Cuban Music: To Be or Not to Be Played for Salsa Dancers?

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If you were to read a book or online article which narrated the history of salsa music, in every single one I guarantee you that you will find Cuba mentioned, in some way or another. Some stories will say that what was done in New York was nothing but a rehash of Cuban music from previous decades. Others will say that, although the roots of the music can be traced back to Cuba, salsa became its own phenomenon by combining elements from different musical traditions which were not all exclusive to Cuba.

Whichever the case, Cuba always gets mentioned.

So it has always baffled me to no end why songs performed by Cuban musicians are absent from most salsa DJs’ playlists, or why they don’t get played at salsa socials or congresses (this is not true for all events, but certainly for the majority). After all, mambo as a musical genre was created by the Cuban Dámaso Pérez Prado. Chachachá—or “Cha Cha”, as is known in the States—was a 1950s musical genre created by Cuban musician and composer Enrique Jorrín. And “guaguancó,” that word that I’ve seen take hold in the salsa/mambo community, goes back to the Afro-Cuban musical tradition of the secular rumba, of which guaguancó is a sub-genre, along with columbia and yambú.

Cuba’s presence in the music that you listen to is there, and the salsa scene borrows left and right from Cuba’s musical vocabulary. So the baffling question remains: why is music by Cuban musicians not being played at salsa congresses, when music from Colombia and Puerto Rico—the two other countries that salsa histories mention—is? Why this aversion towards Cuba and its music in the United States (and I specifically say the U.S. because Cuban music is heard all across Latin America)?

Honestly, I do not know. As I have stated, I am baffled by this. After all, isn’t Cuba part of the “Latin” community, too? All I can do is attempt to provide some possible explanations as to why this happens, based on my very own experience.

Nationalisms: Some DJs use their craft to express their identity and roots to their country of origin, or to the country to which they feel connected, if they were born in the U.S. So some DJs are very reluctant to play music that is not from their countries. A friend of mine once requested Cuban music to a Puerto Rican DJ, and his response was a decisive shake of his head, followed by, “I don’t play that Cuban stuff.” (Mind you, this particular DJ was playing at Bongo’s Cuban Café. Here is to irony.)

Embargo: What to do, then, with DJs from, say, Nicaragua or El Salvador who have no national stake or agenda when it comes to the music they play because the salsa narrative does not really pinpoint the emergence of salsa to their countries? That’s where the embargo comes in, or seems to come in. The more-than-half-a-century long U.S. embargo on Cuba has made it hard for Cuban music to get out of Cuba and into the U.S., even if Cuban musicians tour Latin America. This was particularly true up until the early 90s. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. relations with Cuba have progressively taken a turn for the better. Cuban musicians/bands like Los Van Van and Eliades Ochoa, who reside in the island of Cuba, have won Latin Grammys, hosted in the U.S., since its debut in 2000.

So with this influx of Cuban music coming into the U.S., and it being accepted and awarded within the United States, why are Cuban musicians still absent from DJs’ playlists at salsa socials/congresses? This leads me to the next possible reason:

All Cuban music is timba: This has to do with the embargo, too. When Cuban music abruptly stopped being imported into the United States, for decades after, Cuban music, to many Americans, was the stuff that was played in the U.S. prior to the Cuban Revolution of 1959. That’s why when Buena Vista Social Club came out it was such a success: because it tapped into that nostalgic—and honestly, quite outdated—conception of Cuban music. It fomented a way of experiencing Cuba as a land stopped in time, with half-a-century old Chevys and people dancing everywhere, or smoking prohibited cigars, to the sounds of blissful tropical music. Indeed, it is no coincidence that this documentary was produced by an American.

But from 1959 to the 90s, Cuba musicians never stopped producing music and evolving. So when relations became less strained between the U.S. and Cuba in the 90s, and music from the island began arriving once again to the U.S., it was so radically different that many people saw it as an abrupt departure from the stuff they thought—or remembered—Cuban music was. It was everything that Buena Vista Social Club was not. A new name emerged to explain these forty years of musical production in Cuba which had gone unnoticed in the U.S. due to the embargo: timba.

This “timba” is, of course, different from the music people in the U.S. have grown accustomed to dancing. In fact, most salsa/mambo dancers who are not used to the sound will find it difficult to dance to these songs. They would argue—and correctly so–that it does not have the same “feel” than that of what they call “salsa dura” or “mambo.” Here is an example of the type of music I am talking about:

 

 

Because Cuban music has been branded as “timba”—that is, music that is arguably unreachable to salsa dancers—in many places, Cuban music does not get played at salsa socials/congresses.

With these things in mind, we might have an explanation as to why Cuban music is not included in DJs’ playlists at salsa socials and congresses, or why people do not want to dance to it.

Yet, given all that Cuba has done for the music to which we listen and dance (again, remember that no history of salsa is complete without Cuba), would it not be fair to at least attempt to find a space for it at salsa events that is consistent with the preferences of salsa dancers and DJs alike?

I hope that you join me in saying that, “Yes, it would be fair,” and also, “That actually makes a lot of sense.”

So, to that end, I propose the following: think beyond timba—or, in this particular case, think before timba.

