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What we now call Timba began with NG La Banda in the late 80´s, but the musical concept at the heart of Timba, combining Cuban music with modern creative songwriting, began 20+ years earlier with Los Van Van. Led by bassist Juan Formell and still going strong, this group continues to represent the definitive popular sound of Cuba. Many ex–members are now legends, if not the new leaders of the hottest groups that share spectacular international acclaim.
One cannot speak of Los Van Van without mentioning several of its key figures: singers Mayito Rivera, Roberto “Guayacán” Hernández, and Pedrito Calvo, pianist César “Pupy” Pedroso, Formell´s son and drummer Samuel, and the master percussionist José Luis “Changuito” Quintana. In 2001 they were honored to receive the Grammy Award for Best Salsa Album—Llegó Van Van, and in 2003 a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Tropical Album—En El Malecón de la Habana. Their song “Soy Todo (Ay, Dios Ampárame)” is a veritable Cuban anthem.
Part of Los Van Van´s longevity can be explained by the periodic addition of new young singers. Angel Bonne and Pedro Calvo were two of the most important before leaving to pursue solo careers, but it was the two singers who came after them, Mayito Rivera and Roberto “Guayacán” Hernández, who played the most critical roles in allowing Van Van to enter, and conquer, the world of Timba. Frequently referred to in Cuba simply as “Mayito Van Van” and “Roberto Van Van,” they are two of the most overpowering and creative vocalists since Beny Moré. Mayito, as evidenced by his recent solo album, Chapottín, has complete mastery over every facet of Cuban pop singing. He also plays bass and long before becoming a singer he was a percussionist. If you look carefully you can sometimes see him behind the stage, adding African polyrhythmic percussion parts on a tom tom he sets up behind the drumset. Roberto, who made a name for himself with Pachito Alonso, is an overwhelming presence; a huge bear of a man with a voice and spirit to match. To hear him sing “Te pone la cabeza” or “Ni bombones” in concert is to fully understand the magic of Timba.
2 Paulito FG
Paulito FG, aka Pablo FG, aka Paulo FG, aka Pablo Alfonso Fernández Gallo, one of the central figures of Timba music, got his big career break when legendary musician Adalberto álvarez discovered and recruited him after recognizing his passion for singing. In 1990 he joined Opus 13 and in 1991 assumed leadership and turned it into Paulito FG y su Elite. Since then he has consistently been one of Cuba´s hottest performers captivating audiences of all ages, races and cultural backgrounds.
Paulito´s band, the élite, has always been exceptional, but in 1997 he assembled the truly amazing collection of musicians who collaborated to create one of Timba´s crown jewels, Paulito´s masterpiece, Con la conciencia tranquila. This album is definitely the starting point for those getting into Paulito´s music, or Timba music for that matter, for the first time. The release of Con la conciencia tranquila has historical importance due to the many musical trends it set.
The creative chemistry of this highly–disciplined and rigorously–rehearsed group was something to behold. Con la conciencia tranquila is the perfect amalgamation of Paulito´s songs, Ceruto´s arrangements, and the ultra–creative rhythm section hooks of Noroña, the two Joeles, Yosvel Bernal and wonderfully melodic conguero, Tomás Cruz. And as a performing unit, the élite of 1997 could go head to head with the monster Issac Delgado group that recorded Rarities. If one were blessed with a Timba Time Machine, its default setting would have to be 1997. On any given night, Havana´s blazing nightclub scene might feature the Charanga Habanera of “Tremendo delirio,” the Los Van Van of “Esto te pone la cabeza mala,” the Manolín band of “De buena fe,” the Bamboleo of “Yo no me parezco a nadie,” the Klimax of “Juego de manos” and of course the twin juggernauts of Issac and Paulito. Incredibly, 1997 witnessed what was arguably the greatest incarnation of each of these seven groups.
3 Manolito y su Trabuco
Founded on February 25, 1993, and having already started to develop their style when various key members were part of Maravillas de Florida, Manolito y su Trabuco was one of the first timba bands, but it wasn´t until the second wave, in 1995, that they released their first album, Directo al corazón. In 2006, about to release their 7th album, Hablando en serio, they enjoyed a gradual and steady rise in popularity and are now generally considered to be among the top timba bands in Havana.
