José Luis Cortes

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NG La Banda taps primal energy of Cuban streets

"This is not your father's Cuban music"

By Jordan Levin special to The Miami Herald

José Luis Cortes, known in Cuba as El Tosco (roughly, "Rude Boy"), strolls down Lincoln Road looking like a slick '70s funkster in red hat, red and black suit, red patent-leather shoes, a gold ring with a huge ruby, and gold-trimmed sunglasses, playing Mozart's Concerto in G Major on his flute.

Afterward, at Yuca restaurant, he chain-smokes and drinks rum and Cokes while delivering a learned, passionate and occasionally profane history and defense of timba, the music of urban Cuba. It's a music that Cortes largely defined with his group NG La Banda

"The intellectuals say that timba is crap," Cortes says."But this is a racist concept. Cuban popular music has always been the music of  the people, of the poor barrios, where there are very few whites. This is the music that comes from below, that makes people want to dance. But just because people dance to it doesn't mean it's not as serious as any other serious music.'Timba is not your father's, or your grandfather's, Cuban music; not the sweet traditional sounds of the international hit Buena Vista Social Club. Timba is the sound of Cuba now, a rhythmically dense, relentlessly energetic music played by highly skilled musicians for a demanding dance-floor audience, with lyrics that draw from and become part of the language of the streets.

Two Cuban artists who played in Miami in the past year, Issac Delgado and Manolín, El Medico de la Salsa, are among timba's biggest stars. Now comes NG (pronounced 'enna-hey', for Nueva Generacion) La Banda, widely acknowledged as the style's groundbreaking masters, to Miami Beach's Cameo Theatre Tuesday night.

"Timba comes from the same root as salsa, but it's harder, blacker and easier to dance to," says Ned Sublette, whose small label QBADISC was one of the first to release contemporary Cuban music, including NG's En La Calle, in 1992. "It has the power that rock and roll had."


But primal energy does not make it primitive, and NG is the best example of that. "El Tosco has to an extreme degree what many Cuban musicians and bandleaders have -- they're educated musicians and they're street,''  Sublette says. "Timba has this hard raw energy and at the same time it can be very erudite. In Cuba the heaviest players and most advanced musicians are playing slamming dance music for black teenagers."

Cortes says this vitality is, and always has been, the basis of Cuban music's power and appeal. "There has to be a combination of sounds, rhythms and spirit. It's very contradictory, because there's a level [of skill] that you have to reach in order to accept this spirit, that allows the music to enter you or not."

Although timba is a '90s phenomenon, it developed out of the '60s and '70s. (The word is an even older slang term for music that is rhythmically hot, that swings.) Cortes, 48, says that state art schools during this period emphasized the study of classical and jazz music -- the island's traditional music was considered unworthy of serious study. "You couldn't play popular Cuban music in [the state art] school,'' Cortes says.

While it was developing a generation of skilled musicians, Cuba was largely isolated from Western pop music, though some American influences leaked in during the '70s when relations with the United States softened. Los Van Van, still one of Cuba's hottest dance bands, broke new ground by incorporating elements of funk and rock, and Irakere fused traditional Afro-Cuban with American jazz music.

Artistic influences

Cortes was educated at the National School of Art, and played with Van Van from 1970 to 1980 and with Irakere from 1980 to 1987. He founded NG in 1988 to meld his formal knowledge with the music of the poor neighborhood he grew up in -- rumba, guaguanco, son -- as an alternative to the watered-down music he heard on television and other official outlets. "I wanted to do something with the flavor of Van Van and the musical aggressiveness of Irakere..." Cortes says. He wanted "to give [popular music] the same artistic and aesthetic value that we give to other great forms of music." NG came up by gigging in the barrios -- one of their early hits, La Expresiva, is a tribute to Havana's poor neighborhoods. Its success spawned  similar acts, like Issac Delgado (who started by singing with NG), Manolín (whose first songs were recorded by NG) and Charanga Habanera. Several factors in the early '90s helped spur the new musical style: Diminishing state support during the economic breakdown of the "special period" meant musicians needed to draw bigger audiences to make a living; timba's intensity, distinctive Havana argot and blunt sensuality -- analogous to American rap -- appealed to a broad, young audience. Coincidentally, a rising influx of tourists found timba easier to dance to than salsa. Soon, even Los Van Van added younger musicians and timba elements like "shout-out" call-and-response style choruses. "The energy is so strong, it's like a rocket taking off," says Manning Salazar, who is presenting NG with his partner in Ceiba Productions. "There's something raw about it -- it's not pre-digested. It's important for people in Miami to have access to this music. It helps you understand what's going on there."

Power of anarchy

Timba's energy and broad appeal give it an anarchic power not always in harmony with a state-controlled society. While the songs are not overtly political, when Charanga Habanera's lyrics talk about using condoms, or Manolín sings of having friends in Miami, or Van Van says, "I'm going to publish your photo everywhere in the press" in a country without an independent press, they articulate a reality ignored by official media.

"Popular music fills a lot of the functions of the press in Cuba," says Sublette. "The bands take a phrase that could have a lot of different interpretations, that crams a lot of possible meanings into five or six words. The Cuban public invests the songs with meaning. The genius of Cuban lyricists in the last 10 years is to talk about their situation in a way that asks questions more than provides answers, and lets you draw your own conclusions."

Although timba has been Cuba's most powerful musical trend in the '90s, no important new bands have emerged recently, and some have broken up or, like Delgado and his band, are living outside the island. Nevertheless, Cortes believes in timba's continuing relevance. "Cuban popular music has a huge velocity right now," says Cortes, "because there are so many economic problems and people need something that speaks to how they're struggling, how they live."

Talking to the street

To Cortes, talking to the street is the same as playing to the street -- and is the essence of a Cuban artist. "I've defended [timba] against censorship because this is our music," he says. "If you have a son, he is your son, whether he smokes marijuana or hangs out in the street, or if he's a great author or singer -- whatever he is, he is your son."

Cortes addressed the criticism in Cronica Social, a song banned from Cuban radio, where he includes himself in a long line of great Cuban musicians and asks whether those who criticize him have been in barrios where people rise at 5 a.m. for work. "No me llama chabacando/lo que soy es tremendo Cubano" ("Don't call me vulgar, what I am is an awesome Cuban)" goes the chorus.

"I get my music from what people are saying on the street," Cortes says. "This is not politics -- this is the social reality of Cuba now. My only project -- and it's a beautiful one -- is to show the reality of Cuba now, the way they talk, its idiosyncrasy, its flavor. My only politics are to defend the truth. I'm a musician, not a politician. Politics of the right or the left are bull---- to me."

So fundamental is Cortes' impulse to respond to what is around him that he has written two songs about Miami since arriving here Oct. 31 -- which he and NG will play Tuesday. He offers what is both an invitation and a challenge to people to come and listen. "So many of the Cubans here have this image of Cuban popular music that ended with Son de la Loma [an old-style song]. But timba is the music that they're playing in Havana now. We have played in 69 countries -- if the Colombians or Japanese can understand this, then a Cuban here should also."

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Last modified on 30.11.98