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?
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.
Basing your definition of son mainly on the cuerpo/montuno (with the Coro-pregón pattern) structure may also cover a huge amount of african music, and music from other parts of the world. I definitely do not want to go into a “I know son when I hear it” type of discussion, but to me son is also clearly defined by the clave, and the band composition (bongos and the tres just haveto be there for me to get in my son mindset).
Timba not only upgrades the montuno significantly (I guess you are familiar with the “Timba gears” system, which is one way of putting it), uses predominantly rumba clave, uses an expanded/modernized orchestra, but also changes the patterns of most instruments to fit the more syncopated backbone. So yes, it’s tempting to say it’s all son, but are all modern cars Ford Model T-s when they share the four-wheel concept?
I want to make clear that the definition of son I used wasn’t my definition. It was a definition that someone with more knowledge music than I provided. My largo/montuno argument was used as a way to bridge the way son music has been played throughout the decades—which in that sense has not changed. ) It’s a matter of musical evolution within the genre. I am aware that what people call timba was a big upgrade to son, but let’s be consistent: Arsenio Rodriguez in the 1940s was also a big upgrade to son, since it was him who added stronger horn sections, more Afro-Cuban percussion, and created the conjunto sound (as opposed to the sound of the septets, which were the norm before him), not to mention that son music has a montuno section BECAUSE of Arsenio, since he’s the one who created the son montuno–which is what we hear today. And yet no one called the music he created anything other than son. So son music has been evolving for a long time. That evolution didn’t start with what people call timba.
And yes, you can argue that the coro/pregón is not exclusive to son (rumba comes to mind). But for the purposes of the argument that I am trying to make, THAT is really the key, in my opinion, to comprehending how son music from different decades connect and evolves.
Thanks for reading.
Great article, very well articulated, reasoned and explained.
I get the main point, but disagree to some extent.
Both “Salsa” and “Timba” have gone a great distance from Son in many cases.
Also, I think that the definition of Son using only the “2 parts of the song division” is too much a generalization.
There are many genres throughout the XX century which can fit this definition.
Salsa is quite close to Son, but some songs are actually closer to Mambo, and thus to Danzon.
Timba mostly has some elements of Son, but is often based on other rhythms, mainly Guaguanco (original Guaguanco, not Arsenio’s Guaguanco-Son).
Guaguanco also has the 2 part structure, but it doesn’t make it the same as Son.
So, you can say that most “salsa” is Son and some “timba” is Son, but not all of it.
As for dancing to this or that song, to each their own, as long as they are dancing to the music.
Personally I find most “Salsa” music to be very monotonous and boring on the one hand, but also not having the elegance and subtlety of Son, on the other hand (with that being replaced by the “aggressiveness” of jazz music often used in “salsa”).
Thanks for reading. I agree that the music has evolved a great deal throughout the decades. However, neither salsa nor timba have evolved enough to be a whole different genre of music. I think of it this way: There are all kinds of rock: punk rock, country rock, alternative, and heavy metal. At the end of the day, it’s all still rock. I’m making the same argument: salsa and timba are just part of the same thing: son. If you look at the way the instruments are played, they’re still playing the same conga patterns, the same cowbell, the same cáscara than the conjunto-style son of the 40s and 50s. With some exceptions, of course. While the bipartite structure of the son song does hold for many more genres, it comes down to the instrumentation used that we recognize as son. No one hears a bachata and says, that’s salsa. However, people all the time hear son and say, “That’s salsa.” And this happens with timba, too, which Paulito FG, Manolín, Issac Delgado, and pretty much everybody who was popular in the 90s called “salsa.” If these names are used interchangeably, it is because they are really all part of the same thing. And since son came first…
Also, you’re throwing a bunch of terms around, like mambo and danzón, without really clarifying what it is that you mean. Mambo is a complicated term to define, to begin with. And danzón…I don’t know, but I don’t hear much of it in salsa, to be honest. On the other hand, son has OTHER elements of other music, too. It’s not just timba that does. People think that son is some sort of pure music form in Cuba. U.S. music, namely jazz, has had a lot of influence in son music since the 40s. In fact, it was because of jazz that son was able to transcend the sound of the septet and reach new melodies and sounds though the conjunto. And it was because training on jazz and classical music that the Cuban musicians were able to do what they did in the early 90s. The guaguancó influence is not specific of timba. Listen to older songs, and you’ll find them saying “guaguancó” time and again. There is a reason for that, which I will write about at some point.
At any rate, apologies for the abruptness of the response. I’m sort of in a hurry. But I do hope I made my points clear. Thanks for taking the time to read the pieces!
