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Cuba based rap duo, Zona Franka, blends traditional rhythms with the grit and swagger of hip-hop and rap vocal phrasings. Their clever shout choruses create instant tropical dance classics using their unique self-titled "changui con flow" style.
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Sin Clave No Hay Na

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Thursday, 13 December 2012, 05:19 AM

Gotham Gets Her Groove Back, Part IV:

What Does This Mean For The Future? (Second Half)

Article and Photos by Bill Tilford, All Rights Reserved

The opinions that follow are my personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the official opinions of TIMBA.com or of my colleagues.             

El Tosco was right!

     A very striking lesson from the Red Hot + Cuba  performance at BAM is that many of the people in the audience were not your usual suspects for a Cuban music concert, and although they clearly enjoyed the entire show,  there is no denying the fact that it was the Timba selections which really made them get out of their seats and move.  Various people in and out of the music industry have been declaring this music "over", "exhausted", "dead" etc. for years, and these shows clearly demonstrated that not only were the obituaries and eulogies premature, but also that the music can reach and engage new listeners if marketed effectively, presented well and performed with conviction. However, to fill a venue of this size,  presenters must reach well beyond the core community of existing Timba fans and bring in more of the general public (as happened here).  The BAM concert  is Exhibit A that if new listeners hear the music, many of them will become converts. 
     For that show (Red Hot + Cuba) , there was a crack battalion of production, technical and publicity people working behind the scenes as well as an institution, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, that already possessed a loyal cadre of audience regulars of its own. Without all of those ingredients, trying to present this type of "All-Stars" performance can be virtually a suicide mission, financially speaking.  I truly hope that we see shows of that caliber in other cities, but it takes a lot of infrastructure to make this type of extravaganza a success.  

What is wrong with this picture? 

     One final word to the fans:  this is a difficult matter to discuss, but it needs to be said, and the venues and bands won't tell you because they don't want to alienate you and risk causing you to stop buying tickets.  This is about that bootleg video so many of you are taking nowadays.  The venues don't like that you do this, but many of them aren't telling you to put those I-phones and whatnot away because they need your money.  So,  I am going to tell you something:  I don't like it when you do that either, for two reasons: 
     1.  Many Cuban bands lack the means to operate their own reliably-updated websites and Facebook pages, and this makes whatever does show up on the web even more significant for their public image. If you sell bootleg video, you are ripping them off, and yes, in the evolving Cuban economy, you are probably ripping them off as individual people now, so don't even try that excuse. If you post it free on Youtube or anywhere else seen by a lot of people, the audio quality of what you did is often so poor that if you think you are doing this out of love, I would almost prefer that you hated them.  Bad audio makes them sound bad and does not help their chances with those who are learning about them for the first time. Your little souvenir might even accidentally convince somebody that they really aren't worth checking out.  I know this probably isn't going to make you stop taking personal video, but if you must continue, please use your heads about what you do with it afterwards, OK?  (Venues might even want to think about whether there is a practical business model that would allow  them to charge for a VIP "video highlights" package in lieu of tolerating those twenty phones in the air, but that may be easier said than done.)

Next up on America's Dumbest Concertgoers?

       2.  A few of you have even graduated to wide-screen I-pads that are practically the size of TV cameras. If that describes you, has it ever occurred to you that in addition to blocking the sightlines of somebody that might be taking pro-quality shots and video on behalf of the band, you are also blocking the view of other people in the audience who are standing behind you?  Leave those I-pads in your bags, folks. Besides, isn't this dance music?  So why not dance instead already?  Please keep coming, but please also be kind to the bands, the venues and your fellow concertgoers.  

     Final thoughts:  Overall, this series of New York/New Jersey concerts goes in the "win" column for everyone involved, at least from a musical perspective.  For Havana d'Primera in particular,   this was part of a larger national tour that has reinforced that band's reputation as one of the most important groups performing the music today. For those of you who have to travel to New York to do this sort of thing, it is definitely worth the trip.  Always prepare a Plan B (this is true of anything that takes you there, not just Timba concerts), but there is never nothing to do there. Never. If you go to New York for any reason and leave disappointed, that's on you. In a way, I'm glad I don't live there - I would be broke from going to see too many bands and shows.  (Now, if we could only find a suitable regular New York reporter.....)

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Tuesday, 11 December 2012, 12:30 AM

Gotham Gets Her Groove Back, Part IV:

What Does This Mean For The Future? (First Half)

Article and Photos by Bill Tilford -- All Rights Reserved

The opinions that follow are my personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the official opinions of TIMBA.com or of my colleagues.  

