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Martin Karakas - Charanga Forever - Casa de la Música

by Martin Karakas - Sunday, March 6, 2005

Carnival in Havana has been extended to Tuesday, after which the Malecon will close to revelers and open once again to traffic; the Congas won’t be heard in Havana till next carnival.

As mentioned last week, many elements of Timba can be traced back to the Conga rhythm. Both are based to varying degrees on the Rumba, and are heavily dominated by percussion. While Timba does not have the 20-plus piece percussion sections that make up the Congas, one of the interesting aspects of Timba is how other instruments take on percussive qualities in the Timba part of the song (many musicians believe that the word “Timba” best describes some elements of what salsa bands are playing in Cuba rather than the whole song). Thus, the bass player will sometimes use both hands to slap the bass like a tumbadora and the piano is often more percussive than melodic with its repeating tumbaos. Finally, in Conga the coro is repeated over and over again with changing guías, similar to in Timba, especially when it is played live and coros become more repetitive and guías more inventive.

One disappointing aspect of carnival in Havana is that there are no concerts offered in Central Havana, near to were the carnival takes place. Since entrance is controlled, thousands of people mill around the outskirts of the fenced-off Malecon, either aimlessly walking the dark streets that run parallel to Malecon, between the two entrances, or dancing in front of speakers that are so blown one can only hear ear piercing treble. On the other hand, outside of Central Havana and away from carnival, scattered around the various Havana municipalities and barrios, there are a whole slew of concerts for Cubans, the majority free.
Pedrito Clavo is playing Sunday night in an open plaza in the municipality of Cotoro, as is Bakuleyé a relatively new group comprised of 15 young Habaneros. Bakuleyé, under the direction of Pedro Pablo Pérez Vargas, put out their first album El fiebre del Ula Ula, back in 1998 and another in 2000 entitled Timbantón. Their latest single, La Habana es, sounds promising, a romantic salsa type of cuerpo and La Charanga Habanera style montuno, “La Habana es la Habana;” there are lots of coros and guías (ala Charanga), but the coros seem either a little under produced or lacking in vocal quality, and maybe the metales could be a little tighter. The bloques and the piano montuno sound great; layered and chunky. As to be expected, it has finally happened that a lot of the new young bands are imitating La Charanga Habanera; Los Angeles de la Habana being probably the best example.

This is something that Adalberto Alvarez has warned about for sometime, in several interviews, that Timba music has to be careful not to saturate the market. Unlike what some critics say –for example, Calixto Oviedo who says that all Timba bands sound the same— Timba bands have generally each created a sound that is immediately recognizable and unique to that band, much like has always been the tradition in Cuban music. There are some signs that this is changing. Currently, and despite the large numbers of Cuban musicians that immigrate everyday to other countries, there is substantial wealth of musical talent in Cuba. This is due to several factors: in great part due to the development of high-level music academies (all of which are completely free) established by the Castro government and in part due to the escape from economic poverty that music, in the last decade or so, offers young Cubans, especially blacks; analogous to sports in the US. Perhaps the market is becoming saturated as Alvarez warned, hard to believe though giving the seeming lull that Timba music is experiencing.

Another new Timba band, playing a number of carnival concerts, is Havana Power Band, playing in Playas del Este and El Cottoro. This promising new band is made up of both young and experienced musicians from various bands, including a few musicians that had been in Dan Den for a long time: singer Michel Calvo, trombonist Pedro Guzman and percussionist Augusto Lage. They formed in 2003 and quickly putout an album in 2004 entitled Salsa Power. The first single, Puede ser noticias, is finally getting airplay and is a quality song; I’m excited about this band. It is the first song I’ve heard from a Timba band that seems to imitate Van Van rhythmic phrasing in the cuerpo, that even without violins, has that Van Van sound associated with the strings. The montuno part, however, is pure, all-out Timba, heavy on the thumping bass and layered percussion. The montuno and the lyrics are pure street inspired, albeit a little cliché; again, are we reaching saturation levels? Nonetheless, this band should be able to come up with there own sound, and their first album is a good starting point.

The single, Puede ser noticias, is about el chisme (gossip) in the neighborhood: Who in the solar opened their path to their saint; who did the police come looking for; Sandra married an Italian; Papito is totally caught up with a girl; in short, classic storytelling lyrics. The coros and guías are also enjoyable, offering some good advice, “Hay una pila de gente que anda sin cabeza;” “Anda con cuidado, tranquilo y sin malicio, no vaya a ser que mañana tu serás noticia.” Although seemingly lacking any great double entendres, a trademark of high quality Timba.

Gardi has been doing a number of concerts in the city and is playing a couple of free concerts this weekend in Alamar and La plaza roja in La Vibora. Chispa y sus complices are in the Anfiteatro in Guanabacoa (another great venue to catch the authentic vibe); Son Candela in La Tropical, La Revé hot on a new album with the single, Le cogieron con la mano en la masa and Sello LA in the Reparto Electrico on Saturday.

