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A descarga (literally discharge in Spanish) is an improvised jam session consisting of variations on Cuban music themes, primarily son montuno, but also guajira, bolero, guaracha and rumba.[1] The genre is strongly influenced by jazz and it was developed in Havana during the 1950s. Important figures in the emergence of the genre were Cachao, Julio Gutiérrez, Bebo Valdés, Peruchín and Niño Rivera in Cuba, and Tito Puente in New York. Originally, descargas were promoted by record companies such as Panart, Maype and Gema under the label Cuban jam sessions. From the 1960s, the descarga format was usually adapted by large salsa ensembles, most notably Fania All-Stars.



Piano guajeo in the Mario Bauzá composition "Tangá". This tune is considered the first Afro-Cuban jazz piece. As such, the 1949 recording of this song by Machito and his Afro-Cubans was an important factor in the development of the descarga format. In fact, pieces such as "Tangá" were commonly performed in jam sessions.[2]

During the 1940s, the term descarga was commonly used in the music scenes of Cuba to refer to performances of jazz-influenced boleros in an improvised manner. This was part of the so-called filin (feeling) movement spearheaded by artists such as José Antonio Méndez, César Portillo de la Luz, and Luis Yánez.[1] This style was inherited by musicians such as Bebo Valdés and Frank Emilio Flynn who explored the combination of jazz and Cuban forms into the 1950s. At this time however, the term descarga began to be used in a different way to describe jam sessions based on the son montuno and other Afro-Cuban rhythms.[1] The incipient mambo and Afro-Cuban jazz scene found in New York during the 1940s was also a catalyst to the development of descargas, with artists such as Machito, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Tito Puente performing extended jams with Afro-Cuban motifs.[2][3]


Cachao and his band, as depicted by the March 1961 edition of the Cuban "Show" magazine. Left to right: Cachao (bass), Gustavo Tamayo (güiro), Tata Güines (tumbadora), Alejandro "El Negro" Vivar (trumpet), Rogelio "Yeyo" Iglesias (bongos) and Guillermo Barreto (timbales). This picture was taken during the same photo shoot that yielded the cover of Descargas: Cuban Jam Sessions in Miniature.

The first series of commercially successful descarga jam sessions were recorded between 1956 and 1958 at the Panart studios in Havana.[1] The Panart descarga sessions were released in three volumes under the title Cuban Jam Session; they would sell over a million copies.[2] Volumes I (1956, yellow cover) and II (1957, blue cover) where recorded under the direction of Julio Gutiérrez with Peruchín on piano. The sessions where recorded by engineer Fernando Blanco in Havana and then sent for editing to New York. According to the original liner notes of Volume I, the studio doors where opened at 10:30 PM and the recordings took place throughout the night.[4] The jams in Volume I revolve around canción, mambo, chachachá and conga themes; the longest track, "Opus for Dancing", lasts 10 minutes. Volume II kicks off with "Descarga caliente", a 17-minute montuno jam, and side B includes a three jams: rumba, chachachá and batá (Santería-based). Volume III (1958, red cover) was directed by tresero Niño Rivera and it comprises three montuno tracks combined with swing, guajira and chachachá, plus a guaguancó-comparsa.[4] The only musicians to participiate in all three sessions where Alejandro "El Negro" Vivar (trumpet), Emilio Peñalver (tenor saxophone) and Salvador "Bol" Vivar (double bass). Another session entitled Cuban Jam Session with Fajardo, recorded under the direction of flautist José Fajardo, was released by Panart around 1959. The album features jazz-inspired mambos, chachachás, guajiras, montunos and charanga tunes.[4]

In 1957, Cachao recorded in the Panart studios his Cuban Jam Sessions in Miniature, short descargas which contrasted with the extended jams in the Cuban Jam Session albums. The album, credited to "Cachao y su ritmo caliente" (Cachao and his hot rhythm), has been described as a "historic recording" with a "classic rhythm section" and "the true salsa musician's bible on record".[5] The same year, Chico O'Farrill directed two descargas, namely "Descarga Número 1" and "Descarga Número 2" with his all-star group, All Stars Cubano, featuring Cachao on bass. O'Farrill's recordings were released by Gema as a single and later included in the multi-artist LP Los mejores músicos de Cuba (1959).[6] Cachao continued to record descarga sessions as a leader between 1958 and 1960: Cuban Music in Jam Session (Bonita), Descargas con el ritmo de Cachao (Modiner), Descarga (Maype) and Jam Session with Feeling (Maype); some sessions remained in the vaults for years, such as Cachao te pone a bailar, released by Teca in 1971. At the same time, Cachao recorded sessions of traditional danzones: Camina Juan Pescao (Duher), Con el ritmo de Cachao (Duarte/Kubaney) and El gran Cachao (Kubaney), featuring former members of Arcaño y sus Maravillas.[7] Nonetheless, later in his career he would record many of these danzones ("Avance Juvenil", "Ahora sí", etc.) in an extended, descarga-like format.

