Blackness with a Cuban Beat

September 25, 2007

Esa música que heredamos
hijos y nietos de los africanos,
la que mezclamos con la española,
con la francesa y la portuguesa,
la que fundimos bien con la inglesa…[1]
—Los Van Van, “Somos cubanos”

Dicen que se comenta por toda La Habana,
Que estos niches están acabando
con todas las mujeres de La Habana
toditas las mujeres
Y no pasa nada…[2]
—La Charanga Habanera, “Lo siento por ti”

Timba was the sound of the 1990s. With a contagious dance beat, this music chronicled the daily hardships of Cuba’s so-called “Special Period in Times of Peace,” the period of economic crisis following the demise of Soviet state socialism. Amid the material scarcity and urban decay, foreigners—for the first time in decades—roamed Havana’s streets, bringing a holiday feel to the inner city and befriending the impoverished urban dwellers. Often, these new relationships were sealed on the dance floor. Timba’s luscious dance moves were often credited with smiting tourists with lovesickness while scorned as evidence of blacks’ perfidious lewdness. For both Cubans and foreigners, timba was a symbol of change: of capitalist enterprise and upward mobility beyond the constraints of revolutionary hierarchies.

Timba was black people’s music.[3] It glorified Afro-Cuban heritage as central to Cuban identity, along with racial pride, machismo and sexuality. As tourists and entrepreneurs joined inner city youth in embracing the craze, timba’s commercial success—however modest by international standards—launched a group of Afro-Cuban musicians and their entourage to what in the understated socialist society amounted to stardom. Furthermore, the opening of the Cuban economy to foreign stakeholders fostered alternative public spheres around leisure activities that highlighted race as a marker of both cultural identity and social hierarchy, contradicting revolutionary ideology. In other words, under a regime that negated social fragmentation along lines of race, class and gender, emerged a musical genre that rallied a massive audience precisely on these bases. What’s more, timba also advocated for transnational connections, international travel and individual entrepreneurship—all values seemingly antithetical to Cuba’s revolutionary socialism. Yet timba—referred to, simply, as la música cubana (the Cuban music)—was at once hailed by Cuban musicologists as Latin music’s highest development and welcomed by cultural bureaucrats for its export-revenue potential.

Timba became associated with a world of optimism and capitalist consumption. For instance, as one of many palliatives to the crisis following the loss of Soviet support, a state-run radio station introduced commercial advertisements in conjunction with timba programming. And even though timba seemed to be Cuba’s new music revolution, it barely transcended the island, failing to become a global genre. By the end of the 1990s, its once-thriving scene eventually shrunk as the Cuban state bureaucracy withdrew its support and the international music industry concentrated on traditional genres allegedly untouched by consumerism. However, timba’s explosive popularity in 1990s Cuba was only possible precisely due to Cubans’ emergent imagining of the global: the newly acquired expectations, among previously disenfranchised groups, of life beyond revolutionary socialism.

In musical terms, timba is a hard-edged form of salsa, but unlike New York-style salsa it is based as much on Cuban son as it is on rumba, batá and other traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms. It features complex polyrhythmic arrangements, an aggressive brass sound, synthesizers, a standard drum set in addition to a Latin percussion section and several lead vocalists. While its music, choreographies and aesthetics incorporate elements of hip-hop, reggae, rock and even flamenco, its lyrics mostly deal with the everyday urban experiences of black Cubans in the context of the economic crisis, often using humorous language filled with neologisms and double-meanings. Catchy chorus lines lend themselves to a call-and-response play between singers and audience, and sudden rhythmic breaks encourage dancers to improvise and freely engage in el tembleque (the tremor). In this dance, the woman performs a body shake based on a relentless circular rotation of the pelvis with arms up, chest shaking and head moving sideways. Standing close to her, in front or behind, the man, with his legs apart and knees slightly bent, extends his arms outward, as if surrounding her space with his four limbs without actually touching her, while he rhythmically and frenetically shakes his crotch, mimicking the frenzy of sexual climax.

Timba developed at the beginning of the decade, when Afro-Cuban conservatory graduates turned to popular music catering to inner city youth, but its growth followed that of the music and tourist industries as the state implemented economic reforms to confront the post-Soviet world. Bands proliferated along with the newly revamped hard-currency clubs. They found instant promotion on new radio and TV shows, and signed record deals with small foreign independent labels then appearing in Cuba. Media exposure also contributed to the emergence of a new farándula (celebrity elite) of musicians and their entourage of agents and managers. Some of the bands’ front men were hired to advertise consumer products like beer, rum and tobacco. Most strikingly, unlike earlier generations of up-and-coming artists, these were mostly black and unapologetic about their success. Their meteoric rise from humble origins to national stardom, along with their flashy looks and conspicuous spending, turned them into popular symbols of upward mobility and capitalist plenty. Although viewed with apprehension by some, they became heroes to their inner city audience, to whom they remained loyal—playing for free in their neighborhoods, and defending Afro-Cuban culture and lifestyles as key to both national belonging and transnational opportunity.

