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Timba: The Sound of the Cuban Crisis.

Timba: The Sound of the Cuban Crisis. By Vincenzo Perna. (SOAS Musicology Series.) Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2005. [ix, 338 p. ISBN 0-7546-3941-X. $114.95] Index, bibliography, illustrations, music examples.

Vincenzo Perna, a freelance music journalist with a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from the University of London (SOAS), has written a penetrating and deeply informative book on timba, the popular and provocative Cuban music and dance style that emerged in the 1990s, during the economic tailspin euphemistically referred to as "el periodo especial economico" (the special economic period). In Timba: The Sound of the Cuban Crisis, Perna presents timba as an innovative fusion of Afro-Cuban popular and folkloric styles with African American genres such as hip-hop and funk. Through a rigorous analysis of timba's flammable context and controversial lyrics, Perna successfully argues that timba "articulates the values of a largely black youth subculture that has grown up in the shadow of the crisis ... ultimately symbolizing the difficult, contradictory opening of Cuba to the outside world" (p. 4).

Perna takes the reader on a journey from timba's origins as an experimental art-school genre in the late 1980s, through its flowering during the periodo especial in the 1990s, and into the twenty-first century, where it seems to be yielding its defiant stance to Cuban rap. The book is organized in three sections: part 1: Setting the Scene: part 2: Matters of Style, and part 3: Dangerous Connections. In part 1, Perna introduces the reader to musica bailable (dance music) from the Revolution of 1959 to the eve of the periodo especial in 1989. He highlights the painful "self-blockade" of the late 1960s and early 1970s, during which time the Revolutionary government shut down all the cabarets (the main venues for popular music performances), banned foreign music from the radio, and sought to stamp out "moral degeneracy," symbolized by the "long hair and fancy clothes" worn by Cuba's rebellious youth (p. 31). After a year, the state lifted the broadcasting ban on Anglo-American music, but this relaxing of the restrictions placed on foreign music only served to emphasize young Cubans' growing dissatisfaction with musica bailable. Bassist and composer Reynaldo Crespo notes that "Cuban music went through a deep crisis ... during the 1960s and the 1970s" because Cubans simply did not want to listen to Cuban dance music (p. 33).

In the midst of this musico-political crisis, in 1969 bassist and composer Juan Formell founded Los Van Van, perhaps the most famous Cuban dance band since the Revolution. Perna suggests that the modernized son genre created by Los Van Van, called songo, is one of the forerunners of timba, primarily because of the adoption of the drum kit. In 1973, pianist and composer Chucho Valdes founded a jazz group called Irakere, which specialized in "danceable jazz." Irakere's innovative fusion of jazz, rock, and Afro-Cuban folkloric rhythms represented a sound that was simultaneously modern, virtuosic, and traditional. Perna asserts that Irakere's horn section and its "modern traditional" sound make the legendary jazz band the most direct antecedent of timba.

In the 1980s, the growing number of Latinos in the United States helped propel salsa to the forefront of urban popular music preferences, and the sounds of Ruben Blades and the Fania All Stars soon made their way to Cuban airwaves. The reembracing of salsa by Cuban musicians, along with the innovative musical stylings of Los Van Van and Irakere, set the stage for the emergence of timba as a musical genre. In chapter 2, Perna gives an overview of the profound difficulties encountered by most Cubans during the decade of the 1990s. He argues that the economic crisis forced Cuba to interact with the rest of the world, allowing for the international exchange of goods, services, ideas, and expressive culture. It was precisely the periodo especial that forced Cuba to shift its economic focus from its former patron, the Soviet Union, to the vicissitudes of foreign tourism. According to Perna, "the arrival of masses of tourists and the free circulation of the dollar revitalized the lethargic nightlife of the capital city and opened up a whole new market for popular musicians" (p. 59). Out of this volatile mix came flutist and composer Jose Luis Cortes, also known as "EI Tosco" ("The Coarse One"), former arranger and composer for Irakere and leader of the first successful timba band in Cuba, NG La Banda. Perna locates NG La Banda squarely within the trend of the simultaneous modernization and re-Africanization of Cuban musica bailable. NG's first album, En la calle (On the street), contained critical references to such issues as prostitution and racism, and mentioned Santeria, money problems, and other familiar aspects of quotidian life in the barrio. NG La Banda and its founder El Tosco nurtured at least three other timba greats: Manolin "El Medico de la Salsa," Paulito FG, and Issac Delgado. David Calzado y Charanga Habanera, perhaps the second most famous name in timba, "promoted an openly commercial and controversial image that privileged choreography and spectacularity over purely musical values" (p. 73). In chapter 3, Perna makes the point that Cuban economic policy steered the dance bands toward foreign tours and tourist clubs, thus discriminating against local audiences who couldn't afford the cover fees charged by the clubs. Ironically, this trend toward tourist audiences encouraged moneyed, foreign, middle-aged men (tembas) to pick up local young women (jineteras) who were hoping for clothing, a nice meal, money, or even a ticket out of the country by engaging in these temporary trysts.

