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Cuban Music Lesson: Timba

Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

By Jack Tomas

The first time I went to Cuba, I noticed that something was strange with the salsa. Not the watered down stuff that you heard in the tourist areas, but the stuff I’d hear coming out of old 80’s style boom boxes on El Malecon at night. At first, it sounded like salsa, but when I listened closer I noticed how much more complex it was. I asked someone what was different about this kind of salsa. The Cubans I asked shook their heads and said, “Eso no es salsa, asere. ¡Eso es timba, broder!”

So, what the hell is timba and how is it different than salsa? I’m glad you asked. When Darwin went to the Galapagos islands, he noticed that the same type of bird could be radically different from one island to the other. The more isolated, the bigger the difference. This is sort of what happened to salsa and timba. The proto-salsa that was developing in Cuba in the 60’s split into two groups. People like Celia Cruz went to the United States while groups like Los Van Van stayed in Cuba. The musicians that went to the U.S. collaborated with Puerto Rican bands and American jazz musicians in New York and created salsa. The people who stayed in Cuba took the bebop jazz of the 60’s, added an American style rock drum kit, stuck in some layered multi-voice vocal harmonies, and crazy horn sections to create timba. Timba rhythms are more complex than salsa, with traditional percussion instruments like congas playing counter measures with the drum kit. Then the horns come in playing complex jazz style melodies. The beat is aggressive, and is egged on by several singers singing in unison, similar to old school rumba. It’s a lot for the ear to take in, but in a good way. It’s like when you eat too much at thanksgiving

Timba really took off in the 90’s during the “special period” after the Soviet Union collapsed. Things started to suck in Cuba something serious. Adversity sometimes leads to great art. Old groups like Los Van Van led to newer bands like NG La Banda and Charanga Habanera. This is also when the dancing style associated with timba came about. Imagine if salsa dancing and hip-hop booty dancing got drunk and made out in the bathroom. That’s how you dance to timba. I could never imagine an American White girl begging her lame yuppie boyfriend to take timba dancing lessons.

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