Estimated read time: 10 minutes
This article is part of a four-part saga about timba history and development.
The Cuban revolution and social change
In January 1959 Fidel Castro enters Havana. What followed the revolution was nationalization, a dispute with the US, and the subsequent decline of the tourist industry. Cuban music and the dance industries started going through radical changes. In 1962, the ENA (Escuelas Nacionales de Arte) was established as the school that enabled many Cubans access to free music education. The same year saw the formation of Conjunto Folklórico Nacional, a dance group that is still reviving the wide spectrum of Cuban folkloric dances.
However, most post-revolutionary changes were not so positive. Cuban record companies were nationalized into EGREM (Empresa de Grabaciones y Ediciones Musicales), which established and held a monopoly for decades. Dance clubs were closing, musicians became state employees with regular salaries independent of the record and ticket sales. Successful musicians started emigrating. Thus, Cuban music started separating into the Cuban music in the United States, and the one at home on the island.
Cuban musical crisis and the start of a new fire
In the 60's and 70's island dance music ran into a huge crisis. The only thriving musical concept became the nueva trova, a term describing patriotic revolution worshiping singer-songwriters with guitars. In 1963, Pello El Afrokan created a new rhythm called mozambique, which remained completely local and insignificant in comparison to prerevolutionary genres of the worldwide fame, such as mambo, chacha, son, etc.
Dance music was represented by a few charanga groups, a term describing bands consisting of mostly string and wind instruments. A few examples include Orquesta Aragón, Ritmo Oriental, Original de Manzanillo and Maravilla de Florida. Each of them was looking for the new way to modernize their music in order to regain popularity.
Instead, Cubans started tuning into the western rock. Beach Boys and Beatles became so popular that Cuban government banned them from radio waves. But Cuban music started to soak up the new influences. Bands of the time started developing asound that was western enough to please the audiences, but Cuban enough to be acceptable for the authorities. This description fits Orquesta Revé to a degree, and fits Los Van Van perfectly.
Los Van Van first recordings sounded closer to Beatles than to Cuban son. Juan Formell, the founder of Los Van Van, once admitted he was not even remotely interested in Cuban music in the beginning – all he wanted to play was rock'n'roll. Los Van Van called their rhythm songo. For the first time, Cuban music has integrated a bass guitar, electric piano, and rock drums.
Ritmo Oriental on the other hand never introduced a kick drum, but used a completely unusual set of timbales and the foot pedal to kick the cowbell.
The status of great innovators must also be awarded to Irakere, the band that put the batá drums and African roots rhythms into their psychedelic funk-jazz fusion. At the time, Cuban bands almost competed with each other who would come up with the most innovative rhythm.
Nevertheless, the salsa boom triggered a renewed interest in son on the island. In the 1980s, Adalberto Álvarez y Su Son drew their sound closer to salsa. To regain popularity, Los Van Van introduced trombones to their instrumentation, but kept the charanga and rock elements in their music. They emphasized the clave rhythmic backbone, but started using rumba clave instead of the more mainstream son clave pattern. Orquesta Revé made similar adjustments, but remained deeply rooted in changüí, the predecesor of son. This brief period of imported salsa was soon to be overshadowed by domestic artists, with music closer to the taste of Cuban audiences.
Even though the aforementioned bands did not start the timba movement, they contributed with their innovations to the sound of the modern Cuban dance music. These bands served as talent agencies for musicians that began innovating timba some decades later. In the next article we outline how timba started from these innovations. Let's start by teleporting ourselves to 1989, the year that marks the release of the first timba album proper.
Continued in Part 3.