Salsa or Timba? The Case for Son



I started this blog, a couple of months ago, with a call for harmony. As I and many others have observed and experienced, in the United States and in many other parts of the world, Cuba and its musicians are heavily excluded from DJs’ playlists at salsa congresses and socials. The response to this ostracism has been the creation of Cuban-themed events, which promote these Cubans musicians, Cuban culture and dance, and when it comes to the music, the motto at these events is usually, “Timba, or die.”

This, in turn, has created a fictitious chasm where, on one end stands “Latin music,” held together by salsa, and at the other end “Cuban music,” held together by timba. In my previous post, I said this was a fictitious division because, if we were to look closely at the music, we would notice that we are all dancing to the same thing: son. What I did not do was provide evidence as I suggested this. Instead I did a bit of a historic rundown on how the cultural terms “salsa” and “timba” came about (later it will become clear why I call them “cultural terms”), and at the end tried to make them coalesce under the umbrella of son. But again, I did a very poor job of defining son and making the case that salsa and timba were, indeed, all part of the same thing.

In this post, then, I will do my best to define son as a musical genre with the help of ethnomusicologists and other people who know more about music than I do (I am simply a music aficionado who reads a lot) and then test the definition with several songs, whether they are salsa songs or timba songs, whether they are from Cuban or non-Cuban musicians, and see if they hold against the definition. I will show you that, indeed, they do, and therefore the music that we listen to, no matter the change in instrumentation that it has undergone over the decades, is son.

But first, let us define son music. To do so I am going to use Ned Sublette’s book called Cuba And Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. On page 333 he defines son very broadly in the following way:

The genre called son is a Cuban synthesis: Bantu percussion, melodic rhythm, and call-and-response singing, melding with the Spanish peasant’s guitar and language.

As Sublette states, Cuban son is a synthesis. It is as African as it is Spanish. I reiterate this because there has never been a shortage of people who erroneously divulge that this music is “Afro-Cuban” in the American sense of the word; that is: music of the blacks. One can certainly make the case about the existence of Afro-Cuban music, especially when it comes to rumba and folklore. But not with son. Now, let us define son music more deeply. I refer to Sublette’s text once again:

The form of the son became the great template for Cuban popular music. First comes the exposition of the lyrics, likely in two verses. Then comes the montuno section in which the coro (chorus) enter with the estribillo—what decades later in the United States would come to be called the “hook of the song”…The coro repeats its phrase with trancelike insistence as the sonero improvises his soneos over it (the back-and-forth is sometimes called capetillo), in effect participating in a musical and literary genre all its own, one that at once borrows from Iberan (and Arabic) poetry and African ritual. (p. 344)

There is an important element about Sublette’s definition that I want to emphasize: the son song has two sections. To reiterate, first comes the introduction, the exposition, also known as the largo, in which the sonero (singer) sings, usually unaccompanied vocally. This section is then followed by the more up-beat montuno, in which the chorus comes in with a “catchy phrase,” engaging with the sonero in a call and response conversation, in which the chorus sings the “catchy prhase,” the sonero improvises afterwards, the chorus sings the same phrase again, the sonero improvises once more; and again and again until the song ends or there is a break (usually this is where the instrument solos come in). This call and response in the montuno was not standardized until the 30s and 40s—which means the son did not originally have it, just like it didn’t originally have claves—when Arsenio Rodriguez forever changed the genre by loosely tying it in with the Cuban rumba tradition, which had a call and response part, and gave the contributions of black Cubans to popular music the place in Cuban musical history they deserved. These two sections formed what came to be known as son montuno, which many people mistakenly believe refers to son music from the countryside, as montuno can also be roughly translated to “from the mountains.”

Before Arsenio, however, we can still see this structure in recordings of Septeto Habanero in the 1930s. Let us then turn to our first example. Notice how until 2:16 the sonero is telling a story, making the exposition. Singing. Then, you begin hearing that call and response between the coro and the sonero.

Let us have a listen.

