The complex processes that led to the emergence of salsa as an expression of a “Latin” identity for Spanish-speaking people in New York City constitute the background before which the Cuban timba discourse has to be seen. Timba, I argue, is the consequent continuation of the Cuban “anti-salsa-discourse” from the 1980s, which regarded salsa basically as a commercial label for Cuban music played by non-Cuban musicians. I interpret timba as an attempt by Cuban musicians to distinguish themselves from the international Salsa scene. This distinction is aspired by regular references to the contemporary changes in Cuban society after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thus, the timba is a “child” of the socialist Cuban music landscape as well as a product of the rapidly changing Cuban society of the 1990s.
One of the most obstinately claimed views in the anti-American discourse of Cuban critiques is that the island Cuba was a mere source for neo-Colonial exploitation by US-companies until 1959. Without any doubt, the far-reaching economical and political penetration of large parts of South America and the Caribbean was also visible in the young field of the musical industry. As Cuba was an important trading partner for the USA since the 19th century, the dependency of the island nation on the large northern neighbour can be seen in the field of music as well. For despite the formal independence in 1902, Cuba was de facto politically as well as economically dominated by the big North American neighbour (Kopf 1998; Krakau 1968: 9-11). Until the so-called “triumph of the revolution” under Castro in 1959, Cuba remained the “most privileged clientele state of the USA in Latin America” (Zeuske 2000: 12).
For US-American record companies, the common language proofed to be an important factor for the selling of discs in the Spanish-speaking regions. Recordings of Cuban music, produced either in the island or in the USA, were sold in other Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries such as Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic after the end of World War One (Glasser 1995: 135-136). Even in the far more southern Colombia Cuban records could be bought, and listened to from the strong radio stations that broadcasted from Cuba (Waxer 2001: 62).
After World War One, the tropical island nation soon became a favourite destination for US-American tourists. Especially after the implementation of the Prohibition in the USA, Cuba turned into a “tropical escape only hours from home in which to flout conventions” (Pérez Jr. 1999: 194). Music and dance played an important role in the construction of the image of this tropical paradise.
It is certainly no coincidence that from around 1930 until 1959 waves of various Cuban popular music forms followed each other in the USA: from rumba and conga to mambo and cha-cha-chá, music and musicians from the island caused exaltation among North American listeners. But a large percentage of the musicians in the so-called “Cuban” groups were Puerto Rican, as Ruth Glasser observes (1995: 118). The most popular of them was for a long time probably Tito Puente (1923-2000). Puerto Rico had come under US-administration in 1898, and Puerto Ricans received the US-citizenship in 1917. This fact in combination with a grave economical crisis in Puerto Rico had led to a large-scale migration to the USA, especially to New York. In the “Gran Manzana” (“Big Apple”) a Spanish-speaking community developed in East Harlem, which came to be called “Spanish Harlem”, or simply “el barrio”, by its predominantly Puerto Rican inhabitants. These were soon called “Nuyoricans” by their compatriots in Puerto Rico. Among them were many musicians, professionals as well as amateurs (Glasser 1995: 50-51 & 72 ; Roberts 1999: 57). But whereas one wave of Cuban musical fashion followed the other for about thirty years, Puerto Rican musical genres as the plena or the danza were usually heard only in Spanish-speaking communities (Glasser 1995: 178-181).
The diversity and heterogeneity of Cuban and other Caribbean and Latin American dance music genres were not easily accessible for a non-Spanish-speaking audience. Thus, the term “Latin” or ”Latino” was termed to denote the different styles, from Cuban rumbas and congas to Brazilian sambas or Dominican meringues. For non-Spanish-speaking listeners all people from Mexico and further down south as well as their cultural expressions fell into the category “Latin” (Pérez Jr. 1999; 214; Waxer 1994: 140).
By the middle of the 1950s, the category “Latin” and certain musical forms and elements thus denoted firmly established in the US-American music market. Institutions as the Show Artists Corporation or the Mercury Artists Corporation had opened sections for "Latin musicians“ and practically all big record labels had signed contracts with "Latin musicians“, among them many Cubans. The “Latin fever”, thus the title of a recording of the group led by Jack Constanze, also infected non-Spanish-speaking US-musicians from different fields as Peggy Lee, Nat “King” Cole”, George Shearing, Charlie Parker, Franks Sinatra or Rosemary Clooney recorded either full “Latin” albums or at least single “Latin” songs (Pérez Jr. 1999: 212).
The late 1940s and early 1950s witnessed the emergence of a “pan-Latin American” identity, a “Latin” or “Latino/Latina” identity. This was not tied to particular nation states, but evolved from the specific situation of people from different Latin American countries living in a US-society which often turned hostile towards them. For the emergence of this identity, music, and especially Cuban music, played a major role (Quintero Rivera 1998: 199). The development of this “Pan-Latino” identity among Latin American people in the USA can be seen as what Aparicio/Chávez-Silverman call “tropicalizations from below”, as a means of responding to the discrimination experienced from the “white” US-society: a positive reinterpretation of the formerly negative image of the “Latino”.
After the “triumph of the revolution” in Cuba in 1959, the former “tropical paradise” soon turned into the “biggest enemy of the United States”, as President John F. Kennedy stated (Rondón 1980: 20). As Cuba disappeared from the political map of the US-audience, also the interest in Cuban music vanished after a short time. In the early 1960s, before the international success of salsa some ten years later, “Latin” music was heard nearly exclusively in the Spanish-speaking communities of New York and other US-American cities. The most obvious symptom for the decline of the interest was the closing down of the big “Latin” showrooms as the Palladium, where the large Big Bands of leaders as Tito Puente, Machito, Tito Rodríguez and countless other, less popular musicians had played during the 1940s and 50s (Manuel et. al. 1995: 72).
Instead of the large ballroom orchestras, smaller ensembles entered the limelight, playing a mixture of “Latin” rhythms and US-Afro-American elements called “Latin boogaloo” or simply “bugalú” (Roberts 1999: 163). Just as the Latin rock of groups like the one led by Mexico-born guitar player Carlos Santana, the bugalú can be seen as a conscious recourseto the shared “African roots” of Caribbean and US-American musics. This “reawakening of the African elements within Puerto Rican culture” (Lipsitz 1994: 80) had already started in the 1950s, when Rafael Cortijo and his singer Ismael Rivera had become successful with their conjunto-versions of plenas and bombas (Roberts 1999: 146). The emergence of informal jam sessions by mostly Puerto Rican percussion players in the parks of Spanish Harlem (Manuel 1994: 261), as well as the beginnings of the so called “Afro-Cuban” religion santería among Latinos in New York (Cornelius 2004: 446-447) also fell in this time.
The “African roots” were also important for the appearance of salsa, the music most closely associated with a new “pan-Latino” identity and the “Latino” struggle for social equality. In the USA the 1960s were characterized by different political movements as the black Civil Rights Movement with its symbolic figures Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X but also with a certain amount of violence, represented by the “Black Panthers”. The “Latino” version of this militant group was called the “Young Lords”, an equally militant Puerto Rican group from New York (Lipsitz 1994: 79).
The salsa developed under the same circumstances and at the same time as the bugalú,. It was certainly no coincidence that a large group of musicians from a Latin background with a distinct political conscience turned to a music that was considered to hail from an enemy country by the white US-establishment. In the late 1960s, the conscious adoption of elder forms of Cuban music has to be considered as a political statement. On the other hand, as I already mentioned, Cuban musical forms had become a kind of musical lingua franca in the Spanish-speaking communities of the USA since long (Glasser 1995: 24 & 118).
The emergence of the salsa is intrinsically tied to the founding of the record label “Fania”. It had been founded by the Dominican flute player Johnny Pacheco and the US-Jewish advocate Jerry Masucci in 1964. The name of the label was taken from a son by Arsenio Rodríguez, entitled “Fania funché“. Within a few years the company became the leading label for Latin music in the USA. Already by 1967, the heyday of the bugalú craze, numerous musicians from different generations had a contract with Fania. Next to the seventeen year old trombone player Willie Colon and his singer Hector Lavóe or the Jewish US-American Larry Harlow, Pacheco and Masucci also signed established musicians as Ray Barretto or José “Cheo” Feliciano (Rondón 1980: 49). The significance of Fania for the development of salsa can hardly be overestimated. Although it was in no way the only label for Latin music in the USA, it was by far the most successful for a long time to come (Padilla 1990: 92).
The big international success for Fania came with the release of two documentaries entitled “Nuestra cosa Latina – Our Latin thing” in 1973 and “Salsa!” in 1975. The first one showed scenes from the everyday life in el barrio, combined with parts of a concert of the “Fania All-Stars” recorded in the barrio-club “El Cheetah”, while the second one led to the far-reaching distribution of the label salsa (Rondón 1980: 51-54 & 98-99).
Even if the music of the early salsa groups evoked memories of pre-revolutionary Cuba, the lyrics had nothing at all to do with memories of a lost tropical paradise. The most characteristic feature of this music from the barrio was not only the often harsh sound of a brass section mostly consisting of trombones exclusively – as in the case of groups led by Colón and pianist Eddie Palmieri –, but most of all the descriptions of the often rough life in the Latino ghetto. Songs as “El Malo” or “Calle Luna, Calle Sol” give testimony of the daily life in the barrio, which for many Nuyoricans was characterised by violence and criminality (ibid.: 50 & 80).
Roberta Singer compares salsa with soul music regarding its significance for a marginalised minority: “For Latinos and Blacks, salsa and soul, respectively, have become closely related to a sense of self and group identity“ (Singer 1982: 83). This view is firmly supported by Nuyorican piano player Oscar Hernández:
There’s a nationalistic sense of pride when people hear salsa. They say ‘That’s our music!’... It is used to increase a nationalistic feeling, which increases a sense of pride and a feeling of unity. And all that makes people go out and buy it; it creates a whole giant market... It has no relevance to whether [the music] is formularized or not. The music as a whole is acting as a unification factor... Those formulas are part of what people have come to recognize as being salsa. And people identify with it and understand it (quoted from Singer 1982: 83-84, omissions in the original).
The majority of the people who identified themselves with this music was Puerto Rican. But the topics of criminalization and social marginalization gave people from different countries the possibility to relate themselves to. The music and the lyrics could be understood as an expression of a Puerto Rican as well as a pan-Latin American identity. The most prominent examples are certainly the lyrics of Rubén Blades and Willie Colón, who evoked a “Latin consciousness” (“conciencia Latina”) in their songs. From its beginning in the Spanish-speaking areas of New York City, salsa was an international music in a double sense: musicians of different nationalities used musical genres from different countries to state an identity, which was international, yet at the same time tied to a specific location: the identity of the “Latino niuyorikeñizado“, as Quintero Rivera puts it (1998: 114). The distinct international flavour of salsa was one of the reasons for its fast spread to many parts of Spanish-speaking areas of Latin America and the Caribbean. Initially, it was still closely associated with an “Afro-Latin American” identity, which is why it first spread quickly in countries with a significant black population, as Venezuela, Colombia or Puerto Rico. (Duany 1984: 200; Waxer 2000: 129-131). Thus it is no surprise that salsa was listened to in some areas of West Africa as well, where it was welcomed as a “re-import” (Steward 1999: 161).
Salsa is today a truly global phenomenon. There are active musical scenes not only in many Latin American countries, but also in Europe (e.g. Román-Velázquez 1999) and even in Japan (Hosokawa 1997). Referring to Arjun Appadurai, Maria Elisabeth Lucas has coined the term “soundscape” (1996). In my point of view, this seems to be an adequate term for this music. It is a real “global soundscape”, played by musicians in clubs from Los Angeles to Tokyo and listened to in discotheques from New York to New Delhi.
The development of the Cuban timba can only be properly understood against this background of the internationalised salsa market and the particulars of its development from New York City.
