Author: Uroš Švagan
Estimated read time: 10 minutes
This article is part of a four-part saga about timba history and development.
The rise and fall of timba
In the previous articles we described the qualities that make timba such a unique music genre, and the artists that contributed to its development. In this article we explore the rise and fall of timba itself.
The key role in the development of timba is largely attributed to the flutist José Luis Cortés 'El Tosco'. In the 1970s El Tosco was a member of Los Van Van, but switched to Irakere in the 1980’s. In 1988 he formed a side project, a sort of super group called Nueva Generación. Their ambitious goal was to set future direction of Cuban music. El Tosco established the concept and the structure of the music which is being followed by timba musicians to this day. In fact, it is hard to say that he came up with something totally new - what El Tosco did differently was to collect existing concepts from different music genres, and connected them in a very intelligent way. He renamed the group to NG La Banda, to allow for alternative sarcastic interpretations of the NG abbreviation. Their first album was released in 1989, under the title En La Calle (On the street).
1989 was the year when the Eastern Bloc started collapsing. Cuba lost its main export destination, leading to economic meltdown, the período especial. To alleviate the pain, the country started opening up by promoting tourism, opening music venues and reviving a bustling nightlife in its major cities. To cope with inflation it legalized the US dollar and stimulated simple entrepreneurial concepts. Since it couldn’t pay salaries to musicians anymore, the government finally let the artists keep the money from their record and ticket sales.
Tourists attended concerts and spent their dollars. As a result, timba artists came out as the winners of the economic crisis. When the average salary in Cuba was a mere $20 a month, the most popular timba artists could earn as much as $12.000. They became the role models who provided a major infusion of hope that there is the way out of the miserable situation. Timba offered an escapist route, thriving on the wasteland of Cuban economy.
Manolín 'El Médico de la Salsa' provoked the government by singing about moving to Miami in his song Que Le Llegue Mi Mano (Let my hand reach him [Cuban]). In the El Puente (Bridge) coro, Manolin sang about the bridge between Havana and Miami, which apparently some officials took too literally. Seemingly dumb lyrics were in fact the reflection of the street sentiment. Other timba protagonists avoided provocation, but emphasized musical innovation, such as Paulo FG y Su Élite, Manolito Simonet y Su Trabuco in Issac Delgado.
Charanga's songs frequently praised materialism, sex tourism and drugs. Such an outburst would have probably gone completely unnoticed in a small club, but was at that time viewed by 100.000 people and recorded by multiple international TV stations.
The government’s response was excessive, and resulted in six month ban of Charanga Habanera from radio as well as from live performances. Timba clubs came under scrutiny of the authorities, and regular raids under a pretense of anti-prostitution measures struck a serious blow to timba.
In Cuba, musicians started avoiding provocation and adopted their lyrics for subsequent releases. Paulo FG y Su Elite seemed to have lost their creativity. Internationally, timba was completely overshadowed by Buena Vista Social Club, a project started by American multiinstrumentalist and composer Ry Cooder with good connections in the American music industry and thus, a great deal of support from the multinational record companies.
But the music itself has never really gone into a decline. In merely lost its popularity at a certain time due to lack of support from media and Cuban government. The undescribable momentum that was felt by those who were a part of it was gone. Charanga Habanera apologized and could perform after a complete reformation of the cast. The band Lazarito Valdés y Su Bamboleo was born, and later Leonel Limonta y Azúcar Negra from it. Manolito Simonet y Su Trabuco released their breakthrough album Marcando La Distancia in 1998, when the repression was already taking place.
By that time, timba was also adopted by the precursors of the genre such as Los Van Van, Orquesta Revé, and Adalberto Álvarez. Perhaps the biggest recognition that timba has ever received was the Grammy for the Los Van Van album Llego Van Van. upy left Van Van in 2001 after 32 years with them, and formed Pupy y Los Que Son Son.
In the beginning of the new millennium, reggaeton started gaining mainstream popularity in Cuba. When it has already seemed that timba would never become popular again, the former trumpet player from Paulo FG y Su Élite formed his own band in 2008, called Havana D'Primera…
Continued in Part 4.