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Making meaning by default. Timba and the challenges of escapist music

Vincenzo Perna

The article examines timba as a form of discourse inscribed in the influential notion of the ‘black Atlantic’ formulated by Paul Gilroy. It makes the case of timba as a type of non-engaged music which, while presenting itself as emphatically escapist, during the 1990s has in fact become intensely political in the way it has articulated a discourse challenging dominant views on race, class, gender and nation. Significantly, Gilroy’s analysis pays a special attention to music and dance, considering them as foundational elements of black diasporic culture. Such role of music and dance can be seen at work in timba, where they have challenged the conventional meaning of ‘political song’. Contrary to writers who have tried to reduce timba to an ephemeral occurrence of the 1990s, the article contends that música bailable (dance music) continues to represent the most visible black Cuban subcultural mass expression, and possibly one of the most significant cultural forms emerged from the island during the last century, where it has appeared able to negotiate a place between a sense of belonging and a vision of modernity that holds a central place in the identity of contemporary Afro-Cubans.

The ‘rumbas’ are danced with sensuous music and the dance themselves often become indecent. …

It is undeniable that sensuous songs and dances have the effect of developing a mob spirit. In the case of the negro they may arouse a sense of racial solidarity.
US minister Boaz Long, letter to the State Department, 1920.[1]

¡Camina pa' la pista que la pista no tiene espinas!
“Opening”, Bamboleo [2]

In a recent article, a Cuban author described timba as a música de crisis (“crisis music”), the product of the difficult moment experienced by Cuban society in the mid-1990s (García Meralla 2004). After 15 years of período especial, however, Cuban society does not appear to have found its way out of a crisis that has been virtually institutionalized. And one might argue that, while the international scene of Cuban music has remarkably diversified, timba remains the most visibly popular form of entertainment of black Cubans.

This article makes the case of timba as a type of non-engaged music, which, while presenting itself as emphatically escapist, discloses as intensely political, articulating a discourse that challenges dominant views on race, class, gender and nation in the Cuba of the período especial. These aspects of timba, I believe, explain the reasons for its tremendous popularity in the 1990s and illuminate the motives for its repression at the end of the decade. They also highlight the difficulties that Western media and audiences seem to encounter when dealing with ‘non-Western’ sounds that challenge simplistic views on the politics of popular song and ready-made notions of first vs. third world.

In this article, I will build on some of the arguments I have formulated in a previous work (Perna 2005/b), and try to examine timba as a form of black music and political discourse inscribed in the influential notion of the black Atlantic formulated by Anglo-Jamaican scholar Paul Gilroy. This, I believe, will enable to uncover timba’s significance as dance music, helping to trace its relationship with the fabric of the black diaspora and look at it as part of a process of re-affirmation of black identity that is presently manifesting in Cuba across a range of black musical, artistic, and religious expressions.

1. The popularity of timba in the 1990s

During the 1990s, timba emerged in Cuba as both a musical novelty and a socially controversial form. In the context of the dramatic economic crisis unleashed by the collapse of the Soviet Union - the euphemistically-called período especial, or ‘special period’ -the new style placed itself at the centre of the Cuban entertainment industry, met with a preferential treatment by state-controlled contracting agencies, and came to dominate Cuban music radio stations. By the mid-1990s, timba enjoyed in Cuba an enormous popularity and was adopted by virtually all local dance bands.

Why timba became so popular in Cuba? Musically, it was quite innovative. Thanks to the work of José Luís Cortés and NG La Banda, the new style appeared able to fuse rhythmic drive, social commentary and virtuoso playing, combining popular forms with a jazz-derived aesthetics (many of its original founders were in fact former members of jazz-fusion supergroup Irakere). At the end of the 1980s, the band invented a sound that joined an extremely high technical standard with a mass appeal, producing an avant-garde dance music of sort. At a time of great social transformations, such music seemed to be able to convey instances of change, hope and challenge to the established musical order.

Timba was, nonetheless, a form of dance music (música bailable, or MB), a type of music that in Cuba has always enjoyed a loyal following among the black sector of the population. Timba bands targeted the black audiences of the poor neighbourhoods, assembling a musical constituency in the barrios. Groups such as NG La Banda arranged ‘tours’ through those neighbourhoods (something previously unheard of in Cuban popular music), celebrated them into their songs, and built an enthusiastic following among young, lower-class Blacks.

Aside from aesthetic and ideological considerations, timba was able to reach its popularity during the 1990s also because of the radical social and economic changes underwent by Cuba during the early years of the período especial. The crisis affected all aspects of Cubans’ daily life causing food shortages, lack of transportation and constant power blackouts, forcing the government to adopt pragmatic attitudes and launch drastic economic reforms, such as the legalization of the dollar, a re-conversion of the economy from agriculture to tourism, the opening the country to international capitals, and a considerable softening of ideological attitudes[3].

The rapid changes underwent by the island in the early 1990s allowed a repositioning of popular musicians. In particular, the legalization of the dollar and the liberalization of music contracting proved extremely beneficial to dance musicians. In a situation of drastic downsizing of the welfare state, from their former status of state employees those became little entrepreneurs allowed to contract their fees and number of shows according to market’s demand. The small number of popular singers and bandleaders who came to monopolize the circuit of tourist dance clubs in the capital city, thus, reached a position of tremendous symbolic and economic power. Timba bands started to make extensive foreign tours, sign recording deals with international record companies and earn substantial amounts of hard currency.

In the new, tourism-driven economy of mid-1990s Cuba, timba came thus to occupy a crucial mediating role between foreigners and Cubans. MB provided the soundtrack for the encounters between Cubans and tourists in music clubs making these into sites for the staging of Cuban sensuality, where young (mainly black) Cubans could exploit the cultural capital represented by their body, their ability to dance, their knowledge of music and of the ‘street’. Timba provided the talk of the town, helped to draw foreigners and young locals together in discos, promoted a suitably sensual, tropical image of the island, and filled the coffers of state-controlled companies managing dance clubs. It would be difficult to account for the sweeping success of timba in Cuba during the 1990s without taking into account the convergence of so many different, and potentially conflicting, interests.