“The boomerang returns.” That is the statement Cuban musicologist Rosendo Ruiz Quevedo made in a study for the national musical research centre CIDMUC (Centro de Investigación y Desarollo de la Música Cubana) in Havana in 1982. Ruiz Quevedo commented on the growing international popularity of salsa, which had reached a temporary climax towards the end of the 1970s. Until 1959, continues Ruiz Quevedo, Cuba had been only a “a neocolonial source of musical raw materials which had been appropriated by several U.S. music-publishing firms“ (1982: 2). Referring to the Cuban author and musicologist Alejo Carpentier, Ruiz Quevedo states that Cuban music had been “the only musical force that can be compared with jazz in the 20th century“ (ibid.: 1). However, it had been under the control of the US-American musical industry. Ruiz Quevedo says that this had changed only marginally after the “triumph of the Cuban revolution”. The “cultural neo-colonialism” was still at work, and the term salsa was one of its most efficient tools. Many Cuban musicians and authors thought the same way. According to this logic, salsa was actually Cuban music from pre-revolutionary times with a new label which was meant to obscure the real origin of this music (Manuel 1987: 170).
Frances Aparicio (1998) distinguishes three different points of view regarding the term salsa. With reference to the presumably “real Cuban identity” of the music, the first one flatly denies the existence of any music called salsa. The second opinion recognizes the existence of the salsa, but still states the original Cuban character of the music. The third one, finally, sees salsa as “a syncretic cultural expression central to Latina/o urban communities in the United States and across Latin America, simultaneously traveling beyond borders“ (Aparicio 1998: 65 & 68).
The first two opinions are based on the same preliminary assumption of the “truly Cuban identity” of salsa. Representatives of this assumption can be found among Cubans on the island as well in the exile in Miami. That is why I would like to follow Alejandro Ulloa in calling it the “Cuban point of view”, being well aware, though, that also Non-Cubans as the US-born Puerto Rican Tito Puente were among its exponents (Ulloa 1992: 27-31). On the other hand, there is the second point of view, which regards salsa as a “common music of the urban Caribbean”. Among its exponents are authors like César Miguel Rondón as well as musicians like Rubén Blades or Willie Colón, non of them Cuban (ibid.: 32-37).
The arguments of the supporters of the Cuban opinion were indeed very strong: in an interview with the Cuban journalist Mayra Martínez, Fania’s co-founder Jerry Masucci claimed that he had the publishing right for the term salsa since the production of the documentary film of the same title. They had chosen the term, said Masucci, because it was easier to comprehend for an audience not familiar with the diversity of Cuban and other Caribbean musical genres. Like this, it was easier to promote the music under a common label, as it had happened before with Rock’n’roll or Country music. Besides, even well-known musicians as Tito Puente or Oscar d’León had said, stated Ruiz Quevedo, that salsa was nothing else but “Cuban music brought up-to-date“(Ruiz Quvedo 1982: 15-16).
The Cuban point of view was further strengthened by the fact that in the late 1960s a whole bunch of Nuyorican groups of the so-called típico style had many older Cuban songs in their repertoire. These groups were modelled after the famous Cuban conjuntos of the 1940s and 50s. In 1964, Johnny Pacheco had founded a conjunto of this style, with a line-up of various trumpets, piano, double-bass, and percussion instruments as congas, timbales and bongos. With his group, Pacheco started a movement that Rondón has called matancerización, after the famous Cuban group La Sonora Matancera (1980: 92). René López, producer and owner of a vast collection of pre-revolutionary Cuban records, recalls the practice of the younger típico groups in New York:
By then [towards the end of the 1960s] I had met most of the band leaders and had all their albums and could then trace the tunes that were on the albums….I could trace them especially to Cuba, through these old 78s that I had collected. And I realized that they [the contemporary musicians] were just reinterpreting things. And not only that – a lot of the times they would do the same inspiración (improvisation) (Singer 1982: 143, omissions in the original).
Pacheco and his conjunto were among these musicians, because “several of Pacheco’s hits were simply note-for-note renditions of 1950s songs by Cuban bandleader Felix Chapotín“ (Manuel 1994: 269).
Naturally, these facts supported the thesis of the advocates of the “Cuban” point of view that salsa was in reality only Cuban music. But these advocates tended to ignore that the típico groups were only a minority among the Nuyorican ensembles – as the typical line-up of a salsa ensemble in the 1970s consisted of a more diverse brass section, mostly dominated by trombones rather than trumpets, as was the case with the conjuntos típicos (Rondón 1980: 51-54).
But the strongest argument of the enemies of the term salsa was that “the promoters of salsa have not been able even to define a new rhythmic mode: they have simply achieved an interpretative style” (Ruiz Quevedo: 1982: 15). Because salsa was merely a new style of interpretation and not a new rhythm, was the argument, it consequently could not be a new genre. Hence, it still was Cuban music. To fully comprehend this argument, it is necessary to realize the following fact:
’Groove,’ ‚beat,’ ‚swing,’ ‚jamming,’ ‚hot’ – the rhythmic character of African American music is constantly evaluated in the vocabulary of laymen and musicians. The rhythmic ‚feel’ that these words refer to, while hard to account for by traditional musicological concepts, is essential to the evaluation and classification of different genres and styles. In fact, in Latin America the term ‚ritmo’ is often used synonymously with genre (Dudley 1996: 269).
James Robbins differentiates this argument in relation to the Cuban popular music when he states that here musical genres “are distinguished [...] by their aire, their células rítmicas, and their clave“ (1989: 385). Both células rítmicas and clave are concepts pointing to the temporal organization of music, whereas aire is defined as “a combination of tempo, perhaps rhythmic cells and other rhythmic features“ (ibid.: 386), as interpretational instructions (rubato etc.).
Functioning as a time-line pattern, the clave exists in different variations. The both forms most widely used in Cuban música bailable (“danceable music”) are the rumba clave and the son clave, which both can be played in two ways:
Clave variations: rumba clave (links) und son clave (rechts) in tiempo und contratiempo (Robbins 1989: 385).
Células rítmicas on the other hand are the pattern of the different instruments of the rhythm section of a group, including piano and bass. For Cuban musicians, the relation of the single células to the clave is of great significance for the judgement of the playing. As both clave types stress the beats that corresponds to the backbeat of most US-Afro-American music as soul or funk, it is obvious that fusion between these musical styles could be easily achieved, at least regarding the rhythmical structures.
Also Quintero Rivera differentiates Shannon’s statement by differentiating between the rhythm of a genre and the genre itself, stating that a song played in the rhythm of a merengue or a guaracha is not necessary a merengue or a guaracha. On the other hand, says Quintero Rivera, certain genres can share different rhythms, also the ones of other genres (Quintero Rivera 1998: 391). Although Quintero Rivera does not really define a musical genre, it is obvious, that even a song which originally is not a guaracha or a merengue can be played as one. Quintero Rivera concludes that salsa is not a musical genre but a “musical movement”:
[A] heterogeneous movement characterised more by some musical practices than by its specific contents. That is why I analyse the salsa more as a “way of making music” than a genre (Quintero Rivera 1998: 392, italics in the original).
Thus, Quintero Rivera supports the argument presented by Shannon Dudley and thus follows the core argument of the “Cuban point of view”. From this argumentation, the point of view of Cuban musicians and musicologists, that salsa is simply Cuban music played in a new style, becomes understandable. It may come as a surprise that even Willie Colón, one of the foremost advocates of the term salsa, shares this opinion:
I think, salsa is neither a rhythm nor a genre that can be identified and classified. The salsa is an idea, a concept, a result and a way of taking on music from the perspective of Latin American culture (Padura Fuentes 1997: 51).
Although Colón obviously distinguishes between a “rhythm” and a “genre”, he specifies neither of the terms. But he has a revealing definition of the difference between salsa and son:
Whereas the son has a specific structure, the salsa is total freedom, and can start with a guaguancó and finish with a Puertorican aguinaldo, passing for a Brazilian batucada or a passage from Mozart (ibid. 52).
It is obvious that Colón is not talking about music in the strict sense of the term, but rather about a certain artistic identity, which claims “total freedom”, at least in relation to the music.
Coming back to the rejection of the term salsa by Cuban musicians, it is noteworthy that some even presented their rejection in their song lyrics. An illustrating example is the song “Pongase pa’ las cosas”, a son played by the Estrellas de Areíto, a Cuban group designed after the model of and as a counterpoint to the Fania All-Stars (Ariel/Tourtrol 1998: 16). The refrain goes like this:
Póngase pa’ las cosas
Set to work
“Póngase para las cosas“ (Pedro Aranzola, from Estrellas de Areíto 1998)
The term salsa remained a kind of taboo in Cuba for nearly twenty years. The musicologist Leonardo Acosta even claims an “unwritten prohibition” for the term among Cuban musicians, not to use it was “somehow a matter of national honour” (Acosta 1997: 28). It may seem surprising that this matter was an example for the rare, maybe even unique unity between Cubans living on the island and those living in the USA. But it gives clear evidence of the high significance that both groups grant the music as a means for the construction of their collective identity.
For also Cuban musicians living in the USA never got tired to explain that salsa was only freshly interpreted Cuban music: “Mario Bauzá, Machito, Cachao, all of them denied that the salsa was something different from what they had played in the 1940s”. Right until her untimely death, exile Cuban singer Celia Cruz claimed: “You can call it ‚salsa’ or ‘sulso’ or whatever you want to call it, it’s still Cuban music“ (Aparicio 1999: 228). And exile Cuban authors as Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1982: XIII & XIX), Cristóbal Díaz Ayala (1993: 337-339) or Natalio Galán (1982: 349) did not miss the chance to make similar statements in their publications.
The “Cuban” point of view gained ground in other countries as well. A lengthy public discussion arose in Puerto Rico over a concert to be held during the World Exhibition in Sevilla in 1992. The suggested title for the concert was “Puerto Rico es salsa”, but it was defied by critics who claimed that salsa was in reality Cuban music, and consequently could not be a symbol for Puerto Rico’s national identity. Instead, a symphony orchestra or an ensemble of rural folk music should be sent to Spain (Aparicio 1998: 65-66).
Nevertheless and despite all the critique, there was also a broad consensus among Cuban musicians that the dissemination of Cuban music itself – even if under a wrong label – was a good thing. The director of the famous group Los Van Van, Juan Formell, for example, noted that young international audiences had the chance to come to know Cuban popular music thanks to the interpretations by internationally known stars as Rubén Blades or Oscar d’León (Manuel 1987: 170). The heavily political songs of the so-called salsa consciente (“conscious salsa”) singers as Rubén Blades, Willie Colón or Hector Lavoé with their often Marxist lyrics criticizing the economical imperialism of the USA in particular gained the liking of Cuban officials. Thus, despite the broad rejection from musicians and musicologists, the music itself became more and more popular in Cuba, and was even played by the national media (ibid.: 171).
Finally, the late 1980s saw a slow but distinct change of attitude within the Cuban “anti-salsa discourse”.
The increasing ties of Cuba with the USSR since the late 1960s became institutionalised with the small tropical nation joining the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) in 1972. Until the mid-1980s, the economic aid from the big socialist brother country led to a certain modest prosperity on the island, but also to a increasing dependency from the big “Socialist brother”. (Burchardt 1996: 19-21). This turned out disastrous after the self-dissolving of the USSR in 1991. A severe economical crisis was the result. A rapidly growing shortage of oil and an energy crisis led to nearly empty streets and daily power cuts on the island. Due to a severe shortage of paper, most journals and magazines ceased to be published, except for a few publications by the Communist Party (ibid.: 102).
The crisis had already begun in the late 1980s, as due to the Perestroika policy of Mikhail Gorbachev the Soviet economic aid for Cuba had been reduced. Thus, Castro had announced the “periodo especial en tiempo de paz“ (“Special Period in Times of Peace”) in 1990. Now, with the ever-growing crisis, the government took two decisive steps. The first one was the legalization of the US-dollar in 1993 (before it was again banned ten years later, in November 2004), which led to a fast growing number of money transfers from Cubans living abroad to their relatives on the island, the so-called “remesas” (ibid. 1996: 23-26).
