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UPDATE: As of March 2013, I'm getting close to completing Beyond Salsa Piano, Vol. 14, the first of several books I'm writing on Duarte's piano style.
As we'll show with extensive MIDI examples recorded by Duarte himself, the music of Charanguero mayor is built around a drastically different kind of tumbao, so before getting into the album itself, let's take a brief look at Tirso Duarte's piano style and its role in the development of Timba piano playing.
Duarte, like all Timba pianists, was influenced by the original Charanga Habanera pianist, Juan Carlos González, but other aspects of his playing are just as heavily rooted in the style of another pianist with the same apellido, Iván "Melón" González Lewis. JC González, like virtually all pianists prior to Melón, almost always played the same rhythm with each hand, but Melón, and later Sergio Noroña and others began to create incredible tumbaos that utilized, among other things, a different rhythm with each hand -- with the left hand filling in the gaps of the right and the right adding occasional rapid-fire arpeggios on top. Duarte uses this second approach and, also like Melón, his tumbaos sometimes incorporate elements of classical piano music. But the biggest similarity between Duarte and Melón is their dissimilarity! Each is shockingly original. Neither one sounds remotely like any other Latin pianist and almost any tumbao by Melón or Tirso carries the unmistakable mark of its creator. Each plays different rhythms with each hand, and each draws inspiration from classical music, but their final creations are drastically different, not only from each other, but from one tumbao to the next.
Because of the nature of Cuba's educational system, almost all of the Timba musicians received extensive training in classical music and their amazing technical facilities can be partially attributed to their long years in the practice rooms with the music of Bach and Beethoven. But musicians like Melón and Duarte came away from the experience with something more than lightning-fast finger dexterity. They had found their way inside of the music from the composer's perspective and learned to improvise on classical pieces rather than just parrot them back note for note. And appropriately so, for as those who have studied classical music history know, Bach, Beethoven and Mozart were all avid improvisers themselves. But when you mix something foreign with something Cuban, the result usually turns out to be something else Cuban, and by the time these musicians reconciled their classical discoveries with the intensely polyrhythmic Afro-Cuban influences they had heard all of their lives, they came up with something that took only one night to turn a semi-sane American salsa musician into the raving lunatic who is filling the servers of timba.com with articles such as the one you're now reading!
It was in early February, 1999 that I first heard what I now realize was the band which would record Charanguero mayor. I had signed up for a study course in Cuba which began with a one-night layover in Cancún. It turned out that a Cuban band called "Charanga Habanera" was playing that night at Disco Azúcar. I had heard the name, and I was in no mood to go to bed early on my last night in the Free World before venturing into the forbidden communist country of Cuba, where I envisioned armed guards with machine guns outside of every house, so I set off for Cancún's Zona Hotelería to have a margarita while I still could.
In retrospect I realize that this incarnation of the band had only been together for about 4 or 5 months and that Michel Maza must have just recently quit. Of course at the time I knew none of this. I had only vaguely heard the name "Charanga Habanera" and I had expected Cuban music to be some sort of mixture of Compay Segundo and folk drumming, with a bit of Sandunguera thrown in if I was lucky. Once in the club, I was distracted by the wild choreography and the sheer density of the rhythmic texture, and by the way the bassist with the Dennis Rodman hairdo would spin his thin red upright baby bass as he danced with it, but there was something going on with the piano -- something I had never heard before -- and bit by bit everything else in the club seemed to fade into the background and I found myself sitting to the left side of stage, next to the piano amp, staring up at the piano keys and the intense, almost possessed eyes of the young black man playing them. It had a hypnotic effect on me from which I've yet to fully emerge, and that young black man turned out to be none other than Tirso Duarte. After that first fateful trip, I bought a laptop computer with a MIDI interface and returned to Cuba four more times, meeting each time with Duarte and others and recording their tumbaos. Many of the MP3 files included in these articles are the product of those sessions.
I never came away from a session with Duarte in anything less than a state of shock and wonderment, but perhaps my most fascinating experience was in January of 2000. Tirso was recording tumbaos which I had never heard, from a yet to be recorded album, which just happened to be Charanguero mayor. I kept hearing little snippets of music that sounded vaguely "classical", and in some kind of ridiculous pidgin Spanish I tried to ask him about it and he seemed to be saying that, yes, he incorporated ideas from his classical training in the process of inventing tumbaos. So, shooting in the dark, I asked him to play a classical piano piece. He played part of Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu in C#mi. I then asked him to improvise on it in a timba style. Within 10 minutes he had worked it into a piano tumbao and added a bassline. Upon hearing it back he made up a coro and then improvised some guías (about some crazy American who paid him to play his tumbaos into a computer...I'm not sure who that would have been). [audio example 1] is a very short excerpt of a non-MIDI performance of the original Chopin composition, as played by classical pianist Robin Alciatore. And here's the tumbao Duarte improvised on the spot. [audio example 2]. Keep in mind that a lot of the "magic" of the timba experience results from the long daily rehearsals that each band goes through prior to playing a song live, but this was in fact a completely unrehearsed, on-the-spot creation.
Now let's move on to an actual example from the title track of Charanguero mayor. [audio example 3]. In addition to its (less specific) references to classical piano music, it also has some extreme rhythmic displacement going on, so the example starts with a couple measures of clave and conga to help you get your bearings. Next the bassline enters, and finally the piano tumbao. Now listen to it in context! In example 4, the tumbao from example 3 starts when the coro begins the Bob Marley quote. [audio example 4].
This song, written by Duarte, was one of two new songs that Michel Maza sang before leaving the band. Maza isn't on the album, but the group did record a Cuban radio demo in late 1998 with Michel singing. You can hear this in its entirety, complete with interruptions from the overzealous Radio Taíno DJ's, by clicking on it in timba.com's mp3 library in the upper left portion of the screen, and you can also hear a live version of the final song that Michel ever sang with Charanga Habanera, the beautiful Confianza which was inexplicably never recorded by anyone until the early 2000s when both Tirso and Maza recorded versions on their own albums as leaders.