On my first day of visiting Boston, my friends and I headed out to this place called “Havana Club,” where they play your typical “salsa” music. Upon arrival, one of the first things we did was talk to the DJ (who was supposedly “Cuban”) about the possibility of him playing some music from Cuban musicians. (Notice how I’m not saying “Cuban music” because that IS what they are playing; a very specific, 50s-like way of playing Cuban music, but Cuban music nonetheless, a point which I will explain below.) The DJ heard us out, considered this, and then asked us if I and Kristina could do a little demo on the stage, you know, because he “needed to have a reason to play Cuban music for the crowd.” Kristina, in a genius stroke, told him that the place being called Havana Club should be reason enough; on my end, I made sure I said I did not want “timba,” that I just wanted to listen to Cuban musicians. He then went off about how he knew about where the music comes from, and that he played Cuban musicians every now and then, like Willy Chirino and, yes, Gloria Estefan (I literally had to control my laughter after hearing this). Finally, he conceded and he played a couple of tracks. But the music came from an USB drive someone had to give him. So he didn’t have the music on his playlist to begin with.
What I just described here is the typical excuse DJs will give you for not playing or having Cuban musicians in their repertoire (they have no problem playing the covers of Cuban songs by non-Cuban musicians, however): people will simply not dance to this music and the dance floor will empty out. In Tallahassee, I remember a DJ telling me that playing “Cuban stuff” would “kill his crowd,” even in a Thursday night event called “HAVANA NIGHTS.” Likewise, I’ve heard other horror stories from other people who have tried to, unsuccessfully, request Cuban musicians from a DJ at a salsa social or club.
But then, look at the other side of the coin. When you go to the congress in San Francisco or Atlanta, or essentially any dance congress labeled as “Cuban” in the world, the reaction of the DJ, if you ask him to play something from “El Gran Combo” or “Sonora Ponceña,” is akin to the reaction of a vampire getting sprinkled with holy water: instant physical retraction and immediate fang extraction, followed by a spiteful hissing sound which you can’t really hear over the blasting music.
So, salsa Djs won’t play timba. And timba Djs won’t play salsa. Both will give you the same reason: because if they do it, nobody will dance to it.
Both points of view couldn’t be more wrong. These are both unfounded assumptions which never hold up when they actually play the “other’s” music. When timba—finally—gets played at a salsa club, people dance. When salsa—finally—gets played at a Cuban event, people dance.
Why? Because it’s the same music. Because it’s the same 1,2,3 and 5,6,7 when dancing. Because it’s the same conga pattern, the same cowbell pattern, the same cáscara pattern hitting the timbal. Because it’s the same clave.
Because it is son.
Let me start expanding on this last point with another anecdote (I promise I’m going somewhere with this). It was the year 2009, and I had just joined the Cuban salsa group at FSU, Azúcar, “Salsa’s favorite sweetener.” After years of frustration in Cuba, of family members refusing to teach me how to dance, I was really excited to finally be learning how to dance salsa—that’s what I called it back then; in fact, that’s what a lot of Cubans will call it today, due to the misinformation that exists in the island. Anyhow, even more exciting was the fact that I was going to go to an international salsa congress in Orlando, which meant I would get to practice my moves all night long with people who had lots of experience.
So I went to Orlando.
The first shock came in the afternoon of the first day of being there, when I entered the first workshop, a beginner class teaching a turn pattern (your typical workshop). To my dismay, they were teaching something very different from what I had been taught. I struggled for an hour, and then for another hour, in the next workshop. I kept struggling throughout the day until, on the last workshop, I just sat down after failing to get whatever turn pattern they were doing and said to myself, “Screw this. This is not Cuban.”
The second shock came at night, during the social. For the first half hour or so, the music played, and I did not pay much attention to it because I was struggling to dance “Cuban style” with all these women who did not know what “Cuban style” was. As the social went past the first hour, I decided to sit down a bit and take a break. I was frustrated. This was not what I had expected, dancing wise.
And then I started paying attention to the music and realized the music, likewise, was not what I had expected at all.
They were playing my grandparents’ music.
It felt as if I had been stuck on some weird musical spin-off episode of “Doctor Who” in which the Doctor decides to travel back in time to the 1950s in Cuba. I am not the only person who feels this way about the music. José “El Tosco,” founder of NG la Banda, (just to name somebody) has said that Latin America has remained stuck in the music of 1950s. This makes a lot of sense, considering that prior to 1959, with the support of the marketing power of the United States, Cuban dance music—like son, mambo, bolero, chachachá—was able to spread to all hemispheres of the continent (let’s remember that Cuba was a colony of sorts of the U.S., just like Puerto Rico is now). Cuban dance music was popular way beyond its borders.