Simultaneously with the Panart recordings from Havana, Tito Puente recorded a full descarga album in 1956, Puente in Percussion. It is a percussion-heavy set of descargas featuring Mongo Santamaría, Willie Bobo and Carlos "Patato" Valdés. Like Cuban Jam Session Vol I, the album features variations on mambo themes, although the focus of Tito's recordings is the percussion section, lacking a pianist to play the guajeos. The album featured guest bassist Bobby "Big Daddy" Rodríguez to play tumbaos on a couple of tracks.[8] In 1957, Puente recorded his critically acclaimed Top Percussion, the follow-up to Puente in Percussion. It features Mongo Santamaría, Willie Bobo, Francisco Aguabella and Julito Collazo. The album closer is a 7-minute descarga-jazz with guest Doc Severinsen on lead trumpet.[9]

In 1958, Walfredo de los Reyes, the timbalero in Cuban Jam Session Vols I and II, recorded Sabor cubano with pianist Yoyo Casteleiro, a horn section, and singers Kiko Rodríguez and Martha Rams. The album included Chico O'Farrill's "Descarga", Tito Puente's "Mambo Inn" and a guaracha titled "Cuban Jam Session" credited to Rafael Hernández.[10]


In 1960, Walfredo de los Reyes recorded his second descarga LP as a leader, Cuban Jazz. Unlike his previous album, this one featured a heavy percussion section courtesy of Los Papines. In addition, Cachao performed on bass.[11] Cachao left Cuba in 1961, staying in Madrid until 1963, before moving to New York, where he joined Tito Rodríguez's orchestra. Cachao's influence is notable in jams such as "Descarga Cachao" and "Descarga Malanga".[12]

During the early 1960s the descarga genre was revitalized in New York by the Alegre All-Stars, an ensemble featuring the most successful artists in the Alegre Records roster. The albums were produced by Al Santiago, who chose Charlie Palmieri as music director, and they would have a major influence on the development of salsa, launching the careers of artists such as Johnny Pacheco, Cheo Feliciano and Barry Rogers.[13][14] Soon, Alegre's biggest competitor, Tico, launched its own "house band", Tico All-Stars, playing the same style of "Nuyorican" descargas. Meanwhile, the Alegre All-Stars project was continued by Al Santiago under different names, namely Cesta All-Stars and Salsa All-Stars. In 1968, Jerry Masucci and Johnny Pacheco, the owners of New York's leading salsa label, Fania Records, decided to start another project in the vein of the Alegre All-Stars but with a different approach: the music would now revolve around large-ensemble salsa played live instead of the 1950s Panart studio descarga style. The band, the Fania All-Stars, debuted in 1968 at the Red Garter in Greenwich Village with a lineup that included Ray Barretto, Joe Bataan, Willie Colón, Bobby Valentín and Larry Harlow among others, plus guests Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente and Richie Ray. The concert was recorded and divided into two LPs, Live at the Red Garter Volumes I and II, which were moderately successful.[15][16]


Fania All-Stars in Venezuela, 1980. Fania All-Stars were responsible for the popularization of salsa, especially salsa dura, a style which relied on the descarga format with long jams and extended soloing.

In 1970, Eddie Palmieri released Superimposition, an LP with descargas such as "Chocolate Ice Cream" and "17.1", which featured Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros on trumpet. Armenteros would later join Grupo Folklórico y Experimental Nuevayorquino, an ensemble founded by musicologist and producer René López. The group played extended descargas with a modern salsa sound.[13]

On August 26, 1971, the Fania All-Stars were reformed with a new lineup to perform at the Cheetah. The concert was recorded and filmed, yielding a documentary, Our Latin Thing, and three albums, Live at the Cheetah, Volumes I and II and the soundtrack to Our Latin Thing.[16] The performances are all in a salsa dura style and in a descarga format, which is acknowledged in the 9-minute long "Descarga Fania", written by Ray Barretto and arranged by Barretto and pianist Louie Cruz.[17] The concert is often cited as one of the most crucial moments in the history of salsa, highlighting the importance of the descarga format in the success of the genre during the 1970s.[18]

In 1977, Cachao was brought to a studio by musicologist René López to record two new albums for the Salsoul label: Cachao y su descarga 77 and Dos. Half of the recorded tracks were danzones composed by Cachao during his early career, whereas the other half of the album consisted of Afro-Cuban descargas, as in the later stages of Cachao's career.[19] The recording sessions featured prestigious musicians including "first generation" descarga artists such as El Negro Vivar, Chocolate Armenteros, Patato Valdés and Julito Collazo, as well as members of the "second generation" of descarga and salsa musicians such as Barry Rogers, Nelson González and Andy González.