2. Testing dance music. Controversies in Cuba

In the mid-1990s, while the number of foreign tourists visiting Cuba reached new record levels, the popularity of timba caused a sudden surge of controversies in official circles. These were related to the challenging attitudes of musicians, to the social context of dance music, and to the allegedly provocative content of dance songs.

According to worried Cuban observers, timberos’ ostentatious lifestyle challenged socialist ethics and undermined the sacrifices required to the population by the período especial, becoming new role-models for many young Cubans. Precisely because of their economic success and centrality to tourist nightlife, dance musicians started to be singled out as proto-capitalists contiguous to the black market, part of a subculture made up of petty criminals, jineteras (prostitutes) and chulos (pimps) (Elizalde 1996). In Havana discos circa 1994, one could see dance bands inciting young Cuban women in the audience to strip off, inviting them onstage to perform the subasta de la cintura (that is, the ‘waist-shaking contest'), and asking foreign males in the audience to throw money at them. As one Cuban music executive once graphically commented to me, dance music enabled those women “to show off their merchandise”.

A second problem was represented by the apparent content of timba songs, which seemed to relate obliquely to social and political issues. Around 1995, the Cuban press started to criticize songs such as “La bruja” (‘The witch’) by NG La Banda, accusing them of voicing expressions vulgar and offensive to women. Cuban journalists presented those songs as an example of the sexist attitude of timba bands (which was indeed often the case) and, by extension, of a more general negative moral and political stance (Tabares 1996). The issue of the acceptable social and political attitudes of dance bands was discussed by quasi-governmental organisations such as the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) and, in 1997, contributed to justify a series of police raids into dance clubs and the decision to enforce a 6-months ban on La Charanga Habanera, at the time the most popular timba band.

Whether timberos actually intended to make political statements through their songs is open to speculation. As John Street has suggested, “[s]some of the strongest claims for the political importance of popular music have been made by its greatest enemies” (2001, 243). So, in a sense, timba was made political precisely by the condemnation of the media and by the interference of various Cuban institutional entities[4]. As I said, I have already dealt with the issue of criticisms to timba focusing on songs’ lyrical content, and on the striking parallel of such attitude to the common ways of reading the meaning of political song in the West. I will summarize here some of my points. According to the Centre for Political Song, for example, ‘political song’ is “an umbrella term, which … refers to any song containing a political thread. The genre includes, for example, protest songs, campaign songs, songs providing a social commentary or supporting a historical narrative, songs of the Labour movement, traditional patriotic songs and political parodies”[5].

A definition like the one above, it would appear, might include timba songs insofar as ‘providing a social commentary’, which has sometimes been the case. Elsewhere I have stressed the importance of some of those songs as forms of social chronicle referring to issues such as consumer culture, drug and prostitution (Perna 2005/a). Such use of popular song relates to a long history of Latin American and Caribbean song as a form of social chronicle, and more in general to the counter-hegemonic role of popular music in American society[6].

Although timba surely does have a political dimension in Cuba (otherwise, bands would have not been censored), it is highly unlikely that timba songs could be read as conveying explicit social messages or expressing a form of protest. They certainly do not contain political postures in favour or against anybody, nor any indication on how to act in order to change a particular situation. Nor, for that matter, appears ‘political’ the image projected by timba bands and musicians, another aspects often considered relevant in the definition of socially-engaged popular music. MB bands and artists show nothing of the intellectual and/or militant approach of engaged singer-songwriters or of the rebellious stance of protest rockers. Rather, their image seems closer to that of Latin American dance music outfits such as salsa bands, with slick music-and-dance shows fronted by young, sexy male singers attracting a predominantly female crowd. This is hardly the type of image, attitude and audience considered typical of political singers.

Furthermore, it must be noticed, aside from controversial but highly ambiguous tunes such as “La bruja” or La Charanga Habanera’s “El temba” (of which more later), actually only a small number of timba songs of the 1990s appeared to convey contents somehow related to social issues. How could thus one explain the sweeping popularity of timba and the shock of the Cuban establishment? To quote again Street, in a song a message might be ‘correct’, but “unless the song works as a song (as melody and rhythm), then its politics may become irrelevant” (2001, 249. Italics mine). An explanation of the impact and significance of timba during the 1990s, therefore, needs to find reasons for political meaningfulness that go beyond lyrical content, written and sung. It must look at the way timba bands have challenged official discourses by breaking away from the conventional social-political lexicon, finding ways that were able to cut deeply into Cuban society.

3. Music and dance in the black Atlantic

The formulation of the ‘black Atlantic’ elaborated by Paul Gilroy provides here some useful ideas. Setting off from W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of black American ‘double consciousness’, Gilroy sketches an intellectual history of the black diaspora and elaborates the notion of the black Atlantic as a “transcultural, international formation” that encompasses the diverse expressions of the African diaspora as a “counterculture of modernity” (1993, 4; 36), providing a conceptual framework that avoids both Afro-centric essentialism and cultural conventionalism. Gilroy pays a special attention to music and dance, which he considers as a foundational element in the culture of the black diaspora. He makes the point that in colonial societies those forms came to occupy a unique place, helping slaves to articulate the unspeakable. Music and dance were practiced on a collective basis and transmitted orally by people with no formal training, manifesting themselves in the form of performance rather than as finished, reified products.

To talk about the centrality of music and dance in the culture of the black diaspora, in a way, has became almost a cultural cliché, part of the modalities by which ‘black music’ has been made both attractive and harmless for the global pop market[7]. Their importance has been conventionally explained in relation to their role and strength in the original African setting, and to their function as a ‘pouring out’ mechanism in American slave societies. Anxious to avoid rebellions and channel dangerous tensions, slave masters have used music and dance to allow Blacks a limited degree of self-expression[8].

Such view, however, tells only half of the story, and does not take into account the meaning of music and dance for the slave community itself, tending to hide the crucial political role of such limited artistic freedom. Under the appearance of escapism and recreation, Gilroy argues, music and dance were important not only because they were popular among Blacks, but also and especially because they represented “an enhanced mode of communication beyond the petty power of words – spoken or written” (Gilroy 1993, 76).