What do I mean by this? Well, take a listen to these songs:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aren’t these song, arguably, something that most salsa dancers would have no problem whatsoever dancing to? As a person who regularly goes to salsa events, I cannot think of a reason why people would say they cannot dance to these songs. They are very much in par with the music to which salsa dancers are already accustomed to dancing.

And the music is Cuban. What is the difference between these songs and the “timba sound”? Simple: they are decades apart. This is Cuban music from the 50s and 60s (hence my suggestion: think before timba).

So why are songs like these not being played during salsa events?

Beats the heck out of me. The best thing I can come up with is: people simply don’t know that there is Cuban music beyond the label of timba.

But as you can see, there is. All you have to do is look for it—just like you look for music from other countries—and you’ll find it. Above, I have provided you with different songs, all of which can be downloaded either from iTunes or Amazon.com. But do not take it as an exhaustive list. Take it, instead, as a starting point.

No history of salsa is ever told without taking Cuba into account. Mambo, conga, timbal, clave, tumbao, montuno, guaguancó, chachachá, guaracha, pachanga, guajira—all these words borrowed from the Cuban musical tradition, whether you recognize all of them or not, have made into the lexicon of salsa dancers all around the globe.

Cuba is part of the history of salsa. Cuba is part of the vocabulary that we, as dancers, employ.

Let’s have Cuba be part of the music to which we listen and dance, too.

 

Note: Special thanks to Carlos Ramírez, Carlos Cardo, and Darwin Peña for helping me in compiling the list of songs used as examples.

7 Comments

  • Jennifer Garcia says:

    Yes! Thank you!!! As a lover of Cuban music and one who was introduced to salsa in Cuba, it frustrates the hell out of me when all I hear at socials are Colombian and Puerto Rican salsa. I simply do not connect with this music the way I connect with Cuban salsa. Unfortunately, I am a minority in this regards since the excuse many DJs give me when I ask them why they don’t play more Cuban salsa is that no one dances to Cuban music and they have trouble finding the beat or it’s too fast. So they simply don’t play it. I am lucky to hear one or two Cuban salsas when I go out dancing. I will share this article with all of my friends and DJs. Thanks again for writing this article!

    • Thank you for your comments, Jennifer! And please do share the piece. The one thing I will rectify about what you said is that I am not advocating for Cuban salsa to be played at salsa socials. I am advocating for Cuban music to be played. It is a very important difference because (a) the music that I am suggesting be played is a very specific type of Cuban music, one which precedes the emergence of what people call “salsa music”; that is, this music is what we would call son; and (b) talking about Cuban salsa would always end up in a conversation about modern Cuban music (timba), because the names are often used interchangeably; and, as you already know, that really doesn’t go anywhere in the salsa scene, as “timba” is not perceived as “accessible” by many dancers. Thanks again for reading!

  • Julia says:

    As Celia Cruz has said, “the word salsa is Cuban Music with a different name” 😉

    http://youtu.be/WXPKMZEDp_k

  • Michelle says:

    I will try not to write too much here. Certainly I agree that there is plenty of Music from Cuba that should suit the palate of salsa dancers. I also agree that the main reasons it doesn’t get played are probably some combination of nationalism, the embargo (and resulting simple lack of knowledge about Cuban music) and a fear of anything from Cuba. How many new salsa dancers hear very early on that Cuban music is too hard to dance to or too busy? This gives them a a negative mindset before they’ve even heard anything.

    I don’t think a salsa event where people are expecting salsa dura should play timba. A DJ should play to please the audience. But since a great many of the big salsa hits are remakes of songs by Beny Moré, Chappotín, Arsenio Rodriguez and others there is doubtless plenty of older Cuban music that fits the styles that people feel comfortable with. As you point out, not all music from Cuba is timba. What about modern son groups? Not everything has to sound dated, like it’s played by old men in hats. Adalberto Álvarez is a modern bandleader who has had of his songs remade done by salseros. Why aren’t his original versions catching the ears of DJs? They are obviously catching the ears of musicians. As we see with Gilberto Santa Rosa’s cover of Los Van Van and his recent collaboration with Revé on their upcoming CD – the remake of Muévete pa’quí is fantastic! And do I need to mention Andy Montañez and his covers of two Manolito songs? I think not, but I did it anyway. So obviously the songs are there, but DJs steer clear of them. Some judicious listening on the party of DJs would likely result in a goldmine of “new” songs for the dancers.

    I would also point out, not all timba sounds the same. Los Van Van is probably the only name most salsa dancers have ever heard, and that’s only if they’re lucky.You chose a song by Azúcar Negra to demonstrate timba, but I could show you another by AN that I think would suit many salsa dancers, as long as you don’t tell them in advance that it’s Cuban, because they’d already be looking for things to dislike about it. And the new groups such as Havana D’Primera, Maykel Blanco y su Salsa Mayor and El Niño y La Verdad have found a certain cross-over audience in Europe. HdP’s new CD “La Vuelta al Mundo” includes a pure salsa track with Luis Enrique as well as an old style son montuno á la “Bilongo”. El Niño has a bolero and a mozambique. There is a lot more going on than people are aware of.