On September 18, 1977, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, Tito Puente in collaboration with vibraphonist Cal Tjader introduced descarga for the first time to the mainstream jazz audience with his closing 10-minute rendition of the classic son "Pare cochero" (written by Marcelino Guerra).[20]

Starting in 1979, the Cuban all-star ensemble Estrellas de Areito directed by Juan Pablo Torres released five albums consisting exclusively of descargas. The first LP (Los héroes) was later reissued by World Circuit in 1999 to critical acclaim.[21]

1980s to present[edit]

In 1981, Walfredo de los Reyes, Cachao and Paquito Hechavarría came together to record Walpataca, a descarga album released by Tania Records. The album was listed as number 60 in Latin Beat Magazine's "Top 100 Independent Recordings" (June/July 2004).[22] The same group (with additional musicians) would record the album Maestro de Maestros for Tania in 1986. The album, credited to Cachao y su Descarga '86, included a series of guaracha jams and the "bass and quinto" piece "Walpataca II". It featured flautist José Fajardo and percussionist Nelson "Flaco" Padrón.[23][24]


Bass tumbao by Cachao in the intro of "Descarga cubana", from the album Cuban Jam Sessions in Miniature (1957).

In general, descargas are long improvised pieces characterised by the inclusion of repeated guajeos and tumbaos. Solos are often performed by the different musicians, including the singers (if any). Simple choruses are usually repeated by the backing vocalists (coro).

With the advent of salsa, descargas began to include elements from other Latin American traditions, especially from Puerto Rico, Colombia and Panamá. An example is Rubén Blades' "Tiburón", which combines typical Cuban rumba percussion with the seis genre from Puerto Rico featuring Yomo Toro on cuatro, as well as the characteristic trombone section of salsa dura.[25]

Notable performers[edit]

Music direction
Julio Gutiérrez, Niño Rivera, José Fajardo, Cachao, Chico O'Farrill, Walfredo de los Reyes, Johnny Pacheco
Julio Gutiérrez, Peruchín, Bebo Valdés, Frank Emilio Flynn, Orestes López, Yoyo Casteleiro, Charlie Palmieri, Papo Lucca, Paquito Hechavarría
Alejandro "El Negro" Vivar, Luis Escalante, Nilo Argudín, Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros, Leonardo Timor, Carlos Arado, Pedro "Puchi" Boulong, Héctor "Bomberito" Zarzuela
Generoso Jiménez, Antonio Linares, Luis "El Pibe" Outumuro, Leopoldo "Pucho" Escalante, Barry Rogers, Mark Weinstein
Alto saxophone
Edilberto Escrich, Santiago Peñalver
Baritone saxophone
Virgilio Vixama, Osvaldo Peñalver, Osvaldo "Mosquifín" Urrutia
Tenor saxophone
Gustavo Mas, Emilio Peñalver, Pedro Chao, José "Chombo" Silva
Juan Pablo Miranda, José Fajardo, Richard Egües, Johnny Pacheco