Agreed, the names are used interchangeably, and of course there are many similarities between Son, salsa and Timba, as both salsa and Timba come from son.
BUT while salsa is basically Son with more instruments and some people to used to playing jazz, Timba is a different story.
True, there still is a connection to Son, as Son is one of the roots of Timba, but there is much less a connection than one thinks there is.
This is because Son is one of the roots of Timba, one of many, but not the only one.
Guaguanco is a much a root as Son, or maybe even more so.
Many Timba compositions are in clave Guaguanco, and even “reverse clave Guaguanco” and not clave Son, for one.
Also, in many Timba compositions there are more percussive patterns played not from Son than there are from Son.
From my knowledge and listening, the patterns that remain from Son (or actually, from Son Montuno, and much less from traditional Son) are the campana rhythmic pattern and the cascara rhythmic pattern.
The congas play various marchas rather than tumbao, the bass plays lots of interesting lines which are far from the classic bass tumbao, the piano player improvises a lot, most compositions don’t have tres playing in them, many don’t have guiro \ maracas at all, and most of the time there’s a drum kit in play which extends the role of the timbalero.
So, I think that it is correct to say that SOME Timba is Son, and that most Timba has a connection to Son in structure and instrumentation, but you can’t say that Timba is Son, only or mostly Son.
Danzon and Mambo.
I’m not throwing terms around.
These are distinct genres, different from Son, and during the 1950’s-1970’s there were some compositions made in those genres outside Cuba which were later “added” under the umbrella term “Salsa”.
What I meant to say is that not everything that is “thrown in the salsa basket” is Son or Son Montuno, but there are also other Cuban genres included.
I’m not going to get into a discussion of danzón and mambo because that’d take too long, and it would be besides the point, really.
As for what you said about timba, all of that is true. HOWEVER, your description of how the instruments are doing different things now was pretty much a description of how the music has evolved WITHIN the genre–which is what I am arguing (and again, son itself is just not son, either). Giraldo Piloto himself has called what he plays “son progresivo”. http://suenacubano.com/giraldo-piloto-y-su-grupo-klimax/
Great piece and an awesome blog, it’s been an amazing find for me in trying to evolve as a dancer and try my hand at teaching.
It feels weird for me to have my first post be somewhat contradictive when you clearly know more about the topic than me but like you, I want to bridge the gap with “Latin dance” and thus want to comment on what I think is an overly technical definition that leads to semantic arguments.
Ultimately, when we use terms like “salsa”, “cuban salsa”, “timba, “casino”, “mambo”, “line salsa”, “salsa dura”, “on 2”, “on 1”, “slot”, “LA style”, “new york style”, etc. we’re trying to define cultural/musical concepts that will help is identify what is happening in music and on the dance floor. Each one of those words has a heavy influence from son, but in the context of the dancing as it happens today, it doesn’t matter much how far it is from son because what you play/listen to/dance is heavily affected by which of those is common in your areas. To call it all “son” doesn’t really help anybody. And if “cuban salsa” helps someone understand what the hell I’m dancing is, I’m not ashamed to call it that. I prefer to call it casino honestly, but I make do. And the truth is if my style of dancing intrigues a line dancer, maybe they’ll search “cuban salsa” through google. If I just say “casino”, it goes over their head and the conversation is over. If someone comments on the walking I do, I directly refer to this coming from “son”, which I say is one of the big influences on “cuban salsa”. Maybe it feels weird to say that, but I know in this culture, it’s what makes sense.
As you have pointed out yourself, music evolves and changes and so do the terms that people call the music. Furthermore, in language in general we have different words for the same thing. English is a great example where one concept can have 3 different names because we’ve borrowed words from French, German, and maybe even Greek to give this thing a name. As such, I think there’s a world where “cuban salsa”, “timba”, “casino” call all peacefully coexist and we can still know and understand it comes from son without having to be militantly politically correct about it. Giraldo Piloto is a cuban expert and we should take what he says with heavy consideration; however, if a dancer 2,000 miles away needs the term “cuban salsa” to explain it, why should we be upset? Maybe with time they’ll come to learn its relation to son. But just as you don’t need to know Latin to appreciate the similarities between Spanish and Italian, I don’t think you need to know son to appreciate the similarity between salsa and casino. However, once you do learn about son/Latin, your understanding/appreciation will increase and that should be our goal: to teach the importance of son and not to try to unteach the terms people already popularly use.
Hey, if that’s what works for you, that’s what works for you. Everybody is entitled to their opinion, and I certainly don’t seek to be any kind of authority on this.
Thanks for taking the time to read the blog!
If they give you “the shocked face” you can just say “you know, the wonderful Latin couple dance from Cuba”.
Sure, it works for me…and a lot of other people too! I guess my point is, the further we are from Cuba the harder it is to find common language because the culture lacks a context to understand the nuances.
In Zurich, “Cuban Salsa” is a more effective term because you’re speaking an inexperienced dancer’s language but once people are more deeply into the culture, we can begin to talk about son with them. To me, it’s more like being able to speak in a local language before trying to teach them yours. I’ve found it effective and we all get to the same point eventually because I do ultimately agree with you on where it all comes from.
The Maykel Blanco example is one that makes me smile because he’s one of my favorite composers but his group’s current name is a bit ironic, considering in “Dale lo que lleva” he sings “mi son tiene tremendo guaguancó, pa’ que le llama’ salsa si esto es son?.” Well Maykel check the name of your group…haha
HIs case is interesting. What happened to Maykel Blanco is that he took over someone else’s “Salsa Mayor” and chose to keep the name to enjoy some of the popularity that group already had. I’ve actually been meaning to write about this. I mean, you have Manolin el médico de la salsa, Issac Delgado el chévere de la salsa, Paulito FG and many others in the 90s saying “salsa”, even before “timba”, as a marketing label, was popular. Heck, even now Revé just got a CD out titled “La salsa tiene mi son.” All of this is certainly a contradiction, but I care more about what that contradiction entails. Personally, I see it an attempt from musicians to figure out how to fit in within the international music market in which they have to sell their music.
Thank you very much for this post! It simplified a lot some terms and meanings of complicated casino/salsa/timba maze:) where I believe, is too big a mess. You threw a lot of light on matter. I’ve read all comments, but I still have problem to apply your idea to some songs, definitly coming from ‘timba’ stream.
They are organized more like typical pop songs:
sometimes with some instrumental/guaguanco bridges between. Chorus sections play role of montuno (chorus responses), but then we are back in the verse.
Timbalive -Ra ra ra,
Yuli & Havana C – Se Te Va Bailando,
in last there is part at the end (~2:45) when montuno can be noticed, but to me general flow of the song suggests V-C-V-C structure rather than largo-montuno.
Similar observation I have in Vivir mi vida by Marc Anthony (at ~3:03 starts montuno, but this chorus section occurs before three times).
What do you think about it? Isn’t it something that definitely characterize timba music and distinguish it from classical son?
I have also read another post: HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR CASINO DANCING EXPERIENCE: OVERCOMING TURNPATTERNITIS. That encouraged me to write this comment.
These chorus sections ask for some ‘nudos’ even if montuno haven’t started yet and when back to the verse, dancing shall calm down and then again vivid and calmly and so on. Looks like timba tries to destroy a former son structure, also for dancers.
You made some very nice observations.
The songs you mentioned aren’t “pure” Cuban music, but are commercialized fusions of Cuban music with various genres of western music such as pop and reggaeton, so the structure matches western music and not Cuban music.
Also, many rhythmic, melodic and harmonic elements in such songs come from western, rather than Cuban, musical genres, and this is why you observed what you observed.
It doesn’t have anything to do with Timba music, though.
The question is, what is “pure” Cuban music?
Although it is difficult to say for sure what it is, it’s easy to say what it is not – songs with reggaeton in them and songs with the structure of pop music are not in that category.
Cuban music has the structure and rhythms of other genres of Cuban music existing at the time when the specific composition is created.
For example, Arsenio’s Guaguanco-Son is a genre (or more precisely, a sub genre) of Cuban music as it is based on the structure and rhythms of Son and Guaguanco, that are both genres of Cuban music that existed in the 1930’s and 1940’s, when “Guaguanco-Son” came in to existence.
Same goes for the genre known as Danzonete, that came to be in 1929 – it has elements of Danzon and Son, both genres of Cuban music that existed in that time.
The songs mentioned in Kourgha’s comment are good examples of compositions that do not belong to any genre of Cuban music, as they lack either the structure, rhythms or both of any existing genres of Cuban music, with some or all of those being replaced by elements of non Cuban musical genres.
A more general example of something which is not Cuban music while still containing some elements stemming from certain genres of Cuban music is “Cubaton”.
This is a sub genre of the musical genre “reggaeton”, and is mostly made by Cuban musician in Cuba.
It contains certain (mainly rhythmic) elements coming from some genres of Cuban music, but always has the structure, rhythmic elements or both from the “reggaeton” genre.
Thus, it is a sub genre of “reggaeton” and not a genre \ sub genre of Cuban music.
Songo & Timba, by the way, while may appear “messy” and “chaotic” are genres of Cuban music, as in their core they are always based on the structure and rhythms of some genre of Cuban music already present in Cuba at the times of their conception (roughly the late 1960’s \ early 1970’s for Songo and mid-to-late 1980’s \ early 1990’s for Timba).