     The metropolitan New York area is being blessed with a lot of Cuban music - including Timba - these days, so the future looks bright from that angle. Gotham really does have her groove back! I saw some wonderful shows while visiting, and had I not been attending the Havana d'Primera shows and the BAM extravaganza, there were other options of some sort every night while I was there. This is great news for concertgoers but may prove to be a mixed blessing for presenters and venue operators. Case in point:  There were four opportunities during the week to see Havana d'Primera and two additional chances to see Alexander Abreu individually in the BAM show.  I attended all of the HdP performances, and although I noticed a few of the same individuals at more than one show, the audiences for each night were largely distinct.  If all of the people who saw the HdP shows had been gathered together at one place, there probably would have been a couple of sold out shows (or at least one sold out show with a healthy crowd at the second one). As it is, the crowds were respectable for each show, but people understandably appear to have chosen the date and place that made the most sense to their circumstances. (Only the most hard-core enthusiast would take in four nights of any act.)  On the other hand, it needs to be understood that reducing the number of shows would have almost certainly increased the price of the tickets, perhaps to a level that might have deterred some people from going due to the price. The Friday night BAM show that I saw was very well attended but was also not sold out. Even better, the audience enthusiasm was intense at all of these shows. I write this without knowledge of how any of these shows performed financially (it may take some time for that picture to become clear anyway), but I see two takeaways for future event planners:  (A) there is a genuine demand for the music, and when new listeners hear it, they will love it,  but (B) there will almost certainly be stiff competition to meet that demand in metro New York as the future unfolds, and it may take a stroke of luck for anyone to get a "monopoly" for any specific night; therefore, expectations regarding ticket sales will need to take that factor into account, and a high level of advance publicity will be critical to success in many cases.   


     Which brings us to the issue of ticket sales.  I understand the reasons why past experiences have driven so many fans nationwide to postpone ticket purchases to the last possible moment (usually at the door), but in many cities including New York (and my hometown, Chicago, for that matter), this has turned into a game of "chicken" (in the original version, two cars race toward each other at high speed, and the first driver to turn away before a collision is the "chicken") between fans and concert presenters, and this is a game that the fans will ultimately lose if it continues.  The overhead expenses of presenting a touring band from Cuba are enormous, the profit margins are slim on those occasions when one is made at all, and presenters that are cautious about not losing a lot of money use advance ticket sales to project whether they should proceed and how.  I am seeing an increasing number of last minute cancellations across the country over time due to the absence of advanced ticket sales, and this problem will get worse rather than better if something doesn't change. SO:
Fans:  You need to understand that when you say "I'll buy at the door" you are in effect telling the venue that you really aren't sure that you are interested.  That might not be what you are trying to say, but it is what they will definitely hear.  If you really do want to see a touring group from Cuba, the decision that you will need to make is whether you can trust that you'll get a refund if something does go wrong.  If the answer to that question is "yes",  and if the event is with an established venue rather than the local bingo hall (it usually will be), I would start buying in advance if I were you, or some venues will stop trying to host these acts. 
Concert Presenters, Promoters, Agents and Venues:  You need to understand that right now, there frequently aren't any real incentives for fans to purchase advance tickets, and you can see what's happening with your own eyes.  If I were you, I would start structuring some kind of better incentives for advance purchases into the ticket price even if that means raising the amount for at-the-door sales, and I would stress those more boldly when publicizing the dates.  Understand as well that this problem is also a powerful argument in favor of working with a supportive , established venue rather than renting a hall and relying solely on the credibility of your name as a promoter.  Yes, this may add to your expense line, but it will also add to ticket sales. If you're lucky, that will compensate for the expense.  
Everyone:  Seriously, folks, work this thing out, or we will all see fewer concerts with bands from Cuba in the future even though it will become easier on paper for them to come to the United States and there are plenty of fans to go around. Wouldn't that be ironic?

     Normally, when everything is going perfectly, promoters and agents aren't a visible part of the final story, and by way of introducing this subject, I need to share a couple of  harsh realities about the music industry. The most important one is that if eligibility for sainthood were a requirement to be in the entertainment business, perhaps half of the concerts and recordings that have taken place over the years would never have occurred, and a high percentage of the disc jockeys now in the clubs wouldn't be working either.  A certain amount of hype is part of how things frequently get done in most segments of the industry. The best operators keep that to a necessary minimum, and most never cross the line into blatant dishonesty, but this brings me to my second point.  There are some first-class agencies which I will not name here that have the skill sets and the experience to manage our music well, but after looking at things from the perspectives of risk, time and expense vs. potential reward, they have frequently chosen to focus on more profitable (and less difficult) lines of business.  This limits the pool of potential agencies for this music, and that calls for a certain level of public tolerance of those who can and will handle the music if they are essentially honest by music industry standards, reasonably competent and willing to learn from any mistakes that they do make (that very last item probably disqualifies some would-be promoters who otherwise meet the first two criteria.  Most people in this business make mistakes now and then, the key is whether you can learn from them and improve.)  


