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Sin Clave No Hay Na
The New York Mega Timba Concert, Verse 3
Verse 3 - A Concert Against All Odds
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Story and photos by Bill Tilford, all rights reserved
(para leer en español oprima aquí)
When Saturday arrived, I knew that I wasn’t going to try to do the VIP “Meet & Greet” with the fans. For one thing, as a writer, I have learned over the years that it really is better for my own blood pressure to let the regular fans have their own time at those things. For another, I had no idea where and when it would be. (I later learned that it was in the Rooftop 760 section of the club complex.)
I did want to see the sound check, and after some effort and assistance, I was able to get into the club around 5 PM. (There was still no noticeable poster outside the entrance to the club. Did someone decide that the event was top secret?) I saw a few microphones and an engineer who was eagerly awaiting musicians and instruments. No musicians, no disc jockey, no sound, no sound check, just an engineer and equipment eagerly awaiting something to happen. As 6 pm approached, things didn’t look much different. Since the show was supposed to start at 6, this was not a good thing. More time passed. No real crowd was coming in either. One of the club’s staff, a brave young fellow named Denis, finally decided that there really should be music one way or another. By his own account, he was not a disc jockey and knew nothing about Cuban music but did know how to operate almost all of the equipment in the club including the DJ equipment. Heroically, he began assembling a downloaded playlist in the booth so that the audience would at least have something to dance to until the bands came in. By this time, there was no escaping the fact that this concert was going to start – sometime - without a sound check by the engineer standing near me. Bad sound can ruin even the best bands and sometimes has when bands from Cuba have performed in the United States, so I began mentally preparing myself for an impending disaster.
...Testing, zero, zero, zero...
As the crowd began trickling in, music began playing from the DJ booth. Unfortunately, as Denis himself had warned me earlier, he knew nothing about Cuban music, and as fate had it, the music that was initially available for his use was all Puerto Rican Salsa. The crowd was still very small initially, but as it began to grow, an increasing number of people began to complain that this was not their music. A turning point for me came when I heard Marc Anthony’s “El Cantante” coming through the speakers. Since the musicians were still nowhere in sight and it looked like no professional disc jockey would be coming to the rescue either, I was faced with a decision: should I do what journalists normally do and allow things to get really ugly, or should I try to help? Trying to help seemed like a better idea than watching the crowd go nuclear, so I stepped up into the DJ booth. By this time, Denis had already figured out that he needed different music and was setting up a different playlist. I asked him how he was doing and took a look at what he was setting up. It was Cuban music – Ibrahim Ferrer, Buena Vista Social Club, Celia Cruz, that sort of thing. That settled it. I explained to him that Timba fans were a special breed and asked him if he would like some help finding the right stuff. To his credit, he happily agreed, and together we were able to eventually piece together a playlist that included some actual Timba and other modern Cuban music. (I’m not a disc jockey either; I functioned purely as the “Cuban content” inspector.) As the right music began reaching their ears, the gradually - growing crowd began to settle into dancing even as they were wondering out loud when the bands were finally going to appear.
After 8 pm, even Denis was asking “Where are the bands”? I explained to him that in my travels across other parts of the country, it was not all that unusual for bands to start playing around midnight and stay on stage until as late as 2 or 3 in the morning. (Of course, one of the reasons for this is that a lot people frequently arrive late to these things.) He explained that this was impossible since they had to stop the concert by midnight. I mentioned that if the bands came on for a one hour set, this would not be a very happy crowd at all considering that they bought tickets for a six-hour concert. He had already had enough close encounters with the crowd to understand that instantly, and after cueing up more music, he went off to take care of the situation. When he returned, he explained that he was able to get an extension past midnight and that the bands would be down in a little while.
As the evening unfolded, I learned that the delayed start of the concert was the result of a perfect storm of a large percentage of the audience doing the “fashionably late” thing (something which absolutely baffles me if you paid for a live performance, but people do it nevertheless), and the need to actually hold the VIP “Meet and Greet”, which finally started around 6PM and ran into what otherwise would have been time for the sound check and part of the concert. At this point in the proceedings, I think it’s fair to say that the fans themselves had some control over when the concert was actually going to start. I have been informed that the fans at the Meet & Greet were encouraged to start going to the concert room after 8PM (2 concert hours were already lost by now), and based on the slow rate of their entry into the room, the process appears to have taken quite a while.
After 9 pm, the musicians and other concert support folks came in and set up while the recorded music was playing. Everything that I have learned about the business over the years told me to expect a catastrophe, but I crossed my fingers anyway that everything would go well, and after 10 pm, the concert was in full swing.
Nando Albericci from WBAI and Tosco
Since La Mega (FM 97.9) was the media heavy for the concert, I had more or less expected one of their representatives to be announcing the concert, but for whatever reason, instead, there was a radio host from WBAI (99.5 FM), Nando Albericci, who was there to function as emcee. Or so he thought. As we would learn a little later, Tosco had other plans. Nando did do an intro on stage, and Bamboleo came out swinging hard. I wondered: Will the sound system and the engineer survive the experience?