Art, particularly in the form of music and dance, was offered to slaves as a substitute for the formal political freedoms they were denied under the plantation regime. …In this severely restricted space, sacred or profane, art became the backbone of the slaves’ political cultures and of their cultural history (ibid., 56-7).

There are few doubts that, historically, music and dance in Cuba have served well such a purpose. One might for example think of rumba, a voice-and-percussion musical form and a dance of African derivation emerged in the second half of the 19th century in Western Cuba, which has functioned for decades as a “social chronicle of the dispossessed” (Acosta 1990, 54). Because of its sexually allusive dance style, rumba has been stamped in Cuba as “immoral, licentious, savage, and primitive” (ibid., 69), and has remained largely frowned upon by the white elites throughout the 20th century. As the quotation reported at the beginning of this article makes clear, the political implications of its performance did not pass unnoticed to foreign observers during the republic. Or one can consider the case of other forms of Cuban dance music such as habanera, danzón and son, which, before international recognition and cooptation as the very symbols of Cuban national culture, have all brought to the fore the culture of black Cubans and been the object of cultural denial and censorship.

The usefulness of Gilroy’s analysis lies here in the fact that it directs the attention regarding colonial and post-colonial diasporic cultures from content to expression. Expression matters more than what is literally said. By converse, what is literally said and done is open to multiple interpretations, and can be read at the same time as a form of entertainment, a chronicle of everyday life, a meta-political commentary, and a cultural practice challenging the established aesthetic and moral order (think, for example, of forms like blues, jazz, son, and rap). Language here is certainly relevant, but represents only one component in a rather sophisticated strategy of signification.

Such interpretation of the role of music in black societies, thus, might help to rebalance the underestimation of the political role of music, an attitude that appears surprisingly widespread in both Western and Cuban society, where popular music and dance tend to be seen as colourful and entertaining, but intellectually and culturally irrelevant expressions, as opposed to more meaningful cultural forms such as literature, cinema, visual art, and types of music articulating an explicit social message.

4. Timba as a form of non-political expression

Gilroy’s ideas, I believe, can be as well fruitfully put to work to make sense of timba as a ‘non-political’ form of political expression. This particular dimension connects timba to a range of styles across the diaspora characterized as types of popular music that are made for dancing, emphasize entertainment over message and appear committed to the celebration of black diversity. In this sense, the most crucial and effective political aspect of timba is not to be found in overtly critical stances, but in the ways timba articulates Afro-Cuban identity and challenges dominant discourses silently, so to speak. In the light of these considerations, I will try to look at timba as a form of inter-modal expression whose meaning emerges from the interaction of music, dance, dress codes, language, and indeed lyrical content. For reasons of conceptual clarity, I will start my analysis from sounds.

The first aspect to be remarked is that timba is first and foremost a genre of MB, and that such characteristic has been, and still is, at the very core of its popularity in Cuba. As a style of dance music, timba focused on the prominence of rhythm and presented itself as the contemporary incarnation of a long string of black popular styles. This continuity was remarked, among other things, by the relatively frequent use made by MB bands of dance rhythms such as cha-cha-cha or mambo, which enabled them to portray their music as legitimate representative of the Cuban cultural lineage.

The artistic and cultural legitimacy of timba, however, has not only been constructed via continuity with the past through the incorporation of styles that are now celebrated as national symbols, but also via rupture with them. One way by which this strategy has been carried out has been through the use of key musical markers of Afro-Cuban identity that are by no means shared by all Cubans. One of these is rumba, which has been incorporated either literally (e.g., by including sections of rumba proper into songs such as “Los Sitios entero” or “El Trágico”, both by NG La Banda), or quasi-subliminally through the use of rhythmic timelines such as the rumba clave, a percussive ostinato representing an ‘African’ encoded element. In other instances, timba songs have stated their allegiance to Cuban black popular culture through the incorporation of chants, themes and rhythms related to santería, the most important Afro-Cuban religion (e.g., Adalberto Álvarez “¿Y que tu quieres que te den?” and NG’s “Santa Palabra”).

Like many other contemporary dance music styles, however, timba has also tried hard to project an image of modernity, cosmopolitanism and sophistication. This has been done via a double route. First, through the appropriation of stylistic aspects of Latin music in the form of instrumentation and vocal style, especially in the first section of the song, often reminiscent of salsa and particularly of its ballad variant known as salsa romántica. Such appropriation has enabled Cuban musicians to borrow, for a certain period, the very name of ‘salsa’ in order to label their own music, which in the early-mid 1990s was frequently called salsa cubana.

The second aspect of timba’s stress on modernity and perceived rupture with the past has been visible in the abundant inclusion of elements taken from international black musical styles, and namely from US-centred styles such as jazz, funk and hip hop. This contrasted with both previous Cuban MB and present-day international salsa, and represented one distinctive stylistic trait of timba. Think, for example, of the melodic-percussive use of the bass guitar derived from funk; of the adoption of the drum kit, absent in much Cuban MB of the past and in salsa; of the nervous, staccato, fast phrasing of horns; of the reggae- and rap-derived, semi-spoken delivery of coros placed in the second part of songs, and their prevalence in the song’s economy. It has been a powerful testimony of the stylistic centrality of the declinations of black diasporic music in timba, in particular of those coming from the US, and an aspect that has frequently upset the Cuban guardians of cultural identity[9].

With its large, horn-driven instrumental format, timba produces a sound that is often more reminiscent of big band jazz than contemporary rock and pop, but which is not alien from the use of electronic technology. This has been detectable, for example, in the use of powerful p.a. systems, without which live shows would be impossible, or in the presence of electronic keyboards and in the use of digitally-stored sequences. On the whole, however, the sound of timba has remained remarkably closer to jazz, showing an emphasis on ‘natural’ rather that ‘artificial’ sounds and on performative aspects such as instrumental virtuosity. The role of virtuosity in timba has certainly been related to the jazz background and tastes of many musicians (for timba is definitely not a music for second-rate musicians!), but also to the importance of live performances, which in Cuba are considered as the real testing ground for bands. This was in turn made possible by the particular economy of music on the island, where technology is expensive and the offer of highly-skilled musicians abundant and cheap.