Chapter 4 considers timba as a genre and musical style, and Perna convincingly shows that the rhythm section reveals "a marked influence of jazz in the instrumental parts, and of rap in the vocal approach" (p. 98). Later in the chapter, Perna speculates extensively on the etymology of timba, referencing Jorge Castellanos and Isabel Castellanos ("The Geographic, Ethnologic, and Linguistic Roots of Cuban Blacks," Cuban Studies 17 [1987]: 95-110); Fernando Ortiz (Los Instrumentos de la musica afrocubana. vols. I-V, [La Habana: Cardenas, 1952-55], IV: 144); Armin Schwegler ("El vocabulario africano de Palenque (Colombia). Segunda Parte: compendio de palabras (con etimologias)" in Luis A. Ortiz Lopez, ed., El Caribe hispanico: Perspectivas linguisticas actuales [Madrid: Vervuert, 1999], 171-253); and Armin Schwegler ("On the (Sensational) Survival of Kikongo in Twentieth-century Cuba," Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 15, no. 1 [2000]: 59-64). Although this etymological discussion is interesting, what seems most important about timba's meaning is how musicians and audiences understand the term today. Finally, it seems that Perna goes through this etymological journey to prove a familiar point: the Afro-Cubanness of timba, which is "permeated by rumba rhythms and themes, by Afro-Cuban slang and references to life in the black neighborhood" (p. 104). Supporting Perna's point, El Tosco comments, "I prefer to call Cuban salsa timba, in order to stress that it is quite black and comes from the barrio" (p. 105). In the rest of chapter 4, Perna analyzes the instrumentation and structure of the genre. He notes the emphasis on horns and percussion as the driving force behind the genre, and gives the following archetype for the structure of a typical timba song: introduccion (introduction), tema (theme), puente (bridge), coro I (chorus I), mambo I, coro II, mambo II, coro III, mambo III, and so forth, with great attention being paid to the coro (p. 109). Perna makes a valid comparison between the son-montuno style performed by Arsenio Rodriguez's conjunto in the 1940s and 1950s and the coro-rich timba performed by contemporary timberos, thus defending timba's place in the continuous narrative of Cuban popular music. "In reality, many of the elements blamed on timba were already present in early son: reiteration, absence of narrative development, antiphonal alternation chorus-solo singer, vocal improvisation, musician-audience interaction" (p. 128).

In chapter 5, Perna examines the lyrics of timba songs and the controversial dance movements that this genre inspired. Timba songs employ a liberal use of "dicharachos," popular sayings that emerge from and find their way back to "the street." Perna gives as an example the main coro from La Charanga Habanera's timba hit, "El Temba": "Buscate un temba que te mantenga/pa' que tu goces pa' que tu tengas"--directing the object of the song (a young woman) to "look for a sugar daddy who can maintain you in style, so you can enjoy yourself and get what you need." "Buscate un temba que te mantenga" has now become a popular dicharacho, widely repeated among urban street youth. Perna maintains that "coros [to which audiences often sing along] enable timba composers to claim that they represent the people, thus giving composers the opportunity to make controversial assertions without taking responsibility for them" (p. 142). "El Temba" "never mentions prostitution, but contains references to female venality and sugar daddies that leave young Cubans with few doubts about its real meaning" (p. 142).

