A question: when was the last time you went to a salsa dancing event and you heard a song by, say, Los Van Van or Maykel Blanco, Manolito y su Trabuco or Charanga Habanera? (I’m not talking about the so-called “Cuban salsa” events, mind you. I’m referring to American salsa socials.)
So, when was the last time that happened?
Maybe in Europe it is different, but if you live in the United States like I do, the chances of that happening are very low—almost nonexistent, actually, through there are always some exceptions, of course.
In short, what people have come to refer to as “timba” has little-to-no place at salsa socials. The reasons vary: “timba” doesn’t have the same feel as the music to which the salsa dancers are accustomed to dancing; it’s too fast; it’s Cuban—whatever that is supposed to mean.
Naturally, this leaves plenty of room for criticism. I have lost count of the many times which I have heard people who like and enjoy dancing to modern Cuban music complain that said music does not get played at salsa dancing events—I’m including myself here. And it is not without reason to complain about this. I mean, Cuba is part of Latin America; so it is baffling that its music is getting left out of dancing events that are marketed as “Latin”, especially when kizomba, and Angolan dance, has inexplicably found a niche in this dance scene.
That said, this post is not about why salsa dancing events should be playing Pupy y los que son son or Adalberto Álvarez y su son. The salsa-timba division is there. It has been there for a long time. In fact, many would argue that this exclusion is the main reason Cuba gets its own exclusive dance congresses here in the States—because Cuba gets left out, despite the plethora of music and dances it produces, from dance events marketed as “Latin.”
But again, I am not writing this post to criticize how music from Cuba gets treated at salsa dancing events. I simply bring it up as a way to reflect on the criticism that is voiced by the Cuban dance community when this does happen; and to say that, before doing any criticizing, the Cuban dance community should take a very good, very close look at itself first.
Maybe, just maybe, we’ll realize we’re participants of that which we criticize. That is, we are also excluding a lot of Cuban music from being played—and at Cuban dance events, to boot.
What do I mean by this? Well, here is the thing: we are so entrenched on getting salsa DJs and dancers to play and dance to “timba” that the Cuban dance community has seemingly collectively forgotten that there was music produced in Cuba before the 1990s—the decade accredited to the emergence of the “timba.” You see, when people complain about Cuban music—or “Cuban salsa”, as some like to call it, too—not being played at salsa dancing events, most of them are thinking of “timba.”
Why? Because that is the music to which they have grown accustomed to dancing. That is the music which they were taught when they were learning to dance casino. That is the music that they hear when they go to a Cuban dance event. Naturally, that is the music that they would want to hear at a salsa dancing event.
So, you see, we are not different than the salsa dancing community, in that regard. Like them, the Cuban dance community has grown accustomed to dancing and grooving to one specific sound, the “timba sound.” (I have commented quite extensively on the effects of this happening at the major Cuban dance events here in the U.S. here.) We have become so entrenched in this way of perceiving Cuban music that if a song like the one below were to play at a Cuban dance social, I personally know many hardcore casineros/as who would raise hell because it sounds too much like salsa and too little like timba.
Oh, but what an irony that would be. Indeed, the above song is a Cuban song. But our musical tastes have been so shaped by the salsa-timba binary that many of us would not recognize Cuban music unless it had that specific “timba” sound—or it somehow resembled the more traditional son sound which gained popularity with the international release of Buena Vista Social Club.
So, what right have we to ask the salsa dancing community to include “timba”—a sound that they are not accustomed to dancing—at their events when we in the Cuban dance community are not willing to listen and dance to music that falls outside of the sound to which we are accustomed to dancing—even if it’s Cuban?
No right at all, if you ask me. In fact, if you asked me, I’d say some of us are being hypocritical in this regard—granted, some of us might not know so because of not being exposed to anything other than “timba”; in that case, this is an opportunity to rectify that and expand your knowledge about Cuban music, to know that, besides Charanga Habanera, Klimax, Maykel Blanco, Los Van Van, Pupy, Bamboleo, Adalberto, La Revé, etc., there is also:
- Arsenio Rodríguez
- Ignacio Piñeiro
- Félix Chappottín
- Cheo Marquetti
- Sonora Matancera
- Conjunto Casino
- Conjunto Universal
- Estrellas de Chocolate
- Miguelito Cuní
- Senén Suárez
- Pacho Alonso
- Roberto Faz
And this is just to get you started.
