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Timba - If It's From Cuba, It's Not Salsa But Timba


When you hear someone talk about Cuban salsa, they’re most probably talking about the uniquely Cuban musical form called ‘timba.’ Timba has a similar rhythm to salsa, you can dance your favorite salsa steps to the music and it is often classified as a sub-genre of salsa. But, one look at the timeline of the evolution of salsa vs. timba immediately clarifies the issue.

Salsa Bursts to Life in New York:

Salsa was a musical evolution that was created by New York’s Latin expatriate community in New York. While these artists were originally from Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the music came out of Spanish Harlem in the 1960s and was initially considered unsuitable and too streetwise/dirty for a large public.

But it caught on.

Fania Records, the primary outlet for the original, classic salsa was formed in 1964 as a vehicle for Latin artists, ala Motown, while Willie Colon & Hector Lavoe’s classic El Malo was recorded in 1967.

Meanwhile, in Cuba:

In the meantime, Cuba officially fell to Fidel Castro on Jan. 1, 1959.

The new regime saw Cuban music as a valuable export and encouraged musical innovation. At the same time, since most of the music available to the island came from Miami, the city where most of the anti-Castro refugees settled, listening to these radio broadcasts was discouraged (and often punished) and the main musical exchange came from cassettes smuggled into Cuba. It is easy to see that this led to a minimal influence of New York salsa on the island’s musicians.

So when Cuban musicians wanted to spice up their own music, they did it their own way.


One of the great precursors to modern timba was Irakere. Formed by pianist /composer Chucho Valdes in 1973, Irakere’s main interest was incorporating jazz into the government dictated Cuban roots music. With a group of the finest musicians in Cuba, Irakere carefully experimented with different types of fusion, at times incorporating not only jazz but also rock & roll, R&B, and bugaloo as well as older African styles to traditional Cuban rhythms.

(For a cinematic experience of that time in Cuba’s musical history, try For Love Or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story.)

Los Van Van:

In 1969, Juan Formell formed Los Van Van, the band that held the island in the palm of its musical hand through the next 3 decades. Los Van Van was responsible for a variety of innovations and fusions that led to today’s timba including songo, a fusion of son montuno and rumba. They also experimented with blending jazz, funk, R&B, synthesizer and other contemporary elements to the traditional.

NG La Banda:

While Irakere and Los Van Van set the stage for modern timba, it was flautist Juan Luis Cortes and his NG (new generation) La Banda that defined modern timba as we know it today. Formed in 1988 in the wake of Cuba’s ‘Special Period’ following the fall of the Soviet Union, the band boasted a young Issac Delgado as lead singer.

As was true of salsa, NG La Banda’s lyrics found their basis in the barrio streets and initially were shunned by those who found the form too vulgar to be treated seriously. But with less abstract experimentation than its predecessors, continued fusions of Cuban rhythms with contemporary formats and a more aggressive sound, NG La Banda’s music not only caught on but provided inspiration to many of the bands that followed.

Cortes labeled the band’s signature sound ‘timba.’

The Sound of Timba :

Timba is a musically complicated genre. It is characterized by frequent breaks, changes from major to minor keys, often very complex rhythms, an expanded instrumental set and aggressive percussion. Not as approachable as traditional salsa (or as easy to dance to, due to rhythmic changes), timba is rich in both rhythm, form and lyrics.

Listen To Timba:

Here are some albums that will give you a taste of timba.

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