Cha Cha vs Son Montuno – Part 2

Latin Tracks for April 2015

Song (iTunes)




Mas Bajo – El Rey  Tito Puente Cha-Cha USA
Lindo Yambu – Leyendas De La Fania Vol III Eddie Palmiere Son-Montuno  USA
American Sueño  La Excelencia Guajira*  USA
Regalito de Dios – La Vuelta al Mundo  Havana d’Primera Timba  Cuba
Tu Loco Loco y Yo Tranquilo – La Herencia Roberto Roena Salsa  Puerto Rico
Las Nenas Lindas (Version Salsa)  Jowell y Randy Salsaton Puerto Rico
Quiero Estar Contigo – Single – Ivan Venot  Ivan Venot Bachata Italy
Me Enamore – Lo Mejor de Lo Mejor  Kiko Rodriguez Bachata Dominican Rep.
Ma meilleure amie – Ma meilleure amie – Single  Kaysha Zouk Zaire

*Depends who you ask (see link)

cha-cha vs son montuno3

Recognizing Cha Cha and Son Montuno

In my last blog post I introduced the idea that some of the music that people like to dance cha-cha to is, musically speaking, not actually cha-cha.  In that post I highlighted the origins of cha-cha music and that of another genre commonly used for dancing cha-cha, son montuno.  In this post I am going to dig a little deeper into the musical differences between these two genres.  Now, I am not a musician so I’ve focused on musical traits that I think are relatively easy to understand and that the casual listener can identify.

I’ve included in this month’s play list a cha-cha by Tito Puente called Más Bajo.   A great track for dancing cha-cha and a great track for highlighting the musical characteristics I’m going to describe below.  If you really want to hear these traits in the music, I highly recommend getting a copy of the song and listening to it a few times with a pair of good headphones. Ok that said, let’s get to the details.

  1. Cha-cha music does not typically make use of the clave rhythm.

  2. Traditionally, cha-chas are always played in a major key (Más Bajo for example is in the key of C)

  3. Cha-cha music features the standard conga tumbao pattern, which typically uses open strokes on beats “4 &”. This is also common in other Latin genres. However, in cha-cha music these beats would often be emphasized by additional instruments such as the piano, bass and possibly horns.

  4. The basic pulse of cha-cha is double that of a Son Montuno. This rhythm is emphasized by a bell (campana) on the 8th notes (dancer’s count) and is potentially played by the timbalero (timables player)

  5. In addition to the basic pulse mentioned above, another common rhythm found in cha-cha is the following one, which usually starts on the first beat of the bar.

    1. (1)daaaa – di daaaa – di di (1) daaaa – di daaaa – di di etc.

  6. In cha-cha the piano often plays repeated short, simple passages of music (also known as vamps).

There you have it, 6 basic characteristics that you can listen for in a song to see if it’s cha-cha. Again, take a listen to the song I mentioned earlier, Más Bajo by Tito Puento, to see if you can identify any of those traits in the music.

Son Montuno
Let’s move on to son montuno.  For this discussion, as our point of reference we’re going to be listening to a song by Eddie Palmieri called Lindo Yambu.  Here are some of the characteristics that you are going to listen for.

  1. Unlike cha-cha, son montuno makes use of the clave rhythm (either implicitly or explicitly).

  2. The basic pulse of a son montuno is emphasized by a bell (campana) which tends to play beats 1, 3, 5, 7

  3. You may hear the piano or bass or conga accenting the “4 &” beat, but not as much as in ChaCha. The default emphasis will be just on beat “4” (as is typical for son).

  4. The dominant bell pattern, often played by the bongo player, goes something like this

    (1)daaa – dee – daaa – di di (1) daaa – di di – daaa – di di

  5. The piano player will play a syncopated pattern during the montuno section of the song.  These can be quite elaborate piano riffs.
  6. Like cha-cha, son montuno can be found in a variety of tempos – including tempos typically used for salsa dancing. So, as a point of clarification, the tempo of a song does not distinguish it as either cha-cha or son montuno.

Ok, now that you have the details take a listen to the Eddie Palmieri track I mentioned above and see if you can hear any of these is the song

There you have it, a few of the musical differences between cha-cha and son montuno.  But a warning, these differences are rough guidelines at best.  The fact is that they only seem to apply some of the time.  It would appear that musicians are not too concerned about paying attention to the rules that define a genre.  They may borrow elements from on style or another and end up with a composition that resembles cha-cha or son montuno.  They may even go as far as to label a song as one particular genre or another. Case in point, the song Llegó Miján by Tito Puente (which appeared in last month’s playlist) has in the lyrics repeated references to ‘cha-cha’ so you could easily be forgiven in thinking it was a cha-cha. However, in the track listing on at least one album where this song appears (Tito Puente’s Dance Mania), it has been classified as son montuno.  So the question is, does it really matter? Composers will write what ever the like and dancer will dance steps that best fit that music. At the end of the day, there is not right or wrong.  

One final note, much of the information I’ve presented in this post came from two sources.  One was  a multi-page thread over at where people were discussing the differences between cha-cha, son montuno and some other genres.  It is very entertaining and at times heated discussion that is worth reading if the topic interests you.  This other was this discussion over at the newsgroup.  

Questions, comments, requests? Send me an email

– clavecito


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



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