Why I Use Music by Non-Cuban Musicians During my Casino Lessons (and Why You Should, Too)

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When you attend a (rueda de) casino class here in the United States—and I am sure in Europe, too—more often than not, the music to which you will dance will be music played by Cuban bands. For those who are new to the Cuban dance scene but can discern the “salsa sound”, the music played during these lessons will sound very different to what they are used to; it will have a different feel; it will require something else from them, when they dance.

And the instructors will call this music “timba.” And when you go to a Cuban dance social or congress, timba is the music you will listen and dance to, as well.

There is a reason why this happens, and I have talked about it in this blog already extensively. So I will summarize: when you go to a Latin dance event, music from Cuba, most of the time, is absent from DJs’ playlist. And in the event that DJs do play a Cuban original, it will often be a cover done by non-Cuban musicians. This is specially astonishing and ironic, considering that Cuba is part of Latin America and that Cuban music has, whether people want it or not, shaped what we know today as “salsa.” (Seriously. It has. You won’t find a book or article or Wiki page out there that traces the history of salsa without talking first about Cuban music.)

The response to this blatant ostracism of music from Cuba during these Latin dance events has been, then, the creation of specifically Cuban-themed dance events, where it is all about Cuba, its music, and its dances, in an effort to promote Cuba’s rich musical heritage and give it the place it really deserves and of which is denied in the overall Latin dance community. If you are into Cuban dancing and have gone to events like these, this should not be news to you.

So pretty much this has turned into an eye-for-an-eye kind of situation. Which is why, upon reading the title of this piece, you might have had a reaction akin to: “What is this guy doing? Didn’t he get the memo?”

I did. I did get the memo. I’ve followed the memo, and after years of following it, I’ve realized it doesn’t really fix anything—because, inherently, it’s not meant to really fix anything. So I’ve discarded the memo, and made one of my own.

Before I continue (and perhaps before you brand me as a “traitor to the cause”), I do want to make my position clear: I want Cuban music/musicians to get the recognition it/they deserve(s). I want to promote Cuba’s rich musical heritage. I want DJs’ playlist to include music by Cuban musicians, and I want those songs played at Latin dance events.

I simply use different means to accomplish that.

And those means include playing music by non-Cuban musicians whenever I teach my workshops.

Let me explain.

First, listen to this song. The whole song. As you listen to it, I want you to be honest with yourself: Do you think of Cuban music when you listen to this song?

Now that you’re done listening, going back to the question: “Do you think of Cuban music when you listen to this song?” what was your answer?

I’m going to assume that, for most of you, the answer was, “No.” And I’m going to assume this because chances are, you have never heard any song resembling the overall feel of this one at a Cuban dance event or during any of your lessons. And how could you, if everything that is played at these events and lessons is mostly post-1990s music from Cuba, or what we call “timba”?

In fact, I’m going to go ahead and assume that when you listened to this song, you thought of the music that gets played at Latin dance events (e.g. salsa socials/congresses). Indeed, it does have that feel, doesn’t it?

But here is the thing: that song is from Cuban musicians!

So, the question is: how are we, who supposedly like Cuban music, so badly-informed about said music that we are unable to recognize it?

The answer is—and this is, of course, how I personally see it—twofold. One the one hand, you have the Latin dance scene, playing a certain type of music which people call salsa or mambo, and where they actually play a lot of covers of Cuban songs—but not the Cuban originals themselves. Because Cuba is ostracized from these events, this has made people not associate the music played there with Cuba. In fact, many a people, when requesting Cuban music at these event, will in most cases request “timba.”

And that’s the other part of the answer: within the Cuban dance community, we have learned to associate Cuban music with only timba—and, to a lesser extent, traditional son which is mostly played by septets (if you don’t know what traditional son is, listen to anything by Septeto Nacional).

Therefore, due to the way that Cuban music is promoted at Cuban dance events and lessons, anything that falls outside of timba or traditional son is not Cuban music.

And that song to which I had you listen certainly fell outside of that binary.

Rescuing songs like the one above, giving people the tools to understand that that song is also Cuban music, that’s where my work is focused—besides promoting current Cuban music, that is.

That is, pretty much, my memo; my modus operandi.

And that’s why I play music by non-Cuban musicians at my lessons/workshops.

Now, the logic there might seem a little off. Why play non-Cuban musicians if I actually want to expose them to Cuban ones?

Well, I didn’t say that I only played non-Cuban musicians, did I?

I actually play both. And anyone who’s taken classes/workshops with me knows this. And every time I do, it’s a success. People dance casino to both. And they do it just fine.

And the reason that I am successful in playing both—and actually have people dancing to both with no issue—is because I make sure that I explain the music to which they are listening, which, sadly, I have come to realize, not a lot of instructors do.

But once you do explain, I have found, people start seeing more similarities than differences in the music.

I have dedicated several posts to explaining in general terms how a son song works, and also how to adapt your steps to this very basic structure. If you haven’t read these two pieces, I suggest you do here and here. They are key in understanding what I am trying to do here.

But I’ll give you the quick run-down. Essentially, in the music that you listen to, be it Cuban or not, you have a slower introduction followed by a more up-beat section, called the montuno.

Most songs, whether they are by Cubans or non-Cubans, follow this structure.

And this structure didn’t come out of nowhere. It is an intrinsic part of Cuban music. You’ll find it in rumba, in danzón, and most important for the purposes of this, in son music. This bipartite structure of son became standardized by Arsenio Rodríguez’s conjunto (conjunto is the name of an ensemble) in the 1940s. Son, thanks to Arsenio, became son montuno, because it was son, and it now had a montuno. This montuno came in the form of the already-mentioned faster pace, and also in the call-and-response between the singer and chorus, which came from the rumba tradition.