If there is one thing I have tried to do with this blog is to get people away from thinking monolithically about the Cuban music to which they dance; that is, I have tried to get them thinking outside of “timba.” And to that effect, I have dedicated several posts, most recently this one. To me, this is paramount, because I believe a lot of the misconceptions about Cuba and its music that abound out there happen because we are not very well-informed about Cuba and its music prior to the 1990s.
Now, if you just like “timba,” that’s fine. There is nothing wrong with that. But please do refrain from having the audacity to ask salsa DJs to play timba for you if you’re not willing to dance or listen to anything other than what you like.
Someone people also may say that music evolves, and so does our taste in music. We don’t listen to the music of the 50s anymore, for example. Therefore, these people argue, the salsa scene should really play catch-up with “timba”, given that is the next step in that evolution. While I logically agree with the premise that music evolves and our tastes change, the reality is that the salsa dancing scene, musically speaking, has not. (The best example of this for me is the salsa DJs who brag about their old-vinyl collection.) For better or for worse, the salsa scene seems to be stuck in the 70s sound (I’m not talking about Latin America, but the U.S. and Europe). That’s what they like, and that’s perfectly fine. All I’m saying is that Cuban music, the one that neither side wants to listen to anymore—the timberos because it’s too old and the salseros because it’s Cuban—can fit in there, too.
There is a lot of good Cuban music that is being forgotten because of this timba-salsa binary way of thinking about the music to which we dance. We all need to think beyond that, especially when it comes to Cuban music. And that, dear readers, has to start in the Cuban dance scene, not with the salsa DJs
The problem I see with this is that son means so many different things to different people, if you ask for son, you never know what you’ll get. Some will think Arsenio Rodriguez era, some will think Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, some won’t have any associations besides Chan Chan by Buena Vista. It’s kind of like a Pandora’s box, especially when a DJ is usually used to spinning Pantera Mambo and other NY tunes.
Furthermore, in Zurich, DJs don’t even play Adalberto, Klimax, and Bamboleo let alone the musicians you listed. Forget son, even timba isn’t used to its full diversity. I’ve pondered this a lot. In your 2014 post you said we need to create demand, but I don’t see the critical mass. In Zurich, people continue going to an event where the DJ literally has a library of 50-60 songs that he plays week after week. Even though I’ve talked to a number of dancers who agree that they don’t like the DJ, there’s a collective action problem here since the only way to stop this would be to boycott. Most people wouldn’t do it, but even if there were success would be unlikely to mean better music, but more likely the end of the event altogether. What would you recommend in this situation?
I’d recommend what I always do: take the bull by the horns. If a DJ is disliked by the many, someone needs to become a DJ—and by what I’m seeing in the U.S., this is quite the easy thing to do nowadays; anybody can whip out a playlist and “DJ”. At any rate, I don’t know if the event itself is contingent on this DJ playing, but if it isn’t, talk to the people who put the event together and tell them you don’t like the DJ and that you have a better one. The other solution, in the event that they’ll only accept that DJ to play music at this event, is to create one of your own. Any real change would require one of those two options, the way I see it. Because what I know to be true is that change demands action, and often sacrifice. If there aren’t people willing to sacrifice something, then change won’t happen, and all everybody will do is just keep talking about how much change is needed. Cuba is a perfect example of this.
The potential danger I see in “standing up” for something is that you’ll end up getting divided into factions since it’s not exactly a friendly action to go against someone. DJing, at least in Zurich, is very clicky and run a bit like a cartel. In that sort of environment, you’re going to make a lot of enemies within the dance community if you piss the wrong people off.
Short of your suggestion, the best I’ve been able to do is to keep a pulse with who the organizers are and whisper into their ear about which set I enjoyed. Not sure if my prodding has helped certain DJs out, but at least it’s not been destructive. Since I don’t want to make enemies, so I think it’s as far as I’m willing to go.
That’s fine. Just know that every time you want change, someone has to stand up. No change comes from the people who like the way things are.
I agree that something needs to be done, but I’m not sure if the best choice is a revolution or a reformation. The right answer might also vary from scene to scene.
Thanks for doing your part man.