Volume 11, December 2019
The Downbeat Bites the Dust: Learning and Teaching Bass Grooves in Cuban Popular Music

by Sarah Lahasky

4. Timba

Timba is closely connected with re-recognizing Afro-Cuban social life and culture on the island after the 1959 revolution, at which time the Cuban government prohibited the celebration of any identity category (ie. race) not associated with Cuban nationalism (Perna 2013: 404). However, as Vaughan correctly cautions, "the case of timba is not a simple case of black or African resistance through music, because various sectors of Cuban society—including the state—have claims on timba as well" (2012: 9). Timba music and dance developed in Havana in the early 1990s during Cuba's "Special Period" (Perna 2013: 403). Cuba's economic stability gravely worsened with the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent loss of subsidized goods from that region of the world. The Cuban government was forced with the decision to end their socialist agenda and enter the neoliberal world market, or to find an alternate funding source and continue with their revolutionary visions. In an effort to save their socialist policies, the government instead decided to increase tourism, and thus nightlife, to stay afloat (403). Timba was, at least in part, a result of this decision. The term has been cited in other contexts and with other meanings at least since Fernando Ortiz's reference to timba in his 1924 Glosario de Afronegrismos, long before the music style was recognized as such (Perna 2005: 101).10 Eventually a term that young Afro-Cubans used to indicate a party, often times including rumba dancing, the name eventually denoted the newest music and dance craze on the island (Hermida 2018d, personal communication). Though its sound varies from group to group and from song to song, Perna suggests that timba "is an eclectic fusion of son and rumba with elements of U.S. jazz, funk, and rap" (403). Los Van Van, an experimental fusion group from the 1960s formed by bassist Juan Formell, helped to set the stage for further mixing and experimenting in timba (Moore 2001: 162). The group credited as the first timba band is NG La Banda (Perna 2002: 215). The goal of the group's leader, J.L. Cortés, was "to produce dance music rooted in barrio life mixing jazz, salsa, rumba and rap, and using elaborated arrangements played by young, virtuoso musicians" (215). Perna explains that "one of the hallmarks of timba is precisely its technical difficulty and the virtuosity of its players," who have formal training in Cuban music conservatories (215).11

Timba music sounds similar to that of salsa, though salsa has a longer section before the call-and-response, and timba lyrics use more slang. Maya Roy also suggests that salsa and timba are different due to the context in which both styles developed. She implies that the marginalization of New York immigrants from different parts of the Caribbean, and not just Cuba, was a defining feature of the music and expression of salsa (Roy 2002: 179). Timba has not gained a large following outside of Cuba, perhaps due to foreigners' perceived vulgarities of the lyrics and dance (Perna 2013: 405). The dance consists of free-style and sexually suggestive movements, which creates "a glaring gap" between how insiders and outsiders perceive the music in relation to other, more traditional dance music styles from the island (Roy 2002: 198).

Another factor contributing to timba's lack of popularity outside of Cuba could be a result of the restricted trading relations with the United States (Perna 2013: 405). Despite these limitations in reaching an international audience, Geoff Baker maintains that "timba groups have shifted their emphasis from performing for ordinary locals towards playing for predominantly foreign audiences and economically successful Cubans in clubs and on overseas tours" (2006: 221). Additionally, he suggests that "affordable live performances are rare," and as a result, this music that was originally meant to be an outlet for the marginalized paradoxically often only have access to it through recordings and the radio (221).

Timba ensembles are usually large, typically consisting of at least twelve performers (403). A drum set replaces bongos from salsa, and a synthesizer is added to the sound of the existing keyboard (Moore 2010: 119). The baby bass from salsa is replaced by the electric bass in timba (Perna 2013: 403), however Roy suggests that some timba artists are beginning to bring the baby bass back in hopes of striking a new balance between old and new styles (2002: 201).12 The bass grooves in timba are often more virtuosic than that of preceding dance music styles (Perna 2013: 403). This is likely a result of the increased number of conservatory-trained popular musicians after Cuba's educational campaigns in the years following the revolution, which I discuss in more detail later. As Moore describes, "[timba] bass lines are unpredictable, incorporating fast runs, sustained notes, glissandi, chromatic passages, and slaps" (Moore 2010: 119). Muted "dead" notes and free-meter rhythms are also characteristic features of timba bass (Hermida 2018c, personal communication).

From the early danzón bass lines to the virtuosic timba grooves, the characteristic sound and the role of the bass have changed significantly over the course of the last century. Primarily a time-keeping instrument in early danzón, the son clave timeline rhythm and other percussion instruments gave the bassist more freedom to add syncopation and melodic riffs. Cachao's creative transformations of the danzón accompaniment invited jazz and funk bassists, among others, to also experiment with the rhythmic and melodic role of the instrument. Timba music pushed the envelope once more, adding extended techniques and the "unpredictability" that Moore mentions. What was once an instrument that primarily played quarter notes to keep time for band members, the bass grooves in popular Cuban music styles are now complex and challenging, especially for the outsider. How do Cuban bassists learn these intricate grooves today? Do most students begin with Western classical music training, as did Cachao and Ignacio Piñeiro, or is popular Cuban music now seen as a separate and legitimate tradition that demands a more particular training from the beginning? If the latter is true, then how do Western classically-trained outsiders most effectively learn the syncopated style of Cuban popular music? In an attempt to answer these questions, it is useful to consider the pedagogy and training systems of Western classical and popular music styles on the island.