Latin Percussion Applications in the Jazz Band

By Victor Rendón

Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, and other “world” instruments have always been played in the context of popular music and jazz groups including jazz bands in colleges. Often, this area of drumming is neglected in an educational setting leaving the student to attempt to come up with something that fits the music. This can actually be good from a creative point of view. However, it is often helpful to have some guidelines from which to work with.

A good starting point to add percussion is in a straight 8th note rock beat with a backbeat on 2 & 4.  First, one must decide what kind of a groove it will be. Will it be Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, or any other rhythm from Latin America or the Caribbean? What comes to mind immediately are the dance forms: bolero, son montuno, cha-cha-chá, bossa nova, etc.

For this particular article, I have chosen to use the groove from Santana’s classic hit “Oye Como Va” (composed by Tito Puente). Here, you can easily add congas, güiro, and timbales to augment the groove.

The rhythm used here is the Cuban dance form called Cha-Cha-Chá or simply Cha-Cha . This rhythm/dance is believed to have originated from the montuno or improvisational section of the danzón circa 1930’s. The name is said to be derived from the sound that the dancers made with their feet. The music and lyrics are lively in nature and can even be humorous. In the 1950’s, Enrique Jorrín was credited as the creator of a new genre of dance music called Cha-Cha-Chá.

We will start with the güiro.

The güiro is a hollow gourd with notches/ridges cut along one side of the gourd. It is played by scraping both long and short sounds with a thin stick along the ridges to create a rasping sound. The güiro takes quite a bit of skill and development to play correctly. However, I have found that the following is a good starting point for young players as well as others that do not have experience with this instrument.

Basic Movement: Down-Down-Up / DDU

The pattern consists of a quarter note followed by two eighth notes. The quarter note is a long sustained down stroke (D). It is followed by two short eighth notes: Down-Up (D U). I usually teach this orally by saying: Down- Down up, Down- Down up, etc. In music notation, it looks like this:


Congas / Tumbadoras

The conga player plays a pattern called “Tumbao”. I suggest that it be played on one drum. The hand movement goes like this: P T S T P T O O

Key to Hand Movement Notation:

L = left hand
R = Right hand
P = palm of left hand
T = fingers tips of right hand
O = open tone with right hand

Music Notation:



The most fundamental way of playing the Cha-Cha-Chá rhythm on timbales is by playing straight quarter notes on a small cowbell with the right hand while playing a combination of muffled and open tones on the large drum on beats two and four with the left hand.

Music Notation:

RIGHT HAND: The right hand can simply play a small bell on mouth of the bell by striking the bell with a stick to produce clear open tones.

LEFT HAND: The left hand is employed with no stick in hand by striking the large drum with the fingers of the hand. A muffled sound is produced on the 2nd beat by pressing the fingers against the head of the drum to produce a muffled “thud” sound.

Note: The L.H. stick is placed on the small drum while the L.H. plays on the large drum.

An open tone is then produced on the 4th beat of the measure by striking the drum with the index or middle finger of the L.H. The whole hand can also be used to produce the open tone but be aware that the tendency will be to hit the rim with the palm of the hand as this is done which can result on a bruised hand.

Percussion Score – Finally, the following is percussion score with all the parts including drumset.


Putting these four elements together will produce a nice pocket groove that will provide a good foundation for the music. Keep in mind that this is a basic format for playing Cha-Cha-Chá. My very first percussion teacher used to say, “There is always more than one way to skin a cat”; meaning there will always be others that will play the same groove but with a slight variation or feel.

Percussionist/educator/composer/arranger Victor Rendón is a sought after New York City musician who has released six CDs as a leader and has worked with Mongo Santamaria, Chico O’Farrill, Carlos “Patato” Valdés, Ray Santos, Grupo Caribe, The Latin Jazz Coalition, The “New” Xavier Cugat Orchestra, Los Más Valientes, Grupo Latin Vibe, Rudy Calzado’s Cubarama, and many others. Rendón, who holds a Bachelor of Music from the University of North Texas and a Master’s degree in education from Hunter College (NYC), has had a lengthy career teaching instrumental music and Latin percussion in the New York City Public Schools. Victor is an active clinician and is author of The Art of Playing Timbales published by Music in Motion Films and distributed by Alfred Music.

Victor currently performs with his group, Bronx Conexion Latin-Jazz Big Band, as well as his Afro-Caribbean percussion group, Co-Tim-Bó. He also teaches at Lehman College in NYC, where he teaches Latin Percussion, leads the Percussion Ensemble, and co-leads the Lehman Latin Jazz Ensemble with his long-time colleague, Armando Rodriguez.   For more information: