Tumbao: The Dancer's Connection To The Clave!

salsa percussion 101 Aug 29, 2019

by Mike Bello

ti-ki-Pah-ka-ti-ki-Toon-Toon, ti-ki-Pah-ka-ti-ki-Toon-Toon
ti-ki-Pah-ka-ti-ki-Toon-Toon, ti-ki-Pah-ka-ti-ki-Toon-Toon

Take a look at the above. Now I want you to vocalize (sing) the above syllables. If you’re not sure how to then follow this:

  1. Softly say ti-ki

  2. Now, with an accent on the first syllable, say Pah-ka

  3. Next, softly say ti-ki

  4. Finally, emphasize the last part Toon-Toon

  5. Say all 8 syllables using a constant tempo & flow!

I’ve found, years after I first developed this method, that I could vocalize (sing) the above by using the rhythm of this common (but old) tongue-twister: Rub-ber ba-by bug-gy bump-er (Fig. 1).

Try it and you’ll see how easy it is,

Congratulate yourself, because what you’ve just accomplished is vocalizing (singing) the rhythm of the conga called tumbao!

The tumbao rhythm is present in well over 90% of the music and at least 90% of each salsa song.

With this rhythm, the more experienced dancers are synchronizing their time-step patterns and enjoying salsa music while they dance mambo.

The pattern follows the above syllables as an eight-count rhythm in one bar (four beats) of music.

So, the above coincides directly as such:

1 (5)


2 (6)


3 (7)


4 (8)


















          Fig. 1


Notice that the first two accents, Pah and Toon, occur on beats 2 and 4.

When dancing Classic Mambo (2,3,4 – 6,7,8 with a break step on 2 and/or 6), the rhythm pattern fits with the tumbao specifically.

When dancing Modern Mambo (1,2,3 – 5,6,7 with a break step on 2 and/or 6) the break step still occurs on 2 and/or 6 but 4 and/or 8 will have the dancers foot in the air traveling in anticipation of stepping on 1 and/or 5.

In either case the dancer will always break on 2 and/or 6 on the Pah portion of the tumbao.

In the vocalization, visualization or other method of mental connection, plainly using Pah–Toon–Toon without the rest of the syllables and at the appropriate time can maintain the dancers timing and connection to the music at hand.

Some dancers prefer Toon–Toon–Pah as their way to connect.

This is probably due to the Toon–Toon being the loudest part of the tumbao and sometimes is "heard" first.

Again, in either case the dancer will always break on 2 and/or 6 on the Pah portion of the tumbao rhythm.

If you find that you have trouble finding the tumbao then practice listening as often as possible for that rhythm.

You need to feel comfortable with it and recognize not only the rhythm pattern but also the timbre of the conga.

The hardest part about listening for the tumbao, though, is hearing the Pah.

The music can be so textured and complex that it may be hard to distinguish that sound from others that occur simultaneously like the bongos’ martillo (pronounced mar-tee-yo) rhythm, the timbales’ cascara rhythm and more.

Once you understand the tumbao you will feel a certain rhythmic connection with the music and your dancing.

And why shouldn’t you?

You’ve been spending a lot of time paying attention to it.

It pays off in the end with becoming a better dancer and that’s very cool!

Get a better understanding of the clave through the tumbao and many other rhythms in salsa music with the  The Facts You Should Know About Salsa Music, Rhythm, Phrasing & Timing course.


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