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.

Our goal 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.  On our way to Argentina, we are going to start in Europe, go to Africa and then use the trade-winds to 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.

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.

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.

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 discoverd 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!

Photo credit:


Anonymous said...

Eileen - I thoroughly enjoyed this post! Thanks for adding the videos to demonstrate your points.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great entry!

Anonymous said...

Mark, there have been some very interesting comments on this post on my Facebook page (where I shared it). You might want to check them out and respond there.

Dieudonne said...

Great post Mark, now I understand why Héctor and María Eugenia are dancing the way that they do. I had been watching videos of them for years, and thought that it was a simple matter of style. I also now understand why I keep having arguments with tango instructors when it comes to vals...They might not be hearing certain things. I know that I will dance vals better from now on. Gracias.

Peter Okell-Walker said...

Well, this has started an interesting discussion! (some of it on Terpsichoral's Facebook rather than here). Well done for such a lovely and provocative article.

Can I offer another angle on these rhythms, without getting into the ethno/political question of the African influence.

Taking the idea of Vals being 6 beats - as in 1** 4**, when teaching this, we suggest to our newbie Vals dancers to think of it as a two based rhythm, rather than three, ie. 1**2**. After all, 6/8 is known as compound DOUBLE time, and it's a lot easier to think of the 1 as the dominant beat, and the 2 as the weaker beat, because that means there are fewer numbers to think about, and people can usually feel the lilting triple nature of the compound rhythm anyway (ie the main beats subdivided into three).

But having established that as the baseline rhythm, one of the fascinating things about six is you can divide it in different ways - either into two groups of three - as in 1**4** or three groups of two, as in 1*3*5*.

This effect was well known in European Renaissance and Baroque music as Hemiola and featured in a lot of Hispanic music of the times. Clearly this rhythmic influence was also exported to the New World where it mingled with the African and other influences.

However, leaving aside the history, the musical effect of alternating the three and the two, as in 1**4**, 1*3*5 is breathtaking and gorgeous - listen to "America" from West Side Story for a clear example.

When it comes to listening / watching out for this in Argentine Vals, it's actually very hard to do. Firstly because the tempo is quite fast and everything is happening very quickly, but more importantly because the 3 and 5 beats - all important for the hemiola effect - can be thought of as upbeats to the 4 and the 6, especially if the dancers move on these beats. If they are upbeats, the focus shifts back onto 1*34** or 1***56, and sorry, but no hemiola!

In the You Tube dances you quote (wonderful - I have always been a huge fan of Julio Bamaceda) I can clearly hear the musical syncopation going on in the orchestra, but I wouldn't want to bet my empanadas on whether they were deliberately dancing a hemiola or cruzada or whatever - either consciously or intuitively.

On a personal and poignant footnote, it was lovely to see the clip of the Handel Minuet danced at the Banqueting House in Whitehall. I performed a concert there many years ago

Thomas Keenes said...

Fascinating article (and discussion on Facebook). Do you have any information as to when this African cruzado rhythm found its way into the vals? Was it when the waltz first arrived in South America at the start of the 19th century? Or later?

Tango Therapist said...

@Thomas and Peter... what a great comment, Peter, adding much to this article.

Thomas, the African influence is from Abakuá music, but our best clue of African influence is through the official name of the tango waltz in Spanish: vals criollo (or vals cruzado). Criole waltz!

Although the Abukuá influence was 1*3*5*/*2*4**, the first measure 1*3*5* is part is the Afro-clave to all other forms of tango: Canyenge, milonga, tango and (my argument) vals. Thomas, I am not the ethno-musicologist you need for your question. I plan to learn more, but the historic timing is something beyond my knowledge base. I know that the Boston waltz also had a huge influence on the val criollo.

Peter, your concern was that my examples did not show that people really felt what I was suggesting.

You are right that they are not as clear as I would like. I should have slowed things down and done it myself. However, I would argue that they do feel it and it is quite normal to dance to the 1*3*5*. However, you are right that it is hard to see. Partly it is because people stretch time either for a lyrical effect or because their partner is pulling them away from exactitude. I experience this all the time, but it only creates some really neat and very human changes to the rhythm. Bamaceda is clearly in a quarter note triplet feel when I see him, but he slurs through some of it into another creole invention. There is yet another possibility and I use it often without any sense from my partner that it is weird or unusual. In fact most women seem to like it (when it goes to the music, of course): *2*4*6/*2*4*6. This is especially nice if the phrasing of the melody avoids the downbeat. Now we are using yet another creole rhythm. These are things that I did and only after time analysed them. So I think that either through sloppiness, mistake or from musicality, dancers are doing some pretty amazing things all the time and without knowing it, just as we do in everything we do. Life is a miracle and far more wondrous than we will ever know. All I know is that at the end of a vals, my partner and I break out into laughter of joy. That, is the cruzado!

Peter Okell-Walker said...

Yes - isn't it amazing, and wonderful, how these Vals rhythms create such joy and laughter. As you say, very life affirming.

I want to look further into the question of influences and origins and I'm going to check back with one of my teachers to see what he can add.

In the meantime, have you also noticed these cruzado rhythms in Chacarera music? This may be another route to explore.

Thomas Keenes said...

If anyone is interested, I have just had an article on the history of the waltz/vals printed in 'the400club: The Journal of Salon Tango in London', which you can read online here: