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Kiki Valera - Vivencias en clave cubana - New Cuban Son album - Traditional Cuban Music

The Roots of Timba, Pt. III - 1987- Los Van Van

cuban music, musica cubanaLos Van Van: Al son del Caribe [source]

The use of the word "Caribe" in the title of this album probably refers to the fact that rhythms from several other Caribbean islands are fused with songo over the course of the album, the first being a fairly abstract reference to the folkloric tumba francesa rhythm which originally made its way to the eastern part of Cuba from Haiti.

Going all the way back to the early 20th Century, Cuban recordings have followed the tradition of identifying the rhythm of each track (son, guaracha, bolero, etc.), but the names are often confusing. For example, Arsenio had a category of songs that he (or his record label) called "guaguancó" [source] which were related in the style of their tres guajeos and in that their lyrics always referred to barrios of Havana, but which had no rhythmic connection to the rumba rhythm patterns we normally associate with pure guaguancó [source], (although they contained vocal and trumpet phrases that are melodically related to introductory diana vocalizations of traditional rumba). Likewise, Revé's earliest recordings [source] were identified as "changüí" but none of the rhythm section parts bore any resemblence to the folkloric East Cuban genre [source] of the same name..

Los Van Van took this to an even greater extreme, inventing new names at will. On this album, for example, Pupy's song Calla is listed as "catá", probably because part of Changuito's part uses a common rhythm played by the instrument "catá" in the tumba francesa folkloric rhythm toque masón [source]. Subtle references to the other parts of that rhythm can also be heard in Calla's distinctive conga part which Tomasito calls "Songo #8" [source]. The same conga part is used on Nosotros los del caribe, which is labeled "catá songo". Nosotros los del Caribe is also interesting harmonically. Formell takes the 4-chord progression that was so popular in the 80s and plays it in reverse - G F C D becomes C F G D - a very unique twist.

The same conga marcha is used yet again on La titimanía, but this time the rhythm is labeled "Chango son" (not Changó, but Chango, another of Changuito's nicknames). On later albums this flexible marcha was used on Disco Azúcar, Esto está bueno and other tracks which are labeled simply as "songo".

Pupy's Que lo sepa mamá y que se entere papá is listed as "bomba-son", which would fit nicely with the pan-Caribbean motif except that it too uses the ubiquitous "songo #8" conga marcha. [footnote on bomba-son]

The Caribbean references move on to the Dominican Republic with Recaditas no, listed as merengue-son, (but quite different from Changuito's merensongo). This one was also covered on Gracias Formell with a very young Haila Mompié on lead vocals.

This album also contains the other half of the LVV-Rubén Blades connection. In 1985, Rubén recorded a cover version of LVV's Muévete [source] on his album Escenas. To return the tribute, LVV did their own cover version of Rubén's Tierra dura from the same album. I would make the argument that in each case, the cover is superior to the original!

There have been two classic cover versions of La titimanía, the album's biggest hit, and one of the biggest hits of the 80s. A comparison of the three offers us an irresistible opportunity to examine the question that brings so many web-surfers to

"What's the difference between salsa, songo, and timba?"

Here are the three versions and the albums on which they can be found:

1) Issac Delgado's salsa version (2005) [source]
2) Los Van Van's original songo version (1987) [source]
3) Juan Ceruto's timba version (1997) [source]

La titimanía: The Cuerpo

"Titimanía", a false cognate if there ever was one, is Cuban slang for "mid-life crisis", or, more literally, the mania of middle-aged men for young women (titis) as they start to feel their own mortality creeping up on them. The story takes place a couple years before the Special Period and the protagonist is a hard-working party member with a good job and a privileged lifestyle which allows him to be one of Cuba's few car owners, while the majority of the populace, including the 20-year old titi who is about to ruin his life, have to rely on the island's bus system, which even before the Special Period, was something short of reliable. For our faithful servant of the revolution, work and duty are sacred and he's never late for the job, but when he picks up the voluptuous 20-year old hitchhiker, he soon finds himself at the beach instead of at work. On the surface, it's a cautionary morality tale, but by the end of LVV's live version, Pedrito has pointed out a number of titimaníacos in the crowd and the band, and admits that he too (as if we didn't know) suffers from this dreaded malady.

