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.
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."
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).
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.
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 timba.com).