Timba Anyone?

A look at the newest addition to the Latino art form called Afro-Cuban music

By Elisangela M. Medina
Published on LatinoLA: February 26, 2004

Timba Anyone?

?Timba is just another word for rumba,? according to local DJ Saoco, aka Vicente Lantigua (pictured), a native of Matanzas, Cuba, who you?ll find spinning lots of wonderful music straight out of el Caribe for a loyal following at places like Zabumba in West L.A., King King in Hollywood, The Granada restaurant in Alhambra, and The San Genarro restaurant, next door to the Sagebrush Cantina in Culver City.

But what is timba and what is rumba anyway? Articles have been popping up in mainstream publications that have done a nice job at providing a basic overview on the Los Angeles salsa scene. That?s all good - but it?s time that LatinoLA takes a closer look at the newest addition to the lovely Latino art form called Afro-Cuban music.

Timba is the most contemporary form of salsa music. Nobody seems to know exactly why it was given a name so close to rumba. Rumba is a folk dance straight out of Africa that goes back hundreds of years, and was brought to el Caribe by African slaves. It has been for countless dacades the national dance of Cuba.

And while some New York salseros who dance on 2 and L.A. saleros who dance on 1 call themselves ?rumberos,? that?s just not accurate.

Dances from Africa and el Caribe have had their influence on today?s salsa dancing, but folkoric rumba looks almost nothing like ballroom-style salsa in the United States. It may even have a closer resemblance to the Afro-Brasilian samba danced during carnival in Brasil. Maybe the name so close to rumba ? timba, came from Afro-Cuban musicians paying homage to their roots, which grow from beneath sea shell-covered trees on the island, and seem to push beyond the Carribbean ocean, as far as the African lands.

No matter how timba got it?s name, it?s a beautiful hybrid flower with breathtaking colors that thanks to a handful of brilliant Afro-Cuban musicians on the island, grew almost out of concrete during tough economic times in the early 1990s. Timba is a fusion of the salsa ala Celia Cruz and Tito Puente, latin jazz, swing, traditional son Cubano, and is sprinkled with rap in the vocals. It is heavier on Afro-Cuban percussion than more traditional or ?old school salsa? is, and tends to incorporate more folkloric drumming than you?d get in other salsa. As Robertito Melendez, the highly qualified, local Afro-Cuban/Latin jazz percussionist and music teacher explains, ?Timba is very busy music and a lot is going on in its percussion section.?

Lyrics in timba vary. They are not like those of more traditional salsa that are usually about nothing too important - just fun, silly, sometimes rhyming words about partying and women-chasing. Timba?s lyrics can be quite poetic. They can be about culture, about very serious personal or social dilemmas, and are sometimes just about partying, too.

There are more rumors about who founded timba. Some say Juan Formell, the founder of the group Los Van Van ? one of the most popular Afro-Cuban bands in the world helped his band go through a musical evolution that resulted in timba. Others say Irakere, another world renouned Afro-Cuban band (which included piano master Chucho Valdez) created the timba sound. But rumors aside, today in many parts of el Caribe, Latin America, Asia, and Europe especially ? timba is king. It?s considered the salsa of today.

There are countless timba websites based in places like Paris, London, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, and Moscow, complete with reviews of the latest CDs, timba boutiques where you can buy CDs, interviews with the artists, and great photos of Afro-Cuban timberos like Paulito FG, Isaac Delgado, La Charanga Habanera, Haila, Azucar Negra, and Los Van Van live and on stage in cities all over Europe.

--Dancing el casino

The dancing that is done to the timba beat is called casino or casino-rueda. It?s a Cuban style salsa not too far off from traditional son dancing. It is far more tranquilo or suave than U.S. ballroom-style salsa, which several musicians who play for well-known L.A. salsa bands say...almost in chorus ? has gone too far off the deep end lately. ?Dancers at the clubs are doing too much stuff that looks like Tae Kwon Do and Olympic gymnastics,? is among the comments heard.

Cuban Casino is simply more Latin, a lot of side-to-side, also known as guaguanco movement, and there are more cumbia-style steps. There is far more movement of the hips, waste, shoulders and arms, and slower, sexier clockwise turns around the male partner. This more relaxed, sensuous style makes the rueda possible ? where several casino dancers simultaneously form a wheel and exchange partners via smooth clockwise turns.

Wherever timba artists tour and are popular, casino is being danced. In Europe they are dancing lots of casino. DJ Saoco explains that in the United States, ?...casino is being danced in Miami and San Francisco ? wherever there are larger communities of Cuban expatriates.? While Saoco has a dedicated core of Cuban expatriates who are regulars at whatever club he?s spinning at, Saoco?s crowd is from all over America Latimba. You?ll find Caribbeans from the islands of Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic and even Haiti dancing casino to the timba beat, and you?ll run into people from Mexico, Central and South America. You?ll also find a growing number of North Americans from all walks of life who caught the timba bug while spending time in el Caribe.

-- Is L.A. catching La Timba?

A question that brings forth interesting issues and answers is whether or not timba has caught on with the larger salsa dancing public in Los Angeles.

It?s been a slow process, but it?s catching. According to some of the recent articles in a couple of publications, yes, salsa is becoming more multicultural and more middle-class ? that?s all good. At places ranging from Sportsmen?s Lodge to The Conga Room, it?s obvious that more than half the people on the dance floor are English speakers who may not understand a word of the Spanish lyrics sung by the singer - that?s fine too.