     This brings us to the organizer/promoter for the Havana d'Primera , Mayito Rivera and Tirso Duarte concerts (but not the BAM performances), Jay Peña , who had also presented the Mega Timba Concert at the Copacabana earlier this year. Given the very mixed public reaction to that earlier event and the circumstances surrounding it, I was among those who were initially skeptical about whether he should be attempting another Timba concert series of that scale so soon afterwards.   He chose to persevere, and I chose to give him the benefit of the doubt as he moved forward with plans for the second round of concerts. To his credit, he submitted himself to a level of scrutiny from some elements of the Timba community that most agents and promoters would have refused, and while he may have made a few decisions along the way that I would not have made personally, in the end, he presented some excellent concerts that might have been even better with fewer complications if not for circumstances beyond anyone's control (Superstorm Sandy being one of them).  I do believe that working with a respected venue like S.O.B.s made a positive difference in this case, and having them or someone like them on board is (in my opinion) important to the success of future concerts. While I hope that Mr. Peña realizes that he still has some room for improvement in the public relations and traditional (such as press and radio) publicity departments, and I am quite sure there are some other lessons from his experiences that would not be appropriate to share here, I also think that he has clearly demonstrated that he is sensitive to the Timba community and can deliver concerts worth attending. (I for one am very happy with the concerts that he presented this time, and the audiences were very enthusiastic as well.) There are other agents and promoters in this business who have been far worse (and who have even sometimes crossed the line into blatant dishonesty) without experiencing this level of scrutiny from the public.  If anything good comes from Mr. Peña's experience with running the gauntlet, perhaps it will be a signal to the less-reputable types in the business that the Timba community is watching more closely now.  But I also counsel our community to be careful not to drive capable operators from the field by acting with excessive zeal in the name of being vigilant. The pool of available agencies and venues that can and will present these groups effectively is rather small, and we need to remember that as we go forward.

(...to be continued...)

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Sunday, 09 December 2012, 08:31 PM

Independents Get Noticed In the 55th Annual GRAMMY Awards

One of the myths that we frequently hear about the GRAMMY awards is that if you aren't backed by a label and/or a major agent or already have a huge name, you don't have a prayer of being recognized. Some of this year's nominees for the 55th GRAMMY awards prove that independent projects can get attention, at least in the categories that are of key interest to TIMBA.com's readers:

In the Best Latin Jazz Album category, one of the nominees is Manuel Valera's NEW CUBAN EXPRESS,  which this writer would like to see go all the way (you can read our review here and visit Manuel's website here.) Manuel is a Cuban ex-pat living in New York and is part of what we consider a movement of musicians there that are currently redefining the boundaries of Latin Jazz.

In the Best Tropical Latin Album category, CUBANO SOY, by Raúl Lara y sus Soneros, is a wonderful tradional Son and Rumba project from a Cuban expat living in Sweden, which practically has its own colony of Cuban musicians now. Raúl studied extensively with José Luis Quintana (Changuito) when he was younger.  He has played with several groups, but Cubano Soy is his debut release as a solo artist.  Raúl's website, which includes some sound clips, is here.  

Also in the Best Tropical Latin Album category, Puerto Rican Marlow Rosado's RETRO deserves mention as another independent project that stands out this year. You can read our review here, and his website is here. Marlow is more of a familiar name than the first two artists that we mentioned, but all of his GRAMMY recognition before now has come from his work in support of several other artists. This is the second recording by his own group La Riqueña and is a swinging tribute to the classic "Salsa Dura" of the 1970s. 

Incidentally, TIMBA.com's own Michael Lazarus mastered both Cubano Soy and Retro. Congratulations Mike, having two projects in the same category is a good problem to have.

Congratulations also to Arturo Sandoval, whose Dear Diz won two Latin GRAMMY awards and was nominated for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album here. Two singles from that album, A Night In Tunisia (Actually An Entire Weekend!)  and Salt Peanuts!, were also nominated in the Best Instrumental Arrangement category. This album was a phenomenal tribute to Dizzy Gillespie, and you can read our review here

You can see the complete list of nominees for all categories at GRAMMY.com. One key reason that we saw Timba recordings recognized in the Latin GRAMMYs, but not here, is that voting Latin Recording Academy (LARAS) members are much likelier to be familiar with Timba music, which has a much broader following outside the US (especially in Europe and Latin America).   It is important to note that LARAS is structured to allow membership from artists, engineers and producers based internationally, while NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) is not. Consequently it has a tighter focus on United States - based members and projects. Some recordings which are eligible for consideration in the Latin GRAMMYs don't meet the criteria for consideration in the regular "American" GRAMMYs.  Bottom line:  Never assume that being an independent artist makes this process a waste of time.  If the music is good enough and enough people listen to it, there is always hope. Congratulations and good luck to the nominees! [ Bill Tilford ]