In the great majority of cases, they are based on Son Montuno (or at times also Montuno-Cha), Guaguanco or Guaguanco-Son, although I have heard compositions based on Mambo (or mixture of Mambo and Son), Changui and Conga de Comparsa.
Early Charanga Habanera compositions offer some great examples for Timba.
That Son is the principle, if you like, linguistic, root of Salsa and Timba is beyond dispute to anyone who studies music history without a petty nationalist axe to grind, and I’ve seen that on both sides of the fence. But that is not to say that they are all Son, any more than my children are me, or me my parents. They are very, very different, in many respects opposed and it is not only their form that differentiates them but also their social content. To say Salsa and Timba are Son is the flip of the other one-sided argument that they are unrelated. The truth is that they at once share a common identity and are profoundly different. Accumulated quantitative difference at a certain point becomes qualitative and be it Salsa or Timba, the resulting offspring demands its own name.
With regard to form, I like your choice of El Protagonista, probably my all time Bamboleo track. The first thing I noticed is that the tumbao is a Blues guitar riff, transposed to piano. To me that underlines the breadth of outside influences Timba has drawn into itself, digested, and recreated at a higher level. This alone differentiates Timba from Salsa but I believe the differences are deeper, if less immediately tangible.
What is often ignored in discussion of this kind it the content of music, this more difficult to define as it is subjectively experienced. But it is here that the truth lies. For example, if you compare an average Cuban Casino dancer with an average foreigner doing the same figures, you will see that identity of fundamental structure does not exhaust the possibilities of a dance. They generally look quite different. You might say, with some reason, that if the foreigner learned the African derived body vocabulary and connected with the ground in an African derived way, they would look more Cuban. More so, yes, but not entirely, and many Cubans, too, do the same dances yet look quite distinct. Cuban dance, like music, is more than structure, it is a structure through which living, sentient humans express themselves, and the truth is that experiencing very different lives, both individually and socially, various people have very different things to express. Therein lies the fundamental difference between Son, Salsa and Timba. Cuban musicians have transformed Son because life has changed and they need the vocabulary to reflect that. They needed a new music because the old did not suffice.
Likewise the Latinos of Puerto Rico and New York. However sincere the musicians admiration for, and wish to emulate the Son and Mambo they grew up with, their social being is a million miles from the third world of a Habana or San Juan slum, ever more so as the musical elite is drawn into an affluent upper middle class milieu. Salsa was born angry, not merely a commercial packaging of Cuban music but the cultural expression of a dreamed Pan-Latino identity, this the belated Latino adjunct to the African- American Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Salsa spoke to the poor, most of all to the African descended population of Latin America who more easily understood its musical lexicon, though never at a high level, Cuban dance. It matured and simultaneously decayed in the mid ’80’s to ’90’s and is now for the most part either mass produced slop or technically highly proficient but pretty much soulless music for a new audience.
There is a quantitative difference accumulating in Timba today compared to that of the 1990’s, I believe, because the musicians that play it make significant amounts of money compared to their neighbours, and necessarily become estranged from their impoverished audience which is also their inspiration. They, like Salsa musicians, have for the most part become and come to speak for a different constituency. Technically they might improve but with occasional exceptions, their music has softened, lost complexity, creativity and soul. Timba, like Salsa, is a shadow of its former self. In that sense, it is indeed tending to blend in with Salsa.
There is absolutely no “pure” Cuban music or pure anything for that matter. Purity is a fiction clung to by the insecure who are threatened by the reality of permanent flux. It is an attempt to arrest natural development and hold back time. At an extreme end, consider the irony of Leon Trotsky’s comment on Nazi ideology, “In order to create the religion of pure German blood, Hitler was obliged to borrow at second hand the ideas of racism from a Frenchman, Count Gobineau , a diplomat and a literary dilettante. Hitler found the political methodology ready-made in Italy, where Mussolini had borrowed largely from the Marxist theory of the class struggle. Marxism itself is the fruit of union among German philosophy, French history, and British economics. To investigate retrospectively the genealogy of ideas, even those most reactionary and muddleheaded, is to leave not a trace of racism standing.” 1.
Likewise, Cuba and its culture. Just look at the disparate cultures and ethnicities that formed the Cuban nation before even looking at what the resulting culture has gone on to absorb from outside and continues to absorb and assimilate.
I am a cuban musician, I just wanna put it this way. Salsa is Son con vitamins and Timba is Salsa on steroids. Nothing mystical, a bit or syncopation here and there, but it is all the same my friends. Try to dance Duranguense to a Merengue…that is a difference. Hope you get my point.