With the advent of the Cuban revolution and the placement of the U.S. embargo on the island of Cuba, however, Cuban music stopped being exported. This led to the rebranding of Cuban music, specifically son and all its subgenres like son montuno, guaracha-son, bolero-son, etc, as “salsa” in the late 60s and early 70s by the musicians who resided in New York, a city which for decades had been the connecting point, musically speaking, between the U.S. and Cuba (all Cuban musicians had to travel to New York to record since Cuba had no recording studio of its own). This was done in order to sell the music they had played for years (i.e. before the Cuban revolution) while avoiding the negative connotations associated with Cuba (recent missile crisis, communism) and asserting an all-encompassing “latino” identity in a predominantly white society, which the salsa metaphor encapsulated all too well. Therefore the term “salsa” sold on more than a musical level; it sold on a cultural and identitary one, too.
What followed the Cuban revolution was what I call the “Dark Ages” of Cuban music. I call it this not because music was not produced in the island. The Dark Ages is a term used to refer to a period in western medieval history characterized by a lack of information on our end about said period. That is, very few things are known about what actually happened back then. But of course, things were happening. The “Dark Ages” of Cuban music refer to a period in time in which things were happening in Cuba, musically speaking, but very few of those things were actually getting into the United States (reasons explained above), and by extent Latin America.
And things were happening in Cuba, musically speaking. Orquesta Revé began playing around with different sounds, and when Juan Formell left and created Los Van Van, these sounds found a definitive nest. Adalberto Álvarez and Son 14 was likewise revolutionizing the sound of son music. And of course, Irakere, the most musically-gifted band of the 20th century in Latin America, was doing things nobody had seen done until then, and probably will not see again anytime soon (they are actually the only band, in my opinion, which make the case for what “timba” is really supposed to be). These are just a few examples of what was actually happening. Cuban musicians played with the sound of son for decades, and very few people outside of Cuba knew about it.
Because very few of these innovations were actually getting to U.S. soil, in the U.S. people kept playing the music from Cuba that they knew from prior to the Cuban revolution in 1959. And those who were able to get their hands on some sort of recording from Cuba made covers of the songs left and right. But the covers sounded different. These musicians were stuck in the pre-Revolution sound (and so are the salsa DJs, or why do you think they have so many Vinyls?), lacking the musical foundations—because, again, it wasn’t their music to begin with—to really replicate the novel sounds they were hearing. In fact, when the period of “salsa romántica” came about in the 1980s—essentially balads mascarading as “salsa” songs—both musicians and serious dancers alike resented it, and began the “salsa dura” movement, a return to the “real” sound of salsa, from back to where it started in the 70s, which, of course, is in itself a return to the son.
When in the 1990s Fidel Castro opened relations with the U.S. in a desperate attempt to alleviate the economic damages that the Special Period had done to Cuba, music from Cuba began arriving to the U.S. once again. Now, imagine your last exposure to music from Cuba being La Sonora Matancera in the 1950s playing “Cañonazo”—which by the way is the name and lead song of the first official salsa album— and then all of sudden you get hit head-on with the sounds of NG la Banda’s “La bruja,” or Charanga Habanera’s “El temba” (I recommend you listen to these songs to really see what I’m talking about). Of course, forty years of “Dark Ages” will do the trick of making you think it’s something different. Think of it this way: you look at yourself in the mirror every day for ten years, and you will see very little difference in how you look every one of those days; but if you were to see someone whom you have not seen for ten years, you will instantly notice that they have changed in how they look. This person did not suddenly change, however. Like you, he gradually did. You just were not there to see it. What you did see was the end result and not the process. If you had seen the process, you would not have noticed the changes as much, just like with yourself.
Shocked by this “new” music which in fact had been evolving for decades, and failing to concisely place it within the salsa paradigm, because let’s face it, it was different than the stuck-in-the-50s son—but then again, the son from the 40s (“Hay fuego en el 23” by Conjunto Arsenio Rodríguez) did not sound like the son of the 30s (“Cachita” by Casino de la Playa), yet it was still called son—a new term had to emerge to describe this new musical phenomenon. The story goes that NG La Banda coined the term “timba.” But of course, this was not a label shared by all musicians in Cuba: you still had Adalberto Álvarez y su SON, Klimax’s director, Giraldo Piloto, saying he played “modern son,” Los Van Van playing SONgo. No matter. The Americans only needed one term, a catchy term that would sell (“son” as a term has never been able to sell in the U.S.; even in the 50s, they would call it “rhumba,” a term still used in ballroom dancing), regardless of whether or not there was a consensus on what the music was actually called. The musicians would jump on the band wagon later, once they saw that monetary necessity—and compensation—of attaching themselves to this new label (that’s capitalism for you).