But even Pedrito, "el negro que no tiene na''" (except titimanía, that is), would still have to get up pretty early in the morning to keep pace with Issac Delgado, whose repertoire was heavy on titimaniacal humor even before he passed into the temba stage of life ("el que pase de los 30 y no llegue a los 50"). Con ganas (1993) featured the hit El profesor del décimo grado and the same lecherous subject matter is central to one Issac's greatest live masterpieces, ¿Por qué paró?, (first recorded on El año que viene in 1995). [footnote on the live version of Por qué paró].

La titimanía: The Introductions

On the original LVV intro, Pedrito raps over a groove featuring a distinctive conga marcha and a funky contratumbao played on a synth patch which, like the previous album, stands the test of time better than the electronic drum patches. If the original multi-track tapes were still available (they're not), it would be wonderful to have Changuito come in and redo his innovative parts on acoustic drums.

Ceruto's 1997 intro uses the same conga groove but writes an entirely different miniature composition on top of it. When I first heard this track, I used to imagine that Ceruto, in honor of the singer Tony Calá, was tipping his hat to NG La Banda with the metales de terroresque upward runs. Now, having delved back into the history of the 80s, we know that Ceruto was arranging in that style with Opus 13 before NG was even formed! Another NG-related element of the intro is the reference to Bobby Caldwell's What You Won't Do for Love (1978) [source] that NG famously quoted in its live version of Por qué tú sufres.

The Issac/Alain intro replaces the songo groove with basic salsa percussion but finds a different way to pay homage to the original arrangement. The bass marks the 3-side of the clave with three offbeats and then lays out while the bones and piano reply with a figure borrowed from a violin passage from the LVV arrangement. Alain cleverly brings this back to accompany the second verse. After that, the bass and percussion never budge from the standard salsa formula, although their execution is flawless and full of tasty fills and embellishments. For example, on the first coro, Alain sticks to the standard rhythm, but still manages to inject a bit of harmonic magic by substituting the third for the root on the second chord.

La titimanía: The Conga Marchas

Although Issac Delgado and Alain Pérez were responsible for some of the most aggressive and innovative timba of the 90s, the 2005 album Prohibido was meant have a salsa aesthetic, and in fact used many top New York musicians, including conguero Roberto Quintero, who plays tasteful variations of the standard son/salsa conga marcha on Issac's version of La titimanía [source].

The Los Van Van version uses the songo-catá marcha [source] mentioned above. Manolo Labarrera used similar patterns on Disco azúcar, Anda muévete y ven, Esto está bueno, and others, but compare it to his marcha on Sandunguera, or his predecessor El Yulo's marcha on Ponte para las cosas. How could such drastically different patterns all be considered "songo"? Perhaps the best answer is that songo is not so much a specific rhythm as an approach to rhythm, and part of that approach is to allow the conga pattern to play a thematic role in the composition, a huge departure from son and salsa.

Now that's we've compared salsa to songo, let's listen to Ceruto's 1997 timba version, sung by Tony Calá with Tomasito Cruz on congas and Frank Rubio on bass.

On the cuerpo [source], Tomasito pays homage to Manolo's original songo tumbao, but when the first coro arrives, he and the rest of the rhythm section make it clear that Cuban music has evolved considerably in the decade since the original Los Van Van recording. This MIDI sketch starts with clave and conga, then adds bass, and finally the kick drum.

Manolo's songo marcha demonstrates how the generic conga part can be replaced with one invented to fit the song. Tomasito's marcha extends this idea by extending his phrase to a full four claves (instead of one) before it repeats, allowing him to state an idea and then develop it or answer it. Manolo and the songo congueros began to use their slaps and open tones as melodic elements, something playing the same stroke four or more times in row. Again, Tomasito takes the idea and extends it -- this time by adding a new timbre, the muff.