Bamboleo brings it
It turns out that the Cubans had an ace in the hole – another engineer in tow to work with the poor fellow who had been waiting and waiting for that sound check that never came. Almost miraculously, they made the needed adjustments on the fly. The balance was choppy in the beginning, especially with the vocals, which continued to be an occasional casualty throughout the show, but overall, they recovered quickly enough that Bamboleo was soon hitting on all cylinders. This band is really hot right now (even though Lazarito himself didn’t make the trip), and it’s a real shame that they didn’t end up doing a more extended tour while they were in the US.
Later in the concert, as Pupy and Manolito did their segments, it became obvious that this wasn’t really going to be the multiple full bands that people had originally expected. Bamboleo was the guts of the show – the backing band that supported Pupy, Manolito, Tosco and some key musicians that they brought with them. Fortunately, they knew what they were doing, and the music really cooked for most of the show. Pupy’s first trip to the stage, which was mainly devoted to some Los Van Van covers from the Llego Van Van period and featured Pedrito Calvo (Mayito Rivera didn’t make the show), wasn’t quite up to his own standards (and it was obvious that he probably felt this himself as I watched him leave the stage the first time), but he came roaring back during a second segment later in the concert. The segment with Manolito had the crowd singing along to Control and La Habana Me Llama. By the middle of the show, the crowd was deep into Timba bliss, and for the moment at least, most of the weirdness leading up to the performance appeared to be just a memory.
Backstage with Pedrito Calvo and Rodolfo Pagan
By this time, Nando had also learned the hard way that Tosco was going to be the main emcee (there was a moment on stage that could have turned into a pelea if only they both had been rappers); that also turned out to be Tosco’s main function during the show (he was very good at it, if he ever gets tired of music he would probably do fine in comedy), although he did take part in the vocals in an extended version of Santa Palabra that was another highlight of the show as well as some additional songs towards the end. The horn section during the show was worthy of the original metales del terror. One of the funnier moments in the show was a sequence in which Tosco had the audience chanting lighting changes to the control booth. (The control booth was oblivious to those some of those cues, which added to the humor.)
Manolito and the crowd are feelin it...
At the peak of the concert, the room was about two-thirds full, between perhaps five hundred and six hundred people. This must be a small fraction of what the organizers had hoped to draw when they originally booked the Armory Arena, which accommodates thousands of people. Obviously, they would not be laughing all the way to the bank after the show.
How many cameras can you spot in this picture?
This was more like a three hour concert than the originally-promised six hours. Was it a rip-off? That depends on how you look at things. On the one hand, a six-hour concert was promised, and a three hour concert was delivered. There were also fewer bands than originally advertised. I agree with those people who feel that this was handled rather poorly, and these types of things only make it harder for future concerts to sell tickets. On the other hand, there was a three hour concert with an unprecedented number of Timba stars from Cuba with which many in the audience were able to personally meet, and somehow they did hear a great performance in spite of the fact that it really should have been a musical disaster given the fact that the bands literally jumped onto the stage at the last minute. I’ve heard some people complain that this was not a $70-$90 concert. The reality is that in much of the country, you’ll frequently pay $30-50 to hear one Timba band from Cuba if you’re lucky, and that’s without a VIP option, which is usually even more expensive. When you factor in typical New York prices, this was not an outrageous price for what was finally delivered even though it wasn’t all that was originally promised. Local residents who didn’t pay for flights and hotel rooms actually had a bargain for this type of event. If the organizers had substituted local Salsa bands at the last minute, a trick that I witnessed a few unscrupulous promoters pull in prior decades or the bands had played live music for an hour and left, then I would be the first in line to recommend lawsuits. But that isn’t what happened here.
...We play it all...
Chorus: If there are any heroes in this verse, one of them is Denis from the Copacabana, who dived in even though it technically wasn’t his job and made some dance music happen in the absence of an actual disc jockey. He also helped prevent what might have become an even-shorter concert that might have met the threshold for being called a rip-off. If we ever invent a Timba medal of valor, I will have to put his name in nomination. I also have to credit the Cuban musicians for a great performance under adverse conditions – I have witnessed a few concerts in other cities totally fail when the sound system was not thoroughly tested before the show. Tosco gets extra credit for bringing a sense of humor to the proceedings. In spite of everything, this was a great concert if taken on its own terms. A more disturbing feature of this night is that such a stellar collection of Timba stars from Cuba failed to draw a thousand New Yorkers to the show. The reluctance of people to buy airline tickets for the new show is completely understandable, but the attendance level from the metro area itself is sobering.
Coming Next: Coda – What does this all mean for the future?
To see our photo gallery from the concert, click here