The importance of technical virtuosity in timba revealed not only aesthetic and economic issues, but also some significant ideological implications. By introducing an element of ‘serious’ playfulness in what was regarded as a type of escapist, commercial music, it unveiled a search for musical legitimacy. This has sometimes been expressed by the incorporation of breakneck horn solos (check for example los metales del terror - the ‘frightening horns’ - the renowned horn section of NG La Banda) or by the occasional insertion of quotations of Bach, Rachmaninov and Rimsky-Korsakov, which all functioned as warnings that the practitioners of timba were in fact serious musicians. Such role of virtuosity signalled the presence of a competitive drive that is as well at the core of musical styles such as jazz and rap, and acts as a reminder of the centrality of performance across the musical practices of the black diaspora.

The articulation of ‘black’ features in timba has also been revealed in the construction of the sound texture and in the particular structure adopted by songs. Unlike most rock and Western dance music, timba makes use of interlocking tumbaos - rhythmic-melodic pattern played by bass and piano that provide both harmonic foundation and rhythmic drive – which represent clear elements of continuity, via son and salsa, with West-African musical traditions. As said, timba has stressed its connection with previous styles, but has at the same time moved away from them by intensifying and making more complex the tumbaos of bass and piano (with two keyboards often playing different tumbaos), and interlocking these with the intricate rhythmic texture provided by drum-kit and Cuban percussions, another visible affirmation of the ‘African’ roots of Cuban MB.

A second important aspect regards the musical form adopted by timba songs, which have come to be organized around a narrative tema, with a melodic character, followed by a long call-and-response section. This last part was mainly made up by different coros (refrains) and by a mambo (instrumental solo), and represented the musical and expressive focus of the song - so much so that the main coro was frequently used as a ‘hook’ at the beginning of the tune. In the course of the years, timba bands have shown, especially during live performances, a marked tendency to shorten the narrative section in favour of the second part, progressively shifting from a relative balance between the two sections to a marked predominance of the second one: in some recorded songs, for example, an introduction/tema section lasting less that one minute was followed by a second section that lasts more than six minutes.

Interestingly, the dropping of the narrative part and the crystallization of MB songs around a heart of call-and-response coros and guías (solo responses) has been blamed by the Cuban detractors of timba as a subversion of the rules of good song-making. But it should be noticed that such tendency has always been present in Cuban MB, and has even become the trademark of some renowned artists of the past. Rather then as a testimony of its musical decline, thus, the tendency of timba to make more and more room to coros can be read as an indication of a shift towards a re-africanization of Cuban MB, which re-connects timba to the very origins of son and to stylistic strands such as the so-called son montuno of black tresero Arsenio Rodríguez.

Dance has been another indicator of the ideological affiliations of timberos with black popular culture. As the main style of Cuban dance music, timba has developed an individual dance style of sort called despelote, which did not follow the rules of couple dancing found in salsa, merengue or bachata, but borrowed freely from body movements found in Afro-Cuban dances such as rumba and conga. Practiced by females, it featured among other things exaggerated hips rotations, and was initially associated with jineteras, the attractive black and mulatto women seeking to ‘make friends’ with foreign males in the crowded Havana discos of the mid-1990s.

As with music and dance, the visual codes of timba musicians and audiences have revealed a search for a modern, hip look combined with the display of signs of allegiance with black Cuban popular culture. Dress codes appeared strongly oriented towards African-American fashion and hip-hop visual style, with the usual apparatus of denims, sneakers, baseball caps, golden chains, rings, etc. At the same time, it was not unusual to come across people with Afro hairdressings and wearing clothing and accessories related to santería, such as bead necklaces and bracelets, or the white clothes signalling the final stage of initiation into the religion.

5. Where do words stand? Content and ambiguity

Timba remains, nevertheless, a type of dance music that is sung. Why dance music needs to be sung? Such complex question raises many issues of content, but also invites us to pay attention to aspects such as the intensification of expression through the adoption of a particular language and to the mark represented by the voice of the individual singer. Singers, in fact, occupy an extremely important place in the live performance of Cuban MB, where bands are fronted by 3 or 4 singers whose personalities seem to be considered by audiences as far more relevant and unique than those of instrumentalists.

Language has been for MB one important element by which constructing its black identity. Timba songs have employed a particular type of language, with standard Spanish interspersed with words and phrases taken from Afro-Cuban youth’s street slang. Dance songs, such as for example those of the early Charanga Habanera, made copious use of expressions such as wanikiki, fula, chen (respectively: money, dollar, exchange). They employed terms extracted from criminal slang such as trágico (a character in the jail population) and jinetero (here in the sense of a trafficker on the black market), and words borrowed straight from African languages such as asere and chévere. Even the very term ‘timba’ reveals probable origins in central African languages, where it means both ‘drum’ and ‘stiff’ in the sexual sense.

This use of slang as a coded language of marginal people has been common throughout the Atlantic diaspora, and has marked the identity of low-class Blacks as a separate social group (eg, Rose 1994; Averill 1997). It has had its roots in the times of slavery, but has extended to contemporary black popular culture. In a way similar to rap, timba composers who write for a largely black audience have adopted the language of the street to elicit the identification of Afro-Cubans with their songs. The adoption of Afro-Cuban street jargon has stressed the distance of timba from other, more cultivated types of Cuban popular song. Such use of language represented a multi-sided statement, signalling the rejection of mainstream language and the rupture with the poetic imagery of officially-sanctioned singer-songwriting, and underlining the allegiance of timba with the ‘people’ identified as lower-class Afro-Cubans.

Finally, the meaning of timba songs depends obviously as well on their verbal content, one of the most evident but at the same time most elusive aspects of popular music. In the mid-1990s, for example, various songs were attacked because of their alleged references to prostitution. When looking carefully at the lyrics of songs such as NG’s “La bruja” or of La Charanga Habanera’s “Superturística”, however, it becomes difficult to pin down their meaning in a specific, univocal interpretation or moral stance. The messages of those songs avoid generalized statements and are often quite confusing because of their particular structure, and seem to oscillate between the accommodation of the clichés of tropical music, jocularity, social chronicle, and misogynism.

