Cha Cha vs Son Montuno – Part 1

Latin Tracks for February 2015

Song (iTunes)




La Engañadora – Grandes Orquestas Cubanas de los Años 50 Orquesta América Cha-Cha-Cha  Cuba
Trompetas en Chachacha – Todo Chachacha Enrique Jorrín y Su Orquesta  Cha-Cha-Cha Cuba
Tintorera Ya Llegó – Legendary Sessions Chano Pozo / Arsenio Rodríguez Son Montuno  Cuba
Yo No Engaño a las Nenas – Legendary Sessions Chano Pozo / Arsenio Rodríguez  Son Montuno  Cuba
Llego Mijan – Mambo Love! Latin Wedding Playlist By Tie The Knot Tunes Tito Puente ? USA
De Nueva York – Melaza Melaza ? USA
Había Cavour – Regresando al Guaguancò La Maxima 79 ? Italy
Son Montuno Pa’l Bailador – San Agustin Edwin Sanz ?  Venezuela
Gira y Gira – Gerardo Rosales: 30 Aniversario Gerado Rosales ? Venezuela


Cha Cha vs Son Montuno

Over the years I’ve collected a number of songs that I’ve classified, for dancing purposes, as cha-cha-cha.  However, musically there is a lot of variety within this collection with songs coming from a range of musical genres such as afro-pop, latin jazz, and rock.  Of course the collection also includes tracks I would consider to be classic cha-cha.   From a dancing perspective, this distinction isn’t that important.  What is important is that each of these songs contains a rhythm that allows the dancer to dance a cha-cha step.  None the less, in some of these songs the lyrics or title include the name of a musical genre and often that genre is not cha-cha but ‘son montuno’.  So that got me wondering, what is the difference between cha-cha and son montuno?  And an even better question, what is son montuno?  Over the next couple of blog posts I’ll attempt to answer those questions by first exploring the origins of these two musical styles and then by digging into the musical characteristics that define them.

The genre known as cha-cha or cha-cha-cha was first created in the 1950’s by Cuban violinist and composer Enrique Jorrín.  Jorrín’s cha-cha was a variation on danzon and much like danzon, it was originally written for charanga ensembles (musical formations that include flutes, violins and timbales) and did not make use of the clave rhythm.  Interestingly, the name for the genre was something Jorrín came up with well after he wrote his first cha-cha compositions.  He noticed that when people danced to the music their feet made a shuffling ‘cha-cha-cha’ sound as they moved across the dance floor.

From a musical standpoint the first cha-chas were written in a “monodic choral vocal style with accents from the chotis madrileño and rhythmic elements from the mambo-style danzón; but with a novel structural conception: introduction-verse-bridge-coda in double time.” (Odilio Urfé).  To me that sounds like a bunch of musicology mumbo-jumbo.  What is more interesting and maybe more informative in regards to the topic of son montuno vs cha-cha, is that Jorrín and those who composed their own versions of cha-cha music did not maintain this structure in later compositions.  It would seem that composers may have been motivated by the desire to provide music to which dancers could dance a cha-cha step as opposed to being true any defining musical rules.

Son Montuno
In general, people are familiar with the term ‘Cha-cha’ in reference to music and dance.   Son montuno, on the other hand, is a totally different story.  Son montuno is a sub-genre of Cuban son, which is arguably one of the most important and influential musical styles to ever originate in Cuba.  Like son, son montuno is based on the clave rhythm.  It’s not totally clear how son montuno evolved from son.  The word ‘montuno’ may have originally been a reference to the mountainous areas of eastern Cuba, which would indicate that the musical styles of that region had an influence on the music itself.  However, over time ‘montuno’ came to  describe the final uptempo and often semi-improvised section of a song.

Son montuno’s humble beginnings occurred in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century and the genre may very well have remained relatively obscure if it wasn’t for the glorious musical talents of Arsenio Rodríguez.  By some accounts Rodríguez laid the foundation that modern Cuban salsa is built upon and much of that foundation appears in the son montuno music he wrote in the mid part of the 20th century.   Arsenio popularized the use of layered “guajeos” – interlocking  melodic riffs played by various instruments.  In addition, he expanded the traditional conjunto formation by adding multiple brass instruments, conga drums, and the piano to the original son sexteto/septeto lineups.  He also added a cowbell to the montuno sections of songs.  All of these elements have become characteristics of modern day salsa music.

From these origins it’s hard to imagine there being any confusion between son montuno and a cha-cha.  If only that were true…  Over time, like all music, son montuno and cha-cha have evolved and that evolution has resulted in musical styles that can sound very similar indeed.   That said, son montuno and cha-cha continue to have characteristics that distinguish them from each but I will leave that topic for another blog post.  For now, take a listen to some of the songs I’ve included in this month’s playlist and you can decide for yourself what the differences are.

Questions, comments, requests? Send me an email

– clavecito