Double bass
Cachao, Salvador "Bol" Vivar, Bobby "Big Daddy" Rodríguez, Bobby Valentín, Andy González
Niño Rivera, Nelson González
Jose Antonio Méndez
Guillermo Barreto, Walfredo de los Reyes, Jesús "Chuchu" Ezquijarrosa, Tito Puente, Kako, Orestes Vilató, Manny Oquendo, Nicky Marrero
Guillermo Barreto, Walfredo de los Reyes
Óscar Valdés Sr., Rogelio "Yeyo" Iglesias, Roberto Roena
Marcelino Valdés, Tata Güines, Carlos "Patato" Valdés, Giraldo Rodríguez, Julito Collazo, Johnny "Dandy" Rodríguez
Gustavo Tamayo, Rolando Valdés, Osvaldo "Chihuahua" Martínez
Francisco Fellové, Yayo El Indio, Rudy Calzado, Cheo Feliciano, Héctor Lavoe, Adalberto Santiago, Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Acosta, Leonardo (2006). "La realidad sobre la descarga". Otra visión de la música popular cubana (in Spanish). Barranquilla, Colombia: La Iguana Ciega. 
  2. ^ a b c Torres, George (2013). "Descarga". Encyclopedia of Latin American Popular Music. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood. pp. 145–147. 
  3. ^ Salazar, Max (February 1997). "La Descarga Cubana: The Beginning and Its Best". Latin Beat Magazine (Vol. 7, No. 1). Retrieved 7 March 2015. 
  4. ^ a b c Sanders, Mark (March 17, 2009). "Panart Cuban Jam Sessions: LP scans". Fidel's Eyeglasses. Retrieved 8 March 2015. 
  5. ^ Various reviewers. "Cuban Jam Sessions in Miniature "Descargas"". Retrieved 8 March 2015. 
  6. ^ Sanders, Mark (October 17, 2008). "Los mejores músicos de Cuba". Fidel's Eyeglasses. Retrieved 8 March 2015. 
  7. ^ Clarke, Donald, ed. (1990). The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music. London, UK: Penguin Books. p. 722. 
  8. ^ Bush, John. "Tito Puente - Puente in Percussion". AllMusic. Rovi. Retrieved 8 March 2015. 
  9. ^ Roberts, John Storm. "Tito Puente - Top Percussion". AllMusic. Rovi. Retrieved 8 March 2015. 
  10. ^ "Walfredo Reyes and His Orchestra – Sabor Cubano". Discogs. Retrieved 8 March 2015. 
  11. ^ Díaz Ayala, Cristóbal (1998). Cuando salí de la Habana: cien años de música cubana por el mundo. 1898-1997, Volume 1 (in Spanish). San Juan, PR: Editorial Plaza Mayor. p. 155. 
  12. ^ Clarke, Donald, ed. (1998). The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (2nd ed.). London, UK: Penguin Books. p. 1107. 
  13. ^ a b Gerard, Charley (2001). Music from Cuba: Mongo Santamaria, Chocolate Armenteros, and Cuban Musicians in the United States. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. pp. 101–126. 
  14. ^ Child, John (1998). "Profile: Al Santiago". In Clarke, Donald. The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (2nd ed.). London, UK: Penguin Books. Retrieved 9 March 2015. 
  15. ^ Shapiro, Mark (2007). Passion and Pain: The Life of Hector Lavoe. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press. pp. 59–60. 
  16. ^ a b Muriel, Tommy. "Biografía de la Fania". La Gran Enciclopedia Ilustrada del Projecto Salón Hogar (in Spanish). Fundación Educativa Héctor A. García. Retrieved 9 March 2015. 
  17. ^ Rondón, César Miguel (2008). Book of Salsa: A Chronicle of Urban Music from the Caribbean to New York City. The University of North Carolina Press. p. 57. 
  18. ^ Rother, Larry (August 19, 2011). "It Happened One Night at the Cheetah". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 March 2015. 
  19. ^ Rondón, César Miguel (2008). Book of Salsa: A Chronicle of Urban Music from the Caribbean to New York City. The University of North Carolina Press. pp. 153–154. 
  20. ^ Powell, Josephine (2007). Tito Puente: When the Drums Are Dreaming. Bloomington, IN: Autorhouse. p. 275. 
  21. ^ "Estrellas de Areito". Nonesuch. Retrieved 8 March 2015. 
  22. ^ "Walfredo de los Reyes Sr. and Paquito and Tany Gil and Israel "Cachao" López – Walpataca". Discogs. Retrieved 8 March 2015. 
  23. ^ Gómez Sotolongo, Andrés (2008). Al son son y al vino vino (in Spanish). Raleigh, NC: Lulu. p. 46. 
  24. ^ "Maestro de Maestros - Cachao y su Descarga ‘86". Retrieved 10 March 2015. 
  25. ^ Aparicio, Frances R. (1998). Listening to Salsa: Gender, Latin Popular Music, and Puerto Rican Cultures. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. p. 83. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Acosta, Leonardo (2000). Descarga cubana: el jazz en Cuba, 1900-1950. Havana, Cuba: Ediciones Unión.
  • Acosta, Leonardo (2002). Descarga número dos: el jazz en Cuba, 1950-2002. Havana, Cuba: Ediciones Unión.
  • Mauleón, Rebeca (2005). Salsa Guidebook for Piano and Ensemble. Petaluma, CA: Sher Music Co.