“El temba” by La Charanga Habanera, released on record in 1996, is a good example of such strategy of ambiguity. The tema of the song appears centred on a conventional topic such as romantic love (albeit seen from the point of view of the ‘street’), and adopts a vocal style close to a salsa ballad. In the verbal text, the narrator declares his desire for a beautiful young woman, but claims he has no financial means to support her.

Y se supone que ya yo no estoy
preparado para ciertas cosas
y caminando por la vida voy
creyendo que todo es color de rosas

Qué es eso de matrimonio?
yo solamente puedo ser tu novio

Yo te daría todo y mucho más
y mucho más de lo que te mereces
con ese cuerpo tan escultural
y esa carita que a mí me enloquece

Pero sacando la cuenta
no hay presupuesto pa' que te mantenga
tus sueños de reina.

Me falta mucha edad pero me sobran otras cosas
te quiero conformar pero tú quieres ser mi esposa
Con qué te voy a dar
lo que tú quieres conquistar
si es imposible
darte lo que pides?

Y se supone que ya yo no estoy
preparado para ciertas cosas
y caminando por la vida voy
creyendo que todo es color de rosas
Si sacaste bien tu cuenta
búscate un temba pa' que te mantenga[10]

At the close of the tema, then, the narrator states that his girlfriend needs a temba, that is, a middle-aged, affluent man. This last phrase then becomes the central theme for the second part of the tune, which is constructed around an alternation of coros and guías. These coros are reiterative, strongly syllabic, short and incisive, and constitute an element of marked musical contrast with the tema. Below is a transcription of the first sequence of coros and guías:

(coro:) Un temba pa’ que te mantenga
pa’ que tu goces, pa’ que tu tengas
(solo:) Oye Nene, yo te aconsejo que te busques un temba, pero que tenga
Búscate un temba que te mantenga
pa’ que tu goces, pa’ que tu tengas
Oye, pa’ que te mantenga,
pa’ que goces y te lleve pa’ la tiendas, pa’ la tiendas
Búscate un temba que te mantenga
pa’ que tu goces, pa’ que tu tengas
Un temba que te cuide dia y noche,
hasta que te compre un coche
Búscate un temba que te mantenga
pa’ que tu goces, pa’ que tu tengas
Así que te mantenga, que subministre
lo que no tengas, y que te llene de prendas
Búscate un temba que te mantenga
pa’ que tu goces, pa’ que tu tengas.[11]

It should be remembered that, as a rule, the second section represents the real focus of timba songs, the part most popular with and most easily remembered by audiences. On the whole, the section above could be contextually interpreted as a reference to foreign males who, on the aftermath of 1990s Cuba’s tourist boom, have been raiding the island in the search of cheap sex. This was, in fact, the way many people read the song in Cuba at the time of its release. But it is interesting to underline how those coros actually never mention prostitution, sex tourism or foreigners, and could be easily referred as well to ‘marriages of convenience’ with Cuban men (in fact, an old song by Los Van Van called “La titimanía” dealt with a fairly similar theme, that of middle-aged Cuban bureaucrats who, during the 1980s, accompanied themselves with much younger female beauties).

In the mid-1990s, “El temba” became in Cuba enormously successful and started to attract a great deal of criticisms. In order to defend himself from the assault of his detractors, the composer and leader of the band David Calzado claimed that his song did not mean to offend women, but was intended as a criticism against materialism (Manrique 1996). Such moral interpretation of the song, however, was blatantly contradicted by the sound of his song, which seemed to express the upbeat, hedonistic musical spirit of MB as the main soundtrack for Havana’s 1990s dolce vita.

In other words, what really seemed to count in those types of songs was not the clarity of the message or the explicit stance on specific issues, but a kaleidoscope of meanings that were often in contrast with each other, and were generated through of a web of references that encompassed words, sounds, visual and contextual information. That strategy, which allowed songs to generate multiple meanings and be interpreted from conflicting angles, is typical of popular music and has proved particularly valuable to timberos in order to avoid problems with censorship.

Another relevant aspect is what we might call the ‘politics of pleasure’ of timba. In the West, pop and dance music have been often dismissed as escapist forms, opposed to (more) aesthetically conscious and/or socially meaningful expressions such as rock or singer-songwriting. In contrast with such view, some scholars have underlined the presence and the persistence of dance music and dancing across different times and places, and the active, creative dimension of dancing vis-à-vis other type of popular entertainment (Straw 2001).

In the case of Cuba, the celebration of sensuality and hedonism expressed by timba songs could be read along an evolutionary line of (mostly black) styles of popular music, but also as an expression that challenged more acceptable types of popular music and disputed over the everyday scarcity and the mainstream moral standards preaching work, family values and a restrained sexuality. From this perspective, rather that expressing escapism, timba’s embracement of hedonism and rejection of ‘deep’ meanings reveals quite the opposite, that is, a subversion of the rationality of the dominant discourse and an allegiance with the views and values a specific sector of the Cuban population.

Like many other types of African and Latin American danced forms, timba as a dance has often been portrayed as a representation of tropical exuberance, not only by outsiders but also by many people in Cuba. There, the celebration of dance as an expression of national sensuality could be seen as fitting the interests of different players, allowing the Cuban tourist industry to take advantage of dance music as a ‘pull’ element, white Cubans and foreigners to confirm their own racial stereotypes, and black Cubans to exploit the cultural status conferred to them by their (supposedly natural) hotness and ability as dancers and musicians.