The second, even more important step was the opening of the island for foreign tourists. Tourism had been widely banned after 1959, because the new leadership held it responsible for the prostitution in the country. In the early 1960s, the Castro administration had proudly announced that the former “brothel of the Caribbean” had been turned into “the first prostitution-free area in Latin America” (Burchardt 1999: 99). Now in 1991, it was rediscovered as a means for the acquisition of foreign currency. But although the Cuban leadership tried to promote mostly family- and culture-oriented tourism since the early 1990s, the reality was clearly different. Sex tourism grew fast and attracted many foreigners (Zeuske 2000: 143).
The most widespread form of the newly emerging prostitution was the accompaniment of the (male or female) foreigner by a Cuban national. For the whole time of his/her stay in the country the tourist invites his or her escort and buys new clothes or other items for him or her. This often happens with the hope of a subsequent marriage and accordingly the opportunity to leave the country. (Rundle 2001: 2). As moral appeals were hardly successful in reducing the prostitution, the strongest reactions by the government were reprisals against the so-called jinteras/os and their assumed “individual malbehaviour”, for which a general loss of values was to be blamed (Burchardt 1999: 100).
In the time of growing economic difficulties and hardships, a gradual change within the Cuban anti-salsa discourse occurred. Since the late 1980s the general rejection turned into a more pragmatic approach it could be seen from Cuban musicians in the USA already since the 1970s. One of the first groups of música bailable to take up the term was NG (for “Nueva Generación” or “New Generation”) La Banda, the group led by flute player José Luis Corté. The song “Necessita una amiga” (“I need a girl friend”) from their second record, entitled “En la calle” (1989), is marked as a “balada-salsa” (“ballad-salsa”) in the record cover sleeve. These kinds of genre markings are a common feature of records of Cuban música bailable. The next record of the group, a collaboration with well-known Cuban singer Malena Burke, contained new arrangements of older Cuban classic songs, and was entitled “Salseando” (“Playing Salsa”, NG La Banda 1990).
In 1991, the singer Issac Delgado left NG La Banda to start a solo career. Since then he performed under the name byname “el Chévere de la salsa”. He illuminates the change of mind of the Cuban musicians:
In the late 1980s, the people noticed that we couldn’t fight the term salsa. I was among the first who understood that salsa is only a label, just like Pepsi Cola, which is a soft drink just like [Coca] Cola, which is a easy word that people in Europe, in America and in all parts of the world could understand, a word to denominate a certain type of music which is played in the Caribbean, in Latin America, danceable music, tropical music (Interview Delgado 2001)
But Delgado emphasises that in his point of view salsa is not a musical genre:
Musical genres are the son, the guaracha, the cha-cha-chá, are rhythms that have been created in Cuba, but it is important to have a shield, a roof for everything, like an easy word as it is ‘salsa’. We Cubans were lucky that people from Puerto Rico, from New York, from Venezuela, from Colombia kept playing Cuban music for three or four decades, in the 1970s, 80s and also the 90s. They kept playing our music, even if under a different name, the name of salsa, but it is Cuban music […]. But it was our luck because they kept it in the ears of the people (Interview Delgado 2001).
Despite the adoption of the term, the basic attitude remained the same: salsa was only Cuban music with a different label. But the new rationale was this: as salsa had always been Cuban music, and, accordingly, Cuban musicians had always been playing salsa, there was nothing wrong with an adoption of the label for the own economic ambitions. Initially, mostly big ensembles of the música bailable started to use the term. But soon, even smaller groups in the style of the traditional son-septets adopted the label, as a song by the “Septeto Raisón” shows:
Y cuando mezcle esta mezcla
And when I mix this mixture
“Mi salsa cubana“, Septeto Raison 1995 (published on V.A. 1995a).
Those musicians that had not left the island after the large-scale closing of bars, casinos and cabarets became governmental employees, and national agencies were founded to coordinate the performances of these nationally employed musicians in nationalised establishments as clubs or restaurants (ibid.: 230-231).
All these measures aimed at liberating the musicians (and other artists as well) from the rigid compulsions of commercial pressure. Many musicologists claimed that this pressure had let to a “distortion” and “sterilization” of Cuban music (Manuel 1987: 162). The intention of a guarantied salary by the government was to abolish this pressure. The most famous musicians were even among the best-earning people in the country apart from ministers, hospital directors, and sugar cane cutters (Robbins 1991: 231, foot note 39).
The production of records had been nationalised and strictly centralised as well. An EGREM committee had to judge all the projects handed in by the musicians to decide which were to be realised (Robbins 1991: 236). In 1983, Leonardo Acosta criticised the absence of any kind of market research tools, which could help to produce records in relation to the actual necessities of the audience (1983: 195-196). Indeed, the total absence of this kind of research led to considerable inefficiency, as many times the production of particular records was either too high or too low to meet the actual demand (Robbins 1991: 223).
Acosta further criticised the rigid centralism which did not allow musicians to simply join or found an ensemble without an approval by official agencies. This centralism, said Acosta, impeded “the dynamic processes which has made possible the development of vital movements of popular music in Cuba“ (1983: 199). This explained, why “the Cuban record industry has not even succeeded in establishing a thriving market in its own country“ (ibid.: 194).
As the fast worsening economic crisis also put musical production in the country to a halt, Cuban musicians were given the permission to sign contracts with foreign labels from 1993 onwards (Cantor 1997). A rapidly growing number of musicians made use of this permission, as at the same time a certain number of international labels developed an interest in signing Cuban musicians (Pacini Hernández 1998: 118). In addition, official Cuban agencies discovered music as a means of promoting their country abroad and to stimulate tourism to the island. Hence, many anthologies of contemporary popular music were published with titles as “¿Son o salsa?“ (V.A. 1991) or “Salsa Cubana” (V.A. 1995b), featuring songs from groups like NG La Banda, Los Van Van and Juan Carlos y el Dan Den, but also form older groups as El Original de Manzanillo, Orquesta Revé or Orquesta Aragon. In general, we can assume that the growing tourism sparked the usage of the term salsa in Cuba. As many tourists associated Cuba with the “tropical sound” of this music, younger musicians didn’t bother to use the term, even if they saw it just as a simple concession to the international music market, as Delgado’s statements show.
After the worst phase of the economic crisis was over, a new musical magazine was published in the second half of the 1990s. Its title was “Salsa Cubana”. The contents of the magazine follow the logic of the claim that salsa is in fact only Cuban music. The articles feature exponents of classical European music as directress Zenaida Castro Romeu, leader of the chamber music ensemble Camerata Romeu (Hoz 1997), younger musicians performing rock or rap (Manduley 2001 and Fernández 2000, respectively), as well as groups and musicians playing música bailable (García Meralla 2000).
The adoption of the term salsa by Cuban musicians and by officials in the cultural industry can be seen as a kind of re-appropriation. After nearly two decades of futile polemics against the term, they now tried to use it for their own aims. This re-appropriation was not limited to musicians. In February 1990, a series was launched in one of the two national TV channels, entitled “Mi Salsa”. According to journalist Lidia Bécquer it followed two aims:
[…] first of all to show that salsa, deriving from Cuban son, is ours and that it was not invented outside of our country, and second, to present the danceable popular music to the fullest (Bécquer 1997: 42).
In 1997, a collection of interviews conducted by the journalist Leonardo Padura Fuentes between 1989 and 1997 was published under the title “Los rostros de la salsa” (“The faces of salsa”). This book reflects the whole diversity and contrariness of the international salsa-discourse of the 1990s. Padura Fuentes talked to musicians from different countries. Among them were veterans of Cuban popular music living in the USA as Mario Bauzá and Israel López "Cachao“, who both strongly reject the term salsa, well-known salsa singers as Rubén Blades and Willie Colón, as well as representatives of contemporary Cuban música bailable as Adalberto Álvarez and Juan Formell. The picture is completed by conversations with a representative of the New York-based record label RMM – “the new rulers of salsa” (Padura Fuentes 1997: 203) –, with merengue musicians Johnny Ventura, Wilfrido Vargas, and Juan Luis Guerra and last but not least with Cuban musicologist Radamés Giro.
Both Formell and Giro differentiate in their statements the Cuban stance on the phenomenon salsa, more than the formula “basically salsa is son” had done before. Formell says that this simplifying explication would obscure the contribution of the countless musicians from different countries (ibid.: 103-104), whereas Giro confirms that this reduction of salsa was not sufficient. But he also admits that the marketing of pre-revolutionary genres and musicians as salsa somehow justified critique of the term (ibid.: 225).
It should have become clear hat the adaptation of the label salsa cannot be reduced to a simple “commercial trick” by Cuban musicians aiming at a better market access. It was much more than this. It was a re-appropriation on different levels meant to present the assumed reality about salsa to the Cuban public. Neither “Mi Salsa”, shown in the national TV program, nor “Los rostros de la salsa” was primarily aiming at a foreign audience.
In the same year as “Los rostros…,” 1997, Leonardo Acosta published an article posing the question “¿Terminó la polémica sobre la salsa?”. Acosta comes to a conclusion similar to that of Issac Delgado presented earlier:
Right now it is enough to say that thanks to the actualization or reinterpretation of our music by the ‘Neoyorricans’ [sic!] and other musicians from the Caribbean, it kept being distributed also during the three decades of the isolation of Cuban music. At present we notice that this was positive. And without losing our own characteristics and with an innovative spirit, we in Cuba have luckily assimilated the salsa as a part of a common heritage, leaving to regard it as an alien which has to be fought against (Acosta 1997: 29, italics in the original).
With his claim, Acosta refers to renowned musicians such as Willie Colón, Johnny Pacheco, Rubén Blades, and Papo Lucca, all of them confirming the significance of the “Cuban school” for their own music in their respective conversations with Padura Fuentes (1997).
So even if young Cuban musicians nowadays usually do not hesitate to use the term salsa to describe their own music, the core argument of the Cuban salsa discourse remains the claim that the music thus labelled is simply Cuban music played by non-Cuban musicians. We can thus clearly state that the adoption of the term by Cuban musicians is not a break in the Cuban discourse regarding salsa in the Foucault’ian sense (1969). Accordingly, Lise Waxer regards it as an expression of a Cuban national consciousness, because “to this day Cubans refer to Cuban styles, regardless of how far beyond Cuban borders they have spread and changed, as música cubana“ (Waxer 1994: 140, italics in the original).
But different points of view might lead to different conclusions, as the works of the Puerto Rican authors Jorge Duany (1984), Frances Aparicio (1998), or Lisa Sánchez-González (1999) substantiate. They represent a Puerto Rican view on the matter, and consequently lay their emphasis on the Puerto Rican contribution in the development of salsa. Aparicio dedicates the first two chapters of her book to two older genres of Puerto Rican popular music, the danza and the plena, both of which she considers of prime importance for the development of salsa. These authors (and a couple of others as well) represent a stark contradiction to the “Cuban point of view”.
It should be clear by now that there is no final answer to the question of the Cuban character of the music called salsa. Rather the ongoing discussion of the “true Cuban identity” of salsa can be regarded as one of the characteristic features of the international salsa discourse itself.
During 1990s the term timba appeared in the Cuban música bailable next to the term salsa, as mostly younger groups took up this label to describe their music. US-American ethnomusicologist James Robbins who had spent some month for fieldwork in Cuba in 1987 and 1988 mentions the term already in 1989 relating it to the música bailable, calling it “modernized son” (Robbins 1989: 385). Robbins’ description does not suggest any kind of competition between the two categories. According to the author, for Cuban musicians “salsa” also contained other genres, Cuban as well as non-Cuban ones (ibid.).
But this notion changed considerably in the process of the establishment of the term, which took another couple of years. Only from the Mid-1990s it started to be more widely used. During a press conference for the publishing of the new album “Te pone la cabeza mala” in 1997, Los Van Van’s musical director Juan Formell said in Havanna:
Nowadays in Cuba we play music differently, and nobody knows what to call it. People dance differently and there's no name for it, so we’re calling it timba. [...]There was a moment when we had to accept the word ‘salsa’ because of the international situation. At that time we were on the defensive, but now we’re on the offensive and we can say, ‘No, that’s not what we do. We’re somewhere between traditional son and salsa (Quoted in Castañeda 1998).