I should mention that son didn’t develop in the 1930s (see Sublette’s book for a complete history of son, which I won’t go into detail here because it would take too long and is beside the point I am trying to make), but that decade was the farthest back in time of which I could find a recording. If you have an older one, please do pass it along.

This recording, and many others of its time, do not have the best quality possible for its time. Indeed, Cuba had no recording studio of its own prior to 1959 and the Revolution, which meant that whatever recordings that were made were done under very poor conditions, many times with only one microphone, which either heightened or lessened the sound of the different instruments, according to their relative position to the microphone. If they had had better recording conditions, it would have sounded closer to this:

On the lack of a recording studio in Cuba, it is important to note that the only recording studio licensed to record Cuban musicians at the time was in New York (remember that following the Spanish-American war which ended in 1902, Cuba became a colony of sort of its northern neighbor). New York, then, became a point of musical dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba. In other words, there is a reason why the history of “salsa music” begins there.

Anyhow, let’s go back to Cuba and the following decade, the 1940s, when Arsenio Rodríguez transformed the musical scene on the island and changed the rules of the game. In the words of ethnomusicologist Peter Manuel, who has written extensively about the music of Cuba:

The next stage of the evolution of the son is best represented by the ensemble of Arsenio Rodriguez (1911-1970), a blind tres-player and bandleader whose group was a predominant trendsetter in the forties and fifties. Arsenio’s ensemble included piano, second trumpet, and, I some cases, saxophone, as well as an expanded rhythm section using timbales, conga, and cowbell (cencerro) along with the more traditional instruments. (Popular Music of the Non-Western World, p. 31.)

Before you listen to Arsenio Rodriguez, let me contextualize these changes to which Manuel alludes. Before Arsenio, the traditional band format of the son was the septet: the septet included seven instruments: claves, maracas, bongo, trumpet, guitar, tres (a Cuban guitar), and contrabass (see Septeto Nacional video above). Arsenio added a piano, which over the decades substituted the Cuban tres (though some son bands still use it), more trumpets, and expanded the Afro-Cuban element in the son (previously occupied by the bongo) by adding a conga and timbales (these two are Cuban instruments, by the way).

Therefore, the sound changed.

And, boy, did it change.

In this song (of which you may have heard several covers), the chorus comes in throughout the largo, but only to add to what the sonero is saying, not to engage him in a call and response pattern (so this is not a montuno). That happens towards 1:52, when the montuno comes in.

Regardless of the change of the sound because of the addition of all these instruments, the music was still son. In fact, with Arsenio, son bifurcated in two directions: son montuno and son-guanguancó, the latter being an explicit nod to the Afro-Cuban rumba.

So far so good? Good. Let us explore the next phase of son: the 50s. Again, I go to Peter Manuel (same book as above) for some enlightenment:

Cuban dance music reached something of a peak in the 1950s, with the flourishing of Benny Moré, Félix Chapottín, Miguelito Cuní, Niño Rivera, the Sonora Matancera, and others. Much of the vitality of this period…paralleled an increased recognition of the neo-African contributions to Cuban culture in general. The clearest manifestation of this recognition was the merging of the son and the rumba in a manner that achieved a balanced synthesis of European and neo-African features. From the perspective of the son, the chief developments were an increase in tempo (often to as much as M.M. 220), a heightened rhythmic intensity, standardization of the “song”-montuno form, and a proliferation of song texts extolling the rumba and Afro-Cuban heritage in general. (p. 32)

Again, even though the Afro-Cuban (black) contributions were being more acknowledged (the reason for this need to acknowledge the contribution of blacks is that Cuban society had inherited the racist practices of the U.S. to the point that Jim Crow laws were put into effect on the island), son never stopped being a synthesis (notice Manuel and Sublette use the same word) of European and African traditions.

So, here we are in the 50s. I’ll let Celia Cruz do the talking—or the singing, in this case. Here she is with Celio Gonzalez, accompanied by the world-famous Sonora Matancera, one the bands Manuel mentioned above. Notice how up until minute 1:37, they are in the introduction—that is, singing verses, telling a story. Then the montuno kicks in, and you hear the call and response pattern again.

