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Tirso Duarte was my introduction to timba. I was in a group of students who had assembled in Cancún for a 2-week study trip to Cuba. Most of us were unfamiliar with the term timba and had little idea what to expect from our trip. The night before our flight to Havana, we were taken to Cancún's Disco Azúcar club to see Charanga Habanera. When we arrived, they were playing Guantanmera for a small crowd of tourists, but when they saw our tour guides lead us in, they took a short break and returned to play their normal timba show. I sat alone at a small cocktail table, directly below the left side of the raised stage. After a familiar brass fanfare based on Earth, Wind & Fire's In the Stone, I heard something entirely unfamiliar - a piano tumbao that was very different from anything I'd transcribed from the Nuyorican salsa repertoire that comprised the repertoire of the salsa band I'd been playing in. Completely different. I looked up, jaw agape. The pianist was looking down at his hands as they flew across the keys. But it wasn't his hands that struck me. It was those eyes. In my mind I can see those wild, piercing, penetrating eyes as clearly as I saw them that night, burning down into the keys with glee, with madness, with genius. Every tumbao was a hook and every time through was different. The rhythms twisted and turned in on themselves, each hand different, small fragments of disparate musical ideas flashing in and out in a dizzying, kaleidoscopic whirl of ideas - from classical music, from jazz, from every imaginable kind of pop, and from some other source, some deeply Cuban source that I would spend the years since trying to fully understand and that I and many others would faithfully attempt to document on this site, which was first launched when its initial webmaster, Bruce Ishikawa, first heard the recordings I'd made. It all started with Tirso Duarte, and for his life to end so tragically, so senselessly, and at such an early age is simply unbearable.

After that night at Azúcar I spent the next few years recording Tirso and others on a MIDI laptop, in Cuba, Florida and California. I met with Tirso seven times. He would tell me the title and tempo, and listen through headphones to a simple MIDI percussion track while he played. and played, and played, something later adding bass on second track.

Click to Listen: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12 - 13

Tirso Oriol Duarte Lescay was born in the barrio of Habana del Este on April 12, 1978. He was 11 years old when the Berlin Wall fell, and turned 18 during one of the most explosive and innovative periods in the history of Cuban music – a period in which he himself would play a central role.

Early Life

Tirso’s parents were academics. His mother Miriam was a history teacher and his father, Tirso Ésteban Duarte, had a PhD in astronomy and physics. Tirso’s father was also a rumbero who took him to peñas (rumba performances) every Saturday, along with two musical uncles from Miriam’s side of the family.

On Sundays, there were always parties at his grandmother’s house, where the turntable never stopped spinning – immersing the young Tirso in the classic recordings of Los Muñequitos, Beny Moré, Los Van Van, Revé, Los Papines, Pacho Alonso and many others


In Cuba’s highly advanced, meritocratic educational system, a child who can pass a series of rigorous aptitude tests can receive a free conservatory education with the best musicians in the country. Even famous musicians like Changuito and Pupy Pedroso of Los Van Van can be found among the professorial ranks of these elite schools. The instruments are old; the supplies are scarce; the power frequently goes out; and the toilets frequently don’t flush – but the music education provided is unrivaled.

Tirso’s father took his tremendously talented 8-year-old son to the Manuel Saumell Conservatory, where he aced every test. Tirso insisted on studying piano though he’d never actually touched one

Tirso was passionately devoted to the piano from the moment his teacher, Isabel Gómez Labraña, first placed his small hands on the keys. His uncle, Oriol Duarte, had an old piano on which Tirso practiced incessantly. The curriculum at Manuel Saumell consisted strictly of classical music – Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, et al.

Later, when composing his ground-breaking tumbaos, Tirso would make great use of ideas absorbed from classical music, but the most pivotal moment of his early musical life came when his teacher introduced him to Chucho Valdés. Seeing Chucho’s massive hands dominating the piano at such close range was a revelation. He began to write instrumental compositions and to seek out the music of other jazz pianists. He was particularly drawn to Chick Corea, Oscar Peterson, Kenny Kirkland, and above all, Michel Petrucciani.

While still in his pre-teen years, Tirso began playing in a juvenile pop music group with his classmate (and future Charanga Habanera bandmate) Yulién Oviedo.

Tirso began to turn from jazz to popular music when he heard the piano-playing of Pupy Pedroso with Los Van Van, still his favorite group. Among his other favorites were Juan Carlos González (Charanga Habanera), Rodolfo “Peruchín” Argudín (NG La Banda), Emilio Morales (Paulito FG) and Tony Pérez (Issac Delgado and Klímax). A few years later, Melón Lewis and Lazarito Valdés arrived on the scene and also captured his imagination. On the more traditional side, he listened to what he refers to as the tumbaos soneaos of Manolito Simonet and Pachito Alonso.

Sadly, Tirso’s mother passed away when he was only 12 and his father also died very young, in 2011.