Formell added that “by combining our artistic criteria we're going to enter the market. It's a new initiative and it needs a new name, timba, a musical name like rumba or conga“ (ibid.). He frankly admits that commercial interests led to the upbringing of the name. It is obvious that the case of Los Van Van represents a conscious adoption of the term, as the group had already existed for about 30 years recording many albums without ever using the label timba. They had always been associated with a genre called songo as whose creator Formell had been acknowledged (c.f. Fernández Bendoyro et.al. 1999).
During the same aforementioned press conference Van Van’s singer Mario Rivera added that the term timba had already been used for some years by students from the Cuban conservatories (Castañeda 1998). This supports Robbins’ claim that the term had been used since the late 1980s. Likewise, González Bello and Casanella Cué mention the formation of the national conservatories as one of the basic conditions for the later emergence of timba (2004: 332).
But the term had been circulating in the Cuban musical landscape for a long time. Again González Bello and Casanell Cué state that the designation had been used for decades as an equivalent for rumba. They mention a couple of non-musical meanings of the term as well. For example, a culinary speciality, a “combination of bread with a sweet dish made of guavas” is known as “pan con timba” in Cuba, and a quarter of Havana is also called Timba (2004: 332). After leaving Los Van Van, the piano player Cesar “Pupi” Pedroso took reference to the second meaning by giving his debut solo album the title “De la Timba a Pogolotti” (Pedroso 1999). Both Pogolotti and Timba are both quarters of Havana inhabited mainly by Afro-Cubans (Noble 2001: 54).
Hence the term timba does not only evoke a specific sub-cultural flavour, as according to the dictionary the lexical meaning is “gambling den”. It also contains an at least threefold reference to a specifically Cuban context. So it turns out to be very useful for the construction of a specific local identity.
Even though it was Juan Formell who attracted a larger interest to the label timba also internationally, in the still quite sparse literature about the topic the person considered to be the central figure of the timba movement is Juan Luis Cortés (Acosta 1998: 10; González Bello/Casanella Cué 2004: 334; Pagano 1996: 15). Before founding his own group in 1988, the conservatory educated flute player Cortés had gained musical experience as a musician and arranger in Los Van Van and Irakere.
Thus, the group NG La Banda is not only associated with the adoption of the term salsa in Cuba, but also with the introduction of the label timba in the contemporary música bailable. This can be seen as a hint that in spite of the strategic advantage that they thought to get from the use of the etiquette salsa, Cuban musicians yearned very much for a distinction from the international salsa scene. Although the label salsa had been used in some of the albums of NG La Banda (1990, 1993), a couple of years later Cortés claimed that he didn’t “even know how to play like a salsero” (Henry 1998: 23).
González Bello and Casanell Cué point to the fact that the adaptation of the “fashion label” salsa had been “the only possible way to the international market” for Cuban musicians. Although alternative terms as “hipersalsa”, “heavy salsa”, or “salsa dura” had been used earlier, the Cuban music had finally found its own name with the label timba. But this had only been used as a pure marketing instrument in which “the longing for a differentiation of the Cuban music from the salsa erótica or salsa romántica from New York had been the top priority” (2004: 333).
For many groups the construction of a self-containedCuban identity is achieved mainly by a certain authenticity claiming to be “popular” in the sense of “close to the people”. In US-American Hip Hop whose influence became stronger during the 1990s in Cuba in general and in timba in particular, this kind of authenticity is called “street credibility”. I consider this term as very adequate for what Cortés, whose nick name is “El Tosco” (“The tough guy”), wanted to achieve with his group. Leonardo Acosta also compares the timba with the US-American gangster rap (1998: 11). But this is in contrast to the fact the timba is indeed a highly elitist music, as nearly of the groups’ members are highly skilled conservatory trained musicians, as was already repeatedly indicated.
Nevertheless, album titles as “En la calle” (“In the street”, NG La Banda 1989) or “En directo desde el patio de mi casa“ (“Straight from the patio of my house”, NG La Banda 1995), and the lyrics of songs as “La expresiva” (on NG La Banda 1989) or “Los Sitios entero” (on V.A. 1991) confirm the striving for popularity in the sense of “close to the people”. In both songs’ lyrics different quarters of Havana are mentioned and the second one even has a quarter’s name, los Sitios, in the title. The refrain of this second song goes like this: “I was born in Havana, I am a Habanero, Jesús Maria, Belén y all of Sitios“ (“Nací en La Habana, soy habanero, Jesús Maria, Belén y los Sitios entero“). The three mentioned quarters belong to the barrios of Havana mostly inhabited by Afro-Cubans (Noble 2001: 53). Cortés himself confirms argument in an interview with US-American ethnomusicologist Patrick Noble:
Popular Cuban dance music [i.e. timba]is not from Vedado, it’s not from Miramar. It’s from Cayo Hueso, from Coco Solo, from Povoloti [sic! Actually ‘Pogolotti’], from Los Sitios—from the neighborhoods of Havana, from the neighborhoods which are known as marginal neighborhoods (Cortés, quoted from: Noble 2001: 54).
In various interviews Cortés stresses the importance of the “simple people from the streets” with their joys, fears, and sorrows for his work as a composer and lyricist. He even claims to be a “fanatic of the street” (Acosta Llerna 1999: 91-98). Accordingly, his own definition of timba goes like this:
Timba is something that is felt. […] Timba can be found in the voice of Tony Calá [singer of NG La Banda], of Issac [Delgado] or of Mayito Rivera [singer of Los Van Van], but the Timba is in the streets, in the cues, in the way people talk and dance. It is like an attitude towards life today here in Cuba, and we as musicians reflect it in our lyrics (Henry 1998: 23).
Hence, for Cortés himself, the term does not only carry strictly musical associations, but a lot of non-sounding, nevertheless intrinsically Cuban qualities.
The close relationship between the musicians and their dancing audience is another striking feature. Different musicians mention the significance of the dancers for their playing, as the already quoted statements by Cortés and Formell show. Although a deeper investigation of the close relationship of musicians and dancers in the field of timba is beyond the scope of this work (although certainly of great importance), I want to highlight one important element at least, namely the short exclamations by the timba singers in their songs. These exclamations stem from the interaction of the group and the dancers in the concert situation; it can be seen as a cheer towards the fellow musicians as well as the dancers. Most of the groups developed one particular cheer as a kind of trade mark. The typical exclamation in NG La Banda’s songs is “Attaca chicho!”, whereas Los Van Van’s trade mark is “Ahí, na’ má’!” (actually: “Ahí, nada más!”), meaning “Only here, nowhere else!”.
Many groups like NG La Banda, La Charanga Habanera or Klimax tried to achieve their “street credibility” by composing lyrics which reflected the new Cuban everyday life after 1991. Thus they followed the realist attitude of US-rap music. Juan Luis Cortés even composed a song entitled “Crónica social” (“Social chronicle”) for NG La Banda, which talks about the hardships of the “common people” in Cuba. It was never published on any record due to conflicts with the Cuban authorities, as Kevin Moore states on the internet page www.timba.com.
Lyrics that could be understood as a critique of the work of the government, hence nearly all lyrics about the new realities Cuban people had to face since the early 1990s, led to serious problems with the authorities. But songs such as “Crónica Social” were the exception; as officials could not keep the musicians from producing these songs, the common means of censorship was the denying of transmission through the national mass media. This again led to an increasing “street credibility” as it proofed that the songs did not reflect the official view of the government but the view of the subaltern people, as musicologist Helio Orovio explains: “Timba is neighborhood. Timba is the retaliation of the neighborhood over the project of institutionalization” (quoted in: Noble 2001: 55).
The discussion regarding timba in Cuba itself shows clear similarities to the anti-salsa discourse. The question that often arises is if timba is really a new kind of Cuban music or simply “old wine in new bottles”. Musicians as well as critics claim that timba, just like salsa, is a mere marketing label aiming at a better commercialisation of the Cuban music (González Bello/Casanella Cué 2004: 333). Thus, Issac Delgado claims that already during his time in university in the 1970s young musicians from the group Irakere as Chucho Valdés or Arturo Sandovál had arranged secret jazz jam sessions. They had called them “tocar timba” or “timbear” (“to play timba”).
And even before them the great rumba singers […], when they came together to play the drums in a backyard, they said they went to play timba. And he, who was a good rumba singer, was also called a timbero. Hence, it is a word, a term from the streets of Cuba. […] A few years ago we had the idea to make a project called the ‘All-Stars of Cuban music,’ the ‘Team Cuba.’ And Juan Formell started to use the term anew, but it is not new. […] But it is the new Cuban music, the contemporary Cuban music […], they’re going to change the name, but it is the same Cuban music, because you can’t talk about timba without talking about the son (Interview Delgado 2001).
Lazaro Valdés (Interview 2001) supports Delgado’s view that timba is only a marketing label. However, I doubt this view. True, it is partly a marketing label, as the earlier mentioned statement by Juan Formell clearly shows, but not exclusively. Given the poor economic situation in Cuba, it does not seem quite reasonable that young musicians should try to establish a new, unknown label in the international market instead of trying to capitalise on the already well established label salsa. This arguments seems even weightier as central characters of the Cuban timba scene like Cortés (in Borges-Triana 1997: 13-14), Issac Delgado (Interview 2001) or Lázaro Valdés (Interview 2001) express the difficulties for Cuban musicians to market their music internationally.
Thus, Giraldo Piloto, former drummer of NG La Banda and today director of his own group Klimax, challenges the opinion that timba is only a commercial label:
I am convinced that at this time the bigger part of the world does not understand what timba is. Some day they might understand and identify it, but not right now. But any of us Cubans can identify the timba, from children of four or five years to the oldest persons (Interview Piloto 2001).
This is his definition of timba:
Timba is the music that is played in Cuba […], it is the genre that offers the most freedom to the musician and the dancer to express themselves. […] The difference [to salsa] is, that salsa stays rooted in pre-established patterns, i.e. in pattern given by the music market. […] Timba identifies more with what is happening in Cuba right now. That is why it is so, let’s say, nationalist (Interview Piloto 2001).
Piloto stresses the need for Cuban musicians to strive for access to the international market due to the bad economic situation in Cuba itself and the resulting difficulties to sell their music at home. But he has no doubt that timba is still in first place a Cuban music made for a Cuban audience (Interview Piloto 2001).
Anyway, representatives of both points of view agree that timba is a decidedly Cuban phenomenon. There is accordance as well in the endeavour towards a demarcation from another Cuban musical phenomenon that for the first time since 1959 gained international reputation in the late 1990s. I am talking about older forms of Cuban music as played by the musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club (BVSC). With the success of the BVSC project, initialised by British producer Nick Gold and US-guitarist Ry Cooder, Cuban popular music received a new attention by an international audience. An enormous press effort as well as the documentary by German director Wim Wenders (1998) helped to spark international interest in Cuban music. But younger Cuban musicians criticised that the music of the BVSC was not the music that was listened to in contemporary Cuba. According to these musicians, the music of the BVSC was the foundation of the newer music – which was timba –, but it was not the music that most people listened to in the island. This, according to musicians such as Issac Delgado, Giraldo Piloto or Lázaro Valdés, is timba and not, as Cortés puts it, “your father’s or your grandfather’s Cuban music; not the sweet traditional sound of the Buena Vista Social Club. Timba is the sound of Cuba now [...]” (Levin 1998). Giraldo Piloto finds even clearer words, when he states that for young Cubans the music of the BVSC “doesn’t serve as a flag” (“no sirve de bandera”, Interview Piloto 2001).