Dan Den is also playing the Reparto Electrico on Sunday. Dan Den put out a great “comeback” album near the end of 2002 Companas, which won a Cubadisco award for Revelation of the year. After releasing a bunch of very popular Timba albums (Dan Den was one of the most popular Timba bands throughout most of the nineties), Dan Den left the Timba scene for 4 or 5 years (but still produced albums of a more traditional salsa style), but came back with the excellent Timba album Compansa, which shot Dan Den back to the top of dance bands. Companas is an album that has everything, a super funky bass driven opening song, followed by a whole record of solid songs, featuring a variety of lead singers, and truly great coro arrangements, that reminds us of that almost nasally quality of Changüi or like the coros of el Médico with Vania and Haila. In 2002, Juan Carlos Alfonso, the director, added a great female vocalist Barbarita Fernández, whose virtuosity can be heard on the mega-hit, Parte el alma, and gives a great dimension to the coros. And of course there is that unmistakable Dan Den sound of Juan Carlos (Dan Den’s director) furiously fast moving and crunching keyboard style. With the 2004 release of Passión, Dan Den continues with their immediately identifiable sound, a sound that Juan Carlos, tweaked a bit from his 90’s sound. The first single, Pon te pa’la cosa, takes off where Companas left off, but minus singer, Orlando Gutiérrez.

Pedro Pablo y la Rebambaramba (a Cuban word that means a mixture of different things happening at the same time –sounds like a good description of Timba!) is playing in El Rancho in the municipality of Boyeros. Unfortunately, I can’t make it out to Boyeros this weekend; I desperately need to answer, what’s up with Pedro Pablo? It’s been years since he left La Charanga, after the big breakup, and his band has yet to make the kind of big impact on the Havana scene that one would expect. Their current single, Tengo una cosita, has been on the radio for a long time, and while not earth shattering, it is a fair effort; solid Timba with some amusing sexual double entendres. Pedro Pablo, Mr. Funky is a very important bassist and needs to be with some other relevant musicians to keep Timba evolving.

In Santa Maria (Playas del Este), in a Sunday matinee is Pupi y los que son son. Rounding out the free carnival concerts is Andy Golé y Colé Colé and Yumuri y sus hermanos in La Varena in La Lisa.

After a weekend full of carnival activities and such, I decided to take advantage of the proximity of La Charanga Forever’s Sunday matinee show at Casa de la Música Galiano. While La Forever remained in the top league of Timba bands in the first few years after forming, releasing a great self titled first album, they have wavered a bit, and while maintaining a sound that is uniquely theirs, have wondered down to the 2nd tier of Timba bands.

Right from the Forever’s first album, I was, and am, a strong supporter. After the musical battle at La Tropical in 2000, when the Forever played one Saturday night, followed by La Charanga Habanera the next –full of some great disses—, I thought that the Forever was the better band; this is no longer the case. One can point to a number of smaller details to explain this: personnel changes, weak arrangements on the latest album, etc… On a macro level, you can point to a lack of albums. After the first album in 2000, there was a half album in 2002, that got very little airplay in Cuba, and then a second album in 2004. La Cuqui was a good album, but far from full of hits; it included two very good songs and maybe two average songs. The production was a little lacking as well. Two (and a half) albums in 6 years just doesn’t cut it in the competitive Havana forum, where the majority of the top bands, La Charanga Habanera, Manolito Simonet, Paulito FG, Los Van Van, Adalberto Alvarez, putout close to an album a year.

The Forever’s lineup is in constant flux; latest news is that Mayito “Sombrilla” has finally left to pursue his own band, which apparently already has an album out. Sombrilla had a big release party planned at the Teatro Nacional, with all sorts of invitees, mainly Charanga Habanera and Forever luminaries, but, as they say in Cuba, “an at the last moment happened” and the concert never took place. Suffice to say, I am interested to see who is and isn’t in their current lineup. Additionally, the Forever have a couple of good, new singles out. The first single is a kind of rehash of Somos la Charanga, which simply quotes all the popular coros and guías from old Forever songs. This song, while a classic sounding Forever song, was at first emblematic to me of the current poor state of Timba music –“por el piso.”

Just looking at the Charanga tree, in 2004 Michel Maza puts out an album half made-up of old Charanga Habanera songs, Tirso Duarte does the same and the Forever’s first new single, is potpourri of old songs; “remember when we sang this… and this…” Anyhow, their latest single is original, at least on the surface.

