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Photos of the Day [hide]
Such is the case with the opening track, “Quítate el disfraz”, the second in the trilogy of songs that Leonel Limonta contributed to CH’s repertoire. As Juan Carlos González put it, “Limonta wasn’t a trained musician but every song he brought us had some kind of magic and became a huge hit”.
"Quítate el disfraz” begins dramatically with a beautifully harmonized coro, "vamos a quitarnos el disfraz, que se lo quite la gente", against a backdrop of synthesizer, rumba clave, the trademark backbeat kick drum, and snippets of rapid-fire Cuban conversation. [audio example 1] This verbal conversation is followed by a musical one between the bass and the kick drum when the cuerpo begins at 0:31. The kick drum starts by playing what would be the first two notes of 3:2 clave, although the arrangement is in 2:3 clave at this point, and the bass answers with the backbeat pattern that was played by the kick drum at the beginning of the track. [audio example 2] The conversation continues and develops throughout the distinctly original cuerpo. This idea of the kick drum outlining the 3 side of the clave while the clave itself is playing the 2 side evolved into what would become the most common kick drum pattern in Timba. As the conga does in guaguancó, the kick drum in Timba echoes the clave instead of reinforcing it. It’s also freed from the task of reinforcing the bass. In funk and many other types of music the kick drum sometimes even doubles the bass. In Cuban music it becomes an independent musical voice. As pointed out by Curtis Lanoue, who co-authored "Afro-Cuban Percussion" with master percussionist José Eladio, this kind of rhythmic polyphony, the independence of each voice, is one of the key concepts in Cuban music from its earliest Afro-Cuban origins to modern-day Timba. If all this seems too technical, just turn up the volume and listen to the lowest sounds! It takes no musical training to hear and appreciate the funky melody created by the combination of the kick drum and bass, and to realize how significant this became in the ongoing development of timba. Before leaving this section, note that an even more elaborate three-part conversation is going on among the voices, horns, and strings. Each section is playing a completely different melody and the three are interwoven perfectly -- with each other and with the melody of the bass & kick.
The cuerpo (verse, verse, chorus) is repeated twice and leads, at 1:49, to a very creative early example of another important Timba advancement, which we like to call the "asymmetrical coro". As mentioned in our NG La Banda pages, normal salsa coros usually last 2 or 4 measures and then leave a hole of the same length for the lead singer to fill, but in Timba the length and form of the coro and guía sections provide a prime opportunity for musical creativity. Listen to the interplay between the lead singer and the coro in following example.[audio example 3]. Instead of a series of two or four bar exchanges, the lyrics and musical ideas control the flow of the conversation between the lead and backup vocals.
The result of all this asymmetry is a thoroughly unique piece of music rather than the usual series of predictable musical sections one expects to hear in salsa. Like The Beatles, and of course, like their own favorite English language group, Earth, Wind & Fire, Charanga Habanera used the basic format of Latin dance music merely as a taking-off point for their musical creations.
The music of CH itself became a taking-off point for rest of the timba revolution. Manolín penned a number of CH’s hits, but when he formed his own band, its style was in turn deeply influenced by CH's arrangements. The mambo at 2:35 of “Quítate el disfraz” is an example of the type of R&B phrasing and abrupt dynamic changes that became such an important part of the style of Manolín and his “chamacos” when they took the island by storm a year or two later. [audio example 4]
El Médico was not the only timba artist to be heavily influenced by CH. Listen to Sombrilla’s guía at 3:40 - “mi novia es amiga de ella y también la conocía”. [audio example 5] Now, go to 3:10 of Issac Delgado’s Grammy-nominated song “La Fórmula”. [audio example 6] Note that the phrase containing the word “también” is essentially the same in both melodies. In “La fórmula”, Issac and his arranger Joel Domínguez are paying tribute to Issac’s many musical influences, and when they get to CH (“con La Charanga Habanera, y también con Manolín…”), they pay an even more direct tribute by paraphrasing the guía from "Quítate el disfraz".. Is this an intentional or subconscious reference? In either case, it supports our contention that the timba phenomenon, like so many other important musical genres, is the result of many groups, in the same geographic location, all feeding off each others’ creative accomplishments such that the end result is much greater than the sum of the parts. Had they lived anywhere else in the world, neither CH, nor Manolín, nor Issac and his group could have reached the level that they have. If you visit Havana, go to a nightclub, and quickly scan through the audience, you’ll invariably see members of at least a couple other major bands, and the chances of them sitting in are very good. In fact, it’s unusual to go to a show in Havana without seeing a guest appearance by at least one famous member of another group. Like bebop in NYC in the 40’s, rock in England or San Francisco in the late 60’s, salsa in NYC in the late 70’s, orchestral and chamber music in Vienna in the 19th Century, etc., timba in the 90’s and 00’s in Havana is more than just a coincidental collection of great bands in the same town. In fact, each band listens to, assimilates, borrows from, and strives to equal and surpass the accomplishments of the others and it’s this very type of environment in which all of the great genres in the history of music have thrived.
