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Local band tries to expose Salsa dancers to its Cuban relative, Timba

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In the early 1990s, “Timba”, a new style of dance music from Cuba, began to make its way around the world. Unlike Salsa, “Timba” has not taken root in LA. But that might change soon thanks to Rumbankete, an LA band specializing in original “Timba”.

To understand the difference between Salsa and Timba, you have to listen to both styles. Rumbankete percussionist Alberto López says Timba is a more complex dance music. “Timba is kind of like an updated version of “quote-unquote Salsa” but with more folkloric elements and a richer base to draw upon.”

Trombonist Jim Miller says Timba breaks down the barriers between the dancer and the band. “I feel it’s more like a connection between the audience and the musicians, rather than dancers and a jukebox.”

Rumbankete was founded in 2004. In the beginning, the band was kind of like a jukebox, a Salsa cover band. They played music by Eddie Palmieri’s band La Perfecta, Manny Oquendo’s Libre and other groups from the 1970s and 80s. Then in 2009, when Cuban singers Gonzalo Chomat and Iris Cepeda joined the band, they decided to record and play only their own original Timba compositions.

In the past few years, Rumbankete has been playing for large crowds at the Music Center’s Dance Downtown series and more recently at Union Station, drawing hundreds of dancers. But playing original Timba in Los Angeles has its challenges. It’s hard for the band to get gigs at the local Salsa clubs. Why?

Singer Gonzalo Chomat says it's all about economics. “The club owners don’t understand what this music is about. What they understand is that they want to see their 500, 200, 60 people dancing Salsa. It doesn’t matter if it’s from 1932. It doesn’t matter.”

Percussionist Alberto Lopez has a simple theory to explain why Timba has not taken root in LA - because people don’t know how to dance to it. “Timba is something that came out specifically out of Cuban dancers. Cuban audiences that danced a certain way, that asked for music to be played a certain way, so that they could move in a certain way and they invented a whole language of movement that doesn’t exist here.”

But maybe things are beginning to change. Singer Iris Cepeda says, in the past couple of years, she’s been noticing a difference in the way people are dancing to their music. “I’ve been seeing a lot of groups of Salsa dancers that have become Timba dancers. Yeah, actually, they were like just Salsa, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.”

Lopez says it’s been happening naturally. “They’re already hooked and they don’t even know it. They’re already moving their hips in a different way, they’re doing all this stuff and they’re like “oh my God”. But then, that’s our aim. Musically, we aim to create that transition for the dancers, from a regular “Salsa” thing, to where they can feel good while their dancing Timba.”

That’s Rumbankete’s mission: to create a more nuanced musical language for Salsa dancers... so they’ll be inspired to try out a little Timba.