La titimanía: The Bass Tumbaos

Now let's compare MIDI sketches of the three bass tumbaos:

0xx0 xx0x xx0x 0xxx 3-2 son clave
xxx0 xx0x xxx0 xx0x
Alain Pérez with Issac (salsa)
0xx0 xx0x xxx0 0x0x Formell with LVV (songo)
x0x0 x00x xxxx 0xx0
xxx0 xx0x xxx0 x0xx
xxxx 0x0x 0x0x xxx0
x0x0 x00x 0x00 xxx0 Frank Rubio with Ceruto (timba)

Alain chooses his notes masterfully while sticking to the salsa formula with a straight bombo-ponche rhythm.

Formell distinctly marks the clave. [footnote on Formell's bass playing]

Frank Rubio's tumbao is complex even by timba standards, using a different rhythm for each measure of the 4-clave chord progression -- never hitting the downbeat of the 3-side and marking the clave in a variety of different ways.

La titimanía: The Piano Tumbaos

For the Ceruto version, Emilio Morales matches Rubio and Tomasito with an interesting and abstract piano tumbao that's rhythmically different in each of its 4 claves. This was par for the course in 1997, in the thick of the timba revolution, when pianists were expected to invent unique piano tumbaos for each song. In the 80s the pianist's job was simply to lay down a percolating rhythm and follow the chord progression and that's exactly what Pupy's tumbao does. [footnote on Pupy's influence on timba piano]

On Issac's salsa version, the bass and percussion stick to their typical roles, but Rolando Luna's piano playing ventures far beyond formulaic salsa. His first tumbao features a perfectly placed "slash chord" that makes one wonder if he and Ceruto have both been listening to Steely Dan. [source] The second coro uses the same chord progression as the first, but Rolando's second tumbao stands out as a completely different and equally interesting miniature composition. Issac even bases one of his guías on the piano's two 5-note repeated figures.

Another bit of timba influence sneaking through is the mambo. Alain has to restrain his bass playing to fit the salsa formula, but he can't help but show his genius in the horn writing.

La titimanía: The Kick Drum

While Issac's version, true to its salsa aspirations, has no kick drum, a simple but crucial kick drum component is added to the Los Van Van version by Changuito, who developed most of the concepts and vocabulary of Cuban kick drum playing 20 years before everyone else even began to catch up with him. [footnote on Changuito's kick drum part]

Playing the kick between the two strokes of the 2-side (or the "secondary bombo" as Peñalosa calls it) is common practice in timba but Changuito had been experimenting with it since 1970.

To understand why this is such a big deal, we have to return to our discussion of son/salsa bass playing. When the kick substitutes for one or more notes of the standard bassline, it allows the bass to leave a space, but even more importantly, since the kick drum has no musical pitch, it can produce the rhythm drive of the bass without muddying up the harmonic playing field. Thus, in addition to writing more interesting bass lines, the arranger can write more harmonically adventurous piano, vocal and horn lines which might otherwise clash with the bass note.

For example, listen to how using just one kick drum hit per clave is enough to balance the long silent gaps in the bassline to Paulito's De la Habana [source]. The kick drum can of course play many notes per clave, allowing the bassline to be as sparse or unusual as the arranger desires. In this magnificent passage from Manolito's La boda de Belén [source] the kick drum drives the rhythm forward when necessary while the bass alternates brilliantly between pedal tones, short stabs and dramatic silences.

The aggressive application of this harmonically liberating technique is, for me, the biggest reason why the best timba songs sound so different from salsa, and from each other. When the bass is freed from the responsibility of playing every bombo and ponche, and can leave silence instead of constantly sustaining beneath the voices and other instruments, the harmonic possibilites are geometrically increased. When I listen to the bulk of pre-timba son and salsa, I hear the same harmonic patterns over and over, invoking images of Ricky Ricardo, palm trees, and women with bowls of fruit on their heads. But listen to the range of harmonic color in the following examples:

timba example 1 [source]

timba example 2 [source]

timba example 3 [source]

timba example 4 [source]

timba example 5 [source]

timba example 6 [source]