Every day through 1999, the most popular music show on Cuban radio, “De 5 a 7,” provided listings of timba shows, which were particularly abundant on weekends. At tourist nightclubs like El Palacio de la Salsa and El Café Cantante, the steep cover charge of $15-$20 was affordable only to foreigners, but free concerts were routinely sponsored by the Union of Communist Youth and similar institutions in neighborhoods and on Havana’s popular seaside promenade, the Malecón. But timba’s undisputed cathedral was La Tropical. There, dance bands tested their latest tunes and dancers rehearsed new steps. Also, La Tropical was the only dancehall accessible with Cuban pesos at a rate only costly enough to make the occasion special for its mostly Afro-Cuban patrons. La Tropical was, indeed, a marked space in terms of race and class. White Cubans tended to stay away, especially on timba night, when brawls were said to erupt as easily as cheap rum circulated around the dance floor. “That is not a place where decent people go,” they would say. And perhaps to validate their fears, La Tropical’s gate was permanently flanked by police vans; officers routinely frisked customers and infiltrated the crowds on the lookout for fights and drugs. Bands like Los Van Van, La Charanga Habanera, NG La Banda, Klimax, Manolín, Bamboleo, Bakuleyé, Tamayito and Paulito FG were regular fixtures at La Tropical, where people knew every song even before its release. But no studio recording would do justice to timba’s live intensity. Spontaneous exchanges between performers and audience often culminated in the blurring of the two, with singers descending to the dance floor and people climbing on stage.

Under a political regime that rejected displays of identity based on race, religion and the like, timba boldly paid tribute to Afro-Cuban heritage, both religious and secular. Elements of the rumba and Santería traditions are present in instrumentation, rhythmic patterns, dance moves and lyrical themes, making allegiance to Afro-Cuban religion a prime element of both racial and national identity. On stage, bands routinely praise their members’ religious initiation, and musicians visibly display ritual protective beads, which until then were typically worn inconspicuously under clothing. And many songs are dedicated to religious themes. For example, “Santa Palabra,” considered the first full-fledged timba track, enumerates Yoruba deities.[4] Other early hits include “Papa Changó,” which praises this saint as “the most super-stereophonic saint of the Yoruba religion,” and “Extraños Ateos,” which critiques zealous bureaucrats for defending atheism while secretly lighting candles to the saints when things go wrong.[5] More recently, Los Van Van’s “Soy Todo” can be considered a religious performance in itself. Live, with the feedback of an involved audience, the song becomes a long charismatic sermon in both Yoruba and Spanish, asking the Lord to protect the Cuban people and especially, “the people of this color: the niche, the brown, who have arisen from the bottom struggling against so much hardship.”[6] As the extemporaneous deliverance escalates in intensity and fervor, concertgoers emotionally raise their arms and echo the chorus line: “Ay Dios amparame” (“Oh God, protect me”).[7]

Indeed, timba was a populist genre. It infused inner city lifestyles, identified as lumpen marginality by official media, with cultural pride. The solar—a crowded inner city tenement typically inhabited by poor blacks—for example, is officially either chastised as a cradle of immorality and crime or represented as a stage for the performance of Afro-Cuban folklore. But in timba, the solar is exalted as the living bedrock of Cuban popular culture and entrepreneurial inventiveness (“where the dollar value goes up and down,” “where love is made in colors”), and the niches are praised as pillars of Cuban society. Unorthodox wheeling-and-dealing is portrayed as proof of the resilience and resourcefulness of black men in the face of material adversity and historical disadvantage. In a revolutionary society still ruled by a Creole elite, the upward mobility of the black man was promised through his labor and political participation, but hardly realized. The economic opening of the mid-1990s facilitated new avenues for upward mobility that circumvented the rigid structures of post-colonial socialist society. Therefore, in the new dollar economy, black male empowerment could take place through alternative channels like the bolsa negra (black market). The “New Man” was now quite different from the one defined by Che Guevara as committed to socialist austerity after the revolutionary victory. Manhood still hinged on the ability to make ends meet and provide for the family—now by all means necessary, socialist ethics notwithstanding. But now manhood was sublimated in the game of heterosexual seduction symbolically simulated in the tembleque and its “booty call”—defined by Paul Gilroy as the “androcentric and phallocentric presentation and representation of heterosexual coupling.” In a context where overt political critique was severely castigated, dissension was channeled through public displays of race and sexuality that subverted the normative social relations sustaining state power.