Is that consistent with the definition of son that Sublette provided above? Yes.

Did it sound different than Arsenio in the 1940s, than Septeto Habanero in the 1930s? Yes.

Was is still called son? Yes.

Now let us move to the next stage of son music: the 70s. As we all know, this is the decade many people attribute to the emergence of salsa music in New York. Again, here is Manuel to give me a helping hand (same book):

[The term salsa] stylistically its backbone consists of Cuban dance music—particularly the modern son that evolved in the 1950s. Salsa tempi may tend to be somewhat faster and its horn sections larger…but the primary distinction between salsa and Cuban dance music is non-musical (my emphasis): salsa is produced outside of Cuba, primarily by Puerto Ricans and Cubans living in New York City and Puerto Rico, and also by stylistically similar groups based in Venezuela, Mexico City, and other Spanish-speaking countries. (p. 46)

If I am going to make the case that salsa is a cultural term and, as Peter Manuel asserts, the difference between salsa and son is “non-musical,” meaning that, musically, they are the same (i.e. salsa is son because son precedes salsa), then I have to enlist the help of one of the biggest faces of salsa to make my case: Hector Lavoe.

Again, if this is son, we should expect to see an introduction in which he sings and tells a story, and a montuno in which he engages in a call and response pattern with the chorus. Let us listen.

Did it happen? Did it fit the definition of son? Of course it did! Up until 1:36, Lavoe is doing the exposition, and then in 1:37 the chorus comes in and he engages in a call and response pattern with it, officially beginning the montuno.

This is the same form that had been used since the thirties and to which we have been listening throughout this brief history of son music.

If you are still not convinced, I have a couple more examples for you. Listen to them, and you will see the same thing.

Los Hermanos Lebron. Montuno begins at 1:44.

El Gran Combo. Montuno begins at 1:44.

Even songs which were originally ballads follow a change to a largo-montuno format in their “salsa” versions. For instance, let’s have a listen to this song by Gilberto Santarosa:

As you can see, Que alguien me diga is a ballad. Let us see what happens when it gets converted to “salsa.”

Up until 2:50 it was, lyrics-wise, an exact copy of the original ballad. Then, on 2:52 the chorus comes in and becomes a call and response between the singer and the chorus, just like we have been seeing with every other song we have looked at so far, and thus fitting within the structure of son.

Remember, in the beginning, when I said that salsa was son?


Isn’t it?

You would have to be deaf not to hear it.

But I am not stopping here. I am not here to only make a case for salsa being son. I am here to tell you that timba is also son. I am here to truly bridge the gap. I have no nationalist agenda here, for I play son music from all over in my workshops and classes, whether it is El Gran Combo (Puerto Rico), Grupo Niche (Colombia), Manolito y su Trabuco (Cuba), just to name a few. I simply seek to set the record straight. If this takes us back to Cuba, so be it; for that is where this music originated.

Back to timba. In his book, Timba: The Sound of the Cuban Crisis, the ethnomusicologist Vicenzio Perna defines timba structurally in the following way:

[In timba] we have a bipartite structure with a shorter, quieter first narrative section or tema (largo in son and canto in rumba), followed by a longer, more upbeat part called montuno or estribillo (sometimes capetillo in rumba). (p. 109)

Is that not the very definition that we have been working with since we started looking at the 1930s son format and acknowledged the Afro-Cuban contributions to the son? Indeed, at its core, it is the very same, even though, of course, it underwent changes, specially in the montuno. As Perna states, the musical changes in timba have “mostly been based on the expansion of the second part…which is typically filled with coros…stops, instrumental phrases and breaks” (p. 109).

