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Ten years ago a group of graduates from Havana's state conservatory formed a band and announced the arrival of the future of Cuban music. The members of Nueva Generacion (New Generation), since known as NG La Banda, would go on to employ their academic training in the service of virtuoso music that could transcend concert halls and resound in the streets of Cuba's barrios.
"Our objective was to make a study of Cuban dance music and Latin jazz," says NG La Banda leader Jose Luis Cortes, on the phone from his home in Havana. A consummate flutist as well as a clowning showboat onstage, he played earlier in his career with both Cuban jazz innovators Irakere and the seminal dance band Los Van Van. "We wanted to establish a middle ground between those two styles. Basically, we were open to the insertion of any international rhythm into Afro-Cuban music."
The resulting sound, called timba, is a calculated frenzy rooted in a syncopated rhythm section that combines funk drum patterns and asymmetric keyboard riffs with the blood-stirring beats of Cuban rumba. Aggressive horns rise out of the rhythm, creating a hypnotizing curtain of sound. Call and response choruses and infectious, repetitive melodies accompany the band's extended grooves.
Almost since its inception, NG has consistently been one of the most popular groups in Cuba. Now elder statesmen of Cuba's dance music scene, they have recorded more than 20 albums, and their structurally complicated, hip-shaking sound echoes in the music of virtually every Cuban dance band formed since. Over the past decade NG has served as a kind of postgraduate school for outstanding young talents. Singers Issac Delgado, Paulito FG, Manolin, and drummer Giraldo Piloto (among others) did stints with the group before successfully venturing out on their own.
In closing the gap between sophisticated concert music and popular song and dance, NG's members chose to accent the juxtaposition of African and European influences, black and white, that is inherent in the traditional Cuban son, and which exists throughout Cuban culture. Given the mix, their concerts can sometimes seem schizophrenic, albeit pleasingly so. Last year, at the end of their first U.S. performance -- a sit-down affair at New York's Lincoln Center -- the band formed a conga line and led the audience dancing into the lobby and upstairs to the dressing room door.
Now in his midforties, Cortes and the group's other original members (including saxophonist and Miami resident Carlos Averhoff) received their classical training at a time when jazz was still not entirely accepted at Cuba's Superior Art Institute. Serious performers did not play dance music in the streets, except maybe for after-school kicks.
"We formed our group to do concert music," concedes the stocky, fast-talking bandleader, nicknamed "El Tosco" ("The Coarse One"). "More than any other reason, it was because the academic training of the musicians was so high that it would be crazy to start playing something very simple or something commercial or anything like that. At first we experimented with a very precise kind of dance music that was meant to please musicians, critics, and intellectuals. It was really a disaster with the public, so we decided to make the music that we felt, and we began to really enjoy it. We started playing for the dancers. They have a foolproof radar because they know what they want. NG La Banda is a very progressive group as far as the arrangements and the depth of the music are concerned, but the lyrics have to be simple, with words that motivate people to dance."
NG honed their sound in the streets of Havana, staging a "tour" through the city's neighborhoods in 1989. They soon had a following of thousands and a slew of radio hits, including "La Expresiva," a rousing ode to the barrios of Havana that has endured as an anthem of Cuban pride. With the band's allegiance to the masses established, Cortes continued to write songs common people could relate to, inspired by Santeria, Cuban television, prostitution, or the soy products ubiquitous in Havana during the years of Soviet-Cuban relations. His often bawdy songs have frequently gotten him into trouble with censors, who call his picaresque lyrics vulgar. "In a lot of the songs, we've adopted the language of the pueblo," he counters. "That's made some trouble. But Cubans have their way of speaking. Our songs are the literature of the people."
With the new album, Veneno (Metro Blue), NG looks beyond Cuba to a new audience. A playful album with a pan-Caribbean flair, the tracks incorporate Latin rhythms such as cumbia and vallenato, and the romantic sound of Puerto Rican salsa. Cortes says he intended the album to be less aggressive than the usual NG disc.
"It's a more Caribbean sound," he explains. "Cuba is the greatest country in the Caribbean when it comes to music, and we're going back to our roots: the sound of the beach, the sun, and the palm trees."
Cortes would also like to regain some of the market that Cuban music lost when the U.S. trade embargo went into effect almost four decades ago. Cuban CDs have been available here since 1988, but contemporary Cuban music has yet to break this country's Latin market in a big way. Cuban artists are not played on commercial Latin radio, both for political reasons and because they are not backed by the big Latin labels. NG's leader hopes that by touring here the band, already one of the most recognized names from Cuba, will become better-known to U.S. record buyers.