We strongly recommend that you see this band live if humanly possible. Like Issac Delgado, Manolito y su Trabuco is one of those bands that you have to see live to fully appreciate how great they are—one of the tightest and most powerful ensembles on the planet. They tour Europe regularly and keep threatening to extend their touring to the US. For those who love traditional Cuban music and are nervous that Timba is a bit too modern for their tastes, Manolito provides the clearcut entryway to the glories of Cuban music in the 90´s and 00´s. They combine the authentic flavor of Son with the raw, African fury of Timba in a way that leaves everyone deeply satisfied.
4 Lázaro Valdés y Bamboleo
With its beginnings in 1995, Bamboleo has become one of the most sought after Cuban groups within the last decade. Led by composer, arranger & pianist Lázaro Valdés Jr., they were immediately tagged as “cutting edge” due to their aggressive sound and funky, and avante–garde fashion sense. It is interesting to note they were the first hard–core timba band to make women the lead singers and main protagonists of their stage show; the female point of view has always been a key element to their sound. As a result, Bamboleo has become a socio–cultural phenomenon, integrating a new style of dance, fashion and language into the Cuban culture. Their second and third albums, Yo no me parezco a nadie and Ya no hace falta are must–haves in any timba collection as they feature the hard–driving funky piano style of Valdés and the group´s tight, complex, and classy arrangements that mix orchestral and jazzy influences. They are known for the hottest and sweatiest weekday matinees (which are typically very crowded due to their ‘moneda nacional´ price) at Casa de la Música de Galiano. Don´t miss them.
5 La Charanga Habanera
David Calzado and Charanga Habanera have been on the cutting edge of Timba since they played a seminal role in defining the genre in 1992. The original Charanga Habanera recorded four indispensible classic albums before a whirlwind of personnel changes beginning in 1997 split them into three separate groups: Charanga Forever, Dany Lozada y su Timba Cubana, and David Calzado´s new Charanga Habanera. This group of pages lays the foundation for all three groups and then follows the career of David Calzado and the band known today as Charanga Habanera. Each of the other groups has its own section of timba.com and we hope to soon add pages for the current groups of other ex–members of the original Charanga Habanera.
Read more about La Charanga Habanera including downloading songs athttp://www.timba.com/artists/charangahabanera
6 Azúcar Negra
Azúcar Negra was formed in 1998 when Leonel Limonta, Haila Mompié (no longer with the band), and other musicians split off from Bamboleo. Limonta had written almost all of the material for Bamboleo´s brilliant second album, Yo no me parezco a nadie and Haila was one of the lead singers. Azúcar Negra created a great new arrangement of the title song and Limonta continued to pour his songwriting talent into the project. In 2001, after a number of world tours, they finally released their first studio album, Andar andando. Their second CD, Sin mirar atrás, was released in early 2004. In 2008, they released Exceso de equipaje, pictured above.
All of Azúcar Negra´s material is written by Limonta, who also wrote four huge hits for Charanga Habanera and two for Issac Delgado. Juan Carlos González said of Limonta, “He´s not a trained musician, but every song he brought in had some kind of special magic and became a huge hit.” Various bandmembers have contributed arrangements, such as Adalberto Domínguez, who is also once of Timba´s top bassists, a great pianist, and an absolute wonder to watch on stage.
In the years prior to the release of Andar andando, Azúcar Negra, like many Cuban bands, had a string of radio hits. The bands record relatively inexpensive demos and release them to Radio Taíno and other stations. In some cases, such as Paulito´s “La última Bala,” the demo winds up being better than the recorded version because of personal changes. In other cases, great songs are released as demos and then never officially released. Two of Timba´s greatest tracks fall into this category: Paulito´s “Laura” and Azúcar Negra´s “Almas disfrazadas.” Azúcar Negra released four of its demos to mp3.com, including “Almas disfrazadas” but the site is now defunct and the single is no longer available. The other two songs are on Andar andando. Click on our DISCS button above to learn more about Azúcar Negra´s discography.
Azúcar Negra is an extremely well–rehearsed band whose live show is full of interesting medleys and segues. They´re definitely a thrill to see live. They only have the two albums, but they´re so packed with great music that we count them among the upper echelon of Timba bands, especially considering the past accomplishments of Limonta.