The next stop in Tirso’s musical education was the middle school-level Amadeo Roldán Conservatory. In his first year he was chosen as the musical director of the student band Los Chicos de la Salsa. Tasked with writing arrangements – both covers and originals – he studied all of the subjects we’re currently studying in these books: the structure of arrangements, the role of each instrument, the differences in the styles of each major band, and so on.

Among Tirso’s student arrangements was an original song, Déjala que corra. You can hear the influence of Tirso’s beloved Los Van Van, but the child composer took his melodies and harmonies in a completely different direction, producing a mature and original song that’s become a popular anthem in Tirso’s adopted home of Colombia – fully 20 years after its composition. It’s so well known to his fans that when Tirso sings it, he often simply turns the microphone around and lets the audience do his job for him. Tirso’s studio version of Déjala que corra is on his first solo album, Si la vida te dice baila.

 Los Chicos de la Salsa began as a school ensemble, but, packed as it was with future all stars, it was only a matter of time before they were playing in public professionally.

At this point another key figure entered Tirso’s life: Pachito Alonso. Also a pianist, Pachito was the son of the legendary singer Pacho Alonso, who rose to fame in the 1950s and successfully adapted to the changes brought about by the Cuban Revolution, developing, along with his creative partner Enrique Bonne, a string of important rhythms and genres such as pilón and simalé.

To give you an idea of just how interconnected the Havana music scene is, consider that it was Pacho Alonso who gave drummer Calixto Oviedo his first big break. Calixto, the subject of two books in the Beyond Salsa series, is the father of the aforementioned Yulién Oviedo, one of Tirso’s closest friends and collaborators. Meanwhile, Enrique Bonne’s son, Ángel, went on to sing with and write for Tirso’s favorite group, Los Van Van. Pachito’s percussionists Orlandito and Lazarito Mengual came from the family of Los Papines, one of the famous rumba groups that Tirso listened to so often in his childhood.

Getting back to our story, Calixto Oviedo was still playing drums with the group when Pacho Alonso passed away in 1982, leaving the direction of the group to his son. Pachito was, and still is, a relatively conservative pianist, but he’s kept the group together for 30 years, during which time a very long list of musicians have passed through his tutelage on their way to becoming major stars. With his Art Blakey-like ability to spot and nurture young talent, Pachito Alonso has helped launch the careers of (to name just a few) Issac Delgado, Los Van Van singers “Robertón” Hernández and “Lele” Rasalps, Lazarito Valdés and Vania Borges of Bamboleo, Amaury Pérez (now with Havana d’Primera), and four of the players who became key parts of the great Charanga Habanera group studied in Beyond Salsa: percussionists Orlandito and Lazarito Mengual, trumpeter Yunio Romero and of course Tirso himself.

Pachito’s own son, Cristián, is a singer like his grandfather. In an effort to get Cristián’s career started, Pachito recruited Los Chicos de la Salsa, offering to help them get their footing in the competitive Havana music industry with Cristián as their new lead singer and front man. This led to higher profile gigs, such as opening for Charanga Habanera. Little did anyone realize that Los Chicos would in large part become Charanga Habanera in a few short years.

While working with Los Chicos, Tirso made the rounds of the clubs, sitting in as a pianist or singer whenever possible, especially with Pachito Alonso y sus Kini Kini.

Tirso’s first big break came when Pachito’s tecladista left the band in 1997. He landed the job based on his keyboard, composing and arranging skills and a strong recommendation from conguero Orlando Mengual. Tirso wrote La pelea murumba and Hasta las cuantas for the album Una salsa en Paris and for another album, Te traigo te traigo, he contributed the widely covered El chequendengue, a classic pop song that clearly established his bona fides as a composer of the first rank. You can hear Tirso (and many others) sing Chequendengue live on YouTube.

David Calzado y su Charanga Habanera

Pachito’s traditional style was not appropriate for the radically different piano and arranging ideas that Tirso was already developing in private during his stint with Los Kini Kini, but they were just what the doctor ordered for his next employer, David Calzado, the leader of Charanga Habanera. Calzado was still hurting creatively from the loss – a year earlier – of the visionary arranger Juan Carlos González, whose compositions, arrangements and piano tumbaos had played such a central role in the four monstrously great albums the group recorded between 1994 and 1997.

González and the talented singer-songwriter Danny Lozada had left Charanga Habanera in the summer of 1997 after the group had been given a six-month suspension for a controversial concert described in more detail in the next chapter. Upon their return, the group suffered another setback when their star singer, Michel Maza, began the obligatory year of military service required of every young Cuban. He was still able to play in Havana but he could no longer tour, so Charang Habanera’s 1998 summer tour of Europe had to be undertaken with a substitute, Noel Díaz. The tour didn’t go very well and tempers flared on all sides. After one of the most famous of Cuba’s many fabled musical mutinies, Calzado returned to Havana as the only remaining member of his band, the others having left to form Charanga Forever, playing the same repertoire. By this time, Calzado was no longer playing an instrument in the band so his absence had no immediate effect, although the discipline and creative vision that he provided would later be sorely missed.

