Popular Cuban dance music at the edge of 2020
At the end of 2019, in my adventures as a dancer at the Casa de la Música de Miramar, an event motivated me to give shape to certain ideas that have haunted me lately. The presentation of an emblematic Cuban orchestra, defender of the conservation and renewal of the son, ended up being a sequence of songs in which all the arrangements turned out to be practically similar, of little creativity compared to their own previous work, and distanced from the standards. current. As if this were not enough, all the songs had the same air - a well-advanced tempo - which, logically, caused limitations to the dancer.
The founding teacher and director was not present there (a practice of gradually handing over responsibilities to new generations), and the band was more concerned with impressing the public with a powerful sound than with showing the flavor of the rhythm that has always characterized it.
This disappointment has not been the only one, but I have tried not to fall into the old traps that Adriana Orejuela He has been in charge of making his investigations visible. I don't think that today Cuban popular dance music is in danger, nor do I think there is a need to compare it with that of the past; although I think it is useful to point to some comments that encourage a critical analysis. Because much of what happens is not new at all.
Whether due to mercantile, productive or easy-going logic, this music usually shows symptoms of repetition and, on occasions, exhaustion. We can say it with Issac Delgado: this is not from now, that tumba'o was already pega'o for a long time. In defense of the musicians and the public, we can say that the standardization of certain musical patterns over time is a natural process related to any type of popular music, which is usually governed by certain tacit formulas, chains, structures and repetitions, as well as specific ways of conceiving the rhythm, harmony and melodic turns of each genre and period.
However, I think I have noticed in recent decades in Cuba the use of a series of clichés: in the repertoires (fundamentally the traditional one), in certain phrases, themes, calls, words, ways of arranging, etc.; as I also observe, above all, in the timba movement, the tendency to abandon practices that can still be useful and functional, such as the use of nuances, the guajeo of metals, the dance of the singers and their scenic projection, to mention only a few examples whose absence contributes to the monotony.
I get to the point. Although it is not exclusive to the timba movement, and without forgetting the great creative feats of some of its protagonists, evidence of a uniformity or monotony of various elements can be noted in recent years. For example: very typical and predictable structure of compositions, blocks or effects repeated theme after theme and therefore equally predictable, bass and piano tumba'os with the same rhythmic typology for a large number of compositions - as well as certain mambos—, a relatively strict fidelity to the key, an orthodoxy towards the limits of the compass, among others.
How many compositions have passed through our ears and feet with the classic initial piano tumba’o accompanied by a speech by the singer that gives input to the theme, and that allow us to almost guess every subsequent detail of the arrangements? How many compositions have we found very similar despite going through different harmonic sequences and even conceiving different rhythms, just because they have a similar structure?
Of course, in the midst of this regularity there have always been groups that in favor of the public have added a constant renewal. Although some of them, having offered very original solutions at the time, have ended up canonizing them album after album, losing their initial freshness. It is in this context that the detractors of this music (which one does not have them?) Refer that all the groups sound the same, that the arrangements are the same, that everything is very repetitive. They confuse, as is often the case, the part with the whole.
Other extra-musical factors, such as the dissolution or splitting of groups and the departure of many of them abroad for more or less prolonged periods of time in which they lose contact with their original audience (Manolín, El Médico de la Salsa), have contributed to the loss of peculiar ways of conceiving the arrangements. In other cases, the directors have found it difficult to assimilate the changes in sonority and have not managed to reinvent themselves — if perhaps the most difficult task of all (Juan Carlos Alfonso and Dan Den).
The defenders of timba (among whom I proudly count myself) could argue that there are other genres that are equally susceptible to falling into rhythmic monotony - from salsa and all the more or less traditional popular music of our geographical area to current rhythms. fashionable like reggaeton or trap. But I start from the fact that an identification of these factors, an analysis and debate of them, past and present, could be a step for the oxygenation of a music that has shown the ability to renew itself through ruptures, absorptions and mergers of all kinds - without giving up the sacrosanct key.
Thus, we find certain abandonments and forgetfulness that also take their toll. In a recent conversation I had with Calixto Oviedo, the subject of the so-called champola came up (which was actually what motivated me to write these lines). In the mid-90s it was very common to use this variant in the use of brass, as a kind of staggered conversation between the different instruments of the horn section that were gradually added, superimposing one another. This was very useful as a communicative and dramatic thread of the themes. Easy to arrange and execute compared to current passages, but with a great impact on the audience, the champola was left for a specific moment of the song that allowed the interpretation to be taken step by step from low intensity nuances to a climax with a pump included. NG La Banda has been one of the timbera groups that most successfully and rigorously used this variant with relative frequency. At present, the champola is no longer an alternative in the planning of the arrangements. It would be difficult to define if it is that today it is perceived by musicians as a naive option or if the current timba resorts to other ways of conceiving the march and the tumba’os. Perhaps it is that the inclusion of more complex options robbed him of his naturally won participation as a legacy of a previous era. Either way, it is strange that without having essentially transformed this music from the 90s to today, a vestige so ingrained by years has almost completely disappeared.
Another forgotten aspect is the choreographed dance of the singers. This was an almost mandatory practice during that boom at the end of the last century and which lasted for a few more years. At present, it is practically absent as part of the stage projection of the bands. I'm not even talking about choreographies in the Ritmo Oriental or Charanga Habanera style, in which a part of the musicians were involved and that presupposed a montage, but simply of the movements consciously synchronized only by the front-line vocalists.
If we look at the groups that at this moment are recognized for their quality and popularity on the island, we realize that except on rare occasions, neither the centrality of the singer-leader of their orchestra (Havana D 'Primera, Alain Pérez, El Niño and the Truth) nor the joint front line directed by the director-musician (Pupy y los que Son Son, Maykel Blanco y Salsa Mayor, Elito Revé y su Charangón) grant synchronized dance on stage the visual hierarchy that it can represent. Why, if today we live immersed in an eminently visual stage, do we dance less on stage?
It would be easy to say that the blame for everything lies with the passage of time. The sound of the 1920s of the last century (a transcendental decade for Cuban music), performed even today by the National Septeto and the Habanero Septet, resists and will resist all possible innovations of the genre and its derivatives. The Aragón Orchestra is "the eternal band" and Arsenio Rodríguez is the undisputed patriarch because both contain a whole era that dialogues, from their respective thrones, with the listener and the current dancer. Recreating those formats and those works is a valid path. Los Van Van, NG La Banda and other groups, although the memory of timba remains fresher, they could also not completely renounce those of their repertoires and arrangements that we could call “classics”.
It is hard to think that the son —the central nucleus of timba— can be rigorously defended from arrangements that ignore the use of nuances of intensity that contribute so much richness to the danceable. Not in vain the jazz band Cuban films between the 1920s and 1960s, despite the bulky format, were masterful exponents of this resource; and groups like NG La Banda used them wisely. Nor does it seem that it is possible to defend this music today by dispensing with those sones montunos “echa'os pa back” that have left their mark on more contemporary compositions.
While I dance or stare at the dance, I can't stop thinking about everything we could do to continue enjoying popular Cuban dance music, what ingredients of tradition are salvageable without losing contemporaneity, what is lacking or in excess.