Even if José Luis Cortés is generally seen as the “initiator” of modern timba, there is a clear tendency to construct a historical continuity with older forms of Cuban music. This is indicated already by the label “timba”, as the above mentioned statements by Issac Delgado, Mario Rivera, and González Bello/Casanella Cué show. Often a direct line of evolution is drawn, from the music of the group Irakere from the 1970s to modern timba in the 1990s (Acosta 1998; Gozaléz Bello/Casanella Cué 2004: 331-332; Orovio 1998: 17). Some elements of modern timba can certainly be found in the older music of Irakere from the 1970s, as the combination of música bailable elements with jazz improvisation or the use of the ritual batá drums from Afro-Cuban rituals, for example. Besides, the term was circulating among the musicians of the group, but these musicians themselves did not use the term in the sense of a new musical development or genre (González Bello/Casanella Cué 2004: 332).
Nevertheless, Giraldo Piloto confirms the view that timba was a result of such an “evolution”, at the same time highlighting once more the great importance of the dancers for the playing of the musicians:
The timba is the genre which the Cuban dancer demanded, the genre which is the result of a development that began about a hundred years ago with the danzón and that right now is called timba, but that during all these years has gone through different stiles, different ways, and through different ways of looking at music, forms of dance, of feeling, of – as we say here in Cuba – of ‘guarachar’ [enjoying, celebrating] (Interview Piloto 2001).
I will now concentrate on the topics I regard as important and characteristic for the timba. These are religious subjects, mostly dealing with the so-called Afro-Cuban religious cults, especially the santería, and a social critique of the everyday life in the song lyrics, dealing with the developments in contemporary Cuban society in the aftermath of the economic breakdown. But before that, I would like to take a look at the ideological background of the timba.
In the night of December 17, 2000, I attended the final concert of the jazz festival “JazzPlaza” in Havana. The final act of the evening was the group NG La Banda. The concert took place in the packed patio of the “Casa de la Cultura” in the district Plaza, and NG La Banda started playing around 2 a.m. Before them, a newcomer group, Federico y su clan which at that time had not yet published any recording and the already mentioned Bamboleo of director Lázaro Valdés had performed. Maybe to justify their appearance in a jazz festival, the first tune played by NG La Banda was a newly arranged version of Chick Corea’s fusion classic from the 1970s, “Spain”. Apart from this decidedly jazzy number the group stuck to their vast repertoire of highly danceable timba numbers. Between two of songs José Luis Cortés told the mostly Cuban audience what it was that made Cuban music so special. According to the band leader it was the fusion of African and European elements, in Cortés own words, the “transculturation”.
Thus, the musician was referring directly to the concept of Cuban author Fernando Ortiz (1881-1969), who had published various sociological and anthropological works on different aspects of the Cuban society. Ortiz himself attached a particular importance to the different forms of cultural expression of the Afro-Cuban population. In fact, he even claimed having coined the term “Afro-Cuban” (Ortiz 1950: 98). Being a descendant of a white upper-class family, Ortiz had written his first works to document the “education” of the presumed “primitive” African-derived Cuban population towards the “superior” European-derived culture. But in the course of his studies, he profoundly changed his point of view. To this day, Ortiz is considered to be the central figure of the research on a part of Cuban culture largely ignored by most of his contemporaries. In fact, he was one of the first white Cubans to consider the culture of the Afro-Cubans to be worth dealing with from a sociological point of view. His vast publications deal with different aspects of these cultural expressions, from religious rituals, music forms and musical instruments right until dance and theatre (Moore 1994: 32). Some of his publications such as the five volumes on musical instruments, “Los instrumentos de la música afrocubana“ (“The instruments of Afro-Cuban music”, 1952-´55), or his works on African elements in Cuban music, “La africanía de la música folklórica de Cuba” (“The African element of the folk music of Cuba”, 1950), are considered to be standard works of Cuban musicology until today.
Ortiz, who had also founded the “Sociedad de Estudios Afrocubanos“ (“Society for Afro-Cuban Studies”), published his “Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar” (“Cuban counterpoint of tobacco and sugar”) in 1940. It was the first work in which he presented the idea of “transculturation”. The musical allegation in the title is a hint to the European-bourgeois education of the author. According to the habitus of the white upper-class, Ortiz considered himself a member of the elite of a modern and progressive nation. Thus, he tried to follow the development and streams of social sciences as cultural (or social) anthropology and sociology in the USA and Europe as closely as possible. Robin Moore states, that Ortiz revealed a detailed and broad knowledge of the literature from different social sciences right until his last works in the 1950s.30 Accordingly, his concept of “transculturation” was meant as a counterdraft to the idea of “acculturation”, which the US-American cultural anthropologist Melville Herskovits had presented in his work “Acculturation: the study of culture contact“, in 1938 (ibid.: 44). In contrast to Herskovits, who tried to describe that in the process of a contact between two cultures the subaltern culture would always adjust to the superior one, Ortiz argued that there was a mutual influence. Although Ortiz published various works about this topic, he didn’t really formulate a theory of the processes emerging in the case of cultural contacts, as Moore notices. Rather than explaining how and why these mutual influences occur in the case of cultural contacts, Ortiz stuck to pure empirical descriptions of the products of these processes, which are often called “syncretistic” (ibid.: 167). He regarded the Cuban culture as the product of these processes of transculturation, the “emergence” of Cuban music he described like this:
From the flowing together of white and black musics, and following the degree of its mestization, there developed a Euro-Cuban music, of white elements heated up in the climatical and human tropes, […] and another one, Afro-Cuban, in which the black issues dominate […]. Love tales of the Spanish guitar with the African drum. A titillation of the white guitar, strumming its strings over the open lap between its haunches; caresses of the black drum and a nuzzling of its hot skin. A mestizo breed, that means, música mulata (Ortiz 1950: 2-3, italics in the original).
Ortiz’ erotic metaphor for the development of Cuban music as well as his idea of transculturation is present in the Cuban discourse about nearly all kinds of Cuban music. The importance of his work until the present is clearly underlined by the fact that a vast part of his writings (e.g. Ortiz 1993) was republished in the early 1990s, at a time, when due to an acute shortage of paper a good deal of magazines and journals had to cease publishing. Although a good fifty years have passed since the publishing of his most important works, his concepts and terms are somewhat uncritically used in Cuba right until today. Despite the fact that even his very last works carry a subtext of a presumed superiority of the European “white” culture over the African or African-derived “black” culture in Cuba, “his recorded thoughts are now surrounded with a certain aura of inviolability by a majority of those that know and rely upon them“ (Moore 1994: 47-49 & 32).
One reason for this is certainly the fact that one of the comprehensive goals of Ortiz’ work was the description of an independent nation-state. He repeatedly criticised the negative effects of the US-American dominance on the Cuban economy and the corruption in Cuban politics. Ortiz was part of a group of white Cuban intellectuals striving to express their nationalist feelings in the time of US-American dominance through the foundation of societies for the promotion of arts and culture as symbols of a national identity. Hence, he can be rightfully regarded as the founding father of the scientific branch of the nationalist afrocubanismo movement, which saw the origin of the Cuban national culture in the Afro-Cuban influences (Moore 1994: 38-41). It was no coincidence that the government decided to republish his works at a time, when the national sovereignty was assumed to be threatened by the decline of the political allies as the USSR.
Ortiz’ national pride is shown in his use of the term “cubanidad” taken from the 19th century author José Antonio Saco (ibid.: 41). In his article “Los factores humanos de la cubanidad“ (“The human factors of cubanidad”, 1949) Ortiz used the culinary metaphor of the “ajiaco” to describe the manifold influence which according to his view had formed the Cuban national culture. In Cuba, an “ajiaco” is a typical Creole stew, made of various ingredients which are cooked for longer time in a big pot (Ortiz 1949: 5).
Some fifty years later, in her article “Nación y nacionalidad en la música cubana“ for the Revista Salsa Cubana, Cuban musicologist Maria Teresa Linares attributes the emergence of Cuban music to the transculturation of different musical elements (Linares 1999: 19). The same idea derived from the writings of Ortiz can be found in a song of the group Los Van Van, recorded for an US-American label in 1999. Van Van emphatically tell “the world” their Cuban identity:
Para que el mundo sepa
Coro 1: Somos cubanos,
Coro 1: Somos cubanos etc.
For that the world may know
Chorus 1: We are Cubans
Chorus 1: We are Cubans etc.
“Somos cubanos“ (Samuel Formell, published on Los Van Van 1999).
Apart from Ortiz, the lyrics contain references to two other texts that can be regarded as classics of the representation of “Afro-Cuban culture”. The first one is a song by Afro-Cuban singer and composer Arsenio Rodríguez, “Bruca Manigua”, in which the singer expresses his “African origin”: “I am Carabalí, negro by birth” (“Yo soy Carabalí, negro de nación”). The second text is the Miguel Barnet classic “El Cimarrón” (1966), the biography of a former slave told to Barnet by the man himself.
The musicians of LaCharanga Habanera find similar words for their statement of self-characterisation. Without a similarly open reference to Ortiz, they nevertheless stress the importance of the clave as well, and even claim identity with timba itself:
Solo: ¿Que somos? Somos la clave y la timba
Coro: Somos los cubanos que te hacen bailar
Solo: Who are we? We are the clave and the timba
Chorus: We are the Cubans that make you dance
“Somos los cubanos” (La Charanga Habanera, from Charanga Habanera 2000).
The fusion of elements of different origin creating a new mixture is a topos in the discourse about Cuban national identity, it can be regarded the myth of origin of the Cuban nation and its music. In the discourse about Cuban music, this mixture, the transculturation, is the primary characteristic of this music, something which constitutes the “essence” of Cuban music. An essence that keeps the music open for exterior influences which accordingly can be easily adopted and nationalized. In the “dialectical interplay of tradition and innovation“ (Acosta 1987: 25) principally everything can be assimilated to the Cuban music. According to Acosta, there was the “Cubanization” of jazz in the 1920s and ´30s, later of rock music and finally of other elements as salsa or rap (ibid.: 20). In a similar way, musicologist Helio Orovio explains the growing assimilation of the salsa by Cuban musicians:
And in that assimilation were combined the best of the New York salsa mixed with the contemporary son, with a bit of rock, with a bit of rap, with some Caribbean rhythms, with the style of playing bass used in reggae. The Puerto Rican bomba, cousin of the Cuban rumba, is there in the conga rhythms. And all of that is mixed with jazz. And that generated a form of music called timba (Helio Orovio, quoted in Cantor 1997).
It is again the group Los Van Van that finds a similar expression in the title track of their already mentioned album “Te pone la cabeza mala”. The lyrics of this song show a generally strong orientation towards the “African roots” of the own music, that is already manifest in the debate about the “marginal quarters” of Havana as the point of origin of timba:
Esa música que heredamos
Timba con rumba y rock
Cumbia con jazz, con swing
This music that we inherited
Timba with rumba and rock
Cumbia with jazz, with swing
“Esto te pone la cabeza mala“ (Juan Formell, published in Los Van Van 1997).
Frequent references to the “African roots” in the lyrics of many groups are another characteristic feature of timba. This is particularly true for the groups NG La Banda and Los Van Van. I will come back to the strong presence of Afro-Cuban religious forms in the timba lyrics, at this point I just want to draw the focus on the “clave de guaguancó”. We can regard this clave as a symbol of secular Afro-Cuban tradition, binding together all the different elements as timba, rumba, rock, jazz, samba etc. to a decisively “Cuban” mixture.
But the recourse to Ortiz’ concept of transculturation is manifest also in the musical structure itself. The combination of US-American jazz, Cuban música bailable, and Afro-Cuban musical forms had already been present in the music of groups like Irakere or Afro-Cuba since the 1970s; now new elements are added in the music of the timba groups. The most prominent example is clearly rap music. Rap had been present in the Cuban musical landscape since the late 1980s, and it gained an increasing amount of followers during the 1990s. Especially younger people turned out to appreciate the Cuban raperos efforts to create a distinctively Cuban style of rap, eventually even forcing official organizations to promote it.
