NG La Banda, The Symbol of Cuban Timba
By: Beatriz Fernández, Photos: Roberto Bello and Lourdes Nogueira
When Jose Luis Cortes, aka "EI Tosco," founded NG La Banda in 1988, he was creating a band that would make history and place Cuban music back in charge of Salsa, the music that was almost taken over by musicians from New York and other parts of the Caribbean. Not only was the new sound distinctive but the name as well. NG, meaning Nueva Generacion (New Generation), arrived with new concepts and a new way to charge up an audience. Like many new things, it was received with skepticism by some, rejection by others, but acceptance by many.
Destined to become the vanguard of Cuban Salsa in the '90s, they had been preceded by Juan Formell's Los Van Van (founded in 1969) and their new sound; the virtuosity of Irakere (founded in 1973) with the great Chucho Valdes that could play both great Salsa dance music and world class Latin jazz; and Adalberto Alvarez with Son 14. NG rescued popular Cuban music from oblivion and took it to places as faraway as Japan. The main architect of this awakening of popular Cuban music and the drive for international recognition in the late 20th century was the young Cortes.
Graduate of the flute at the prestigious National Arts School and a virtuoso of his instrument, he acquired all the skills for success. He gained enormous experience from his time as a member of Los Van Van and Irakere.
When the former developed a respectable brass section, there was El Tosco. He was later asked by Chucho Valdez to play the baritone sax and he helped compose and arrange songs that became famous. He has said several times that NG has characteristics from both of those bands and that after being a member of them, anything could happen.
Now, back to history. In the 1990's, Cuba began to open up for tourism and several new dance and concert spaces were opened for popular bands to play for locals and the ever growing number of visiting tourists. This fact is considered to be a catalyst for the boom of a new form of Cuban Salsa later to become known as Timba. NG initiated this golden period that saw the birth of so many important bands that competed with each other resulting in a flourish of creativity and popularity.
From that time emerged Paulo FG y Su Elite, el Medico de la Salsa, la Charanga Habanera, Klimax, Dan Den, Yumuri y sus hermanos, and many others. Some were musical geniuses while others used charisma to cover up deficiencies in their performances.
But NG was the most aggressive group both musically and on stage. The members of the brass section, with only trumpets and saxophones and no trombones, were known as the "Metals of Terror." Those people were all stars: Carlos Averoff and German Velazco, Jose Murguia, Jose Manuel "El Greco" Crego, Elpidio Chappotin, Adalberto Laras, Rolando Pérez Pérez, Rafael Jens, Jose Luis Nunez, Jose Hernandez, and others.
Despite all of the above, the talent of the musicians and the band's worth was sometimes questioned by their lyrics. Yes, Salsa can sometimes be simple and catchy (with the exception of Panamanian Ruben Blades who was able to mix poetry and depth into his lyrics while remaining popular) but the hits from the 1990's were a borderline case between popular and vulgar. At times the lyrics were prosaic and caused angry responses. One has to remember that in those times of Cuban social and economic hardships, many mainstream critics claimed that some of the lyrics were overly crude when they were only referring to controversial topics that the audiences felt comfortable with and that reflected their reality.
Cortes or Tosco?
Jose Luis Cortes' nickname, "Tosco," means rough and rude and was earned by him, so the story goes, during his student years because of the bulky Russian military boots he used to wear. He was born in a poor area of Santa Clara, in the central part of the island, and started in music since he could not become a fisherman as he wanted. In later years he would not regret having made this choice.
Paradoxically, Tosco's last name, Cortes, means kind, attentive and caring. Many who know him personally know that he is more like his last name than his nom de guerre. At some moments he looked disrespectful and a little eccentric in his address code, especially in his youth, but he is essentially authentic. He likes to talk in sayings and is quite clever. He has not only permeated Cuban culture with his musical legacy but he has also been a supporter of new projects and helps in the development of young talent. As an example, he created the Cortes group of young flute students sponsored by him.
NG no longer rules
These days, Timba is no longer dominating the Cuban musical environment. Instead, there is that pop fusion of genres and complex rhythms from all over this globalized world - Reggaeton is what people seem to like the most. But Timba is the common denominator in everything being produced.
NG has kept to their own style and has suffered the loss of many of its founders. Some created their own bands or joined others and some live outside of Cuba. One has to mention its longtime singer Toni Cahi, NG's voice, and its great bass player Feliciano Arango.
What is Timba?
It is the Cuban way of performing Salsa with more elements from the rhythms of Rumba than Son. It does have some elements of Son but it is also nourished by popular dance music and Yoruba styles. You will hear a lot of rhythms in the percussion, many complex changes in the piano and bass arrangements, and the brass section excels with complicated solos. But NG La Banda is not just history. The genius of Tosco is restless and will someday provide another break-out success.