For this reason, one shouldn’t be too surprised by fact that the representation of timba as a tropical, escapist dance form has sometimes been endorsed by musicians themselves, arguably in an attempt to conform to their image as providers of popular entertainment and eschew difficulties with state bureaucrats. However, the anti-elitist scope and positioning of timba in Cuban society has sometimes been explicitly articulated by its practitioners. As black bandleader Josè Luís Cortés once stated,

Música bailable … [i]t’s not music for sitting down and listening. … It is not music of the elite, it’s música popular. … Now, obviously, who are those criticizing it? Those who are part of the elite. What do they want? They would like that MB never existed, or would like to see a MB made for them, with affected lyrics, difficult words.[12]

In timba, dancing has proved important not only because it has distanced MB from non-danced brands of popular music and enabled Cubans to play with the clichés of Afro-tropical sensuality, but also because it has taken a form that was indeed different from previous ways of dancing and focused on women dancing alone, rather than on couples led by men. Besides being an immensely popular pastime, from the point of view of timba dancers, thus, dancing has constructed a range of meanings. It has articulated a difference between people who enjoy and people who despise dancing (in Cortes’ view, popular vs. elite audiences), expressed (or rather, contributed to construct) sensuality providing a platform for close encounters with foreigners on the dance floor, and underlined the centrality of women in timba subculture, highlighting a power shift between genders in the Cuba of the 1990s, where women have often become the new breadwinners.

6. Música bailable seen from home and abroad

A look at the perception of MB in contemporary Cuban society is, in itself, quite revealing. Music and dance are today hailed on the island as the very essence of Cuban-ness, yet frequently seen with discomfort and even conceit in political and intellectual circles. Such a perception, indeed not so different from the way dance music is conceived in the West, has deep roots in the past. As in the rest of the Americas, black popular music and dance have often been judged by the dominant classes according to a double standard, as means to experience a social and sexual frisson with the lower classes and as causes of moral and cultural decay. Even after the revolution, the mainstream attitude towards black Cuban culture has not radically changed: beyond a nominal acknowledgment, in fact, the revolutionary leadership has for many years proved distrustful of black popular culture and expression (De la Fuente 2001, Hagedorn 2001).

In 1968, for example, the Cuban authorities closed down all dance venues in Havana, a city traditionally bursting with venues catering to all classes and social groups. Most of them remained closed for two decades until the 1990s, when, mainly due to the new role attained by music and dance as a magnet for foreign tourism, the authorities decided to re-open some old venues and inaugurate new dance halls in the capital city and elsewhere. In 1990, according to Robbins, many white Cubans considered MB as “simple, crude, underdeveloped … [with] no message”, and saw its audience, as opposed to that of ‘concert music’, as represented by “the lowest of the low” (1990, 204). Cuban dance musicians have repeatedly lamented the prejudice against MB on part of the media, which have often portrayed it as a form of entertainment mostly practiced by members of the lower classes (read: Blacks), prone to drunkenness and violence[13]. Even in the present, the perception of MB in Cuba continues to appear problematic and very often mixes with prejudices against Blacks. Still today Cuban dancers have very few venues where they can afford to go, and during weekends they may well find La Tropical, the Mecca of Havana dancers, heavily patrolled by the police.

In the late 1990s, MB has come under attack not only from Cuban censors, but also from advocates of national cultural identity and practitioners of other musical styles, who may all have had a vested interest in doing so. Revivalists have accused timba of being too xenophile and alien to the spirit of true national culture. Trovadores and supporters of Cuban rock have accused it of being too commercialized and offering a negative model for the youth[14]. Young raperos (rappers) have turned on MB for its success and its slick image, claiming that it was “a music that doesn’t say anything” and promotes an image of “rich people”[15]. Interestingly, similar arguments on the social inappropriateness and lack of morality of contemporary MB have recently resurfaced in the polemics surrounding the popularity of reggaeton among Cuban teenagers[16].

The accusations of escapism, in a way, represent the opposite argument that can be made against timba. That is, that timba is escapist music prone to political manipulation by the regime, a social pressure valve provided to low-class Cubans to let off steam. This view may contain some grain of truth, but is also reminiscent of the criticisms ritually levelled at dance music in the West. From its socially crucial but culturally underrated position, in fact, most popular music in Cuba under the revolution, and particularly MB, have generally proved rather impervious to political propaganda (Medin 1990). The search for an explanation of the departure of dance music from instances of political control poses intriguing questions. Taking MB at face value, obviously, one might argue that dance music is simply about having a good time. But it is also possible to speculate that such disengagement has been the result of a strategy of adaptation by dance musicians, who have sought to avoid direct involvement with propaganda and keep their music inside a relatively un-policed public space. During the 1990s, then, they have used such space as a springboard to launch their musical challenges and gain more popular recognition.

It is hardly surprising that, in their craving for narratives of originarity and naïveté, the Western media have instead fallen in love with far more predictable representations such as Buena Vista Social Club. Those albums have offered global audiences the glamour of a ‘tradition’ represented by elderly musicians and old-fashioned popular sounds and melodies, the allure of a music revival that claims to be on its way to discovering and saving the endangered music of the planet[17], allowing popular music archaeologists such as Ry Cooder to repackage and sell around the world as a fashionable experience a type of music that was as well-known as indifferent to most Cubans.

Timba, therefore, has found itself caught in the crossfire of a variety of misconceptions. It is has been seen as a lesser type of music (the artistic argument); as a joyous expression of Caribbean sensuality (the primitivist/tropicalist argument); as a politically provocative or escapist music (the two sides of the political argument); as a musical expression alien to ‘our’ culture (the Western mainstream cultural argument) and by converse as a music too inauthentic and Westernized to be able to stand the test of Cuban-ness and become appealing to the tastes of the cognoscenti of world music (the differential argument).

Such misconceptions, however, might also be taken as a confirmation of the challenges launched by timba. If that music is to be regarded as a form of political expression, this would not be because it has produced protest songs or shown a militant attitude in favour of or against any political cause. Nor, for that purpose, in the sense that might most obviously worry Cuban bureaucrats, that of being a type of music conveying an anti-Cuba message - although one must admit that the fact that the authorities have treated timba as political and censored it has certainly represented an unprecedented acknowledgment of MB’s role and power. Its deepest and most enduring political meaning, I believe, lies in the way it undermines mainstream discourses and celebrates black identity, appealing to the legacy of Africa and pointing at the historical marginalisation of Blacks in Cuba, while at the same time practicing hybridity and drawing almost entirely on black diasporic expression.