Already in 1990 Juan Formell used rap elements in two songs of the album “Aquí el que baila gana“of his group Los Van Van. José Luis Cortés himself appears as a rapero in the song “Échale limón“ (published in NG La Banda 1994), and a live recorded album of his group (NG La Banda 1995) features a track, “No hay cráneo, nena“, in which the rapero Athanay participates. Also other leading figures of contemporary Cuban music used elements of rap music in their songs, for example Manolín, “el médico de la salsa”, in “La bola” or “Somos lo que hay”.
But the group most visibly influenced by US-rap music is certainly La Charanga Habanera, led by their director David Calzado. Right from the clothing of the musicians and their stage performance to the song lyrics and the musical sound itself, hip hop elements are an integral part of the group’s work (view illustrations 1 & 2).
The most obvious rap influence on the group’s music is the characteristic style of performing the estribillo-choruses, which had been a typical feature of traditional son music. The estribillo is a short, catchy passage sung from different background singers, alternating with the improvisations of a lead singer or solo instrumentalist in the montuno section of a son. In many Charanga Habanera-songs, these estribillos fulfil the same role, but here they are not performed in a traditional sung way, but in rap style. Examples showing this feature are the songs “El temba” (from Charanga Habanera 1995), and nearly all songs from their 1997 album, “Tremendo delirio” (1997).
Another element that can be seen as an influence of US-American funk and hip hop music is a particular pattern of the bass drum regularly used by many timba groups as a connecting passage or short interlude between two larger parts of a song. This simple pattern somehow runs against the traditional clave pattern, and instead puts much more stress on the third and fourth beat of every measure than in salsa played outside Cuba:
son clave and bass drum accents
At times, another filling drum beat may be played on the first two beats of every measure. But the crucial point is that a much heavier stress is put on the third and second beat of every measure. The effect is strengthened by the fact that second beat of the bass drum corresponding to the “four” of every measure is further accented by a certain effect produced by the bass player. Mostly playing a electric bass guitar, the player lets the left hand slide down the fingerboard on the lowest string, while plugging the same string once forcefully with the right hand. Thus, a deep downward glissando is produced. The combination of these two elements is particularly present in the songs of NG La Banda, but it can also be heard in recordings of Charanga Habanera or Los Van Van.
Furthermore, the use of the bomba rhythm, which originated in Puerto Rico, is increasingly common as new element in Cuban popular music since the early 1990s, as in Los Van Van’s “Esto te pone la cabeza mala” (1997) or “El negro esta cocinando” (1999). This could be a hint to a kind of “pan-Caribbean” identity from the Cuban musicians’ side, with a distinct accent on the common “African roots”, though, as the bomba is known as an Afro-Puerto Rican genre (Manuel et. al. 1995: chapter 3). Rebecca Mauleón (1993: 184 & 212) shows how easily the different pattern of the conga as it is played in a bomba can be combined with the piano and bass tumbaos of the son rhythm.
By and large, it can be stated that timba arrangements contain more different estribillos and rhythmic parts and non-Cuban salsa. The use of a drum set of Western rock style and of short drum “fills” between to parts is also much more common than, for example, in Nuyorican salsa. According to his statement quoted earlier that timba offers the most possible freedom to a musician to express himself, drummer Geraldo Piloto notes that practically everything that comes to a musician’s mind can be incorporated into timba (Interview Piloto 2001). Any essentialist definition of timba on the basis of the musical sound alone is therefore manifestly impossible. But Piloto’s statement again proofs the will to a differentiation from salsa, as his definition of timba contains basically the same arguments as Willie Colon’s definition of salsa. Thus, again, as it was the case with the “commercial label-debate”, the arguments of those musicians dismissing salsa in favour of timba are finally the same as those of the defenders of the term. Again, the emergence of the timba discourse does not necessarily represent a break in the Cuban anti-salsa discourse but more the logical continuation and a new strategy of going on with it.
About a year and a half after the officially called “triumph of the revolution” under Fidel Castro, the maximo lider felt prompted to address personally the intellectuals of the country, and the artists in particular. The reason was a documentary about the nightlife of Havana, shot in 1960 shortly before the large-scale closing of nightclubs and casinos in the Cuban capital. Although the film was initially shown in the already nationalised Cuban TV, it did not get the clearance for display in the cinemas (Zeuske 2000: 148). It was the first publicly noticed case of censorship in Cuba after the rebels led by Castro had taken over the government. This had sparked fears among many artists that more censorship could be exercised under the new leadership, and Castro wanted to antagonise these fears. During is speech the Cuban leader spoke the words that should become the guideline for the official control of the arts in the country:
The Revolution [...] must act in such a way that the entire sector of artists and intellectuals who are not genuinely revolutionary find a place to work and to create within the Revolution, and so that their creative spirit will have an opportunity and freedom for expression within the Revolution, even though they are not revolutionary writers or artists. This means that within the Revolution, everything goes; against the Revolution, nothing. Nothing against the Revolution, because the Revolution has its rights also, and the first right of the Revolution is the right to exist, and no one can stand against the right of the Revolution to be and to exist, No one can rightfully claim a right against the Revolution. Since it takes in the interests of the people and signifies the interests of the entire nation (Castro 1961).
The obvious vagueness of the statement left enough room for different interpretations, leading to a cultural policy hardly calculable for the producers of any kind of art (Eßer 2004: 41-42). Even more, this official policy was hardly consistent, but more often than not contradictory in itself. Initially, critical thinking regarding the new social developments was emphatically supported by the government, but the launching of the gran zafra campaign in the late 1960s and the growing rapprochement to the USSR saw a rising of measures against critiques to an extent, that made some authors call it “cultural terrorism” (Vélez 2000: 72).
Initially, Cuban musicians did not experience a lot of censorship. This was also due to the fact that most musicians who did not concur with the new leadership had left the island soon after 1959. Musicologist Helio Orovio mentions the obstacles that musicians playing presumably “US-American music” had to face, especially after the installation of the trade embargo by the USA (Eßer 2004: 42-43). But after a short phase of repressions against young people wearing blue jeans and long hair and a ban on English-speaking rock music during the “gran zafra” campaign (Zeuske 2000: 115), the 1970s saw the renaming of the “National Council of Culture” into the “Ministry for Culture”. That marked the beginning of a new, less dogmatic period, and since that time the sound of international, English-speaking popular music became more and more common in Cuba as well (Manuel 1987: 164).
But the 1980s saw a couple of spectacular cases of censorship against critical musicians. Singer and song writer Pedro Luis Ferrer for example, had to face a stage ban, although he kept receiving his salary from the government (Schumann 2001: 291-292). And only the intervention of the established nueva trova veteran Pablo Milanés saved the singer and songwriter Carlos Varela from the same fate. But even Milanés’ help couldn’t change the fact that the national record company EGREM did not produce any more records of Varela’s music (ibid.: 298).
As mentioned before, due to the growing economic crisis the government allowed artists still living on the island to publish their works abroad. The writer Leonardo Padura Fuentes welcomed this step, as he felt that the government lost direct control over the creative process (Eßer 2004: 56). Numerous songs written by Cuban musicians and published with foreign labels proof him right. The critical note in many of the song lyrics became more and more obvious, as musicians could defy more easily official control. The critique often denounced the new developments in the Cuban society after 1991 without really blaming the leadership or anybody else assumed to be responsible for the situation, but more the situation itself.
A prominent fact repeatedly criticised was the recurrence of prostitution in Cuba which is addressed in various songs more or less openly. The directors of the respective groups, for example, José Luis Cortés, claimed to merely broach issues which were relevant for his audience. Cortés referred to the already mentioned definition of “popular music” as “music made by the people” to defend his own and the work of other timba groups (Levin 1998). Two prominent examples of lyrics talking about this issue are the songs “El temba” by La Charanga Habanera (1995) and “La bruja” by Cortés’ group NG La Banda (1994).
Salgo de la casa aburrido, irritado,
Y esto me pasa porque faltas tú.
Porque a ti te falto yo también.
Coro 1: Tú eres una bruja
Coro 3:Corre niño que te va a coger
Solo:La bruja te va a llevar
I leave home, bored, irritated
And that’s because you are missing
because you miss me, too
Chorus 1: You’re a witch
Chorus 3: Run, boy, or she will catch you
Solo: The witch is going to pick you up
“La bruja“ (José Luis Cortés, published on NG La Banda 1994).
At first glance, this song seems to be about a man – the singer is male – who has been left by his girlfriend, therefore cursing her now as a “witch”. The subject of the lover lost by his love and lamenting his fate or alternatively her infidelity is a topos in Cuban popular music, especially in the lyrical bolero genre. But in this case there is a double meaning lingering under the obvious surface. The point criticised is never mentioned openly but has to be taken from the insinuations. The presumed “witch” has “sold his love for cheap amusement”, states the singer, and is now “driving through Buenavista in a tourist taxi”. The ride in a tourist taxi is therefore more than the use of a means of transport to get from one point to the other. It is more a cruise through this part of town – notabene a more posh area of Havana – to demonstrate the own affluence, a status symbol.
“La bruja” was published in 1994, at a time when the economic situation in Cuba had hit rock bottom. At this specific time, the traffic in Havana had succumbed to virtually zero due to a lack of petrol (Zeuske 2000: 136). Thus, taxis for tourists, to be paid in US-dollars were nearly the only vehicles driving around on Havana’s streets. Hardly a Cuban had enough money to supply his daily needs, let alone to afford a taxi to cruise through Havana. Thus, the lyrics get a precise subtext which tells for whom the “witch” has left her lover: a tourist from abroad, rich at least by Cuban standards.
The song ends with the warning to the listener: “Run, boy, or she will get you” (“Corre, niño, que te va a coger, la bruja te va llevar”). The “witch” is a lady walking through the streets of Havana looking for young men to pick up. The assumed enchanting lady turns out to be a mere prostitute.
“La bruja” is not an isolated case, as the play with polysemantical lyrics is a common feature of Cuban popular music in general (González Bello/Casanella Cué 2004: 340-341). In many timba lyrics, though, the topos of the abandoned lover gets an undertone referring to recent developments in the Cuban society. This is also the case in the song “Mi chocolate” (“My chocolate”) by Los Van Van, where “chocolate” is the term for the dark-skinned girlfriend of the male singer:
Se casó con un italiano
She married an Italian
“Mi chocoloate“ (Juan Formell, published on Los Van Van 1999).
The character of the mulata, as Frances Aparicio notes, is a “cultural icon” of Afro-Caribbean music, a “patriarchal discoursive figure” (2000: 95). Often stylised as a dancing, seductive woman, the mulata “constitutes an patriarchal synecdoche in the Hispanic Caribbean“ (ibid.: 97). In this case this synecdoche gets a subtext referring to the new Cuban realities of the 1990s, in this case the practice of many young Cuban women to marry a foreigner to be able to leave the country. But the dream of the lady does not seem to be fulfilled, as her Italian husband jealously locks her in. Hence, the song can be read as a critique of the new reality in Cuba, leading young women to marry foreigner to strive for a better living. But it could also be understood as a warning to all the young Cuban ladies dreaming of the same fate, stating that her wishes might not get fulfilled in the new country.
In this example, another strategy of constructing the already mentioned “street credibility” is the obvious use of a Cuban vernacular every-day Spanish, manifesting itself in the characteristic pronunciation of the third chorus: the singer sings “manda’o”, “sofoca’o”, and “acelera’o” where “mandado”, “sofocado”, and “acelerado” is meant.
“El temba” written by La Charanga Habanera’s director David Calzado twists the perspective ironically:
yo te daría todo y mucho más
pero sacando la cuenta
I would give you everything and even more
But when the bill comes
“El temba“ (David Calzado, veröffentlicht auf Charanga Habanera 1995).
Here, the male singer advises his lover to look for an “old guy”, who has enough money to fulfil her wishes, as he himself doesn’t have the money to do so. As González Bello and Casanella Cué state, “temba” is a term derived from Afro-Cuban santería for an elder male person (2004: 338). The lyrics give an ironic variation of the topos from classic love songs, as the caring lover cares so much for the lady that he “even buys her a car”.
