Updated: Apr 11
Son and Timba are Cuba’s most iconic rhythms. Son has a fascinating story, which I’ll explore in detail in a future article. Its child, Timba, has become Cuba’s mainstream contemporary dance music since its inception in the music scene of the early 90s. It represents the evolution of the big-band concept from previous decades, with Son as its foundation. It’s not a music genre; it’s more of style of playing characterized by more aggressive and complex musical arrangements. Playing timba requires a high degree of musicianship. In its origins, Timba was heavily influenced by elements from jazz, funk, and rap, but nowadays the trend is to blend in Rumba and African-Cuban beats. Numerous bands showcase this extremely contagious style of playing at a variety of live music venues in Havana. Below you’ll find seven names you can’t afford to miss while visiting the island.
1. LOS VAN VAN
This has been Cuba’s most popular band during the past 60 years. Founded by legendary composer and writer Juan Formell, Los Van Van have remained at the highest of popularity in Cuba thanks to their irresistible beat invention, called Songo, and their ability to make it evolve and adapt through the decades. Los Van Van are the true storytellers of the Cuban people. The nation’s socio-historical changes go in tandem with their lyrics, creating such a profound sense of connection to the band that nowadays, one can assert that being Cuban is also being “vanvanero”.
2. ELITO REVÉ Y SU CHARANGÓN
High up there right next to Los Van Van is this superb orchestra that is many Cubans’ # 1. Proud ambassadors of the rhythm known as Changuí, el Charangón have transformed this Eastern Cuba beat and given it the power and punch that a 16-piece band can generate. Seeing Elito Revé & su Charangón live is a treat you must indulge in while in Cuba.
3. ALEXANDER ABREU & HAVANA D’PRIMERA
Right now, no band fills up venues the way Havana D’Primera does. Led by music prodigy Alexander Abreu, the orchestra rose to stardom nearly 10 years ago and hasn’t dropped a bit. Internationally, they are Cuba’s most sought-after live act, with tour schedules featuring up to 22 concerts, many of which sell out. If they’re playing in Cuba while you’re there, make sure you arrive early.
4. MAYKEL BLANCO & SALSA MAYOR
Maykel Blanco was just a kid when he placed Salsa Mayor among Cuba’s top 10 bands around15 years ago. This manifestation of genius, leading a big band since the tender age of 25, was a very rare phenomenon in the Cuban scene due to the simple fact that it takes a while to mature as a musician in the traditional music spectrum. They have released 10 glorious albums, all of which you can enjoy from beginning to end without skipping a track.
5. EL NIÑO Y LA VERDAD
Former Elito Revé y su Charangón lead singer Emilio Frías, a.k.a. “El Niño” (the kid), became an instant success upon deciding to go solo and creating his own band La Verdad. El Niño’s style is explosive, walking along the lines of power-Son delineated by his former band. This guy also sells out when he plays. The two albums he has released so far are representative of the current music trends in Cuba, characterized by strong referencing of African beats and faiths still present in Cuba
6. YASSER RAMOS Y EL TUMBAO MAYOMBE
Here’s another artist who decided to go solo and oh boy, was that a good move! El Tumbao Mayombe are a very new act, but their latest release “La Resistencia” is testament to the awesomeness they deliver on stage. This is one of those amazing-from-beginning-to-end releases where no track disappoints you. The years are a led singer in Maykel Blanco & Salsa Mayor definitely served as a solid school for Yasser who is now bound to become one of the most popular bandleaders in Cuba.
7. ALAIN PEREZ Y LA ORQUESTA
Alaín Pérez has done a huge service to Cuban music by returning to his home country after years living abroad and forming one of the most promising bands today. This guy is revered as a music prodigy, to the point of worship. Despite having the bass as his forte, he can play several other instruments at above-normal level, and he can even sing! La Orquesta proposes a fresh repertoire of intelligent and masterfully crafted Cuban music.
Cuba’s next superstar, Leoni Torres has experienced a meteoric rise to popularity thanks to beautiful compositions that hit everyone’s soft spot. No one can escape the charm of Leoni’s voice, perfectly suited for the Cuban music he makes. When he’s not touring, he hosts a regular gig at Shangri-La. If you don’t have a reservation, don’t bother showing up. You won’t get in.