scene today, however, appear to have very little conga or clave at all - reminiscent of 1930s New York jazz bands prior to the Cuban/Son influence.

Meaning #3 (From an old-timers point of view!)

Now this is where it all starts to get confusing...

Traditional mambo is akin to cha cha, just without the double step/chasse.

Here is a good article discussing the evolution of mambo, however, to keep things simple, I will give a quick summary here.

Danzon, a once very popular dance in Cuba, is the root of Mambo. Danzon was of English origin, bought to Cuba by the French (Danzon sounds like a folk song akin to a Waltz - here is an example sound file from wikipedia). Danzon was then influenced by African rhythms, and in the 1930s, the influence of Cuban Son increased, leading to a new sub-genre called danzon-mambo. A key part of the danzon-mambo is the mambo/finale section of the song (which incorporated the clave, congas and strong montuno melodies - very simple melodic rifts that are repeated with increasing intensity).

From here, based on the influence of dancers (in particular their struggle to keep in time with the complex syncopations of danzon-mambo), a simpler version evolved, which formed the basis of mainstream Mambo - the music and the dance. This first style of Mambo subsequently became hugely popular in the US (due to influences of large volumes of immigrants from Cuba, Puerto Rica, etc). Mambo was most popular in the 40s and early 50s, but then became superseded by Cha Cha in the late 50s. Of course, from Mambo and Cha, we get the Salsa of today (however, please note that while related, there are real differences in the footwork, partnering and music between Mambo of the 50s and the salsa-based Mambo of today!).

Here is a wikipedia link to an interesting article about Mambo-Confusion! I guess the real issue around the confusion is that Mambo refers to two styles of dance... one of which is the traditional basis of the other. And then the third term for mambo refers to the final/fast/forte section of a danzon... the root of both mambo styles of music...!


  1. Spanish Harlem Orchestra has a song called "Danzon for My Father" on their 3rd album "United We Swing". I don't know how related it is though.

  2. Hi, Could you share the hyperlink for -
    #3 good article discussing the evolution of mambo -