As mentioned at the beginning of this article, in recent years some Cuban authors have started to historicize timba as an ephemeral occurrence of the 1990s. According to one of them, “as a commercial product, timba was a chimera: as a music and a form of dancing, it represented one of the most hallucinating moments of the 20th century” (Garcia Meralla 2004, 58). Since, the boom of Buena VistaSocial Club has oriented the international expectations about Cuban music towards narratives of pre-modernity and nostalgia, and foreign commentators have painted gloomy pictures of the decline and folklorization of timba:

by the end of the decade… the timba scene was in steep decline: labels bankrupt - bands censured, clubs closed and some of the music’s stars in exile. In 1999, the National Folkloric Ensemble of Cuba included the tembleque in its repertoire - its performance invariably causing respectable theater audiences to break into laughter. The tremor of timba was now carefully choreographed by a professional troupe, and the social history of Afro-Cuban performance repeated itself in this trajectory from marginal chabacanería (crassness) to folkloric spectacle (Hernández-Reguant 2004, 36).[18]

What is the present relevance of timba, then? In musical terms, it is possible to observe a degree of crystallization into stylistic formulae. And after the Charanga affair in 1997, one might argue that the challenging attitudes shown by timba in the 1990s have been replaced by far more cautious attitudes. To judge timba only on the basis of its novelty or shock value, however, might be a useful exercise for music journalists but not necessarily for cultural critics, and does little justice to the resonance of MB in black Cubans’ everyday life.

It fact, in today’s Cubamúsica bailable continues to represent the main form of entertainment of the black masses. What about its contenders? At one end of the spectrum, revivalist projects oriented towards foreign tastes have enjoyed on the island a very limited appeal and circulation. At the other end, at the opening of the new millennium Cuban hip hop has attracted a remarkable international interest, but so far failed to capture the interest of the wider Cuban audience. The only possible exception is represented by reggaeton (or Cubatón, as the local variation has been named), a style that is presently enjoying a great popularity among Cuban youths. It is perhaps not accidental, though, that the challenge to the status of timba may come from another form of dance music originated in the Caribbean.

The production of important Cuban bands such as La Charanga Habanera, Los Van Van and NG La Banda, however, shows how MB remains an extremely permeable ground able to accommodate a wide rage of influences, from Cuban popular and folkloric styles of the past to international music from Anglo and Latin America. This, in a way, is precisely what son has been in the past, “a form of musical and stylistic bricolage, demonstrating the creative fusion of distinct traditions, national and international” (Moore 1997, 113). MB has so far supplied a flexible framework that has not only enabled black Cubans to negotiate between sameness and otherness, but provided as well the very model of such mediation, illuminating Gilroy’s notion of the ‘changing same’. The profound eclecticism of timba has certainly been one of its most fascinating traits and cultural strengths, and sometimes also of its most controversial aspects. The story and the role of timba, I believe, can help us to perceive the awkwardness – indeed, the cultural and political conservatism - of the notions of authenticity and originarity that underlie the rhetoric of world music and sustain visions of the globe as neatly divided into first and third world.

With its staging of Afro-Cuban culture, also, timba has played an important part in the revival of interest in black Cuban culture that has swept the island in the last 15 years or so – in fact, it is probably fair to say that it has largely contributed to the emergence of such cultural trend. This informal movement, which I have dubbed as ‘Havana Renaissance’ (Perna 2005/a), has manifested itself in a multiplicity of musical expressions such as folklore, jazz and rap, and encompassed as well black dance, popular religion, oral poetry, visual arts, cultural criticism and, of course, identity politics. The development of such informal but wide-ranging cultural trend, and the growth of international interest around it, has made Blacks and their expressive culture more visible, bringing about a reflection on the role of black culture in the making of Cuban national culture and questioning the representation and position of Afro-Cubans in contemporary Cuban society.

It is difficult to tell whether such a trend is sketching a possible scenario for black politics in tomorrow’s Cuba. It seems to point to a globalized situation where, as Livio Sansone has observed in regard to Brazil, black traditional culture, rather that simply a way of life, is increasingly becoming a lifestyle centred on the public display of symbols of blackness (Sansone 2003). Various signs, however, suggest that the new visibility attained by black culture in Cuba since the 1990s has not only attracted the interest of international visitors and scholars, but also produced effects on the debate about race, on the political agenda, and on the mobilization of intellectuals and social activist around the ‘black issue’[19].

If a single most important character exists in the musics of the BA, thus, that is perhaps not their African ‘roots’, but their ability to reinvent black identity by continuously challenging popular culture on its own territory. Under slavery, where the dominant aesthetic and moral codes were those established by the white elite, political or cultural confrontational strategies were impossible and suicidal. In such context, black Americans have often opted to cut themselves a public role as entertainers and musicians, or, as Gilroy would put it, as ‘a different kind of intellectuals’ who chose to make their politics through sounds. As veteran jazzman Max Roach once made clear to one hip hop artist, lyrics in rap were not everything, and the “politics was in the drums”[20].