There's one problem with the idea of using these three versions of La titimanía to illustrate the evolution of salsa to songo to timba: the salsa version is the newest by 8 years! Ideally we'd be contrasting our 1987 songo recording and our 1997 timba recording with a New York salsa recording from 1977 or so. Issac's 2005 version is definitely New York salsa, but the singer, arranger, bassist and pianist all spent (the best parts of) their careers playing timba and even the percussionists have had two decades to by influenced by listening to songo & timba. So the Issac version is salsa, but it's very sophisticated salsa -- beautifully arranged, performed and recorded -- and after about 60 listenings, even the staunchest timba snob will be hard pressed not to love it, but what I'd really love to hear is Issac's working band playing a 12-minute live version with a clavified bassline, kick drum, creative conga tumbao, a couple piano breakdowns, a bomba or two, and several more great coros and mambos.

The other flaw with our comparison of the three genres is that strangely, unlike some of the other songs on Gracias Formell, La titimanía doesn't utilize one of the most important timba breakthoughs -- "gears" -- a cruel blow! Try to imagine this band (which is essentially Paulito's Élite) playing and extended live version of this song and incorporating the types of breakdowns, pedales, bombas, and songo con efectos sections that we described in the Paulito Gears article.

La titimanía: The Coros

Los Van Van's first coro is adapted to both the Ceruto version and the Issac version, but surprisingly, neither uses or makes reference to what's arguably the most creative and original part of the LVV arrangement -- Formell's brilliant and extremely original second montuno section. It's the only tumbao I've yet to find based on a 3-clave loop!

||: IV / / /|bVI / bVII /|i / / / :||

This tumbao was also the vehicle for some of Los Van Van's greatest live performances. Listen to Changuito's introductory the section and Manolo's answer on the congas after the coro has begun. This "after-bloque" approach became one of the hallmarks of the great timba rhythm sections of the 90s.

Issac adds an original second coro, using the same bass and conga tumbao, but as we pointed out, pianist Rolando Luna changes up his piano tumbao with marvelous results.

Also sticking to the same tumbaos, the Ceruto version adds 2 new coros [coro 2 -- coro 3] beautifully sung by the a capella vocal group GEMA 4. Ceruto's harmonic approach here reminds me of the music of the undisputed heavyweight champions of titimaniacal lyrics [source 1 - source 2/3], the American duo Steely Dan.

La titimanía: The Lead Vocals

The LVV version, of course, features Pedro Calvo in his absolute prime and he's perfectly suited for the song in every way -- it's no wonder it was one of the biggest hits of the 80s.

If you're reading The Roots of Timba from the beginning, you're of course already intimately familiar with the singer of the 1997 version. Tony Calá, still with Ritmo Oriental when the LVV version was released, had been with NG La Banda for almost a decade when he recorded La titimanía. The quality of his recordings had started to decline drastically by this point due to various health and personal problems but Ceruto was able to get a near-vintage Calá performance onto tape, perhaps Tony's last truly great recording.

What ultimately saves Issac's 2005 salsa version from being overshadowed by its two illustrious predecessors is the lead vocal. Issac's singing, to his great dismay, has been somewhat overshadowed in the minds of some fans by his Miles Davis-like talent for putting together brilliant combinations of musicians. His raw vocal technique may not be as virtuosic Mayito's or Michel Maza's but when it comes to pure and honest emotion, unmistakable timbral originality, and respeto pa' los mayores (the intuitive understanding and respectful continuation and development of all the great Cuban music that's come before him), Issac is, simply, without equal. Each of his quotes, like this one from Roberto Van Van, is chosen with the utmost taste and always results in a fresh new gem which equals the original while paying homage to it in the same breath. In this case, he's singing one LVV song, so he quotes from another, and preserves Robertón's "a'o" rhyming scheme while cleverly changing p'atrás to its antonym p'alante. Whether conscious or subconscious, Issac is always, effortlessly, at one with the entire history of Cuban music -- from Santería to rumba to son to tova to songo to timba. For me, he's the ultimate contradiction. On the one hand he's the most stubborn pursuer of the shallow dream of succeeding in the braindead global Latin pop market, but on the other hand, he's the artist who seems to most deeply and profoundly grasp and bring together every facet of the rich history of Cuban music in every note that he sings. Go figure.

miércoles, 23 marzo 2011, 03:32 am