Let me exemplify this. The following is just son (no montuno). “Maldita timidez” (1925) by Sexteto Habanero:

And this is son (with a montuno). “Dundundanza” (1949) by Arsenio Rodríguez:

Arsenio Rodríguez changed the game in every way. Indeed, after Arsenio, adding a montuno to the son, in the way that Arsenio was doing it, became commonplace in Cuba. And because a lot of Cuban musicians traveled to New York, including Arsenio, it quickly took there as well. Soon everything son-related was pretty much son montuno—or son guaguancó (most people just said “guaguancó”) which only difference from son montuno is that it resembled a bit more the structure of a rumba guaguancó, and guaguancó has a montuno, too, so either way, it could be called son montuno. (I promise I will clarify this a bit more on a later post. I’m currently researching this.)

Now, remember that I said above that in the salsa scene a lot of Cuban songs are played in the way of covers by non-Cuban musicians? Well, Arsenio’s songs are no exception. Here’s a cover by Orquesta Harlow of the song above. It’s minor differences, and better sound quality, for sure, due to the time gap between date of production of original and cover, it’s pretty much the same song:

And this happens, again and again, with literally hundreds of Cuban songs. You can find the (very much unfinished) list here.

In fact, here is the cover of the very first song I had you listen to in this piece:

Now, of course, you’ll say, “They sound different.” And of course, they are going to sound different. There are different musicians playing, adding their own idiosyncrasies to the sound. But structurally speaking, they follow the same structure. They have an introduction, and they have a montuno. (Also, the reason the original is shorter is because in 1957, at that time, due to recording limitations, songs had to be that short. Years later, doing a cover, it’s the easiest thing to extend the montuno. And that’s what Orquesta La Terrífica did.)

So, musically speaking, both songs are following the structure of the son montuno.

And that structure, my readers, came from Cuba.

So when I explain this to my students during my lessons/workshops, none of them can really say that they don’t want to dance to La Terrífica’s or Harlow’s covers because it’s not Cuban music. We have just seen that it follows the son montuno structure that was born in Cuba. So it is Cuban music, at its core, just played by non-Cuban musicians, with their own idiosyncrasies and whatnot.

And that digging back in time and supplying this information to students is what is missing in most Cuban dance events/classes.

Now, do not take this as an excuse to play anything during class, just because I said it works. No. If you do not explain why you are doing so, you’re not really informing anybody. The point would be lost. To paraphrase a campaign ad, “Play responsibly.”

What I want to do is give people the tools to learn to dance to music like that in a way that it feels natural and not contrived—because let’s face it, you do have to dance it a little bit differently since it’s not played like post 1990s Cuban music and therefore requires something different from the dancer (here I cannot stress enough how much you need to learn some son dancing)—without getting upset because they are not playing “Cuban music.” So playing non-Cuban musicians along with Cuban musicians during lessons/workshops is a way of getting students used to this idea that they are really dancing to the same thing. And little by little, the idea will solidify more and more. Once this happens, once that gap is bridged, it becomes the easiest thing to dance to Cuban music, played by non-Cuban musicians, like I do in this video:

Furthermore, by teaching people to also associate Cuban music with the music they associate with salsa socials/congresses and the overall Latin dance scene, you will be actually creating dancers informed enough to go out and ask why music by Cuban musicians are not being played at these socials/congresses, when covers of their songs (which are many), performed by non-Cuban musicians, are. And if someone—being the DJ or other people—tries to make the argument that Cuban music is different (remember, in the salsa scene, to say “Cuban music” is to say “timba”), now your students will have the tools to make an argument to the contrary! I mean, I really don’t see a reason why a song like this one would be refused to be played at a salsa social/congress. Can you?

And how can they? Johnny Pacheco’s cover, which I am sure does get played, sounds pretty much the same.

Like I said previously, I want to promote Cuba’s rich musical heritage. I want salsa DJs’ playlist to include music by Cuban musicians, and I want those songs played at Latin dance events.

And isn’t this way a more effective way to actually do that? Rather than trying to get DJs to play Cuban music in the form of timba–which, let’s be honest, is quite a different sound and could end up creating more aversion than acceptance on the part of DJs and dancers alike—DJs would be playing music by Cuban musicians that is more in synch with the preferences already established in that dance scene. And salsa dancers would be dancing it.

The other way goes like this: you go out to a salsa social/congress; you ask unsuccessfully for Cuban music to be played (it doesn’t happen because people think it’s “timba”). And then you end up not even enjoying dancing to the music because you’re so upset that they are not playing Cuban music (when in fact they are).

What I have realized is that, before trying to change things in the Latin dance scene, we should, first and foremost, take a closer look at what is happening within our own community, namely, why the same Cuban music that I am suggesting can be played at salsa dancing events does not get played at Cuban dance events.. (I already argued for this more in depth here.)

If you want things to change, if you want to listen to more Cuban musicians in more places you go to dance, our community needs to be more informed about the music to which they dance. We need to start listening to the music that was produced before the 1990s. We need to start learning how to dance to music like that.

And we need to get out of this eye-for-an-eye situation with the salsa scene.

By creating informed dancers in the Cuban dance community, there is really no way that Cuba can be denied in the way that is has been done for decades at Latin dance events.

Really.

There isn’t.

But we need to change the way we have been approaching this issue.

A heavier focus on musicality and history is my own personal approach, and this blog is a testament to that. You don’t have to follow it exactly as I do it—though it would be great if you did.

But something’s got to be done if you want the work of Cuban musicians to be more acknowledged, if you want Cuba to truly be part of the bigger picture, as it should rightfully be.

Thanks for reading.

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