  1. Quoted in Pérez 1999, 199.[§]
  2. “Get to the dance floor, ‘cause there’s no thorns to hurt you!”. “Opening”, from the CD Ya no hace falta, Ahí-Namá 1999.[§]
  3. For a description of the impact of the período especial on Cubans’ everyday life, see Azicri 2000.[§]
  4. It should be reminded that in Cuba all printed and electronic media, as well as the media’s regulatory bodies, are under the control of the state and of entities tied to the Partido Comunista Cubano. The censorship on La Charanga Habanera was imposed through a broadcasting veto issued by the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television and by controlling the issuing of travel visas.[§]
  5. Centre for Political Song, Caledonian University (Glasgow), <>.[§]
  6. See for example Lipsitz 1994, Rose 1994, Averill 1997 and Aparicio 1998.[§]
  7. “Authenticity enhances the appeal of selected cultural commodities and has become an important element in the mechanism of the mode of racialisation necessary to making non-European and non-American musics acceptable items in an expanded pop market (Gilroy 1993, 99).[§]
  8. E.g., Tirro 1993; Southern 1997.[§]
  9. Revivalist musician Juan de Marcos González, the A&R for the Buena Vista Social Club album and the leader of the Afro-Cuban All Stars, has for example stated that “contemporary Cuban music of the youth has moved very close to US music, ... [and the] national identity was disappearing. … NG, Manolín, La Élite, La Charanga Habanera [are] all Cuban bands with too many US elements” (interview with the author, 1999). The implication here, of course, was that timberos were also ideologically close to the US. But it is important to stress that Cuban music has always been extremely open and permeable to fusion with ‘foreign’ styles, from the habanera to jazz, which was already popular on the island in the 1920s (Acosta 2003).[§]
  10. People might say that I’m not / ready for certain things / as I go walking through my life / looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses. / What’s this story about marriage? / I can only be your boyfriend /I would give you everything and much more / much more than what you deserve / with such sculptural body / and a pretty face that drives me crazy. / But having made my calculations / I have no budget to pay for / your queen’s dreams. / I’m very young but I‘ve plenty of other things / I’d like to agree with you but you want to be my wife. / How can I possibly give you / what you want to have / if it’s impossible / to give you what you ask for? / People might say that I am not / ready for certain things / as I go walking through my life / looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses/ If you made well your calculations / find yourself a temba who pays your upkeep.[§]
  11. (coro) A temba who pays your upkeep / so that you can enjoy yourself, you can have things./ (solo) Listen Nene, I suggest you to find yourself a temba /but one who has money / Find yourself a temba who pays your upkeep / so that you can enjoy yourself, you can have things / Listen, so he can pay your upkeep / so that you can enjoy yourself / and be taken around shopping. / Find yourself a temba who pays your upkeep / so that you can enjoy yourself, you can have things / A temba who could look after you night and day / until he buys you a car. / Find yourself a temba who pays your upkeep / so that you can enjoy yourself, you can have things./ So that he can keep you, supply you with / what you need, and cover you with clothes. / Find yourself a temba who pays your upkeep / so that you can enjoy yourself, you can have things.[§]
  12. Cortés, interview by the author (2000).[§]
  13. See, for example, Carrobello et al. 1991.[§]
  14. “El rojo y el verde”. [1997] In El Caimán Barbudo. A. 30, 280:4-7; 26-7 (no author).[§]
  15. Ariel Fernández, quoted in Foehr 2001, 37.[§]
  16. O. Castro Medel, “¿Prohibido el reguetón?”, in Juventud Rebelde, 13 February 2005.[§]
  17. See for, example, Cooder’s interview in Williamson, 1999/a.[§]
  18. Tembleque (‘shaking’) is one of the ‘figures’ employed while dancing to timba, and features women shaking their whole body as if by the effect of electrocution.[§]
  19. The late 1990s, for example, have seen the creation in Havana of the Cofradía de la Negritud (‘Fraternity of Blackness’), an association aimed at drawing public attention to the position of Blacks in Cuban society. After decades of absence from the public debate, the discussion on race and social inequality has re-emerged in the Cuban cultural debate (see, for example, the issue no. 7, 1996, of the magazine Temas) and also in the political arena, where in 2003 the problem has been acknowledged by the same Fidel Castro (speech at the closing session of the Pedagogy Congress, 7 February 2003 <>). [§]
  20. Fab Five Freddy, quoted in Lipsitz 1994, 38.[§]


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  • APARICIO, Frances. 1998. Listening to salsa. Gender, Latin Popular Music and Puerto Rican Cultures. Hanover: Wesleyan University-University Press of New England
  • AVERILL, Gage. 1997. A Day for the Hunter. A Day for the Prey. Popular Music and Power in Haiti. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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  • CARROBELLO, Cary; Ramón, Neysa and Terrero, Ariel. 1991. “La gente va llegando al baile”. Bohemia, Aug 9th, A. 83(32):4-9.
  • CASTRO MEDEL, Osviel. 2005. “¿Prohibido el reguetón?”. In Juventud Rebelde, Feb 13th.
  • DE LA FUENTE, Alejandro. 2001. A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • ELIZALDE, Rosa Miriam. 1996. Flores desechables. ¿Prostitutas en Cuba?. La Habana: Abril.
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  • PERNA, Vincenzo. 1999. Interview with Juan de Marcos González, leader of The Afro-Cuban All Stars. London, November.
  • _____. 2000. Interview with José Luis Cortés, leader of NG La Banda. Torino, May.
  • ­­­_____. 2005/a Timba. The Sound of the Cuban Crisis. Aldershot: Ashgate.
  • _____. 2005/b “Talking timba. The politics of black popular music in and around Cuba”. Proceedings from the IASPM 13th Biennial Conference. Rome, July 23-30 (forthcoming)
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  • SANSONE, Livio. 2003. Blackness without Ethnicity. Constructing Race in Brazil. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
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  • Adalberto Alvarez y su Son: “¿Y que tu quieres que te den?”. From the CD Adalberto Alvarez y su Son, Artcolor 1993.
  • Bamboleo:“Opening”. From the CD Ya no hace falta, Ahí-Namá 1999.
  • Buena Vista Social Club: Buena Vista Social Club, World Circuit 1997.
  • La Charanga Habanera: “El temba”; “Superturistica”. From the CD Pa’ que se entere La Habana, Magic Music 1996.
  • NG La Banda: “Los Sitios entero”. From the LP No se puede tapar el sol, Egrem 1990.
  • NG La Banda:“La bruja”. From the CD La bruja, Caribe 1995.
  • NG La Banda: “El Trágico”; “Santa palabra”. From the CD Cabaret Estelar, Caribe 1995.
  • Rodríguez, Arsenio:Montuneando con Arsenio Rodríguez y su conjunto, 1946-50, Tumbao 1993
  • Los Van Van:“La titimanía”. From the LP Al son del Caribe, Egrem 1987. Now reissued in the CD Colección Juan Formell y Los Van Van, Vol. XII, Egrem 1995.

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TRANS - Revista Transcultural de Música