In my previous post I argued that “timba” was, like “salsa,” a cultural and marketing term used by Cuban musicians and promoters of music made in Cuba to somehow re-enter a market from which they had previously been excluded following the Cuban Revolution, its communist affiliation, and the imposed U.S. embargo on the island. Cuban musicians had been shut out of the very music they had developed. Attempts were made to re-enter the market by playing into its labels. Cuban musicians like Manolín, for instance, dubbed himself “El médico de la salsa” (“Salsa’s doctor”) to exploit the relative affinity with international salsa and the popularity it enjoyed. Nowadays, however, the music he and his band produced is considered “timba.” Additionally, before the popularization of the term “timba,” the term salsa cubana (Cuban salsa) was–and still is–widely used by many. The apparent interchangeability of these two terms–salsa and timba–should, right off the bat, raise a red flag to anyone who attempts to argue (which I am not) that these are two separate musical entities, when in fact they are two opposed cultural entities. Musically, if “timba” can be referred to as salsa cubana, and above we saw that salsa is son, then timba is son as well.

Just as Peter Manuel argued above that salsa music’s alleged difference from son was cultural–that is, it was son music produced by non-Cuban musicians–I argue that timba makes a similar and opposite cultural statement linked to identity: it is music produced by Cuban musicians. In other words, it is a way to fight the existing market which excludes them and to re-assert their musical identity, as opposed to a different musical genre than son. In fact, in the words of Perna himself: “Even today”–I take that “today” to be the year 2005, when the book was published– “the use of the term “timba” in Cuba is neither universal nor unproblematic” (p. 98). In other words, “timba” is not accepted or used by everyone on the island. (I do recommend you read my previous post, which goes into more detail about this.)

Let us listen to Mayimbe, one of those bands that people readily identify with this music.

Did you see the structure of son there? If you didn’t, let me help you out.

Up until 1:52, the singer is in the intro. Afterwards, the chorus comes in, and…what happens? That’s right: Call and response.

Did it sound different than the stuff from the 70s? Of course it did. But we have been seeing how the 70s sounded different from the 50s, the 50s from the 40s, and so on.

But let us not stop there. Bamboleo gives us another great example:

Again, same thing. From the beginning to minute 2:22, introduction. From then onwards, montuno, call and response.


Not if son has a say in it!

One more example, before I rest my case. Let us listen to Maykel Blanco, whose complete title is “Maykel Blanco Y Su Salsa Mayor (my emphasis), but quite ironically everyone associates him with “timba.”

I’ll let you find the introduction and montuno characteristic of the son in this song.

Okay, I know I said I was going to let you do it on your own, but I want to make sure that you got it. One minute and twenty four seconds into the song, did you notice what happened?

So, there you go, people. That’s my case of why this divide between timba and salsa is simply a piece of fiction. Unlike most of the hearsay you will read online on this topic, I wrote this with the help of serious research done by ethnomusicologists who know what they are talking about, and exemplified, as best I could, what they were saying with all of the above videos. My initial and final assertion remain the same: it is all, at the end of the day, son music. You may disagree with me and let me know so below, but I encourage you to disagree in an educated manner; that is, by doing your research and getting your information from trusted sources (not Wikipedia) and providing musical examples which suggest otherwise.

Now, the “why” of the labels “timba” and “salsa”, if it is all son…well, a lot of ink has been spilled on that topic, mine included (see my previous post). But the fact of the matter is, when you listen closely and know what you are supposed to be paying attention to, you start seeing the patterns; the line that divides blurs; and it all becomes son.

Therefore, if it all is son, that means that you can dance casino to all of it. (Remember that casino is an evolution of son dancing, so this means that you can dance son, too, especially for the older tracks which were created before there was a dance known as casino. Also, by this I am making the case for learning to dance son, as part of the necessary repertoire of any casinero(a); but that is a topic I will board another day.)

One last thing, though. What I have given you here is a standard format of a son song which developed in the 40s with Arsenio and coalesced in the 50s. This does not mean that all son songs will have the same format. Some will completely forget the intro and kick right into a montuno:

Others will never go into a montuno:

There are more things that can happen, as a way of deviating from the standard. These are two very obvious examples.

Yet no matter how creative the musicians get, no matter how much they to play with the form, it is still the same music.

It is still son.

And I hope doing this reading made that clear.