The Forever has institutionalized some aspects that at first epitomized Timba music. They are well known for making many references to current songs and melodies on the hit parade –Timba’s version of rap’s sampling. Another element that has almost become a cliché in the Forever is the using of trumpet player, Leonel Polledo’s distinctive high pitched discourse/rap, in every single song and lots of high energy call and response. One other aspect that always stands out on Forever recordings is they always seems to have the treble up way to high, especially the trumpet section, sounding like 5 trumpets playing at once. If you have ever made a mixed Timba disc you’ll know what I mean, when the Forever songs starts, the trumpets, jump out of nowhere, threatening to rip your speakers to shreds.

The latest single, Estás perdiendo el brillo, is pretty classic Forever, full of all the Forever trademarks. It seems to take off from Adalberto Alvarez’s song Farandulera (Mala noche) -my favorite song of from Adalberto’s excellent 2003 release, Para Bailar Casino- whose opening line in the cuerpo goes, “Estás perdiendo el brillo de tus ojos.” The Forever continue this lament of growing older and partying too much, “Ya no eres el mango que tú te creías…manguito manguey, tú vas a arrugar…” the musical quotes, as to be expected are from reguetón, Pobre diabla by Don Omar –no doubt the most heard song in the last too many months in Havana— along with Candymans’ foray into reguetón, “Mami aunque ya no te recuerdes de mi, aunque tengo residencia en París, yo sigo siendo tu papi.” Both songs were also quoted in the carnival Congas.

I have fond memories of seeing the Forever, on many occasions, at Los jardines de la Tropical, one of the most gorgeous outdoor venues in Havana, even prettier than La Tropical. I remember standing at the gate waiting for a friend, and hearing all the complaints coming from people about the cover charge of 20 pesos. At the time, shortly after their first album, I thought the Forever was still amongst the top bands –not according to the concert goers. Even though complaining is a popular pastime, it is a pretty good indication of a bands popular standing, together with the admission price. The Casa de la Música charges between 50 and 100 pesos for their matinees. The Forever was charging 80 pesos, and once again everyone was complaining.

The show started in great Forever fashion, with a recorded Earth, Wind and Fire song, as the backdrop for the dramatic Forever dancing entrance. The first song was Somos la Charanga, all and all a nice opening. Sombrilla has left the lineup which now has 4 frontline singers, plus another doing just coros, another on percussion and coro, and Polledo on maracas and vocals. The horn section is heavily trumpet loaded with 3 on trumpet and 1 on sax. There are 2 piano players and a baby bass player. The percussion section seemed particularly sparse with one tumbadora player, one kit drummer, and one on mainly cowbell and coros. The second song, if I’m not mistaken, was NG’s super funky No te compliques, and was a pretty good rendition. The third song, from Charanga Habanera’s album Pa’que se se entere la Havana, was the classic Nube pasajera. If the lack of a dynamic vocalist wasn’t evident from the first two songs, it sure was from the get go of Nube pasajera. With all of Forever’s songs (and Nube pasajera is one of my all time favorite songs), I don’t understand why the Forever would pick a song that so completely showcases their lack of a strong front singer. From my count they played no songs from the album La Cuqui, and would have been better of to include a few.

After Nube pasajera, the Forever slipped into Un disparo en la Mirada. Halfway through the first decade of the 21st century, is it too early to say that the Forever is a retro Timba band? The emphasis on dancing, Earth Wind and Fire, funky dressing as opposed to slick “bonitillo”-type dressing, noisy coros of 5 and more voices at once, multiple lead singers with good cheeky lines rather than real salsero voices, a blaring wall of brass, all smacks of Timba in its heyday. Relying so heavily on cover songs (this reincarnation of La Charanga Forever, other than one or maybe two players, has nothing to do with La Charanga Habanera), begs the question of where did the Forever go that, at one time, was fiercely competing with La Charanga Habanera? By the time the Forever delve into its Kool and the Gang tribute, I had given up looking.

Once again, hearing the vocalists trying to sing Celebration and Ladies Night, among other classic 70’s tune, just painfully exposed their lack of vocal abilities; “sel erey ood tymes kom un [celebrate good times come on] –my head was shaking. This is not to say that the concert was bad, far from it, it is just a comparison to some of the front tier bands that the Forever used to compete with.

The forever played with great energy and many times had me thinking how wonderful the dancing and crowd interactions would be at La Tropical where there would be more than 20 people dancing. As I mentioned, Estás perdiendo el brillo is a great, classic Forever song, and they played a hot, long, extended version in the concert with many new guías from Polledo. But at times, with Polledo belting into the microphone “mangito manquey tú vas a arrugar,” it was hard not to think that it was the Forever that had lost its shine.

The concert ended with a tribute to carnival in Havana, which had the band playing some funked up Mozambique. All in all, despite all my criticisms, it was a good show, from a Forever that is completely changed, but still breathing, rehashing memories of La Charanga Habanera’s glory days.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011, 07:32 PM