The prototype of the "man sized bowed instrument" known as double bass --or contrabass, or bass violin-- can be traced to the Renaissance and Baroque days, when the so-called violone took various other names in the countries and city-states of Europe. Greater changes were bound to take place after it was imported to the Americas, where it has become more closely identified with jazz than with the symphonic literature for which it was intended. In the realm of jazz, no other instrument is more essential.
South American Ways
At the same time, the bass assumed a percussive function in certain Latin American countries. It appears, for instance, that the prevalent bass patterns in Brazilian music originated from the sound of the surdo, the bass drum of the escola de samba. Something similar happened in the Argentine tango, the illegitimate offspring of the so-called habanera. The tango swing is based on a 4-beat marcato bass pattern and a series of assorted syncopations, combined with percussive effects and a particular bowing technique.
Argentine bass players had to deal with the bandoneonistas in charge, while their Brazilian peers --born in a country with a surplus of guitar and caviquinho masters-- did not get much action either, at least until the birth of bossa nova in the late 1950s.
"A lot of bossa nova around that time was an adaptation of the Bill Evans-style trio concept of jazz with Brazilian samba," said a third-generation bassist named Alex Malheiros, whose father constructed the first electric bass in that South American country, after seeing the 1956 film "Rock, Pretty Baby."
Although there are many other talented players from Brazil (Arthur Maia, Luiz Chavez, Rodolfo Stroeter, Felipe Ornato, Luiz Alves, Nilson Matta, Paulo Russo, Tiao Neto, Theo de Barros, Sergio Brandao, etc.) and Argentina (Pablo Aslán, Héctor Console, Kicho Díaz, etc.), a significant bass school of "nuestra América" was established in Cuba. Like their Brazilian colleagues, Cuban bassists often patterned their playing after a bass drum sound, such as the one assigned to the lowest sounding tumbadora in the guaguancó idiom. One must also notice that the rhythmic and harmonic basis of the Cuban son is founded on the constant outline formulated by the pizzicato function of the bass which eventually established a meaningful relationship with the piano, in order to implement the required tumbao patterns subsequently assimilated by many non-Cuban players, as the island's native genres became increasingly popular during the past century.
Fiddlers, Blowers and Pluckers
The earliest presence of the double bass in Cuba's genres can be traced to the 19th century orquestas típicas that interpreted the Creole contradanza, which later evolved into the danzón. Although the fiddle-and-flute charangas prevailed over the aforesaid brassy orchestras, what truly counts is that the double bass was prominently featured in both of such ancestral formats. The descendent of the 17th century violone exercised its full force and effect in Havana. There was no need to utilize, as in some geographically isolated regions of the so-called New World, a tuba player to fill in the gap.
As a matter of fact, such Havanese luxuries were not even available in the remote hills of Cuba's Oriente Province, where the original son bass was not a bass fiddle but a botija fashioned out of a clay vessel. Capable of producing only a single bass pattern, the primitive botija was eventually replaced by the marímbula, a small wooden box with strips of metal used for plucking. Although the marímbula pluckers prevailed over the botija blowers, the important thing is that both instruments served to provide the early bass patterns of the Cuban son sextets. The Matanzas-born bassist Humberto Cané mentioned once that Sexteto Habanero...