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Friday, 07 December 2012, 06:07 AM

Gotham Gets Her Groove Back, Part III:

Mayito and Tirso Address The People

Article and Photos by Bill Tilford -- All Rights Reserved 

     Some of Manhattan's clubs may like to tuck the bands into bed as soon as possible after midnight, but over in Queens, some of them don't start jumping until the clock strikes twelve.  After the Friday night Red Hot + Cuba extravaganza at BAM in Brooklyn, I went to La Boom up in Queens.  This is a pan-Latin nightclub (if you are wondering about the name, they bring a huge sparkler "fuse" out with some of their more expensive drink orders), and when I arrived some time before midnight, I was worried at first because the DJ was cranking out a heavy mix of Bachata and Salsa Romantica. What's more, people were dancing to it and really, really digging it. Periodically, the man at the microphone mentioned that Havana d'Primera, Mayito Rivera and Tirso Duarte were coming later, and by this point I wasn't quite sure whether this was being announced as tidings of comfort and joy or more in the spirit of an air-raid warning. Would this turn into a scene like the Blues Brothers at Bob's Country Bunker from that first movie once the bands hit the stage? Fortunately, this turned out to be a bit of residual paranoia on my part left over from my last trip to the Big Apple.  As showtime drew near, there was a gradual transition to Salsa Dura and yes, finally Timba (whew!) at the DJ booth. Earlier in the night,  they were just accommodating the regulars, who are loaded up with bachateros, prior to the main event.  Once the bands came on, this was a Timba crowd with a Timba vibe. (Sidebar: In the unlikely event that the industry ever comes up with a "Best Use of Spandex" award, I might place La Boom's waitresses in nomination. Watching some of these ladies walk almost made me want to order a drink - which I never do when working - and more than compensated for listening to an hour of the "other crowd's" music.)

     Mayito has had some ups and downs since leaving Los Van Van (including a messy train of events earlier in the year with the New York Mega Timba Concert that ended with his not appearing there), but the crowd received him warmly at La Boom as he performed the opening set with a band composed largely of some of New York's finest including Jhair Sala from the Pedrito Martinez Group.  Fortunately for listeners, Miami and New York both have a solid corps of resident musicians who can play this music properly, and Mayito appears to be establishing a serious presence in both places by making the preparations required to have capable backing bands available there.  One additional thing that he did during this visit was drop into Martin Cohen's Congahead studios in Montvale NJ for a photo and video shoot.  (The photos are already up on the Congahead website, and we understand that video is coming later.)

     Tirso has also been a few places - physically and musically - himself in recent years but released an excellent CD in the spring of 2012 titled Tirso Duarte y la mecanica loca, which you can read more about here.  Fortunately for all of us, he is unmistakably back in the Timba saddle now and in top voice.  

     The La Boom concert featured segments by Mayito, Havana d'Primera and Tirso Duarte and went from approximately 1 am-4:30 am (just like old times!).  While returning to the hotel (on the train this time - I stepped out of the club in the middle of a shift change with the taxis, and NOBODY would go into Manhattan), I witnessed a scene that captures the life of a musician so well that I must share share it:  a pretty young puertoriqueña was completely tearing to shreds a fellow who was (or at least had been) her boyfriend for "ditching" her - leaving her with one of his friends - earlier in the evening.  His story?  He was a musician and was trying to close the deal on a gig with a man that wanted to hire him and his group.  But she was not buying this despite his increasingly-desparate pleas,  and I think the young man would have given just about anything to escape her wrath at that point.  Ah, the sacrifices we make in this business for the sake of the music...

     The New Jersey concert, which featured Havana d'Primera and Tirso,  was moved to the Mauna Loa in North Bergen from the original Park Theater in Union City as part of the post-Sandy adjustments.  There was no actual sign outside that said Mauna Loa (the locals told me that this was a result of recent storm damage), and it remains uncertain as to whether this had any impact on attendance (this website did its best on the day of the concert to help advise concertgoers how to find the place).  The crowd that was there was very enthusiastic, and DJ Morales set the tone with some excellent Timba and Afrocuban that you frequently don't hear at these things (by showtime, although this didn't have the largest crowd, it probably had the strongest Afrocuban vibe of any of the shows we saw this trip).  This was a shorter live set (close to 90 minutes)  that went from a little after midnight until about 1:30 am.  The New Jersey side of the river could use more Timba going into the future, but the ideal dates/times/locations may take a little time to sort out yet. 

To read a review and view a photo gallery of the shows  in Queens and in North Bergen, NJ, click here.  

Coming Next:  Part IV:  What Does This All Mean For The Future?

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