It is the clear statement of the whole record, on which “El temba” was originally published in 1995, that money in general and a specific currency in particular play a major role in the Cuban society of the mid-1990s. “Pa’que se entere La Habana” is the title of the record, “For that Havana comes to know”, and the cover shows a hundred dollar bill, with Benjamin Franklin’s portrait modified to show the former US-president as a pirate (see ill. 3). Hardly two years after the legalisation of the dollar – this is the message of the picture –, “don dolár” has taken over the Cuban capital.
"Ill. 3: Cover of the 1995 La Charanga Habanera album "Pa’ que se entere La Habana“.
This message is also the subtext of “El temba”. Thus, the statement that “these little Pepes cannot give you anything” may hint to the fact that in 1995 the chances were quite high that an “elder man with a lot of many” (“papirriki con guanikiki”) was a foreign tourist: “Pepe” is a Cuban slang word for tourists from abroad.
In another song text from the group’s 1997 album “Tremendo delirio”, the Charanga Habanera deals with different topic, which is somehow related to prostitution as well. Here the singer warns his girlfriend against the dangers of unprotected sexual intercourse:
Si quieres vivir seguro de ti
porque ya los tiempos han cambiado
coro 2: me tiene sin cuidado
If you want to live save,
Because times have changed
Chorus 2: I don’t worry about this
“Mi amor, cuiate, usa condón“ (David Calzado/Daniel Lozada, published on Charanga Habanera 1997)
The increasing spread of HIV-AIDS as well as other sexually transmitted diseases in Cuba during the 1990s was partly an effect of the growing prostitution (UNESCO 2000: 10-11). In fact, the number of infections rose sharply from the Mid-1990s onwards. But both topics were a taboo in the Cuban media in the mid-1990s. It was a time when critics claimed that certain practices of Cuban AIDS sanatoria violated international rights (Pérez et. al. 2004: 2). Accordingly, songs like this, dealing more or less directly with these topics, didn’t get any airplay by the authorities in the mid-1990s. In fact, the album “Pa’que se entere La Habana” was even banned as whole by the government, at least temporarily (Moore 2002: 68). It contains other songs with similar topics: “Super-turistica” or “Nube pasajera” all deal more or less openly with women who try to improve their social status by prostitution.
A totally different topic, nevertheless still related to the Cuban economic crisis, is taken up in a song by NG La Banda. During the peak of the crisis, the government tried to advertise soy dishes as a substitute for meat to fight the supply problems. Robin Moore describes this dish as “soy mash mixed together with animal blood and entrails so that it tasted vaguely like meat” (2002: 69). As Zeuske observes, in Cuba a “real meal” usually has to contain meat, and preferably pork (2000: 159). Small wonder that the “picadillo de soya” did not found the favour of the population. But instead of openly criticising the state campaign, Cortés chose a highly exaggerated way of praising the soy dish’s virtues, thus mocking its “virtues”:
El picadillo de soya, ¡a guarachar!
Porque tiene una vitamina terrible, todas las
¡A gozar! [...]
Soy cocinero estelar,
Coro 2: Picadillo de soya
Coro 3: Tapa la olla, mulata, tapa la olla [...]
Hablado: Por éso las mujeres de La Habana, de
The soy hamburger, let’s celebrate!
Because it has so terribly many vitamins,
let’s celebrate! […]
I am a star chef
Chorus 2: Soy hamburger
Chorus 3: Cover the cooking pot, mulata, cover the pot [...]
Spoken: That’s why the women in Havana, Santiago de Cuba,
“Picadillo de soya“ (José Luis Cortés, published on NG La Banda 1994).
In a country where gender equality is fixed in the national constitution and where according to self-representations the emancipation of women is much better developed as anywhere else in Latin America, songs like this had to provoke strong reactions. Cortés was criticised repeatedly for the misogynist tone of his lyrics and the sexist representation of women, in his lyrics as well as his album covers, e.g. of the album “Échale limón” (“Pour some lemon”, see Ill. 4). Hence, “La bruja” was censored due to its “degrading representation of the woman” (González Bello/Casanella Cué 2004: 339).
Ill. 4: Cover of NG La Banda 1993.
The question remains, of course, if the real reason was the possibility to read these texts as a critique of the growing prostitution and other social nuisances. Due to obvious reasons, this point is out of reach of this study (and probably any future study as well). Geoffrey Baker rightly claims that even the notion of a monolithic block as which the Cuban government often features in works dealing with popular music, falls short of actual realities (Baker 2005: 371). Baker claims that it was the “conspicuous materialism and hedonism that runs counter to official socialist ideologies” which had led to measures of censorship by Cuban authorities (ibid. 373). I would seriously doubt that the quoted lyrics are nothing but a mere approval of materialism or hedonism. Anyway, at this point it is enough to state that various timba lyrics provoked censorship by members of the Cuban administration. But censorship has hardly been coherent in Cuba, as I will show now. This merely gives proof to Bakers argument that the “state” is not some faceless discourse but built by the actions of concrete human beings and can thus have inconsistent but sometimes even contradictory features.
The new people are very indifferent towards the religion. They believe that life is not much more than to eat and to sleep, and much dough. That’s why we are like this. Wars here and wars there. You have to have a faith. To believe in something. Otherwise, we’re smeared.
Miguel Barnet "Der Cimarrón“ ("The cimarron“, 1966: 145, my own translation from the German edition)
Like many other cultural expressions identified with the coloured subaltern classes in Cuba, the so-called “Afro-Cuban” religions had to suffer from many reprisals and had been prohibited for a long time (Moore 1997: chapter 1). It was also due to Fernando Ortiz’s engagement that the different cults and rituals finally became legalised. Still, this did not put an end to the discrimination from the white upper class. This changed only partially after 1959. Although many of the cultural forms were declared a part of the national heritage and thus financially supported by the new leadership, however, this applied only to the various musical and dance forms performed in the rituals. According to Marx’s well-known verdict of religion being only “people’s opium”, any kind of religious activity was banned from public display. But this hardly led to any open discrimination of the cults, as according to the general notion, interest in all things religious was expected to disappear automatically with the education of the population towards the Guevarian ideal of the “new human being”. But the by far largest part of the musicians and dancers of the professional folklore ensembles performing the different cults as stage shows were practitioners of the respective religion as well. Thus, the initiative of the socialist government unintentionally helped not only to preserve the dances and the music, but the various rituals as well (Vélez 2000: 92-93).
The relation between the government and the Afro-Cuban religions, as well as other religions, was a critical one for a long time. The early 1960s saw a phase of reprisals, when devotees of any religion were expelled from the Communist Party. But these open repressions ceased in the more liberal phase during the 1970s. Any form of religion was declared a private matter of any individual, not to be interfered by the state. Castro called Cuba an “Afro-Latin nation”, not the least so to justify Cuba’s military intervention in various African civil wars, for example in Angola (ibid.: 88-89 & 92).
Nevertheless, no song dealing with a religious topic would be played in the national broadcast media until the 1990s, although the professional folklore groups would be shown (Moore 1997: 226). Religion as a private matter did not find any place in Cuban public life, at least not in the public media. This changed substantially during the early 1990s, as with the growing economic crisis the presence of the different religions gradually became more visible. In 1991 the Fourth National Congress of the Communist Party decided on a change of the constitution. Since that time Cuba is officially a “secular state with freedom of religion” where followers of any religion can be member of the Communist Party, still an indispensable condition for any career in the country (Zeuske 2000: 141).
It is thus no coincidence that the number of songs with religious topics from groups of the música popular bailable increased strongly since the early 1990s. Since then, songs as “Y tú, que tu quieres que te den?” by Adalberto Álvarez y su Son or “Viejito Lázaro” by Juan Carlos Alfonso y el Dan Den are played in the national media (Moore 1997: 226).
Songs of religious topics were present in the repertoire of NG La Banda right from the beginning, as show their version of Celina González’ classic song “Que vivá Changó” (on NG La Banda 1990) or the song “Santa Palabra” (on NG La Banda 1994) written by Cortés.
Coro: Santa palabra, lo que me dice un dicho
Solo: Hay muchas personas que esconden los santos
Coro: Santa palabra etc.
Chorus: Holy word, as the saying goes
Solo: There are many people who hide their saints
Chorus: Santa palabra etc.
“Santa palabra“ (José Luis Cortés, veröffentlicht auf NG La Banda 1994).
The most obvious example for the real recurrence of religious topics in the música bailable is the group Los Van Van. There is hardly any song with an open reference to santería or other Afro-Cuban elements in the group’s recordings from 1969 to 1990. This changed significantly after 1991: the cover of at least two records made in the 1990s carry symbols that refer directly to the santería. The cover of the 1995 record “¡Ay diós, ampárame!” (“Oh Lord, save me!”) (Los Van Van 1995) shows the name of the band, the title of the album and necklace of green and yellow glass beads (see Ill. 5). In Afro-Cuban santería, these colours symbolise the orisha Orula, who is also called Ifá (Barnet 1995: 47). Furthermore, the song “Soy todo”, from which the album’s title is taken, refers to the same orisha. We had already seen the more secular references to Afro-Cuban traditions in songs as “Eso te pone la cabeza mala”. Thus, references in the lyrics to the explicitly religious side of these traditions became obvious as well.
III. 5: Cover of Los Van Van 1995 Ill. 6: Cover of Los Van Van 1999.
Four years later, Los Van Van published the album “Llegó… Van Van – Van Van is here” (1999). As the booklet explains, the paintings on the cover and the booklet are photos made in the Callejón de Hammel, a small alley in Centro Habana, dedicated to the different traditions of Afro-Cuban culture. The facades of the houses in this alley have been decorated by painter Salvador with motives from these traditions. Every Sunday afternoon a celebration with performances from different folklore groups take place in this alley (see Ill. 6).
Already the first song on “Llegó…” starts with an invocation of different orishas from the santería:
Eje o mi baba
Eje o mi baba
Chorus 1 of the song "Permiso que llegó Van Van“ (from Los Van Van 1999).
In addition, the album contains a song called “Appapas de Calabar”, which according to the booklet was written by Juan Formell in the secret language of the Abakuá, an Afro-Cuban secret society.
Until their most recent album “Chapeando” (“Clearing the ground”, 2004) Los Van Van kept on highlighting Afro-Cuban religions. The introductory notes in the booklet of the album are written by two of the most prominent promoters of Afro-Cuban culture, Miguel Barnet and Rogelio Martínez Furé (both 2004). The author and ethnologist Barnet is at present the president of the Fernando Ortíz Foundation, whereas Furé is the founder of the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional as well as the author of different studies on the subject (e.g., Martínez Furé 1991). Barnet as well as Furé mention the close connection of Formell and his group with Afro-Cuban “santería”, and highlight the reference of the album’s title to Elegguá, the orisha which is said to remove all obstacles and clear the way of all problems. Furé even directly refers to Ortiz’s above mentioned quoting by calling Formell’s compositions “daughter of Father Tambor and Mother Guitar” (Martínez Furé 2004).
Since the early 1990s, songs with this kind of reference to Afro-Cuban religions can be found in the repertoire of many groups of the música bailable. While they had been banned from the public discourse and thus not been played in the national media hardly ten years back, the situation somewhat got reversed.
But the new popularity of santería was also seen critically. “Papa Changó” from the NG La Banda album “En directo desde al patio de mi casa” (1995) is dedicated to the most powerful orisha, Changó, as José Luis Cortés mentions in his announcement of the song. Besides, it is an ironical side blow to assumed “false devotees” who expect too many miracles from the saints without really understanding the religion:
La gente está esperando que lo benedigas,
People expect you to bless them,
“Papa Changó“ (José Luis Cortés, from NG La Banda 1995).
