Music: The rise and decline of Timba and Salsa Nueva

Que sabrosura viva, tremenda expresividad,” echoes the chorus, following an opening riff from ‘losmetales del terror,’ surely the scariest horn section ever. La Habana circa 1989 and like never before, a new band is rocking the city with a tribute to the neighbourhoods. This is not salsa as we’ve known or might expect it. The structure and feel are fresh and innovative, actually disconcerting. Isn’t it jazz or some weird form of rock? You have to pay attention though because this band overflows with virtuosity, breaking tradition consciously, rather than from incompetence. Not a slow number but it feels laid back, grounding you with heavy tumbadoras, driving kit drums and bass, lifting you with blinding horn riffs, and there’s a vocalist whose ease of delivery sends your head swimming. “¿Quién se come el calamar? La gente deMiramar” asks and answers the  chorus. Then half the band cuts out leaving the bass booming and growling under syncopated thumps, to a rhythm section which has taken almost as much from jazz-rock and funk as its Afro-Cuban roots. Almost as much. The percussion breakdown or ‘bomba’ in salsa makes its debut.

This wasNGLa Banda, as they saidwith characteristicmodesty, ‘la quemanda,’ a talent concentrate from which some of Cuba’s current leading artists emerged to form bands in their own right. The working title of ‘bomba-son’ evolved through the 1990s and onwards with new bands and ideas taking shape from an unprecedented pool of talent. Each has added new ingredients to this urban fusion, lending diversity that defies homogenisation. Today the music has become known loosely as timba. Not by chance, the pioneers ofNG(new generation) La Banda were drawn largely from two other bands with histories in pushing forward the frontiers of traditional Cuban music. Though not necessarily for dance music, Irakere has been acclaimed internationally for its fusions of jazz with funk, disco, rock and Afro-Cuban rhythm. On the other hand Los Van Van had enjoyed 20 years or so as Cuba’s number one dance band, combining elements of pop and pan-Caribbean rhythm within a modernized Charanga

lines and sparing use of a shouted chorus, it is more restrained and  comprehensible to a traditional salsa ear. Eschewing themore nihilistic trends of incessant bloques (percussion breaks), structural shifts and breakdowns, it is also easier to dance to for anyone who needs something solid to hang on to. What culminated in a wave of inspired, original, infectious music around 1997, three years later had reachedmaturity, andwas promising to extinguish in a final blast. Everything subsequently has been little more of an afterglow, although if you prefer sophistication and balance to youthful exuberance it is in this later period that you’ll find a spattering of truly timeless gems. While bands of

lesser originality begin to repeat themselves or go all out for the Latin pop market, some of the greatest band leaders are restrained by the confines of dance music, even for a musically sophisticated people like the Cubans. Each exploration by the likes of Giraldo Piloto might continue breaking musical boundaries, but ultimately estranges them from the mass audience upon which they once depended. Their music is just too complex and never settles into comforting recognizable formulas. In this context Cuban rap makes its

appearance. First to make waves were Orishas. In spite of a hip hop parody stage act, their first CD fused rap to powerful effect with the morose nostalgia of the guajira. Another notable is Clan 537 whose more recent hit ‘¿Quién Tiró La Tisa?’ is stunning more in its social than musical content. Officially, racism and class prejudices do not exist in Cuba, although they are deeply ingrained in Cuba’s people and culture. However restrained by American standards, Clan 537 show their resentment of this reality as frankly as timba artists in their day dealt with the problems they could.

Timba will never disappear though. Many bands whose reputations are built on other genres have nodded timba’s way and, in doing so, have incorporated its innovations into the mainstream. This is where timba now lies, so don’t be surprised to hear syncopated electric bass lines and percussion breakdowns from the younger generation of son bands. Neither has the standard of musicianship upon which timba depended disappeared. It has merely lost focus for its employment.Many now wait in anticipation of the nextwave.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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