Left alone in Havana, Michel had sought out his old friend Tirso and the two had begun plans to form a new group, but Calzado offered to convert their fledgling project into the new Charanga Habanera and the rest is history.

As the main pianist, and now with a bandleader who was actively looking for radical new musical ideas, Tirso’s muse was set free and he took full advantage. The songs, arrangements and piano tumbaos he contributed during his three years with Charanga Habanera rank among the most important of the entire era and – in my opinion – are destined to take their place in the pantheon of classic Cuban music recorded since 1900. This is the material that we’ll be studying in this volume and at least one more before getting to Tirso’s compositions as a bandleader.

After years of study, I’ve come to believe that most of the best Cuban music results from a chemistry between extroverted, charismatic singer-songwriters and thoughtful rhythm section players working behind the scenes to add the musical details that make the difference between a catchy, throw-away hit and a true masterpiece. Perhaps more than any other figure, Tirso embodies both of these personality types. This book documents his profound musical innovations, but his talent as a singer and entertainer cannot be ignored. He’s not just a musician who can sing lead if necessary; he really is on the short list of the best singers to grace the world of post-revolutionary Cuban music. Although Tirso was the pianist of Charanga Habanera, the tecladista, Helder Rojas, was also a masterful pianist who was able to easily play even Tirso’s most complex piano parts, freeing Tirso to sing and dance in the front line on about 30% of the band’s songs. Among others, he sang lead on Pa’ lo que me importa a mí, Señora, El cantinero, the new band’s version of Usa condón, and, after the departure of Michel Maza, on Charanguero mayor and Confianza as well.

While I reserve the right to change my mind, I’m currently in the camp of observers who feel that Charanga Habanera has yet to return to the level of musical sophistication it reached at the time Tirso departed in January of 2001 for a short stint singing with NG La Banda. He didn’t record with NG La Banda at that point, although he returned as a guest to sing the excellent La calabaza on the 2012 album Mi 22 años.

 As much as Tirso enjoyed working with NG La Banda, Pupy Pedroso’s departure from Los Van Van in mid-2001 resulted in an offer that he simply could not refuse: a place in the front line of Los Que Son Son. He had already sung several songs on Timba: The New Generation, the last of Pupy’s side projects recorded while still a member of Los Van Van. Tirso’s voice, similar in range and timbre to Mayito Rivera’s, was the perfect complement for the gritty rumbero Mandy Cantero and the soaring tenor of Pepito Gómez. Pupy’s Qué cosas tiene la vida was one of the greatest debut albums in Cuban music history. Tirso sang Te molesta que sea feliz, El gato amaga y no araña and – in a gutsy move – the second version of La bomba soy yo, a Pupy anthem already made famous by Mayito Rivera on Los Van Van’s 1999 Grammy-winner, Llegó Van Van. Some early critics had claimed that Tirso’s style was too derivative of the older singer, and Tirso addressed the controversy head-on not only by tackling one of Mayito’s most famous songs, but by including the guía:

Yo canto con mi garganta – I sing with my own voice (literally with my throat)
Tengo limpia mi conciencia – My conscience is clean
Y si hay cualquier semejanza – And if there’s some similarity
Eso es pura coincidencia – That’s pure coincidence

It’s one thing to make the claim, but Tirso backs it up with a melody and delivery of intense originality and power.


Tirso left Pupy’s band in 2004 to try his hand as a bandleader. It’s one thing to be a musical genius or a great performer, and quite another to put together a team of crack musicians and keep them all happy while dealing with business and logistical headaches. It’s the one area in which not one of the many illustrious departing Charangueros has been able to match the perfectionist, disciplinarian and savvy businessman David Calzado. Leo Vera, Michel Maza, Sombrilla Jiménez, Juan Carlos González, Danny Lozada, Dantes “Riki Ricón” Cardosa, Pedro Pablo, Ebblis “El Boni” Valdivia … the list of brilliant ex-Charangueros goes on and on. Tirso has done better than most, releasing three albums as a leader, singing as a guest artist on many more, and – currently as of this writing – enjoying quite a bit of popularity in Colombia and Perú. 


As you can hear from the video Pa' Cali from Michelle's post, Tirso's singing and songwriting remained undiminished in the last decade of his life. Like so many of his colleagues, he never achieved even a fraction of the fame and recognition his genius merited, but his recordings live on for future generations to discover, and for others to have the type of life-changing epiphanies I was so lucky to experience in my short time with this phenomenal artist. [Kevin Moore] [Biography excerpted by Beyond Salsa Piano, Volume 14]


Thursday, 12 October 2023, 12:57 AM