Hopped-Up Modern Salsa From Havana
Music Review | David Calzado and His Charanga Habanera
By JON PARELES, New York Times, January 10, 2010
An audience packed with cheering Cubans greeted David Calzado and his Charanga Habanera at S.O.B.’s on Friday night, in a rare and welcome American appearance by one of Cuba’s top bands — signaling, perhaps, an Obama administration thaw in Cuban-American relations. Formed in 1988 and persisting through multiple personnel changes, Charanga Habanera has made hits in Cuba through the 1990s and 2000s, and its set raced through them in an exultant, nearly nonstop two-hour medley. In songs like “Soy Cubano, Soy Popular” (“I Am Cuban, I Am Popular”), the band sang of its own fame and success, and the crowd proved it by shouting along, verse and chorus.
Charanga Habanera isn’t a charanga group, the traditional Cuban ensemble with violins and flute. Since the early 1990s it has played timba, the hopped-up modern salsa that developed through constant performing on Havana’s club circuit. Timba uses every bit of the Afro-Cuban propulsion of mambo, rumba and guaguancó, with voices and trumpets jabbing back and forth. Often it pushes the salsa rhythms even harder with choppy, stop-start bass lines that give the rest of the band something to hurdle. Timba lyrics also hint at the everyday struggles of Cubans.
Charanga Habanera deploys five lead vocalists, not including Mr. Calzado, who sometimes stepped forward to sing a few hoarse lines or play M.C.; otherwise he stayed busy directing the band. The singers united in robust harmonies and traded off lead vocals: crooning romantic entreaties, brightly declaiming the band’s self-praise and, now and then, rapping. They danced too, in synchronized bump and grind and a few routines — like one that had them tossing hats to one another — that suggested boy-band choreography, if a boy band were replaced by pumped-up, grown-up Cubans.
For brief stretches Charanga Habanera showed it had heard hip-hop, at one point toying with the low bass line and high synthesizer swoop of gangsta rap. And it has certainly borrowed the self-congratulatory posturing of hip-hop videos. But instead of hip-hop’s programmed music, Charanga Habanera has live muscle, and it only teased at funk or hip-hop before returning to kinetic Caribbean rhythms.
Dipping into hip-hop isn’t the only way that Charanga Habanera glances toward the United States. At the center of its set on Friday night was “Gozando en la Habana” (“Having Fun in Havana” - click here for full lyrics in Spanish), a hit from Charanga Habanera’s latest album, “No Mires la Carátula” (“Don’t Look at the Cover,” Planet Records). The song — highly unusual in Cuba — openly addresses expatriates. It’s about a girlfriend who emigrated from Havana to Miami, where “they say she has money, the car that she dreamed of/ But she doesn’t find in Miami what she left behind in Havana,” and she’s “crying in Miami,” while he’s having fun in Havana. The singalongs were nearly as loud as the band.