Citing Stuart Hall ("What is this 'Black' in Black Popular Culture?," in Gina Dent, ed., Black Popular Culture [Seattle: Bay Press, 1992], 21-33), Perna introduces the dance forms inspired by timba by referencing the "cultural capital of the body," a "foundational element" in the representative strategies employed by black expressive culture in the African diaspora. Despelote (Spanish slang for chaos and frenzy) is the main dance form associated with timba. Women shake their torsos, stick out their bottoms, and rhythmically thrust their pelvises. These movements reference sexual activity, and some of the specific gestures have more evocative names ("tembleque" [quaking] for the full-body vibration and "batidora" [blender] for the rapid pelvic thrusts and rotations, p. 152). Women dominate timba dancing, and men, when they participate at all, either dance behind the women or simply hold the women while they dance. Perna notes that this practice reverses what we might think of as "the traditional structure of couple dancing, which privileges male domination" (p. 153).

In chapter 6, Perna examines Afro-Cuban culture during the Revolution, noting that "black expressive culture ... has either gone through selective processes of institutionalization or has been strongly marginalized" (p. 162). Perna asserts that Santeria has "powerfully re-emerged during the periodo especial" (p. 162), and that black popular musicians use Santeria themes to "recombine past and present," even while negotiating the intersections of religion, popular culture, and tourism. I disagree with Perna's assertion that rumba and Santeria have "long remained at the margins of the Revolutionary new society," and that timba brings these "previously silenced themes" to the center of national discourse (p. 162). I would argue that Santeria and other Afro-Cuban religious traditions were neither secret nor silenced; rather, they were actively persecuted by the Cuban government before and after the Revolution (for different reasons), precisely because they were not secret enough, and they certainly were not silent (rather, they were quite loud, if one considers the drumming, singing, and dancing that mark most Santeria religious ceremonies). Afro-Cuban religious traditions have been celebrated in Cuban popular song throughout the twentieth century, certainly before the arrival of timba in the 1990s, as Perna alludes to elsewhere (p. 165). Consider Beny More's "Donde estabas tu?," which refers to an Afro-Cuban bembe (religious drumming party), Facundo Rivero's song for the deity Babalu Aye (made famous by Celina y Reutilio), and Celina Gonzalez's paean to the deity of thunder and lightning, "Que Viva Chango," which NG La Banda covered on their compact disc "En la calle"--just to name a few. Perna believes that timba and Santeria are "two poles of the same continuum of Afro-Cuban popular culture" (p. 188), and that while the state may have subsidized Afro-Cuban folklore, it "discouraged aspects of black popular culture that did not conform to Marxist notions of progress" (p. 32).

Sex tourism and the representation of women in timba is one of the most controversial topics covered in the book. Although there are a few female timba bands--such as Son Damas, Anacaona, and Bamboleo--who "strike back at men" in a manner reminiscent of female African American and Latin rap (p. 149), most of the timberos are male, and continue the tradition of misogynist posturing found in the majority of Cuban musica bailable. In chapter 7, Perna relates the scandal caused by El Tosco's tune "La Bruja," which doesn't mention prostitutes, jineteras, or tourists outright, but was nevertheless banned and condemned by various organs of the Cuban state. "La Bruja" tells of a Cuban woman who rejects her Cuban lover to find satisfaction elsewhere. The references to turistaxis and certain kinds of privileges available only to foreigners with foreign currency electrified an audience composed "almost entirely of tourists and jineteras" (p. 205). But, as Perna notes, even while conveying "the male desire for domination ... these songs reveal much about the actual frustrations of the Cuban man" (p. 217). As the status of jineteras increases in Cuban daily life, so do their opportunities for economic emancipation, leaving Cuban men at a disadvantage.

It was precisely this sort of sexually explicit dancing typically associated with jineteras that led to the censorship and downfall of La Charanga Habanera, as described in chapter 8. In late July 1997, La Charanga Habanera was invited by the Communist Youth Union to perform at a major youth festival, attended by approximately 100,000 foreign and local young people, including members of the foreign press. During the song "Usa condon" (Use a condom), singer Michel Maza took off his shirt, rotated and thrusted his pelvis, and then "gestured as if to take off his trousers" (p. 231). In early August, the Instituto Cubano de la Musica (Cuban Institute of Music) suspended the band's national and international performances, so they could "reassess their artistic image" (p. 231). According to Perna, "the censorship of La Charanga represented an unprecedented repressive measure, a warning that the political establishment was taking music very seriously and was determined to put an end to the provocations of timba" (p. 239).