But is their interest limited to just the social aspect of salsa, and the fact that it?s a more pleasant work out than aerobics at Ballys'? Does this newer, multicultural salsa crowd you find at clubs listen to Latin music in their cars or at home while in the shower?

Even if some do, for a number of bizarre reasons related to of all things ? U.S. politics ? music stores, radio stations, and club DJs don?t always have access to the new Cuban timba sounds. Maybe those newer to Latin music don?t yet realize they are dancing to ?old school salsa,? ? to CDs that might have gone gold, but are ten and twenty years old.

-- Relax and gozar

One more obstacle is that the newer salsa dancing crowd - people who have discovered salsa over the last five or six years - have admirably spent lots of time and money learning L.A.-style salsa. They tend to get flustered when they see casino dancers, and may not have more time and money to spend on learning casino-rueda. But they need to relax ? it?s all good. That advice comes from a great timba artist and a local salsa dance teacher. According to U.K. resident Osvaldo Chacon, former singer for the renowned Cuban timba band Bamboleo, timba lends itself to a style of dancing that is ?more relaxed, you can forget all those spins and do more free-style moves.?

Professional dancer and local salsa dance teacher Elizabeth Lambaer is a big fan of DJ Saoco and the timba sound. The fit, wavy-haired Lambaer thinks L.A.-style goes just fine with timba, and reminds L.A. saleros: ?Music creates unity by bringing together different people, cultures and styles. In salsa, as in life, we...share and embrace our own unique styles and learn from each other.? She thinks timba is a great new addition. ?What a magnificent sight it is to see Cuban dancers ....side-by-side with L.A., New York, and Puerto Rican-style dancers all under the same roof at Sagebrush Cantina every Sunday. It?s all salsa music and we?re all salsa lovers.?

Since L.A.-style is also a fusion of lots of stuff, including ballroom swing, hip-hop, and some cha-cha-cha, when L.A. dancers hear a timba tune, it should be easy to incorporate the side-to-side basic steps most of them know, and just improvise a few casino moves they?ve seen where DJ Saoco spins.

-- Government and politics pulling the plug on our Latin music

Another issue is that for two years in a row now, the Bush Jr. administration has denied visas to various Afro-Cuban artists, including Grammy nominees. This is not the most culturally or artistically hip regime that has occupied the White House, therefore they are strangely lumping together the politics of national security with Latin music and dance, and getting things all confused in their issuing and denial of visas. Artists and Latin music fans have suffered from such incompetance in high places.

-- ?La timba es un carnaval!

Despite a few challenges, support for timba is there. It?s extremely popular on every continent of the globe; just check by www.salsapower.com , www.timba.com or www.afrocubaweb.com for details. DJ Saoco not only has the support of his fierce following, but of people some would think are unlikely allies. Thanks to the vibrant Carioca and owner of Zabumba, Monica Burgos and her former business partner Rui Motta, Cuban timba has thrived for five years on Venice Boulevard. You can hear the sounds of timba every Thursday night at the Brasilian restaurant and club where Portuguese-speaking Brasilians congregate to celebrate carnaval year-round, and discuss the latest victories of their beloved soccer titans - the national team of Brasil.

DJ Saoco and timba also have support from local Afro-Cuban musicians, such as La Habana native and accomplished drummer Nengue Hernandez who plays salsa, Latin jazz, and folkloric percussion. He played a rumba set at a west side art gallery where Saoco has spun timba. Pianist, composer, and band leader La Palabra, who can play everything, has sometimes been seen kicking it in the house at clubs where Saoco spins timba and la gente dance casino. And perhaps the most encouraging development for Afro-Cuban music fans is that the promoter who works tirelessly to bring Los Angeles Afro-Caribbean salsa - Albert Torres - has inlcuded DJ Saoco, timba and casino into his line-up at places like San Genarro, an Italian restaurant next door to Sagebrush Cantina on Sundays, and at Granada restaurant and night club in Alhambra.

-- Loving what?s ours

When it comes to Afro-Caribbean music, it?s all good ? the folkloric, the son, the old school salsa, Latin jazz, and the new timba rocks the house! But this newest addition to the Afro-Caribbean music dynasty definitely needs from U.S. audiences the same type of support essential to any type of music. As poetic timbero Paulo FG puts it, ?Timba is like a kid who everyone thinks is cute, but nobody wants to help raise.? L.A.-style salseros need to open their mind to the new ritmo, or be left out of step as it?s becoming more popular everywhere.

Timba enthusiasts can purchase their favorite CDs online, and request more timba on their favorite Latin radio programs. They should also support the clubs and promoters who are bringing them timba ? attend, gozar, and give thanks by buying something to eat or some refreshments, so clubs can pay their bills, keep their sound systems playing timba, and their doors open to Afro-Cuban music lovers.

Like DJ Saoco says, ?This is our music. Our parents had Benny More, La Lupe, Celia, and Tito. we?ve got Isaac Delgado, La Charanga Habanera, Haila, and Los Van Van.?

***PHOTO: DJ Saoco at Zabumba in October 2003.***

About Elisangela M. Medina:
Elisangela M. Medina is an LA-based freelance journalist with a background in Latin American History, and a language and theater teacher. She is a contibuting writer for websites such as Mundo Afro Latino and Salsa Power.

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