Accordingly, those involved in the performance and popularization of timba crafted an ethos of black machismo and a narrative of male hypersexuality to accompany timba’s so-called “macho” sound.[8] In a socialist society, in which value and identity hinged on labor and political citizenship, black males were representing themselves not as forces of production but of pleasure. Thus many songs refer to black men’s conquests, and include boastful proclamations such as “They say that we niches are finishing up / with all the women in Havana / absolutely all the women / And nothing happens!” They also commonly highlighted the male sexual attributes that sustain Afro-Cuban manhood and its naturalized power over women, with allusions such as “this little thing I have that gets up and not down,” and demands such as “open your mouth baby … and suck my lollipop” or “don’t touch it so hard / be careful with my instrument” and “going down on you, no way.”[9] Such statements often enraged the Federation of Cuban Women, and were officially labeled as chabacanos (in bad taste) and banned from public broadcast.

In the most graphic way, a 1997 album cover by La Charanga Habanera sexualized the black male body—from head to fingers—in clear “disidentification” with prevailing ideologies of race and gender inherited from colonial times. (Borrowing from José Esteban Muñoz, disidentification describes the way playful incorporations of negative stereotypes are used as positive qualifiers.)[10] In reference to a song promoting condom use—a concession by the band to government pressure—the front cover shows a cheerful black man carrying flowers in his hand and an oversized condom on his head. The graphic can be interpreted as forging a link between affection, symbolized by the bouquet, and recreational sex. Or perhaps the image implies that the main sexual organ is housed in the head. The back cover, in turn, depicts an older and dark-skinned band member dressed as a negro calesero (a colonial carriage driver) waving the fingers on his left hand. They are highlighted in red and shaped like erect male organs in reference to his primary motive with women. The negro calesero was a common character in the early 20th century burlesque theater of white authors. Typically a slave, he was a shoddy yet harmless character that would make advances towards light-skinned ladies traveling in his vehicle. Barely 100 years after the abolition of slavery and national independence, La Charanga Habanera mocked this well-known guise—itself a mockery—by explicitly and proudly emphasizing the black man’s sexuality, undomesticated by the servant’s uniform. But the disidentification with the stereotype does not reside in its endorsement, nor in its rejection, but in its full disclosure. In this period of increasing globalization, black men rewrote the script and the negro calesero was no loser. As his placement on the back cover suggests, he was the last to laugh.

At the end of the twentieth century, the subservient negrito represented himself as a successful and proud niche, the embodiment of male power, and broadcast his “booty call” to the entire country and beyond. His phallocentrism is a statement of superiority vis-à-vis not only white men, but also black women, whose independent strategies of survival he belligerently rejects. Indeed, timba’s disidentificational stance is heavily male-centered. When it comes to the Afro-Cuban woman, timba offers no salvation.

The mass arrival of white European and Canadian tourists in the early 1990s opened new horizons for a population with little previous contact with foreigners from capitalist countries. An informal economy quickly developed to cater to tourists’ needs beyond those provided by the state-controlled tourist industry. The rise in prostitution captured widespread attention in Cuba and abroad as the shameful side of capitalism for some—or of socialism, for others. Associations between mostly white foreigners and black Cubans were the subject of intense moral debate, but the debate on their unequal and exploitative character ignored the effect of these relationships on the consciousness and world views of those involved. Beyond short-lived sexual transactions, seducing a tourist could be more than a matter of instant gratification; it increasingly led to a relationship culminating in marriage and migration abroad. Severe travel restrictions imposed by the socialist administration on the population meant that marriage was—as it had been in the former Soviet bloc—a common strategy for legal emigration. According to a report by Mauricio Vicent, the Cuba correspondent for the Spanish daily El País, only 15 Spanish-Cuban marriages were registered at the Spanish consulate in 1990; but there were 670 in 1993; 1,190 in 1996; and 4,169 in 2000. He cited consular officials saying that in 80% of these cases, Spanish men, usually middle-aged, wedded much younger women, “beautiful and mulata,” often with “a technical or university degree.”[11] Middle-class prejudice, weighing heavily in such characterizations, often portrayed the black party as a hustler, the white foreigner as either a dupe or a pervert, and the entire interracial relation as invariably linked to self-interest and illicit profit. But timba songs defended such transatlantic love affairs, particularly when the Cuban party was male.