In chapter 9, Perna draws our attention to the timing of the release of the Buena Vista Social Club compact disc and film, just one year after the banning of La Charanga Habanera, and during a time when all the famous timberos were regrouping, reassessing, and moderating their public attitudes. When I first saw that Perna had included a chapter on the Buena Vista Social Club in his book, I wondered why a book on timba would need to address the exigencies of that nostalgic revival band. As I read through the chapter, however, I came to appreciate Perna's logic. Buena Vista Social Club became a huge success for all the wrong reasons, reaffirming a "nationalist, island-based, state-sanctioned notion of cubania, in opposition to the diasporic, transnational cultural identities of young timberos and emigre Cubans ... [effectively] obscuring the social relevance of timba" (p. 263). Citing Tamara Livingston ("Music Revivals: Towards a General Theory," Ethnomusicology 23, no. 1 [Winter 1999]: 66-85) on revivals, Perna reminds us that "revivalist ideologies tend to be constructed on certain modes of thinking and structuring of experience that are shared by middle-class people in consumer-capitalist and socialist societies" (Livingston 1999, p. 66; Perna, p. 262).

In the last chapter of his book, Perna imagines a bright future for black expressive culture in Cuba, and suggests the beginning of a "Havana Renaissance," evidenced by the music and poetry performances organized by Afro-Cuban poet Eloy Machado at UNEAC (Union of Cuban Artists and Writers) and the Afro-Cuban-themed murals painted by Salvador Gonzalez and weekend rumbas in Central Havana's heavily Afro-Cuban Callejon de Hamel. Perna writes of a "black popular culture has reemerged from the ghettos to become visible," a "regeneration ... that includes dance, poetry and the visual arts" (p. 278). Timberos, however, are not so lucky. They realize that their music is unlikely to appeal to an international audience, so tied are its lyrics and context to local roots, and so complex are its musical components. Perna writes, "Timba is not a cheap, easygoing tropical dance music as usually expected in the West, it is not salsa, nor jazz, nor son. It is not Afro-Cuban traditional music, nor rock, nor socially engaged song. In a way, timba is something of all this" (p. 268). Perna refers to other recent trends in Cuban music, which prove that Cuban music, despite the trials and tribulations it suffered during the 1960s and 1970s, is alive and well. Revivalist bands, such as a reconfigured Septeto Nacional and a reconstituted Orquesta Aragon, Cuban rap groups such as Orishas and Amenaza, and Latin jazz ensembles, featuring soloists Chucho Valdes and Orlando "Maraca" Valle, are all important components of the Cuban musical landscape. Cuban rock music, represented by such groups as Buena Fe and Moneda Dura, enjoys "a high level of institutional support" (p. 277), and deserves to be acknowledged for its significant if underestimated influence on Cuban popular music (p. 278).

Timba: The Sound of the Cuban Crisis is an exhaustively researched, significant book, with valuable insights about the role of popular music in post-Revolutionary Cuban society and a comprehensive analysis of the emergence and importance of timba during the 1990s. Perna maintains that timba was a "musical battering ram ... able to conjugate cosmopolitan attitudes and continuity with black traditions," (p. 280), which both critiqued and benefited from the economic crisis that fueled its popularity. Although Perna's dream of a "Havana Renaissance" seems to contradict his earlier statements about the exploitation of black culture on the part of the Cuban government to encourage tourism, I understand the appeal of such a healthy future for Afro-Cuban expressive culture. Throughout the book, Perna stresses "the bond that bypasses nationality and connects [Afro-Cubans] visibly to the 'imagined community' of the black diaspora" (p. 156), whether through dress, language, musical preferences, or cultural style. This statement, which seems to refer more to a Gilroyan sense of the world rather than to a specifically Afro-Cuban sensibility (Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness [London: Verso, 1993]), certainly underscores the importance of transnational cultural exchange, with particular reference to the fragile and nascent reciprocity between youth culture on the island and younger Cubans in Miami. The book would have benefited from judicious copyediting--Perna repeats his main points many times--but perhaps he was influenced by the structure of timba itself, in which the repetition of the coro is the cue for audience participation.


Pomona College
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Author:Hagedorn, Katherine
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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