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The Philadelphia Inquirer

Hear It, And You're Hooked

By Hannah Davis

18 February 2005
Copyright © 2005 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.

Timba isn't your typical salsa music.

The heavy percussion and reggae beats, originating in Cuba, will definitely make you want to get up and - with apologies to Ricky Martin - shake your bon-bon.

Never heard of timba?

Gonzalo Grau, La Timba Loca bandleader, says timba can be defined two ways - as the latest step in Cuba's salsa evolution and as the attitude one has when playing this energetic, infectious music.

And Grau hopes to infect audiences with his group's brand of timba tonight at World Cafe Live.

When Grau plays for an audience that is hearing timba for the first time, he gets excited.

"I teach them what timba is in a fun way," he says.

A blend of salsa, jazz, R&B, reggae and African rhythms, timba emerged from the barrios of Cuba about a decade ago. None of the 11 members of La Timba Loca, however, are native Cubans. They are the musical equivalent of a United Nations, hailing from Costa Rica, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Greece, France, the Netherlands, and the United States.

The band was formed in Boston in 1998, its diverse members coming together to create a unique sound. Many of the performers studied, and got to know one another, at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Grau, a Venezuelan, is pleased that his band mates have such different backgrounds. When the pianist was putting the project together he remembers how difficult it was to find Cuban musicians in Beantown. He's not unhappy with the way things turned out, though.

"It's a timba with a little crossover," Grau says. The group mixes traditional salsa with jazz and funk, "so people relate easier."

"It's not so far away from American culture... . It keeps the band with a particular sound."

For the band's forthcoming follow-up album to 2002's Mas Alla de la Habana, many Greek elements will be incorporated with the sounds of timba.

La Timba Loca bass player Panagiotis Andreou, who is from Greece, was introduced to timba through a friend who brought back recordings of the music after visiting Cuba.

"I was amazed at the syncopation [in timba]," says Andreou, who had never heard anything like it. As he listened to more timba, he fell in love with the different layers of the music.

Andreou says audiences that hear timba for the first time are usually very receptive.

"It's engaging," he says. "It's fun and they respond to it."

Jesse Bermudez, executive director of Asociación de Músicos Latino Americano, agrees that timba is "a mixture of a lot of different influences."

"It's hot and danceable," says Bermudez, who will be the emcee of the event tonight.

He remembers being introduced to timba by listening to the group Los Van Van in 1993. Los Van Van and NG La Banda were pioneers of this brand of Cuban salsa, bringing the music to the United States through their recordings.

Because of timba's complex and sophisticated sounds, it may take listeners some time to hear the different influences, Bermudez says.

But according to Grau, "People who listen to what we're doing get hooked in."

Grau hopes timba will gain popularity in the States, but he realizes that only small crowds will come to shows at first. Because of the politics surrounding Cuba, the music hasn't had a chance to gain exposure here and hasn't become as commercialized as traditional salsa from other Latin countries, he says.

Philly's own Ellas y Amigos, a Latin jazz ensemble, will open the show at 7:30 p.m. Dance troupes from Washington, New York, and Boston are scheduled to perform, and Havana-born dance instructor Ariel Rojas will lead a class on "rueda de casino," one type of Cuban salsa.

Rueda de casino is a basic Latin dance that is rhythmic, fast and exciting, says Reba Perez, owner and director of Empire Dance in New York, where Rojas teaches.

The movements are done in a circle with a caller calling out steps.

"There's lots of torso movement," Perez says of the Latin dance's kicks, clapping, and partner-passing. "It looks like a Cuban square dance."

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