The subject was central in performances at the tourist clubs, where bands catered to a mixed public. There, in places like El Palacio de la Salsa and the Café Cantante, Cubans were only admitted if accompanied by foreign patrons, so young black men and women typically crowded the entrance to find a paying date. Inside, under dim lights, dancers enjoyed ample dance room, clean bathrooms and designer drinks. The bands, which welcomed the hard currency bonus to supplement their meager peso salaries, would use phrases in English and Italian, and call out for the countries represented in the audience: Italy, Spain, the United States, Mexico, Brazil, etc. Klimax typically started its concerts that way, then praised the virtues of the Cuban mulata, urging the foreign audience to sing along with the line “mulata, take me home with you” (the only option for intimacy since Cubans were not allowed in tourist hotels). Then, the singer would address the Cubans in the house and empathize with their hardships: “Those here who want health and money, raise your hands!” “And those who want health, money and a trip abroad? Raise your hands!” “Ah, everyone likes that!” The whole orchestra would then kick in as the audience seconded the chorus “Yo lo que quiero es salud, dinero, y un viaje pa’l extranjero” (“What I want is health, money, and a trip abroad”). Love was conspicuously absent from the wish list, perhaps because in timba, love was hard to come by—the fault for this being the disloyalty of the Afro-Cuban woman who, since colonial times, has been depicted by male writers and artists as socially calculating and the embodiment of mestizaje. Hence, she would seek to “advance” both in terms of race and class, preferring an illicit relationship with a white man to an honest one with a fellow Afro-Cuban.

In timba, as in Cuban colonial literature, the mulata is a conniving character with a deviant sensuality, one that “melts ice” but lacks a heart. The mulata is materialistic to the point of bringing her man to bankruptcy, indigence and even death. In song after song, she is a “shopping maniac,” “super-touristy,” “a witch without feelings,” quick to exchange a man’s love for cheap thrills.[12] She allows the black man to shower her with love and affection only to extend a bill for services rendered, payable “by check, credit card or cash.”[13] The mulata’s love is up for auction, and in the end, she commits the worst affront: she leaves the black man, not for a white Cuban, but for a foreigner, a temba (an older man), a papirriki con guanikiki (a sugardaddy with dough) that can fulfill her frivolous needs and perhaps take her with him to his country.[14] In so doing, she obviously abandons the project of the mestizo nation, committing a national betrayal. Los Van Van expressed this collective trauma during a concert before thousands on Havana’s Malecón. One of the band members asked the men in the audience to raise their hands if a mulata had ever left them for a foreigner, only to obtain a loud ovation in response. After sharing that his mulata, a beautiful woman of “hazel eyes, black hair and a mouth like a ripe mango,” left him for an Italian, he warned that mulatas—ultimately representing all Cuban women—are not to be trusted, for they wear a mask both on their face and on their back. Eventually, she may attempt to return, seeking the unparalleled sexual abilities of the black man she left behind, but by then he will have found another woman, black or white, Cuban or otherwise. Times have changed, and the black man’s options are now broader because, unlike in the 19th century when migration from Europe was mostly male, foreigners of both genders now come to Cuba. Moreover, foreign women from other racial and cultural backgrounds are perceived to be free from historical prejudices and immediate social referents to racial conflict, and they are believed to be more willing to provide their interracial relationship with bureaucratic legitimacy through marriage. Assuredly, black men’s conquests—their “finishing up with all women in Havana”—particularly those white and foreign, boosted their egos, and in broadcasting these relationships, timba musicians sent shockwaves through Cuban society, ending the societal silence on race and in the process challenging revolutionary discourses on the nation and social equality.

During the 1990s, timba became immensely popular among Afro-Cuban youth, rallying a mass public around a discourse of racial pride and capitalist opportunity of transnational proportions. Timba musicians, some of them internationally known recording artists, became symbols of an incoming capitalism that, unlike the socialist revolution, did not purport to be race-blind. Rather, it opened a field of possibilities in which the strategic use of difference was fair game. Furthermore, timba questioned the model of racial (in)equality and normative sexuality promulgated by the Revolution, implicitly critiquing the social hierarchies upon which the post-colonial nation and the socialist state were predicated. In so doing, it also provided an alternative discourse of empowerment to young inner city black men—even at the expense of gendered and racialized “others”: black women. Thus, while the symbol of the post-colonial nation was a synthesis represented in the figure of the mulata, and that of manhood was the heroic white revolutionary, timba situated the niche as the epitome of both machismo and Cubanness and, at the same time, as the emblem of a nation open to the world. Indeed, timba representations were not solely to be used for deployment within Cuba. Their asset lay in their currency vis-à-vis an interpretative community that extended beyond the island, one that could be seduced by the promise of interracial romance possibly leading to marriage and migration. The strategic association of blackness and sexuality that catered to the desires of white foreigners, in sum, offered disenfranchised groups new avenues for upward mobility and the possibility of access to transnational networks of commerce and travel beyond the rigid structures of post-colonial revolutionary society.