So now you have the Berlin Wall of music, if I may resort to history once again. On one side, you have Latin American musicians playing Cuban son in the way it was five and six decades ago, and calling it “salsa;” on the other you have Cuban musicians playing the end result of a gradual evolution of son and calling it “timba.” And like the Berlin Wall, you just don’t cross into the other side.
And yet both sides share one fundamental similarity: on no side the word “son” is being mentioned. Indeed, on both sides the word “son” is being discarded and forgotten.
Let us not forget that the Berlin wall did not divide two different countries, although perhaps at the time it was perceived that way. It divided the same country: Germany. It divided the German people because the two sides thought differently. Likewise, this “Berlin Wall” of music is diving Cuban music into two fictitious labels (salsa and timba) because neither of the sides are willing to recognize they are just different stages of the same musical genre. Once that happens, like the Berlin Wall of Germany, this wall will have to come crashing down at some point. Whatever the means to the end, this wall will crumble when labels like “salsa” and “timba” are eviscerated, when there is an acknowledgment of what they really are, and the word “son” returns to the consciousness of musicians, Djs, and dancers alike.
I remember growing in Cuba listening to Los Van Van, La Charanga Habanera, Adalberto Álvarez y su Son. But I also remember listening to Gilberto Santarosa, Oscar D’Leon, and Grupo Niche. I am positive my experience is shared across all Latin America. (Just the other day I saw a picture of a Los Van Van concert in Colombia in an enormous space packed full of people. Or let us remember when D’Leon went to Cuba in the 90s, he packed stadiums full of people.)
Yet in the U.S. all this changes. In the U.S. we still have a wall that has everything to do with U.S.-Cuba foreign relations. Have you thought about why you do not have, in the U.S., a “Colombian Salsa Congress,” a “Venezuelan Salsa Congress,” a “Nicaraguan Salsa Congress,” but simply a “Latin” Salsa Congress? And yet Cuba gets its own dance congresses like in San Francisco and Atlanta. Cuba seems to be the black sheep. And what happens at these Cuban-centered congresses, from the way people dress, to how people dance, to the music that’s played, is the exact opposite of what happens at your typical U.S. salsa congress.
It’s a vicious circle of an eye for an eye. And it’s certainly quite easy to fall into it. Going back to my experience in the international salsa congress in Orlando, one of the first things I set myself to do after leaving it was to not listen or play “their” music because they wouldn’t play or listen to mine. So from then on I only listened to Cuban musicians. This is a behavioral pattern a lot of the casino dancers share across the U.S., I’m sure. And for salsa dancers in the U.S. I am also sure the same thing happens, just the opposite way, when they go to these Cuban events.
Going back to son, seeing the salsa and timba as belonging to the same genre, will fix this problem. Being a “timbero” or being a “salsero” entrenches you in only one of the many ways son can be played. This is why the salsa dancer goes to a Cuban event and says he can’t dance to this the music as well as to what he is used to listening to (notice I didn’t say “can’t dance at all”). Likewise, people who have grown accustomed to timba will go to a salsa social and find the music tedious—but nonetheless danceable.
What I am trying to say is: once we see both salsa and timba as the same genre, son, once the wall comes crashing down, then the way is open for both communities to coexist while (this is important) respecting each other’s dances, which are quite different. There are a lot of things casineros can learn from salseros, and vice versa. There is a need for dancers to know how to dance all styles of playing son—or that is to say, son music, as played in different decades. Different decades required different things from the dancers.
In short, there is a need for people to understand the music that they are listening to, so that they may adapt their steps, according to what the music is telling them, it being in salsa dance, or casino dance. That is, personally, what I am concentrating my efforts on.
I reckon have a dream, too. And it that dream I walk into any club, dance social or congress in the U.S., and the DJs are playing El Gran Combo and Los Van Van, Sonora Ponceña and Manolito, Gilberto Santarosa and Septeto Nacional. Some people are dancing casino; others are dancing salsa; others dancing son.
People are dancing. People are having fun. People are smiling.
All to the melody of son.