Give Timba a Chance: The Mambo Viewpoint!

| 12/03/2010

Timba! Timba! Timba! That’s all you hear casineros talk about it seems. “We want more timba in the clubs!” or “Timba night is TONIGHT! Come and support!”  Ok. Maybe that’s just me but honestly, when you dance Cuban salsa, timba just feels right. It makes sense. Thankfully, I started dancing on1 track style, learned a bit of on2, and then progressed to casino so I am fairly flexible when it comes to styles. And believe me when I say that I love almost all salsa music. However, my body loves dancing casino to timba and so I promote it heavily.

Here in DC there almost seems to be a backlash against Cuban music. I often give my good friend, Ana Zangroniz a hard time about being Cuban and yet not knowing anything about Cuban music.  When Ana moved to Maryland I found out she danced rueda and taught it in upper New York State. However, she dances with an on2 groupand teaches track here.  She admits, “While in Albany, as I was learning and teaching casino, I had never heard of timba. My exposure to salsa was almost solely to salsa romantica, or main-stream salsa (Victor Manuelle, Gran Combo, etc.) and this was what I listened to and used for teaching all the time. I hear some songs that resonate and make me want to move, but have not been able to maintain interest…”  Maybe others are like her and just haven’t been exposed or think timba is just for casineros.

First a little background on timba.  Some say it became popular in the early 90s. Some say well before that. The important part of that is that timba grew popular in Cuba well after the United States embargo against Cuba. As a result, Americans were cut off from Cuba and their development in music.  Here, Fania grew; Puerto Ricans and New Yorkers sampled and created, and mambo/salsa blossomed. Few Americans even knew that groups such as Paulito FG, Los Van Van, NG La Banda, Elio Reve, and more were in Cuba creating music that was rhythmically complex and exciting.  Some may even be surprised to know that some well-known salsa songs were originally Cuban songs taken by American artists, re-cut, and sold as their own (a great example of this is Ray Barretto’s ‘Guarare’ originally recorded by Los Van Van and titled as ‘Güararey  de Pastora’). Recently I read on an article by Kevin Moore where he calls timba ‘gear changing’ in which the percussionists and bassists “change their patterns in tandem”.  As they change, a new rhythm is introduced: bomba, rumba, son, marcha, reggaeton, and more.  These changes in rhythms can cause timba to feel overwhelming for some and exciting for others.

Lorenzo “DJ Renzo” Haire is a popular salsa DJ in the Washington DC area. In our various discussions on all things salsa, he had mentioned to me that he had started to play timba. I was impressed because there are few salsa DJs in DC who will 1) admit to that, and 2) actually mean it.  And in fact, when I showed up to the club, he put on a timba for me. Not surprisingly, no one noticed. Everyone kept dancing.  We began discussing how he started to build his timba list. He gives credit to DJ EricB (another DC DJ who loves timba and plays it readily) and to Joel Massicot of Masacote Dancers in Boston.  DJ EricB didn’t surprise me.  Joel Massicot did.

Lorenzo says, “Joel invited me to play during the breaks of his band.  He told me I had to play mostly timba because that’s what his band was trying to introduce to the people in Boston.”  First I was surprised Joel had a band and second that he was trying to introduce timba to Boston. You must understand that Masacote is one of my favorite dance groups.  I looked up Joel’s group online and there they were, playing timba. I wondered how this amazing mambo dancer had gotten drawn into timba.

I asked Joel what turned him onto timba and he replied, “I’m from St. Croix Virgin Island and I grew up on calypso, soca, salsa and reggae and if you think of everything that is afro, timba has all those elements.  Timba is very expressive in the different rhythms, breaks, montunos and tumbao. For a lot of the Boston musicians, we’re all into timba because of its musical expressiveness.”  He went on to say, “The foundation of timba, salsa and mambo are all the same. They are all built off of the clave and have similar mambos and monas. The difference with timba is that it has a lot more breaks and break downs and a lot more funk. I call it the ‘Funk of Salsa’.”

I began to think that perhaps this enjoyment of timba is only coming from a DJ and musician based on the music. The complexity. The uniqueness. My favorite routine ever in salsa dancing is one from Masacote and it definitely wasn’t to timba. But then I remembered when Joel and Ana came to DC for one of StuckonSalsa’s events. They did a couple’s routine…to…TIMBA! I stood there, having just performed, and thought, “Wow. Are they really dancing to timba or are my ears deceiving me?” I hadn’t thought about it again until my discussions with Lorenzo.

