Cuba, A Forbidden Musical Paradise

Like a ’58 Chevy with a turbo thrust V-8 under the hood, Havana has all cylinders firing day and night. Every time I’ve been there, there’s been some sort of street fair or carnaval, and music wafts from every building whether it’s live or slamming Charanga Habanera from the boom box. People’s lives are pretty exposed there owing to the way the homes are built with courtyards, balconies, and open doors to let the breeze in. Walking down the street during the day you’re just as likely to hear groups rehearsing as a bata drum being carved, or watching school children in uniform rehearsing for a parade. Even small cafés and restaurants have live music and by showing even the slightest interest you’ll make friends and even be asked to sit in.


Antique abakua drums at the Museum of Music, Havana.

As soon as you arrive, head over to the National Museum Of Music in old Havana, which has an extensive collection of instruments. You can see the evolution of rum barrels into congas, and cod crates into cajons. You’ll see old copper tympani introduced by the French, which over the years have shrunk in size and evolved into timbales, as well as see bongos with the original synthetic skin, tucked with x-ray film!


Typical timbales.

In old Havana you can visit the craft market to buy a gourd guiro or pair of claves, or to grab a drink where Earnest Hemingway used to hang out. Lot’s of the hotels have rooftop terraces with spectacular views, and getting there is half the fun. You can hail an old classic taxi that plies set routes for about a buck, although I prefer the Cocotaxi, a coconut-shaped version that hops on curbs and zooms down back allies. If you get bored, you can venture to Chinatown for the best food in town, buy $2 CDs on the streets, or get a day pass at one of the hotels to use their pool or Internet connection.

Salsa Cubana/Timba

A salsa ensemble will typically have separate players on drum set, timbales, and congas, as well as on bongos and guiro. And unlike rumba where three individuals play the three separate congas, in salsa a conguero will play three, four, or even five congas at once. Groups that play in Havana regularly and typify the timba sound include Charanga Habanera, Pupy y los Que Son Son, and Klimax. In the Cuban brand of salsa it’s the timbalero who’s driving the bus rhythmically, and this frees up the drum set player to play more, well, like a percussionist.

For inspiration, if you like holding sticks in your hands, check out Herlan Sariol (Bamboleo) and Jean Roberto San Cristobal (Klimax) to get a sense of timbaleros as primary time-keepers with their relentless use of jam blocks and bells to drive the band, as well as their use of abanicos (literally “fan,” the sick rolls timbaleros play) to signal section changes or dynamics. Artists who pioneered the use of drum set in timba include Giraldo Piloto (NG La Banda, Klimax), Samuel Formell (Los Van Van), Jimmy Branly (NG la Banda), Ludwig Nunez (Bamboleo), and Eduardo Velazquez (Chispa y los Complices). Or if jazz is your thing, give a listen to Dafnis Prieto as well as classic Irakere recordings featuring Enrique Pla, both of whom are jazz drummers influencing the direction of Latin jazz drumming as we speak.

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