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1990 (recorded in 1989) - En La Calle - "No te compliques" was an interesting and eclectic mixture of musical styles, but one year later, NG recorded an album which was so powerful and original that it single-handedly created a musical style of its own - Timba. Valdés had left, leaving the vocal duties to Calá and Issac. The monster conguero Wickly had joined, Averhoff was replaced by Rolando Pérez and screaming lead player Chappotín was brought in to replace Munguía on trumpet. "En la Calle" was the first Timba album and is still one of the best. The title is a bit confusing. NG released "En la Calle" in '89, "No Se Puede Tapar el Sol" in '90 and then "En la Calle Otra Vez" in '92. None of these was ever released in its entirety on CD, but fortunately they were heard in Cuba by Ned Sublette, a music industry pioneer who played a large role in bringing Cuban music to the American public. In 1992, Sublette's label, QBADisc, released a compilation of 9 tracks from "En la Calle" and "No se puede tapar el sol". This is the "En la calle" which can be purchased on CD today and which, almost a decade after its release was still ranked in a poll of Timba fans as one of the 3 best Timba albums of all time and is our #1 NG La Banda recommendation for the first-time listener. All but one of the tracks from the original EGREM "En la Calle" appear on the QBADisc release.
When Arturo "Marcané" Gómez of WDNA began playing "La Expresiva" on the radio it created such a sensation that he sometimes had to play it twice during the same show. And that was in the United States! The song took Cuba by storm. It was written by Fidel Morales, but Tosco redid the arrangement and added a series of coros which saluted the various barrios of La Habana - Habana Vieja, Vedado, Buena Vista, etc. Morales later released a version of the song based on the NG arrangement. It would be almost impossible not love this euphoric song - almost every phrase contains a hook. Issac's warm, spirited performance confirms his claim on the 2000 release, "La Fórmula", that he had his "tumbao pega'o" quite a ways back.
"La Expresiva" is also a beautiful way to discover NG's incredible bassist, Feliciano Arango. The first verse, at 0:10, is bursting with tasty melodic bass licks that dance all around Issac's vocal phrases much as Lester Young's sax lines complemented those of Billie Holiday. At 1:09 Arango creates the same kind of magical counterpoint against the horns. At 1:15 he inserts another wonderful bass device that's so common in Timba, but was so rare before it...silence! At 2:05 is one of the earliest instances of the now common bass figure which slides down the neck on the upbeats of 2 and 4 - this style is now called bomba and is part of the vocabulary of every Timba bassist.
After the first mambo at 1:15, the clave changes from 2:3 to 3:2. The last two beats of the mambo are omitted and the next section begins on the other side of the clave with only piano and güiro. At first it sounds like the piano is finishing the 2:3 phrase but it’s actually starting a new one in 3:2 as confirmed by the later entrance of the coro. The same process occurs in reverse at the end, when the opening horn section comes back briefly in 2:3. This exciting arrangement technique, which we like to call a "New York Style" clave change, is not new to Timba - it can be found in all sorts of early folkloric music and was used in a myriad of brilliant ways by artists such as Ruben Blades and The Fania All-Stars - but what is uniquely "timba" about this section is the way the texture changes so dramatically. For a brief moment we hear only piano; then Issac’s spoken voice and the gúiro; then Arango’s bomba bass; then Wickly’s tumbao; then a bluesy flute lick from Tosco; then the coro, which has an a capella flavor due to the absence of a normal bassline; then Issac’s first guía. The full band comes in with Issac’s second guía. Another Timba breakthrough is the piano montuno itself, which is quite unlike the montuno to any other song. Devised by Miguelito Armas, it’s an original miniature composition with a catchy hook. Timba pianists would later take this concept much further, but it’s clearly present even here, on the first true Timba album. Still another Timba innovation is the way the structure and length of the coros keep changing as the arrangement winds its way through the various barrios of La Habana, and the changing intervals at which the full band drops in and out of the texture. In the best Timba, three elements of salsa arranging that had been fairly standardized and formulaic - coros, piano montunos, and bass tumbaos - are given a new degree of importance. Each is expected to be a unique mini-composition with a musical identity specific to just that song.
Abel Robaina, who lived in Habana at the time, remembers "La Protesta de los Chivos" as NG’s first big hit. The changes in texture are even more dramatic here. At 0:17 a short bloque gives way to Los Metales de Terror playing completely unaccompanied. The band comes back in for a single punch and then the beautifully harmonized coro is featured, also completely a capella. Next is another percussion bloque and Calá’s chivo (goat) impression. Another early example of what was to become a very common and effective Timba arranging device comes at 3:22. After the horns exit, Tony begins to talk, as if to the crowd. On the second clave, the band plays a bloque underneath him and then breaks down to a more subdued groove. The innovation is the idea of playing the bloque after the new section begins, rather than using it to introduce the new section. Using Calá’s short rap for another clave change, the coro comes in at 3:31 in 3:2 clave. Calá uses his guía at 3:56 to flip it back around to 2:3 and introduce a section which features an early example of an extremely important Timba device, the extended bloque. The first part occurs at 3:59 underneath the vocal, but then after then horns play over a bomba breakdown the percussion comes back at 4:18 with another long series of rhythmic punches. Only two tracks into "En la Calle" we have already seen many of the most important innovations of Timba in full flower, as well as early excursions into areas that would be explored more fully in later years.
