Author: Jan Bervar
Estimated read time: 10 minutes
At the beginning of one's Casino ("cuban salsa") dance journey people often ask about the difference of modern cuban dance music to other forms of "salsa". Experienced dancers quickly reply that you "just feel" that the music playing is Cuban (as opposed to, Puertorican, Colombian, etc.), which is not the most helpful of answers. This article tries to explain, in simplified terms, where that intuitive feeling comes from, from a dancer's perspective.
What is "salsa" anyway?
My favorite definition of salsa is that of a musical genre, born in the United States (New York) during the 1970s, from the roots of Cuban son music. Technically, we can describe a salsa song as:
- The rhythmic backbone of the song is the Son clave rhythm
- There is a specific set of instruments playing (congas, bongos, clave, timbales, maracas, guiro, bass, piano, trumpets, trombones)
- core rhytmic instruments are playing standardized patterns ("tumbaos" or "guajeos"), especially the conga drums and piano
- The song consists of two main parts - the cuerpo (body), where the initial lyrcs are exposed, follwed by the montuno (mountain, incline), where the intensity of song increases, melodic instruments perform their solos, and singing becomes a series of simple singer-choir exchanges
If music matching this description was and is still produced in Cuba, we can call it cuban salsa. If it is produced outside of Cuba, it is typically classified as salsa dura - the style faithful to the 1970-era Fania Records period, or salsa romantica, a more recent style mixed with pop structure and hooks.
Listen to two examples of modern salsa songs: one example of cuban salsa (by Havana D'Primera), and one Puerto Rican salsa dura (by El Gran Combo) here:
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Timba: diversity, virtuosity, aggression
The musical genre of timba emerged from the salsa and songo genres in the late 1980s, when Cuban musicians reacted to the downfall of the Soviet Union - and the resulting period of economic hardship in Cuba - with a musical revolution. They took the foundation of son, salsa, and songo genres, made them more dynamic, showing off their instrumental virtuosity, and integrating the rich legacy of Cuban musical history, most notably cuban rumba, into it.
We can describe a timba song as follows (from the most, to the least obvious or general):
- The song is no longer only a cuerpo/montuno affair, but has many segments (typically called "gears", like in a car) with which it controls its energy: the most characteristic of timba is a gear called PRESION (literally, "pressure"), where, by eliminating specific instruments - typically bass and congas - the song paradoxically emotionally explodes and demands a change in dancing.
- Instruments are no longer playing standard patterns; instead, musicians show off and invent new, funkier, and often song-specific rhytmic patterns, which makes timba rhythms more complex and harder to dance to for beginners, compared to salsa.
- The rhythmic backbone of the song is often the rumba clave rhythm.
- New instruments are added to the typical salsa set, most notably rock drums and the electric guitar.
Enough of theory, let's see how timba sounds like :)
Ese Soy Yo by Rene Alvarez y su Cuban Combination
Mi Musica by Alexander Abreu and Havana D'Primera
Mi Musica, a timba anthem, has as many as 5 presion parts: 1:59-2:10, 2:58-3:11, 3:40-4:02, 4:30-4:52, and 5:10-5:33
A very nice, if mechanic, example of the difference between the instrumental patterns in salsa and timba is at 8:35 in this video, which shows how the same song would be approached by a salsa and a timba band.
Cubans still produce salsa songs, as witnessed by the first musical example in this article, therefore all Casino is not danced exclusively to timba music. Another popular modern development is the crossover between timba and reggaeton, which is best represented by the music of Los 4: songs in rumba clave, with metales (trumpets and trombones), but essentially a reggaeton beat and lyrics on top.