Here's a confession: I am a terrible dancer. Second confession: I am also a HUGE “So You Think You Can Dance” freak. I LOVE dancing shows, I live SO vicariously through watching other people dance, it just looks so utterly joyous and carefree and fun! And if you've ever watched any dancing show at all, you've probably heard the terms samba, mambo, salsa, cha-cha, rumba etc. In the ballroom world, these are referred to as Latin dances. I am by no means an expert on Latin dance, but from what I understand, these types of dances originate in Latin America, Cuba or Puerto Rico, and several of these dances actually correspond with a musical form. We heard this word before when I spoke about Super Mario World and the theme & variations, which originated in European music. The word form can refer to a grand, overarching architecture of a piece (theme and variations), or it can refer to very small, compact ideas and styles that give a form its character (dance form).I just want to make that clear before I go on, because different cultural styles use the word “form” in different contexts. So, the dance forms we look at are not necessarily these big, broad outlines for an entire piece of music, but instead a collection of small compact ideas and elements that a composer would use to create the piece.
The music for Super Mario Kart was not composed by Koji Kondo; it was composed by relatively unknown composers Soyo Oka and Taro Bando, who worked on a number of early Super Nintendo games. (Kondo and Oka did however work together on the original Pilotwings!) The music from Super Mario Kart has a very unique and definitive sound to it; as I said before, it's mixture of 80's rock, original tracks from Super Mario World, and Latin-style dance music. Latin dance is a very recognizable style of music, one of those “you know it when you hear it” things. Why is that? “It's dancelike!” you say. But why? What makes it dancelike? What is it about any song that makes you want to get up and dance a party? The answer is: rhythm. And Latin dance has very strong, definable rhythmic elements that are instantly recognizable. In relevance to Super Mario Kart, we'll be looking at the samba and the mambo in particular.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that I had no idea the samba and mambo were two distinct musical forms; I thought that when people referred to the samba or mambo, they were referring just to the dance steps. But in fact, the musical forms are very different. I found this great video on Youtube when I was doing research on Latin rhythms, musician Kristin Parker basically outlines the basic differences between a samba and mambo. For one, while they both have African roots, they originated in different places; mambo is a Cuban dance, while the samba is Brazilian. Another difference is the time signature; a samba tends to be in moderate 2/4, while a mambo is in a fast 4/4. Lastly, Each style has strong syncopation elements, but a samba's style tends to be a more laidback, mellow dance, while the mambo is intense and “party-like.”
In both types of dance, there is a LOT of percussion going on and it often subdivides the beat (i.e. four sixteenth notes to every quarter note beat). Typical Latin percussion includes the shaker, clave, bongos, conga drum, etc. Those have very particular timbres (sound quality) that we identify as being Latin in nature. At this point, I encourage you to watch Kristin's video and listen to her examples of each dance, they'll give you a better idea of what we're talking about. Much easier to just listen to the music, rather than describing it in words, I find ;-)
So now that we have a very basic background of what these pieces sound like, let's look at the music of Super Mario Kart! I think we can find some good examples of each dance style here. I think we can safely say that a few tracks are decidedly not Latin; Rainbow Road sounds more like rock to me, and Bowser's Castle and Ghost Valley are both taken from Super Mario World. Mario Circuit is hard to place because it's got the bongo sound, and the piano creating the Latin-like syncopations; but the presence and rhythm of the punchy bass and snare drums makes me think of a rock or pop sound, so let's call Mario Circuit a crossover piece (It's also completely AWESOME when it appears as a remix in Super Smash Brothers Brawl.)
Samba first! I think the best example of a samba in this game is Vanilla Lake (sheets, audio). The tempo is about quarter = 112, a pretty moderate tempo. I can distinctly hear the syncopated percussion, which is comprised of lighter instruments (bongos, shaker). There is also syncopation in the guitar. Lastly, the style of the piece, to my ear, is very laidback and easygoing. So considering the tempo, timbre, and flavor of this piece, I think we could consider this a samba.
What other pieces are sambas in Mario Kart? I'd say Koopa Beach (sheets, audio) as well; the tempo is slightly faster than Vanilla Lake, around quarter = 120, but the melody is pretty smooth and mellow. The bongo is providing that subdivided syncopation that we also heard in the shakers of Vanilla Lake. I'd call it a samba. I'm also tempted to call Choco Island (sheets, audio) a samba--it's roughly the same tempo as Koopa Beach--but something about that piece feels less laidback to me. It could be that it has faster harmonic rhythm (the chord changes happen faster) than Koopa Beach and Vanilla Lake; the percussion break in the middle is pretty active as well, I wouldn't describe it as being laidback. So Choco Island might be somewhat of a crossover between these two styles (or perhaps another Latin style entirely...)
Now for the mambos! Donut Plains (sheets, audio) is the first one that popped in my head. I was a little uncertain of it at first, because it's rather happy and lighthearted, and I think mambos generally have a darker, more intense sound. However, it's tempo is faster than most of the other tracks, around 138 bpm, and it has that 4/4 drive feeling that Kristin speaks about in her video. The choice of percussion for this track is a little heavier than the samba tracks, more drums and whistles and less shaker. I'd also put the Title Theme into this category; the tempo is the fastest out of the entire game around 140 bpm, it contains a lot of syncopation, it's heavy on the percussion and has a pretty active harmonic rhythm. The overall more intense sound and faster tempo makes me think it must be a mambo.
Now I've been speaking exclusively about the music for the racetracks, just to keep this post focused--I challenge you to go listen to the character themes and decide which ones are influenced by Latin dance! For example, try Luigi's Theme (sheets, audio). Samba, mambo, or something different? Test your listening skills! ;-)
The interesting thing is that even though Latin dance music works SO well for Super Mario Kart, the Latin style is not tremendously similar to Kondo's work on the preceding platformer Super Mario games; I find that those games have more of an element of ragtime to them. But it's around this point in time that Mario games do start to gain an occasional Latin feel, i.e. the Special Zone from Super Mario World; later on, the title theme to Mario Party has crazy Latin percussion going on, as well as samba-like the Mini-Game Stadium (both composed by Yasunori Mitsuda). And the Overworld Theme for the New Super Mario Bros. has an EXTREMELY distinct samba feel to it. I wonder if the Latin influences in Mario started with Kondo's Special Zone in SMW? Or maybe it didn't really start taking off until Oka and Bando's work in Super Mario Kart?...
So, to conclude, let me say again that I am no expert on Latin dances. If I've made any mistakes, feel free to call me out on them and correct me—that's how I learn! ;-) Again, I'm writing these blog posts from my own personal discoveries, and I'm sure I'll have a few misconceptions along the way. But let's remember that even though probably none of these tracks are perfect examples of sambas or mambos, the fact that the music has Latin influences at all is what makes the music so AWESOME. A real-life cultural style, Latin music, has been combined with a sound that is entirely Super Mario's; cheerful, carefree, cute, ridiculously happy. And together, these styles make amazing music that makes us tap our feet, snap our fingers, and recall with hatred how supremely infuriating it was to hit a banana peel just before the finish line and watch Donkey Kong Jr. steal first place.
Enjoy the new arrangements for Choco Island, Luigi's Theme and Princess Toadstool's Theme from Super Mario Kart! More on the way!