    I don’t know if the thawing of relations between Cuba and the US is going to yield tangible results, but it might be a good idea for DJs to start looking at a wide spectrum of Cuban music, including stuff from the 70s when Cuban bands were doing great experimentation. “Bailando” (no, it’s not salsa, but…) it was a record breaking single, but it was a hit in Cuba a good year before they re-recorded it with Enrique. It is quite possible Cuban music will explode on the US market again when people start getting access to it.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen the video “Que suena la timba” but both Formell and Manolín hit on what I think are important points.
    1) Formell points out that timba is designed with Cuban dancers in mind. The greater use of breaks and the more more varied rhythm section patterns and increased polyrhythms don’t fit so well with linear salsa dance styles and thus dancers don’t want to hear it. they don’t feel comfortable dancing to it.
    2) Manolín says that with the embargo the US stopped with “Son de la loma” and when they were re-exposed to Cuban music they had lost the thread and thought it sounded “weird”. I was lucky enough to start dancing in Stockholm where DJs used to play salsa from all countries. It never occurred to me to think about a difference between the salsa from New York, Puerto Rico, Colombia or Cuba.

    I don’t think the DJs bear the ultimate responsibility. I think casino teachers, rueda teachers and son/rumba teachers should expose their students to Cuban music. If people start hearing it from day 1, they will most likely have no problem with it.

    If you haven’t seen the video here is a link with subtitles. People might find it interesting.

  • Joseph says:

    Great points !

    Embargo

    A lot of Latin DJs follow “If it is so good, why haven’t I heard of it?” mindset. What they don’t understand is that the American embargo also affects what salsa music is heard even INSIDE Latin American countries ! Most of the music market in Latin America is dominated by a few multinational US based music companies like Sony and Universal.

    Therefore, many DJs from Latin America want to play the music they grew up with, but they didn’t grow up with timba.

    Nationalism

    People keep telling me that “salsa” means “sauce”, and of course, “salsa” can be made from a lot of different ingredients. According to them, Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, Dominicans, Panamanians, Puerto Ricans, Colombians and different music like cumbia, bomba, plena, jazz, etc. have all contributed to the “invention” of “salsa”.

    Timba is undeniably Cuban, so for them, it just seems so unfair and so politically incorrect just to single out one country.

    Old times

    Among the few Latin DJs who really know the salsa music, they often play LPs. Mostly Fania era music. There is no reason why they can’t play non Timba Cuban music. Especially, if they are already playing classics from the past.

    Indifference

    I think ultimately most dancers these days don’t really care what kind of salsa is playing. Before, musicians were the idols of dancers, nowadays it’s the instructors who are the idols. Music is certainly now more in the background, that’s why old American pop songs reworked to salsa beats are so popular.

    New Music

    All of us timberos do have to learn more about Cuban music before timba. But I think whether or not Cuban music gets played or not at salsa parties or socials will depend on new Cuban music. The latest trend. Havana D’ Primera has made it to the playlists of a few timba hating DJs here. I don’t think they think of Havana D’Primera as timba or even salsa. They just like it.

    Nowadays, I think a lot of non Cuban salsa music has reached an impasse. (that’s why they keep playing the LPs). Going to a Grupo Niche or Willie Colon concert is more a exercise in nostalgia than anything else.

    I think Cuban salsa music still has a lot of vitality and originality, so I think the future is bright. And the timba hits of the 90’s are NEW for my Colombian and Mexican friends. Youtube and the internet certainly fosters alternative salsa/ latin music.

  • Ron Swarsen says:

    Nice article and comments. From the DJ booth (so to speak) I am aware of the various attitudes toward Cuban music or Timba. I was around during Dámaso Pérez Prado’s time and remember some of his popular tunes. It was only in recent times that my interest in latin music was re-ignited which led me into being in the booth. I’ve DJ’d with other DJ’s with incredible collections of Cuban music and managed live exposure to Cuban bands both from Cuba and the US. Conclusion is that there is some great music (both old and new) out there and at times I have sneaked in some son/salsa and a rare timba without being caught by being selective. I’ve been exposed to the dancers of Europe, Russia, et. al. who dance almost only “Cuban-styles” of dance. They have a ton of fun and one can feel left out for not knowing how to dance to the music and they are excellent at it. Of course the issue of nationalism and the connection between Russia and Cuba, etc. that has allowed for extensive and long-term exposure of those dances to all things Cuban is, in my opinion, a definite factor. Not that those people cannot dance linear salsa as good dancers can often cross over without problems. To me Cuba is a gold mine of music and I do have my bucket list items in regard to that. Meanwhile, I also feel it is part of being a DJ to “educate” the ears of dancers which to me means throwing out some tunes that turns their heads and challenges the ears and rhythms. A couple times a night or so should not result in lash back. I would encourage dancers to open their minds, their dance and attitudes, think outside their “boxes” and be tolerant. It can only expand their understanding and in fact may improve their dancing as well. It becomes a personal issue, but I would vote that selective use of Cuban music can expand one’s dance experience versus a more narrow focused existence. The challenge is not only for others, but for myself as well.

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