I asked Joel about dancing to the music.  He answered with, “Some dancers often complain that they don’t understand timba and can’t follow it.” He suggested that mambo/on2 dancers should try it “and bring out a different side of [the] dance. Find a way to connect to it and appreciate it for what it is and it would be a ride you’ve never experience before.”

Joel isn’t the only mambo dancer who loves timba. Washington DC’s own James “Jimmy Shines” Yoon is a huge lover of timba. I met Jimmy at a Cuban night at DC Dance Collective and found he loved timba. Having been surprised to hear this from an on2 dancer, I had to find out why. Jimmy told me about his history with salsa, hearing it as a kid, learning to dance and told me about how he ordered numerous salsa CDs from Amazon (“The Best of Ray Barretto,” “The Best of Eddie Palmieri,” “Spanish Harlem Orchestra,” etc.), received them, and was disappointed and said, “the music was good, but it sounded TOO OLD for my taste.” He opened up another program, searched for salsa, and downloaded the first two reputable albums he saw, Paulito FG – “Un Poquito de To” and Charanga Forever’s “La Charanga Soy Yo.” He described the music like this: “Let me tell you something, I was BLOWN AWAY. I still remember to this day how I felt after listening to those 2 albums…it was as if lightning has struck my brain. I was questioning in my head, “What mad genius created this music?” I mean, these guys were mixing in old school melodies I could recognize like some of Earth Wind & Fire’s stuff with funk and jazz and…I mean it was seriously earthy, funky, get down and booty shake kinda stuff!”

Needless to say, Jimmy was sold on timba. As a well-known teacher in our DC area, Jimmy uses timba in his classes. This surprised me. There are people teaching rueda de casino who don’t even use timba for teaching and here his students are learning on2 to timba. Many of Jimmy’s moves are adapted from Cuban moves he learned by watching “Salsa! A la Cubana” video series (vol 1 through 4)”. Jimmy is proof that you don’t need to dance to timba on1. Even Cubans would dispute this idea as they listen to a song, hear it, feel it, and decide to dance a-tiempo or contra-tiempo based on the music. Try telling a Cuban to ‘count’ to the music and you’ll get a response of “We don’t COUNT in Cuba! We FEEL it!”

Should more dancers be open to timba? You’ll get a resounding YES from DJ Renzo, Joel Massicot, and Jimmy Yoon – all people who promote, dance, teach, and love on2 salsa dancing but realize that timba offers a dancer a chance to expand their dancing.  Jimmy goes on to say, “I LOVE the call and response. The music is just so complex, so fresh and so flavorful, it is so hard to deny. People who don’t acknowledge Timba, I believe are against it because they just want to be opposed to it. Timba is very earthy….very sexual. I recommend Timba to everyone, not just on2 or on1, simply because the music is GOOD.”  DJ Renzo also says, “I am always an advocate of diversifying yourself and your musical interests.”

The next time you see “Cuban night!” advertised on Facebook, Meetup, or another media site, why not go out and give it a try?  Timba is a large genre of salsa. There are slow songs, fast songs, funky songs and you will probably find one you like.  If you’re unsure how to dance, ask! Casineros are always willing to help you out–especially me! Watch for someone to start a suelta line (Cuban shines) and join in – don’t be afraid. We are all there to have fun.

I would really like to see Washington DC move towards a more well-rounded scene where everyone has a chance to come together and dance. Cuban nights are great. Puerto Rican salsa nights are also great. A night full of salsa from around the world–even better!

To sum up this article, I think that all quoted here can agree with Joel when he says:

“I get goosebumps talking about music and Timba.”


Timba writer Kevin Moore
Timba on Wikipedia
Cuban music history

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About the Author ()

Hello! I love Cuban salsa. While I really love all salsa music my heart, soul, and body just responds best to Cuban salsa. It doesn't matter if it is the early work of Celia Cruz or Ibrahim Ferrer or the current Bamboleo album - I'm gonna move to it! I live in the Washington DC area and work to promote Cuban dancing and music and try to educate people about what timba is... what rueda is... what salsa casino is... and how, historically, it all played a big part in them being able to go to a club and dance salsa.

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