7 Charanga Forever
Charanga Forever was formed in the summer of 1998 as a result of the famous breakup of Charanga Habanera. The original members of the group were all formerly in Charanga Habanera and the early parts of their careers are covered in great depth in our now completed section on the four albums of the original Charanga Habanera: Hey you, Loca, Pa´ que se entere La Habana and Tremendo delirio. The story of the breakup and the early years of Charanga Forever is covered in the article “Charanga Habanera: The Breakup and Beyond.” We also have a long article written by former Charanga Forever pianist/arranger Juan Carlos González, and an interview with former bassist/leader Pedro Pablo Gutiérrez. Both of these articles are available in English and Spanish. Finally, we have Allan Johnston´s article, “The Bass Style of Pedro Pablo Gutiérrez.” Pedro Pablo is now the leader of Rebambaramba, one of the strongest new groups of the 2000s.
Juan Carlos González and Michel Maza returned briefly in 1999, recording one excellent 7–track CD (see Discography). Original members gradually departed throughout the 2000s but the new members have been very promising and two excellent Envidia CDs have been released.
Haila María Mompié is the most charismatic and attractive female lead singer in timba. But Haila´s success is more than a result of her good looks. When Haila walks onto a stage, all eyes turn to her. She possesses the indefinable “It” that separates stars from competent singers. This charisma in combination with her voice has made her one of the undisputable divas of Cuban music. In 1998 Yo no me parezco a nadie clearly established both Haila and Bamboleo as major forces in the world of Timba. Nearly every song on this truly great album was arranged by leader Lázaro Valdés and written by Leonel Limonta, whose brilliant lyrics and soulful melodies created a powerful and unique chemistry with Valdés´s dramatic R&B; and Jazz fusion–laced arrangements. Limonta had already written a string of indispensable hits for Charanga Habanera and Issac Delgado, but with Yo no me parezco he got a chance create an entire album and it turned out to be one of the great classics of the Timba genre. The title track became Haila´s signature song, and she turned in an equally brilliant performance on the album´s finale—“Con un canto en el pecho.”
In Bamboleo, Haila was teamed with another of Cuba´s most important female vocalists, Vannia Borges. They were electrifying on stage, but they were more than just divas. As coristas they had an exquisite blend which attracted the attention of no less that Manolín, el Médico de la Salsa, who used them on his 1997 masterpiece, “De buena fe.”
9 Maykel Blanco y su Salsa Mayor
Maykel Blanco is one of the most talented young musicians in Cuba today. An excellent percussionist and pianist, he is also a talented composer and producer and at the age of 26 (at the time of this article) he is director of one of the fastest rising bands on the Timba scene: Maykel Blanco y Su Salsa Mayor.
Maykel has been heavily influenced by classic timba such as NG La Banda, La Charanga Habanera and Los Van Van. In his early years, Maykel was part of such groups as Gen–Cortés, Abel y La Seducción and La Constelación before founding his first group at the tender age of 15. At 18 he started Maykel Blanco y La Suprema Ley. Maykel released one album with Suprema Ley, Llegaron los cubanos (Envidia 2003), composed and produced by Maykel himself. Llegaron los cubanos has a strong base in son, but also ventures into aspects of rumba and the elements we expect in timba such as gear changes and “attitude.” One of the featured singers is Tirso Duarte and Maykel returned the favor by playing timbal on Tirso´s CD, Si la vida te dice baila (Envidia 2004). My personal favorite from Llegaron los cubanos is “El veterano, which Salsa Mayor performs in the potpurri on the upcoming live album (Envidia 2007).
10 César “Pupy” Pedroso
César “Pupy” Pedroso (aka “Pupi Pedroso”) is one of the key figures not only in Timba, but in the last 40 years of Cuban pop music. As well as being one Cuba´s best and most prolific composers, he played a seminal role in revolutionizing the art of salsa piano playing.
He started with Orquesta Revé and then became a founding member of Los Van Van. In the summer of 2001, he left to form his own group, Pupy y los que son son, which has now released four of the best CD´s of the decade.
“De Roldofo Cárdenas y Pupy Pedroso” by Ilán Greenfield. One of Pupy´s favorite collaborators was the late great lyricist Rodolfo Cárdenas, who wrote such LVV classics as “Que le den candela.” Be sure to read (and listen to) Ilán´s moving retrospective of this great musical partnership.