It should be noted that many of CH’s guías, including the one just mentioned, were actually written by David Calzado, whose gift for inventing melodically and rhythmically inspired vocal ideas which fit the style and personality of each singer has helped him earn his widespread reputation for being able to take a good singer and turn him into a great one in a very short time.
One of the highlights of the arrangement is the section that begins at 3:49, pitting the coro against the brass. After two repeats things really start to get wild. The baby bass slides down off of its last note and drops out completely, along with the congas, as the brass jumps up an octave. Once again the “addition by subtraction” technique succeeds and the energy level surges. The piano, which had been doubling the bass rhythmically, roars into a montuno and now becomes the principal time-keeper, relentlessly straining against the pulse like a race horse chomping at the bit. The güiro, which along with maracas, played such a prominent role in the first album, is now fainter in the mix and the piano, timbales, voices and brass are exposed more dramatically. The timbalero stops playing his bell and concentrates on playing fills against the clave and backbeat kick drum pattern. Note the psychedelic approach to the mix! “Oye Maricusa” is followed by a fill which features three notes of an electro-tom in the right channel followed by a snare drum hit in the left. But after the next phrase, “quítate la blusa”, the tom and snare switch sides in the mix! This Beatle-esque creative attention to detail signals the ascent to the supreme climax of the arrangement. As the fourth and final repetition ends, the bass and congas return and the whole band reinforces the sharp double stab of the horns, and then very quickly and dramatically echoes it, leaving a split second of silence for one of Lazaga's super-funky timbale fills before a perfectly-timed eruption of brass which simply defies description.. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, we can stop waxing on about these 16 bars of arranging genius and let you hear them for yourself. [audio example 7]
Note that all of this is occurring simultaneously on many levels, fully spanning the seven chakras. While the English-speaking music freak revels in bliss, savoring the multiple layers of compositional power and sophistication, the lyrics are saying, quite simply, “Yo! Maricusa! Take off your blouse! And you, Pantaleón, bad enough that you stole my girlfriend, at least you could return my blue jeans!”. [2006 note: Well, I got that translation wrong! Pantaleón didn't steal his girlfriend - just his pants, and Maricusa wasn't his girlfriend - his actual girlfriend lent Maricusa the blouse -- I thought it was runnier the other way!] Indeed, as the composer Limonta tells us in his timba.com interview, he became inspired to write the song one night at the Palacio de la Salsa when a young woman was so moved by the music that she began to disrobe as she danced.
But it’s still not over! Sombrilla (who would still be known to all as “Mayito” had a certain Señor Rivera not become synonymous with that particular apodo) returns with another round of inspired guías, the last of which is so great that it justifies the majestic climax which preceeded it. “ No es un Jordache, no es un Carache, ese es mi pitusa Lee”. "Jordache", "Carache" and "Lee", all manufacturers of jeans, are the first of a number of phonetically-pronounced proper names to found on this album which can leave even native Spanish-speakers scratching their heads and leafing through their dictionaries to no avail! But the musical language is clear and powerful -- “no es un Carache” polyrhythmically echoes “no es un Jordache” and then Sombilla leaps onto the upbeat like a true rumbero and fires off “ese es mi pitusa Lee” with an inspired flourish. [audio example 8]