Sunday, January 10, 2010

David Calzado y su Charanga Habanera: La Musica en (y afuera de) Cuba (I)

Just over ten years ago, in the late spring of 1999, I found myself in La Casa de la Musica, across the Almendares river from El Vedado in Playa (Havana) at a concert for a Cuban group I had up to that point never heard of before, La Charanga Habanera.

Since I had gone looking for some Cuban "roots" music a la Buena Vista Social Club, I was shocked and a more than a little disappointed to find what I then thought of as a cheap Cuban "boy" band playing a super-charged genre of 1990s dance music known as "timba," a form of what we Yuma's call "salsa" on steroids. Most of the lyrics were quite unintelligible to me then and the much of the stage show was lost on my supposedly more "serious" sensibilities.

Despite my general disappointment at not finding what I was searching for (after paying something like a $40 cover), a few vivid images imprinted themselves in my memory bank at that long-ago concert. First, I remember the stage filled with 8-10 musicians, along with a group of four or five sleek young pretty boys leading the large, mostly Cuban female crowd with smooth vocals and lots of erotic synchronized choreography.

I also remember that the theme of much of the lyric (at least what I could follow) and choreographed stage pantomime had to do with celebrating sex, fun, youth, and, though the word had not yet entered our collective vocabulary, bling bling. I also noticed that many of the tables surrounding the large dance floor were filled with provocatively dressed young Cuban women, girls really, accompanied by sweaty older foreign men.

I noticed one other curious thing.

Though the throngs of Cuban girls were ostensibly out each with their own foreign "papirriqui" (sugardaddy) who provided all the "güaniquiqui" (cash), they paid more attention to the music, to the pretty boy musicians, and to one another, than they did to their dates.

They sang along with each lyric from the Charanga as if it were a verse from a mysterious holy book and moved their bodies in unison as if connected to a common electric current causing them to gyrate violently as they, in the words of the old Michael Jackson tune, "shook their bodies down to the ground."

It was as if an earthquake had suddenly hit the dance club - but only the Cubans could feel it. (I later learned that this "move" was the signature symbol of Cuban timba, appropriately known as the "tembleque."

I was confused. I had come to the show in search of Cuban roots authenticity and found what seemed like a cheap trick - a hedonistic celebration of sex and money.

We intellectuals can be soooo up tight and stuck up! We go in search of what we have already decided is "real" and "important," and when reality doesn't coincide with our preconceptions, we can only scratch our heads in confusion and disapproval - completely missing the reality right before our eyes.

"I began to research," famed Cuban anthropologist once wrote after a similar realization, "but I soon understood that, like all Cubans, I was confused."

It took me a while to begin to really see what was in front of me and not filter the real Cuba I was witnessing through the thick lens of the cherished images and expectations I had of what Cuba was supposed to be.

These memories and this realization came rushing back to me last Friday night at Manhattan's SOBs night club where after a looong hiatus, David Calzado y su Charanga Habanera made an appearance. And this time around, I could listen (and dance) without prejudice, having a lot of sexy fun, now fully able to appreciate just how good the band, its pretty-boy vocalists, and their intrepid leader, David Calzado, are at putting on a show!

The night's repertoire included two items I found particularly memorable.

First, toward the beginning of the show, David Calzado, the group's founder, musical arranger, and elder statesman, came on stage to address the audience. Realizing that the capacity crowd was 80-90% Cuban, Calzado gave props to the island's diaspora, giving personal shout outs to New Jersey, Queens, Da Bronx, Miami, etc. He then interjected, "Hay tantos cubanos aqui que me parace que Cuba se queda vacio" (There are so many Cuban here that it seems like Cuban is emptying out).

He then made a surprise announcement that immediately hushed the massive crowd. "Hay tantos Cubanos aqui que hemos decidido quedarnos aqui. La Charanga Habanera se queda en Nueva York!" (There are so many Cubans here that we have decided to stay here. La Charanga Habanera stays in New York!) As the audience checked with one another to see if they had heard him correctly, Calzado made his announcement one final time, this time with a twist, "Si, me oyeron bien, La Charanga Habanera se queda aqui... para las vacaciones" (Yes, you heard me right, La Charanga Habanera stays here... for vacation).

Finally, toward the end of a high-powered show featuring virtuosic performances by most of the 9-piece band and each one of the vocalist pretty boys, the 15-member troupe closed out with one of their best known and most ironic numbers, suddenly bringing me back to that night in Playa 10 years before and filling in the gap in my understanding of that confusing scene.

El Temba!

This song (meaning sugardaddy), from the album, Pa' Que Se Entere La Habana, is a biting satire of life in Cuba during the special period (the 1990s). The lyric pokes fun at Cuban poet Nicolas Guillén’s ode to what Cubans “have” because of the revolution, his famous poem Tengo.

However, given the fact that many young Cuban women were then actively seeking out foreigners as boyfriends in order to gain access to material goods, the song advises its young female listeners to “Look for a sugardaddy who can maintain you; So that you can enjoy, so that you can have [things]” (Búscate un temba que te mantenga; Pa’ que tú goces pa’ que tú tengas).

Building on this ironic use of the words “maintain” (mantenga) and “have” (tenga), the song closes with a repeated chorus that directly mocks the signature line in Guillén’s famous poem: “So that you have, what you had to have; A rich sugardaddy, with a lot of cash” (Pa’ que tengas, lo que tenías que tener; Un papirriqui, con güaniquiqui).

The song is simultaneously a celebration of the resolve and inventiveness of Cuban women who found creative ways to enjoy their lives even during the worst of times. (For a great resource on all things timba and for a detailed discussion and analysis of this and many other of Calzado's lyrics see Kevin Moore at

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post, Ted. You're right that we non-Cubans sometimes want Cuba to fit our own view of the island. Sometimes it's a romanticized or nostalgic view or a view that may have been accurate at one point, but no longer fits.
    I've heard some European and Canadian tourists say they hope the United States doesn't lift the travel ban because American tourists will 'ruin' the island. They want Cuba to remain 'unspoiled,' as they describe it. That's not realistic, of course. As that famous quote goes, "Nothing endures but change."