The blazing hot "Que Viva Changó" is the only song from the EGREM "En la Calle" not to appear on the QBADisc CD of the same name, which is a shame because it’s truly a monster track. Ned Sublette said that Luaka Bop had already nabbed it for a different compilation. See the fourth section of this guide to learn more about finding this indispensable performance.
The arrangement of "Que Viva Changó" takes the textbook approach to clave and stands it on its ear! Like "La Expresiva" it’s a timbafication of a more traditional song by another artist, in this case guajira singer Celina González, and the lyrics force an unusual transition from chorus to verse which causes the 2:3 clave to stop for two beats - an interesting challenge which Calá and Piloto solve brilliantly, and differently, each time it comes up. Compare 0:51, 1:29, 2:06, 2:43 and 3:21. In each case, everyone drops out except for voice and drums, who must fill the extra two beats and then land on the opposite side of the clave. A particularly graceful example is at 2:06. Calá rides the upbeats and Piloto plays a bell pattern and then quickly repeats it with a variation before bringing the groove back in with a single timbale hit. Like the later "Santa Palabra", there are many verses but the players pour so many creative variations into each one that the listener can keep discovering new and exciting nuances even after years of listening to the song.
"Los Metales de Terror" have a field day with this chart. At 4:36 they enter one at a time on successively higher degrees of a diminished seventh chord, creating an incredible effect. At 5:02 just as they’re ending the phrase, Tony jumps in with an inspired "Sarabanda, "Sarabanda, Sarabanda, Sarabanda, Sarabanda pa’ Changó", the first of three electrifying guías. The coristas come in on the last one to harmonize with the lead, another great Timba arranging device later used extensively by Issac, Bamboleo and others. The dynamics come down for a mambo over a rhythm that Miguel Armas refers to as a "Puerto Rican style" guaguancó, which is to say that the bass and congas are playing the characteristic "high-high-low" guaguancó melody on the "3" side of the clave. (This is actually also how the original Cuban guaguancó style was played before Los Muñequitos de Matanzas popularized the modern approach in which the congas "answer" the clave instead of reinforcing it.) This mambo gradually builds the energy level back up and then the band breaks down for Calá to talk, introducing the next coro, which tragically fades out in the 6:33 version included on several albums. The eight minute version fills the extra minute and a half with various treasures, including a breakdown to an a capella coro against a bomba bassline which leads, at 7:24, to a simple, but every so funky offbeat bloque played by Arango and Piloto. With "La Expresiva", "La Protesta de los Chivos" and "Que Viva Changó", NG introduced dozens of powerful arranging ideas which would become the foundation for the musical vocabulary of all the great Timba bands to follow.
The final three tracks of "En la Calle" are just as deserving of detailed description as the first three. The first half of "To’ el Mundo e’ Bueno, Camará" features very interesting suspended vocal harmonies with the individual voices moving at different times. The transition to the coro section at 2:22 is especially exciting -- timbale fills lead into a short dynamic brass figure and then a piano montuno with an interesting upwards leap every other time through. The coro section has a much darker, harder, funkier mood than the opening. It goes without saying that Tony Cala’s vocal is exquisite, as are all of the lead vocals on this album, but the coros are also of the highest quality, and this coro section is as special as the vaunted horn section. The blend and intonation are pristine and the parts are always cleverly harmonized. Piloto recalls that Paulito FG sang coro on some of the early NG recordings and this may be one of them. The coros are so perfectly blended that it’s hard to make out individual voices but at 4:24 it’s possible to imagine that this could be one of the coros in which Paulito participated. Singing coro is a very different art than singing lead in that the idea is to blend rather than to have one’s individual style stick out and the lead singers of NG La Banda fully understood this. "To’ el Mundo" has 4 different coro sections, each unique and interesting. The last one at 6:11 is particularly funky and sounds great when the piano drops out and lets the voices stand out against the percussion. When the band roars back in, the coro is shortened and pitted against the horns, another common and effective Timba arranging technique. The final two tracks are both sung by Issac. "Necesito Una Amiga" is a pretty pop tune throughout, and was later made into a hit in the U.S. by Johnny Rivera and Sergio George. "Lo que Siento es Le Lo Ley" is an early example of the kind of arrangement Issac has had so much success with. It starts at a very well-written pop song penned by violinist/arranger Dagoberto González who later worked with Manolín and Los Van Van. It slowly and steadily builds in intensity until by the end it’s on fire. The song was very popular and was extended to 12 or 13 minutes in live performances, such as the one in the timba.com MP3 Library.