As this song shows, the new religiousness could at times also be seen as religiosity. Another ironical examination with this phenomenon is the song “Yo no quiero que mi novia sea santera” (“I don’t want my fiancée to be religious”) by the group Klimax. In the interview Giraldo Piloto said that this song did not receive any airplay in the public media because officials felt it could hurt the religious feelings of the devotees (Interview Piloto 2001). Himself being a confessing santeró who even reports a kind of awakening experience which sparked his interest in the rituals, Piloto said, the irony was more than obvious for any Cuban. Obviously it was not for any Cuban working in the public media.
Coro: Yo no quiero que mi novia sea santera
Solo: En su perfume ponía miel de abejas,
Coro: Yo no quiero que mi novia sea...etc.
Solo: Ella fue a ver a ese hombre
Coro 2: Si tú me echas brujería
Chorus: I don’t want my fiancée to be a santera,
Solo: She put some bees’ honey in her perfume
Chorus: I don’t want my girl friend to be...
Solo: She went to see this man [= me]
Chorus 2: If you use witchcraft on me,
“Yo no quiero que mi novia sea religiosa” (Giraldo Piloto, from Klimax 2000).
This song is an example for the textual reference to the santería also being embodied in the musical sound. Before the first Chorus and the first stanza, there is an introductory part using the ritual batá drums and a chant from the santería. The same can be heard in “¿Y tu, que tu quieres que te den?” (“And you, what do you expect them to give you?”) by Adalberto Álvarez y su Son. Here again, a chant and a ritmo from a santería ritual forms the intro to the actual song. A more subtle example for the incorporation of musical elements into a song of the música bailable is the mentioned “Santa Palabra” by NG La Banda, where rhythms derived from the batá pattern of a santería chant for iyesá can be heard being played on the toms and timbales of the drum set (Moore 2002: 61).
The secularisation of religious elements in popular music songs is not a new phenomenon in Cuba. In the 1950s, the white devotee of santería Celina González and her husband Reutilio Domínguez had recorded various danceable songs with lyrics dealing with santería topics. González’ biggest success by far was “Santa Bárbara (¡Qué viva Changó!)”. González and other famous singers as Celia Cruz and Merceditas Valdés had been performing for Cuban radio (Moore 1997: 223). But even earlier, during the boom of so called rhumba in the USA songs with lyrics inspired by Afro-Cuban religions had been successful. The light-skinned mulato Miguelito Valdés, who was initiated to santería as a youth in the mostly Afro-Cuban inhabited area of Cayo Hueso in Havana, worked as a temporary singer in Xavier Cugat’s orchestra. The biggest fame he gained as the singer of a composition by Margarita Lecouna, “Babalú”, taken from the name of an orisha, Babalú Ayé (ibid.: 143).
As already mentioned, the music of the different Afro-Cuban religions has been an important point of reference for piano player, composer and arranger Jesús “Chucho” Valdés and his work with the group Irakere. Even the name of the group contains allegations to the complex of Afro-Cuban culture. Thus, it was quite programmatic that the group was one of the first Cuban non-folklore groups to incorporate the batá drums from the santería rituals into their stage performances. One of the most ambitious compositions by leader Chucho Valdés was the “Misa Negra” (“Black Mass”), a suite-like composition combining elements from European Classical music and the toques (“drum pattern”) from Afro-Cuban ritual music with improvisations inspired by US-American jazz-rock of the 1970s (Eli Rodríguez/Alfonso Rodríguez 1999: 191-192). Right until the present, the highly acclaimed piano player Valdés takes much of his inspiration from the Afro-Cuban religions. In 1999 he recorded two albums for the famous jazz label Blue Note, one with a Jazz trio entitled “Briyumba Palo Congo : Religion of the Congo“ (Valdés 1999), and a second album called “Yemaya” (name of an orisha) with his group Irakere (Irakere 1999).
Thus, the timba musicians did not start a new trend but merely continued one which had already been present in different shapes in the realm of Cuban popular music since many decades. But the extent to which the topic of Afro-Cuban religions was represented in the timba songs reached a level unprecedented in the música bailable of the socialist era.
It is noteworthy that the dealing with religious topics in the broadest sense nearly always refers to the so-called “Afro-Cuban” religions. Songs with, for example, an explicitly Christian message do not exist so far. Thus, the different forms of dealing with these religious topics in the timba context have to been as a broader wave of re-orientation towards the “African roots” or the “African heritage” from the musicians’ side, striving for a new Cuban identity. At the same time the inner conflicts and contradictions in the struggle for a national identity become obvious. For the timba musicians and listeners this identity has a clearly different look and sound as for elder generations of Cubans, who might prefer the music of the BVSC. But even those Cubans who are not following the Afro-Cuban religions actively are nevertheless more or less accustomed to them from the public media. Responsible for this are the different measures of disseminating these traditions and their music and dances as a part of the “national heritage” or “national culture”, as ingredients of Ortiz’s “ajíaco”. Thus, the growing recourse is another expression of as well as a means to construct a decidedly Cuban identity.
Salsa emerged at a time of tremendous political turbulence in the USA. It was the first music to emphatically claim a pan-Latino identity within Spanish-speaking communities in the USA and beyond. The emergence of this transnational identity was not the least a result of the ongoing “tropicalizations” of the Spanish-speaking people by the white majority in the USA. The international outlook of salsa and its ideology saw a fast rising of sales, and the development of local scenes in different countries. Whereas the first salsa scenes outside the US emerged in other Latin American countries as Colombia or Venezuela, the 1980s saw the spread of salsa as a musical practice also among non-Latino communities. Since the early 1990s, we can regard the musical field of salsa as a truly globalised one. But unlike earlier trends within so-called “Latin” music within the USA, musicians living in Cuba could not participate in the international boom of salsa in the early years, due to constrictions from home as well as abroad. Only after opening of the island since the late 1980s that started slowly but was soon to be pushed forward enormously by the fast collapse by the Soviet Union, could Cuban musicians start to benefit from the international popularity of salsa. This might be one of the reasons for the harsh rejection of the term in the beginning of the international spread of salsa in the 1970s and early 80s.
The timba discourse emerged at a time of growing international contact of Cuban musicians with this salsa market. It is certainly no coincidence that they brought up a new tool in their ongoing “anti-salsa discourse” at a time, when more foreign tourists than ever before in the history of post-revolution Cuba came to the island. As the continuing tirades against the “cultural imperialism” of the large capitalist neighbour with its musical industry and their world-wide successful “tool”, i.e. the salsa, did hardly find any resonance during the 1970 and 80s, the late 1980s and early 90s saw a change of strategy of the Cuban participants in the international musical field of salsa. The rejection was replaced by a growing adoption or re-appropriation (“re-“, at least, from the point of view of most Cuban musicians) of the term salsa. This appropriation took place on various levels, from musicians to media officials, from concerts to TV-programs. It was further fuelled by the growing mutual interest of Cuban musicians to publish and present their work abroad, on the one hand, and of foreign record companies to produce the music of these very musicians on the other hand.
But with the increasing tourism and the growing engagement of the timba ensembles in the dance club circuit, some of the groups come into a “credibility crisis”. Groups like La Charanga Habanera and NG La Banda perform their songs criticising the new prostitution or, as it is more euphemistically called, the “amores por conveniencia“ (“love relationships for convenience”). But often they perform these songs in clubs as the “Casa de la Música” or the “Café Cantante” where the entrance fees have to be paid for in dollars, which very few Cubans can afford. Therefore, the audience is often well mixed: foreign tourists and Cuban nationals share the numbers equally. For most of the time, the Cubans are the “companions” of the foreigners. During the late 1990s, Cuba gained notoriety as a “Caribbean Thailand” due to the fast increasing sex tourism. More than once, this made the Cuban government taking drastic measures against the respective men and women. I want to emphasise once again that not only women are accused of jineterismo but also lots of men. NG La Banda broach the issue of the “gender mainstreaming” of prostitution in their song “¿Jinetero, yo?” (from NG La Banda 1993).
But the groups have to live with the accusation that they intentionally or unintentionally promote prostitution with playing in these clubs. The groups as governmental employees still have no other chance than to play in these equally governmental establishments for tourists. Besides, they often play regularly in establishments as “La Tropical” where the entrance is in Pesos, at least for Cubans (Noble 2001: 13). Still, the groups’ credibility might suffer from the fact that they help to promote what they criticise. Hence it is no surprise that a growing number of young adults associate salsa or timba only with tourism and its negative accompaniments and thus prefer the new Cuban hip hop or rap (Sokol 2000; Baker 2005).
On the other hand, it is exactly this growing popularity of the timba groups among a foreign audience – in Cuba as well as abroad –, what many Cubans take as a proof of the quality of “their” music. As the large number of articles celebrating the gain of the Grammy award for the best salsa album in 2000 for Los Van Van’s “Permiso…” as a victory for Cuban music in general clearly proofs (e.g. González Bello 2000: 6).
It is still not clear in how far the growing living standard of many musicians may damage their self-proclaimed strive for “street credibility”. Especially the musicians from groups that regularly go on tour abroad can already afford a level of living much higher than that of the average Cuban citizen. Only time will tell, if, for example, José Luis Cortés who still defends his claim to make music for “the common people in the streets” will be able to keep his credibility. Cortés himself lives already in conditions far away from those of the “common people”: his house in Havana appears like a fortress with an opaque fence, a couple of meters high and barbed wire.
More than ten years after his appearance, the timba discourse still does not show a high level of diversification. This is in contrast to the international salsa which since long has brought up different styles as salsa romántica or salsa dura. In contrast, the main question regarding timba still is, if timba is a self-contained musical phenomenon or simply a commercial label. The fact that many of the musicians considered to be part of the timba scene use the word as just this, a commercial label, will certainly hamper its acceptance.
But the lacking differentiation within the timba discourse is also due to the strictly centrally organised character of the Cuban music landscape. Private publications such as magazines or fanzines are not available. Thus, the possibilities for a mutual exchange between music lovers are very limited or simply bound to personal relations. Also, the possibility for an exchange with like-minded people abroad is not given in Cuba. For example, private people are not allowed to have an internet access. Hence, such an access is only illegally available and that means it is expensive. But the history of popular music has shown time and again that the constant exchange between musicians and their audiences has been an important means for diversifications in popular music discourses and practices.
But next to the difficulties lingering at home, also the international situation has become worse for the timba musicians. Practically all of them agree that a success on the US-market is an indispensable condition for a larger international success. The second half of the 1990s was a period of relative relaxation in terms of musical relations to the large neighbour. A couple of Grammy Awards given to Cuban musicians from different fields are a proof for this, for example for Los Van Van (2000), for the veterans from the Buena Vista Social Club (1998) or for “Chucho” Valdés (2000). During this decade, Cuban musicians were touring constantly in the USA: “In the last ten years, every major Cuban music group appeared to visit the United States“ (Fernandes 2004: 443). But since the inauguration of President George W. Bush., the perspectives for musicians from the island have turned far worse. In 2004, the Bush administration returned to the so-called “Reagan proclamation” which states that the president of the United States has the right to deny entry to “any class of aliens into the United States [that] would be detrimental to the interests of the United States“ (Sublette 2004: 9). For reasons of the “national security”, no Cuban musician was granted a visa accordingly since this time (ibid.: 1).
Only time will tell if the growing international competition may affect the music of the groups that owe their existence the missing commercial pressure at home. This very commercial pressure, to be financially successful with recordings and concerts, had let to the vanishing of the big ballroom orchestras in the 1960s and to the emergence of the smaller salsa ensembles in the USA and most other Western countries. In contrast, the Cuban music scene has seen an opposite trend of ever-growing ensembles in the música bailable. In Germany for example, concerts with the big groups of timba have been very sparse, even during the heyday of the Cuban music boom around the turn of the century. Hardly any promoter sees a chance for a commercially successful concert with a group of fifteen or sixteen people. Of course, this has also to do with the particularities of the German musical landscape. It is obvious, that the reception of Cuban timba abroad will be different than in Cuba itself. This is particularly likely in non-Spanish-speaking countries, where most of all the catchy and danceable rhythms of the music attract the audience, fuelling the fantasies of tropical beaches. But this is an altogether different story.