But by the end of the decade, most economic reforms were stalled or reversed and the timba scene was in steep decline—labels bankrupt, bands censured, clubs closed and some of the music’s stars in exile. In 1999, the National Folkloric Ensemble of Cuba included the tembleque in its repertoire—its performance invariably causing respectable theater audiences to break into laughter. The tremor of timba was now carefully choreographed by a professional troupe, and the social history of Afro-Cuban performance repeated itself in this trajectory from marginal chabacanería (crassness) to folkloric spectacle.

Ariana Hernandez-Reguant is a cultural anthropologist and music critic. She is assistant professor of media studies at the University of California in San Diego. She lived in Havana from 1995 to 1999.


1. “The music we inherited / Africans’ children and grand children / which we mixed with the Spanish / the French and the Portuguese / which we fused well with the British...” Los Van Van, “Somos Cubanos” from the CD Llegó Van Van (Habana Caliente, 1999).
2. “Everyone in Havana is talking / They say that these niches are finishing up / with all the women in Havana / absolutely all the women / And nothing happens!” La Charanga Habanera, “Lo Siento Por Ti,” from the CD Tremendo Delirio (Magic Music, 1997).
3. Although people in Cuba recognize a broad spectrum of shades in the white-black color continuum, the categories more widely used are those of white, black and mulatto. In timba, the term “mulato” is hardly used in its masculine form. Rather, it almost exclusively refers to women, whereas “black” (negro) is most often used to refer to men. Broadly speaking, even a dark-skinned woman might be referred to as mulata (viewed as a flattering term), whereas mulato men might be included in the broader reference of black.
4. NG La Banda, “Santa Palabra” from the CD Échale Limón (Artex, 1992).
5. NG La Banda, “Papa Changó” from the CD En directo desde el patio de mi casa (Caribe Productions, 1995); La Charanga Habanera, “Extraños Ateos” from the CD Me Sube La Fiebre (Havana: EGREM, 1993).
6. The Spanish “niche” could be translated to the English “nigger” or “niggah.” Although in some areas of the Spanish-speaking world both terms are equivalent, in Cuba it lacks the U.S. connotations of racial violence. Still, it is often considered a pejorative term in Cuba. Niche describes a dark-skinned black male. In a friendly environment, its use is considered acceptable by blacks, even if used by whites. However, most whites I consulted confirmed that their use of the term as an appellative would be “inappropriate” for white people. The term was only infused with pride when timba bands began to use it. And with the increasing influence of African American popular music, particularly rap, people are becoming aware of the phonetic similarity between nigger and niche, and investing in niche the contextual North American meanings of nigger. Additionally, many young Cubans consulted believed niche is a derivative of nigger.
7. Los Van Van, “Soy Todo” from the CD Ay Dios Amparame (Caribe Productions, 1995). A live version can be viewed in DVD: Los Van Van, Live at Miami Arena (Habana Caliente, 2003).
8. Cuban musicians often refer to timba’s macho sound due to both the inclusion of a “macho” drum used in Santería performance and their bands’ aggressive brass sound, which they contrast to the “hembra” (“feminine”) sound of North American and Puerto Rican salsa.
9. La Charanga Habanera, “Cristobalina” from the CD El Charanguero Mayor (JML, 2000), a live performance on Havana’s malecón in August 1997 that led to a six-month suspension, and “Sube y Baja” from the CD El Charanguero Mayor.
10. José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
11. Mauricio Vicent, “Pasaporte Conyugal,” El País, July 22, 2001.
12. Los Van Van, “La Shoppingmaniaca” from the CD Te pone la cabeza mala (Caribe Productions, 1997); La Charanga Habanera, “Superturística” from the CD Pa’ que se entere La Habana (Magic Music, 1995); NG La Banda, “La bruja” from the CD La Bruja (Caribe Productions, 1994).
13. La Charanga Habanera, “Hagamos un Chen” from the CD Tremendo Delirio.
14. La Charanga Habanera, “Hagamos un Chen”; La Charanga Habanera. “Amor de subasta.” From the CD Pa’ que se entere La Habana.

Tags: Cuba, race, music, dance, identity, Afro-descendent, timba, machismo

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