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In a country with probably the world´s highest number of musicians per capita, where competition for coveted concerts slots at the “Casas de la Música” (the famous venues literally called ‘Music Houses´, one located in Miramar and the other in Centro Havana) is fierce, the rapid climb of the musical group Salsa Mayor to the upper echelons of the Cuban music scene is nothing less than astounding. In October 2007, Maykel Blanco y Su Salsa Mayor celebrated their third anniversary with a special concert at Havana´s Salon Rosado de La Tropical. This comes on the heels of their first European tour and the eve of their next CD, Anda Pégate, Salsa Mayor´s third CD release.
Salsa Mayor is directed by Maykel Blanco Cueva, a Havana native who studied percussion at the conservatories. Directing his first group at the age of 15, Maykel taught himself to play piano in order to write and arrange his own songs. At 23, he founded Salsa Mayor acting as composer, arranger, pianist and backing vocalist. A year and a half later Salsa Mayor exploded on the timba scene with its first CD: Recoge y Vete. While the group´s name incorporates the word ‘salsa´, a generic term for clave–based music of the Caribbean, there is no doubt that the music is straight–up TIMBA CUBANA.
Timba has its roots deep in the Cuban rumba. Underneath the horns and the rapping you can still hear the African rhythms, largely unchanged for generations. But of course Timba is much, much more. In fact one of its unique characteristics is its sophisticated density –this is big–band music we are talking about. In the 1940´s and 50´s, Cuban musicians traveled to New York and took the mambo with them. They were joined by NY native Hispanic musicians, mostly Puerto Rican, like Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez, and the mambo took on a distinctly New York sound. It then spread across the US in the famous ‘Mambo Craze´. Midwest housewives were learning the mambo at Arthur Murray dance studios. Ricky Ricardo´s band played the mambo on the hit television show “I Love Lucy.”
In the turbulent 1960´s, young New York musicians took up the mambo and transformed it, adding socially conscious lyrics and musical elements from their native Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, namely their indigenous rhythms of bomba, plena, and merengue, as well as jazz, rock and disco. They simply called this hot mélange of sounds ‘Salsa´. Through the 1970´s salsa continued to evolve and expand. Salsa spread around the world, through Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly Colombia, which has become a hotbed of salsa creativity, and as far away as Japan (which developed several world class salsa bands composed completely of Japanese musicians).
During this time, the orthodox opinion in Cuba was that there was no such thing as ‘salsa´. The purists saw salsa as nothing more than a corruption of Cuban son. The extreme factions among them did not even acknowledge the mambo as a separate style. But in the early 1980s something happened. Artists like Elio Revé and Adalberto Álvarez began to incorporate distinctly salsa sounds into their music. Then NG La Banda burst onto the scene. NG took New York salsa, added in sounds from the innovative Cuban Latin jazz group Irakere, had the coro start chanting like the rappers that were starting to take off in the US, turning the voice into a rhythm instrument, added classical influences that all Cuban musicians learn in music school, and Timba was born.
Timba caught on like wildfire. Other singers and groups spun out of this initial effort, namely Issac Delgado, Klímax, Manolín “El Médico” and many more. Long time musical renegades, Los Van Van, shifted their own unique sound to incorporate the new music into their repertoire. New acts like Bamboleo, Paulito F.G. and Manolito y su Trabuco entered the scene with their own versions of timba.
Fast–forward to what´s happening now. Timba is a world–wide phenomenon and Maykel Blanco y su Salsa Mayor is voted the best timba group 2006/2007 by loyal Italian fans, an amazing achievement for a band with only a debut album under their belt. Part of the www.timba.com staff followed Salsa Mayor on their premier tour of Europe and witnessed firsthand the incredible reception they received from their European fans. These fans already knew their repertoire, and sang their songs, by heart! Before the final concert, Maykel told www.timba.com, “We´ve visited many countries and many provinces during this tour and it´s impressive because, while in one place there will be two songs in the top 10, like in Luxembourg, for example, it turns out those songs are not our established hit singles. All of the songs on the CD have been well received, and I think this is very interesting because it demonstrates that what they like is the work we´re doing. It´s not one song [that became a hit] by accident.”
First and last, Salsa Mayor is about making people dance. Maykel´s background as a percussionist is evident in the hard driving beats, complex bass lines and compelling piano rhythms marked by his use of contrary hand motion introduced by Cuban music legend César “Pupy” Pedroso (formerly of Los Van Van, Pupy now heads his own band: Pupy y los que Son Son). The interplay of the rhythm section appeals to Havana´s sophisticated dancers yet is transparent enough for those who have not been exposed to timba previously. Salsa Mayor´s music is characterized by sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, lyrics about dance, music, relationships and Cuban life, sprinkled with a liberal dose of Afro–Cuban religious and cultural references. Catchy choruses hook the audience and make it possible for the first–time listener to sing along. Their front–line consists of three charismatic singers, each with different vocal characteristics that widen the expressive range of the repertoire. They put on an energetic show with playful choreography that invites the audience to participate. Part of their secret is in the fun they themselves have at concerts –their enthusiasm is truly contagious.
The band is often compared to the great Los Van Van. The Salsa Mayor´s bandmembers find this flattering, because for Cuban musicians Los Van Van represents something unattainable. Yet the comparison is also frustrating. Bandmembers want to be recognized for their own contributions to the continued development of timba. Lead singer ‘El Noro´ points out that the majority of young timba musicians today have chosen a style popularized in the late 1990s by groups such as NG La Banda and La Charanga Habanera, while Salsa Mayor has stayed closer to the roots of son in the tradition of Los Van Van and Manolito Simonet.
Maykel said he isn´t concerned. “When someone comes to you and you present a product for the first time, they look for a comparison, a place to put you, a category to place you in. But, really, when they listen to the product several times, they begin to find the differences between one author and another,” he says. Maykel feels that Salsa Mayor has a number of innovations of its own, specifically in terms of the percussion.
“In Europe they are now listening to a new song “Anda Pégate.” It has a little of everything. It has many poly–rhythms, a lot of work with the percussion… with harmonic concepts… in my opinion an experimental piece,” he said.
The experiment has turned out well. “Anda Pégate” has scored Salsa Mayor another home run, and fans anxiously await the new CD. This band is a must–see for anyone interested in Cuban music. So while you are in Havana catch their show Wednesday nights at Casa de la Música Galiano (Centro Havana) and Monday afternoons at Casa de la Música Miramar.
–this article courtesy of www.TIMBA.com
–Michelle White and Kevin Moore contributors
–edited by M.P.Lazarus (firstname.lastname@example.org)