This week’s Track Of The Week is a joint production with Ben‘s Song Of The Week, featuring special guest contributor Sarah Siebold. Sarah is expert on all things Cuban, and has written up a really excellent, detailed tour through this Timba track for close listening. Ben’s SOTW is cross-posting Sarah’s contribution as well for this week. If you’re not on his list yet and want more “curated” music in your inbox, in particular of the pop/80s/indie varieties, find him on Twitter and get involved; you won’t regret it.
Now without further ado, we’ll turn it over to Sarah….
This week’s song is Mi Música by Alexander Abreu and Havana D’Primera, along with an introduction to Timba music and a guided tour through the song.
Timba is a modern Cuban genre of music that shares a common ancestor with salsa. It has strong Afro-Cuban roots and is highly influenced by American jazz, rock, and soul. Timba is often referred to simply as “Cuban pop music.” I love this because, in contrast to a typical American pop song, a timba song often requires 10 or 15 classically trained musicians! I like to think of Bruno Mars recording alone in a studio, versus 10 Cuban masters jamming together and orchestrating their talents for the enjoyment of the Cuban masses. Timba tends to have an intense, high energy, aggressive sound. It is known for being masculine, and if the lyrics are not about social or political upheaval, they are usually about showing off, showing up the competition, or finding a new way to say, “I’m the shit”.
Mi Música is a fantastic, classically structured timba song. Follow along!
Beginning: This is the cuerpo section. It is melodic and lyrical, and usually has one singer. The song starts off very “pretty”, and the lyrics reflect this sound – he sings of “music floating in air”, love, happiness, destiny, blah blah.
1:58: Here you can hear the song begin to transition and you know it’s about to get really good. Underneath the piano and vocals, you can hear that high-pitched noise that sounds like two wooden blocks hitting each other. That’s the clave loud and clear, the building block of any salsa song. For dancers, it’s fun when the clave shines. You can geek out about clave here.
2:08: This is the start of the montuno section, where there is traditionally a call and response between the main singer and the chorus. As the music gets more aggressive, so too do the lyrics. The chorus sings, “I can’t believe you can’t understand my tumbao , it’s not even that complicated!” The singer brags about how great his tumbao is. He calls it “100% natural”, “transparent” and “the essence of my people”. In the call and response, many singers (like in this song) often shout “listen to the chorus” or “listen to my people”, as if the chorus were wise and all-knowing.
2:38: This is the mambo section, where the horns take center stage. Best part! I’ve noticed that I almost always fall in love with a timba song when I like the mambo section. The singer yells, “check out the mambo!” Agreed; they are awesome.
3:00: The instruments get very loud, and the singer really goes for it. He sings of his musical heritage that has been passed down to him. This song is about being proud of where you come from. The chorus shouts, “I am the feeling, the spice, and the chili pepper. I am lucumi!”  There is also a clear religious undertone to this song. The singer blesses his ancestors, his African roots, and calls out to some of the Orishas (Cuban Santeria gods).
3:23: That’s not Spanish! That’s Yoruba – the liturgical language of Santeria, the main religion of Cuba. It is peppered throughout the song, which increases the religious feeling.
3:40: You can hear the horns again, some percussion, and some of the other instruments more clearly as the song gets a little quieter for a minute. I think there are sub-sections here called “gears” and marcha but I’m not yet wise enough to know about that.
4:00: As a dancer, you’re into the song now. Like the music, the dance (called casino) is also aggressive, athletic, and often focuses on the guy. So on the dance floor, the guy is showing off now and doing fancy stuff. Despite the religious sentiment of this song, the singer is still cocky and sings about how great the song is. He says, “I want to put my tumbao at the center of the earth.”
5:00: More showing off and bragging. The chorus now succinctly repeats, “It’s great!” (I assume they mean their music). I like this song because to me it feels about being proud of your abilities, acknowledging and accepting who you are, and being totally pumped about it. It is self-declaration and celebration, which is not a bad way to feel once in a while, especially when you’re out and having a good time.
Hope you enjoyed Timba 101 and Alex Abreu’s beautiful music.
Here’s some other fun facts about timba if you are still reading:
- Timba uses many traditional Caribbean and African percussive instruments and an American drum set!
- It’s the bandleader that rises to fame, not the lead singer. In the case of this song, Alex Abreu is the trumpeter, bandleader and singer.
- The opportunity for so many classically trained musicians to also be pop stars is rare, I think, and definitely a testament to the Cuban government’s dedication to training classical musicians. There are simply many more opportunities for people to enter the arts in Cuba.
 What is tumbao, you might ask? It’s a set of rhythmic patterns played by the piano and bass, and each timba band creates their own, so they like to compete about whose is best. Tumbao can also mean “swagger”, “swing”, or the “it” factor. Like, “check out her tumbao!”
 Lucumi means Afro-Cuban, or being of the Santeria religion.