My very first time in Cuba, I went to a concert of Los Van Van at the Casa de La Musica in Centro Havana. I didn't know of Los Van Van, but I was told they were the most famous group coming out of Cuba. In fact, they just celebrated their 45th anniversary this month.
I had learned to dance new york salsa in Ottawa but I hadn't been dancing for years. And while I had taken a few classes in rueda de casino (see the bottom of the post for a description of rueda), I didn't know the extent of the difference.
La casa de la musica was packed, I hung out towards the back of the venue with Amanuel, a Canadian who been living in Cuba learning to dance casino. An hour into the concert someone asked me to dance. I was nervous, but did not want to refuse. We began and I struggled - a lot. He quickly pointed out (as Cubans do) that I was off rhythm. I was embarrassed, but he was right - I couldn't find the beat; the time wasn't as obvious as I was used to hearing in Ottawa. Where was the 1? Years later, having learnt a lot more about Cuban music, things have improved, but like anything, it takes time to train your ear to something new.
Watch a NY style dancer move to timba music or, a casino dancer dancing to latin jazz, and there will be a look of confusion or discomfort. Truly, it's a humbling test of your 'musicality'.
In many cities, there is a 'salsa divide'. Venues are dedicated to casino or new york dancers, who generally don’t attend cross-genre events. For instance, in Toronto, you go to Lula lounge and Salsa Klimax for Cuban, and to Dovercourt and Babaluu’s for New York. In Montreal, it's Titosalsabor for Cuban and Moka, 6/49, and Le Social for New York. But why the divide? There are great aspects to both styles.
In Ottawa, where the dance community is small, what's great is that you don’t have to choose. At events like Rahim's Salsa Friday's and Salsaria, there are dancers from both sides, we are a bit like West Side Story (e.g., Salsaria Tropicasino Christmas salsa party last night). Admittedly there is less Cuban, but generally, we mix it up; we make it work!
I am not a musicologist, and I can't explain the ins and outs between Cuban salsa/timba versus 'salsa dura', but I do know there is a great selection of music in both genres that can be danced by both groups of dancers. Although many NY dancers may not like timba, and vice-versa I believe common ground exists. Yes, the music is different, but the beats are the same! Even if you don't like timba, there is a lot of great pre-timba Cuban music. And salsa dura? It's just incredible.
Soy DJ La China
I'd like to share with you a few of my favourites. On December 19th, 2014, 'DJ La China' (i.e. me) will play a set starting at 10:30 PM at Rahim’s Christmas Party. Within salsa, I will play about 50% each timba/pre-timba, and salsa dura, with some bachata, kizomba and cha-cha-cha. So Cuban or NY? If it wasn't obvious, I choose both! Come out to dance and I’ll put on some music to ‘muevate’!
A few of my favourites. First off, timba. Pupy was one of the founding members of Los Van Van:
'Me Estan Llamando' Pupy y Los Que Son Son
And of salsa dura, the one and only Hector Lavoe:
Hector Lavoe's 'El Cantante'