Refining the Process Part II: Venezuelan Merengue and Rethinking Old Methods

The Merengue Venezolano is one of most important genres of Venezuelan folk music, and is considered to be a symbol of the city of Caracas. It is also one of the most elusive musical styles from Latin America due to its unique 5/8 time signature and relative obscurity anywhere outside of Venezuela. Despite its name, the Merengue from Venezuela shares no important musical characteristics with Merengue from the Dominican Republic. In fact, Venezuelan Merengue doesn’t sound like anything else in Latin America, or anywhere for that matter.

Merengue melody notated in 5/8

Merengue melody notated in 5/8

I had first heard of Venezuelan Merengue in high school while reading Oscar Stagnaro’s The Latin Bass Book, which to my knowledge was the first commercially successful bass book in English to address South American styles at all. I remember having no ability to keep track of beat one after the intro, and more or less gave up on trying to learn this style for the next fifteen years.

After having acquired some degree of knowledge of the basic mechanics of this genre, I can now reflect on the learning experience with some degree of clarity. The problem with Stagnaro’s audio example was that it was just a rhythm section track with no melody to speak of. In Merengue Venezolano, very often the melody is the only part that actually outlines the 5/8 meter clearly. Without a melody to provide a concrete reference point as to where beat one is, it was inevitable to loose the groove right away.

The Latin Bass Book by Oscar Stagnaro

The Latin Bass Book by Oscar Stagnaro

Another thing I couldn’t help but notice was that Stagnaro didn’t include the pattern that bass players use most often in Merengue, especially the pattern in which all of the other patterns are built. This was also the case with many online tutorials on YouTube, oddly enough by players from Venezuela who where very well versed in the style. I will get into this in much more detail later in the Deconstruction and Progressions sections of this topic.

I want to be clear in that I’m in no way criticizing Stangaro’s book. Oscar is a giant in the world of bass pedagogy, and The Latin Bass Book was way ahead of its time. In fact, I would consider it as a milestone in the field in which all other bass books must be compared to. I owe my entire sense awareness of Latin music to buying this book as a teenager and sill use the book as a reference to this day.

However, the most helpful written work I’ve been able to find on deconstructing this style is by far Pablo Gil’s 2013 University of Miami dissertation entitled A Jazz Performer’s Guide to Selected Genres of Venezuelan Folk Music. His short description of the genre, the inclusion of multiple instrumental parts and his concise list of repertoire was the winning combination. I’ll be covering many details of Pablo Gil’s dissertation in future posts as well.

The Merengue Venezolano appeared to be the best style to start with in terms of applying all the 80/20 concepts I had been considering putting to use. The primary reasons included the rhythmic difficulty of the style, the lack of usable information online and the fact that it was an undertaking I had abandoned all pursuits of learning years before. I knew there was a considerable amount of mental reprograming that would need to take place in order to properly tackle this personal hurtle. Another factor was the amazing access I had to world-class experts in the style which included Cesar Orozco, Pablo Bencid and Bam Bam Rodriguez just to name a few. Having an environment such as this, along with discovering the information provided in Gil’s doctoral essay made the challenge seem all the more possible. In the next series of entries I will break down my steps in learning this style one at a time and how I eventually applied this process to other challenging genres as well.