Afro-Latin Rhythms in Band and General Music Classes

Afro-Latin rhythms are part of the foundation for jazz, rock and pop music. You can teach Afro-Latin rhythms to give your ensemble a strong rhythmic foundation and explore connections between different cultures. Afro-Latin rhythms include rhythms from salsa, Afro-Cuban 6/8 (bembé), swing, bachata, merengue, bossa nova, and samba music, all rooted in West Africa and developed in places like Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Brazil.

Afro-Latin rhythms lend themselves to ensembles that include students with a wide range of skills because the parts that students play can be differentiated and scaffolded. For example, a beginning student might keep a quarter-note pulse on a bass drum while a more advanced student plays a tumbao pattern on a conga, and another student plays 2-3 son clave and 2-3 cáscara rhythms on timbales.

I teach Afro-Latin rhythms in general music and band classes at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS), a Pre-K through 12th grade public school in Manhattan. WHEELS student ensembles play various kinds of rock, pop, Latin and jazz music on a variety of woodwind, brass, string, and percussion instruments. Students orchestrate Afro-Latin rhythms in percussion sections and use these rhythms for comping and soloing on chordal and melodic instruments. The rhythmic vocabulary they learn is a big part of their shared musical language that also includes common scales, chords and riffs. This musical language allows students to improvise and compose with each other and with musicians from beyond our school community, including professionals.

My beginning band and general music students learn to play a basic cha-cha-chá groove on congas, güiros and claves. I have enough of each of these instruments for half of a class of 30 students, so one half of the class can play one kind of instrument while the other half gives feedback, or I can divide the class into halves or thirds and have each part play one of the three instruments. In addition to learning a basic groove or pattern, students learn to play breaks and to improvise, allowing us to create simple arrangements with a beginning, middle and end. We add other instruments into the mix to create various ensembles of different sizes and instrumentations. Adding drum set, timbales, bongos and/or maracas to the conga-güiro-claves ensemble allows us to explore a greater variety of rhythmic vocabulary and genres, from cha-cha-chá and mambo to danzón and bolero. We can replace güiros with güiras and add tamboras when we’re ready to study bachata and merengue. And we can add keyboards, basses, guitars, brass and/or woodwind instruments to create full bands. We play tunes like “Oye Como Va,” “Son De La Loma,” “Obsesión” and “Compadre Pedro Juan.” All students at WHEELS learn to play percussion instruments, even if they specialize in another instrument like trumpet or clarinet in band class. Our ensembles are stronger and more cohesive when all students in the ensemble know how to play the rhythmic patterns, bass line, and melody for every tune we play.

My students and I analyze written music, play along with recordings, and learn by ear. Listening to and playing along with recordings, as well as carefully studying techniques and patterns in method books, are essential parts of learning the nuances of Afro-Latin music. As a starting point I recommend checking out books and music by Rebeca Mauleón, Oscar Stagnaro and Aldo Mazza, as well as music by masters like Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie, Celia Cruz and Juan Luis Guerra. All students can benefit from learning more about Afro-Latin rhythms and the history of Afro-Latin music. Studying this music opens students to new ways of feeling rhythms, hearing connections between different genres, collaborating in ensembles and exploring social issues. My students are particularly interested in studying salsa, bachata and merengue, and those genres are an important part of the history of Washington Heights, so we focus on those genres. There are a wide variety of Afro-Latin music genres for you and your students to choose from. Teaching Afro-Latin music in your classroom will help bring students together around amazing music, cultural connections and essential parts of music history.


Graham Johnson is a music teacher at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) in Manhattan. He has taught elementary, middle and high school band and general music classes, as well as special education, for eleven years. He plays piano with jazz groups in New York City, where he has also had opportunities to study with top musicians on the Afro-Latin music scene.