An Early History of Timba and TimbaMerchant in London
In the mid ’90’s, and in spite of the numerous Cuban themed and named venues, it was virtually unknown to hear any Cuban music in a Latin club. Sierra Maestra, which played Son, had been a fairly frequent visitor but there was little overlap between their audience and the Salsa dancing public. There were occasional visits from modern bands. NG La Banda came once, later La Charanga Habanera also played two gigs, but for the most part a handful of us just looked up at the aeroplanes passing overhead towards Europe. We wondered who they might be carrying and what we were missing out on. Generally, to play Timba in a Salsa club was to invite complaints and to clear the floor.
We did have the luxury of long residencies of Los Van Van at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho. Though the capacity of the venue was small, the duration of the residencies and quality of sound mixing at this famous Jazz venue ensured a high profile for the band in a niche market and that their music would be heard at its best. It was something to walk in and be greeted by Pedrito at the cloakroom, red nosed and blowing into a handkerchief. No airbrushing.
Cuba was also becoming a holiday and, frankly, sex tourism destination for a layer of the more affluent, and Timba was the soundtrack that, sometimes also with a new partner, came home with them.
While a handful of DJs began to mix a bit of Cuban Salsa into their sets, towards the end of the decade Dave Hucker played a significant part in breaking it to the Salsa crowd. Dave was then resident DJ at Villa Stefano in Holborn, a venue that occupied a unique place in the mid to late ’90’s, at the apex of London Salsa. It was here that the divergent Salsa audience came together to dance. He played for Colombians, Salsa Dura and Romantica, for the emerging “on 2” US style Salsa, and for a handful of Cubans. Dave Hucker consistently mixed a little contemporary Cuban music into a salsa set for this large, key audience, and thereby, over time, allowed receptive elements within a hostile or bemused crowd to understand and accept the new sounds.
With the closure of Villa Stefano at the end of the ’90’s, organisationally, the disparate elements of southern UK salsa went their own ways. Many punters adhered to no particular faction, though. It was at this time that Timba was first headlined on club flyers, at El Despelote, and, to my knowledge, that anyone was playing complete sets of Timba.
Around 1999, as I recall, Andy Warner invited me to DJ with him on Tuesdays, upstairs at Little Habana off Leicester Square. Jim Layne joined us a while later. There were a handful of Cuban regulars whose impact was greater than their number. They drew a crowd of Cubaphiles and ensured Timba would be well received, so that’s what we played, wall to wall. We were supporting a house band which played standards. The band usually included accomplished Cuban bass and writer/arranger Rey Crespo.
After successfully dipping our foot in the water in December 1999, El Despelote became a regular event at The Spitz in Spitalfields Market. This was a run of monthly dances hosted by myself, with partners Julie Hodge and Maria Urrutia. We presented Casino dance classes and a mix of music featuring prominent DJs of the aspiring, largely Anglo-Caribbean “on 2” scene. El Despelote strove to draw the mainstream crowd into Timba. What it began we didn’t have the financial muscle to finish. Even sponsorship and the boost of working with ¡Como No! for Giraldo Piloto & Klimax’s second London gig were insufficient.
Buckling under a price hike by The Spitz- a normal venue tactic once something becomes established- El Despelote closed for the summer. We re-launched in September 2000, literally down the street at the Arts Café. It was, again, monthly to begin with but the music policy was now Timba and Cuban Salsa, with the odd exception. In practice, the exceptions were very few and far between.
For La Casa Cubana, the Despelote crew joined forces with ex Island Records publicist, Garrell Redfearn. We ran almost empty for some months, before our blend of “artisanal” Cuban cocktails, cutting edge Timba, and an agreeable atmosphere, started to draw people back for more. A couple of birthday parties filled the venue and we never looked back. A novelty for us, there were occasionally queues outside so we decided to run weekly from around spring 2001 This was the first regular weekly Cuban music social dance in London.
The orientation towards Timba was facilitated by the founding of TimbaMerchant in 2000. The business was dedicated to discovering, importing and selling modern Cuban music CDs. Until that time, Timba arrived in luggage returning from Cuban holidays; in haphazard and tiny consignments to Mr Bongo Records and by accident in the mainstream music stores. TimbaMerchant imported several thousand Timba CDs into the UK, beginning with the fortuitous discovery of Eurotropical and its catalogue, in Spain. Along with musically more interesting CDs by the likes of Klimax and Sabrosura Viva, this label released a CD containing one of the only two Cuban tracks (Los Van Van’s “Te Pone La cabeza Mala” being the other) to seriously crossover into mainstream Salsa here back then.
“Marcando La Distancia” by Manolito y su Trabuco was the only CD that ever sold in hundreds here. A headline CD, and by offering ridiculous discounts on multiple purchases- at festivals, gigs, dance classes or clubs- punters could be persuaded to diversify their collections. The steady arrival of new music both informed and expanded the market while broadening the DJ’s sets.
Around that time, several dancers from the visiting Cuban “Lady Salsa” show remained in London. Collaborating with Jim Layne and Susan Hacker, they began teaching Casino to a large audience. Jim and Susan also began a Timba night in August of 2001 at the Buffalo Bar in Highbury. Other Cuban based nights and events were cropping up and gaining in popularity.
All was not well, however, as fresh CD releases had all but dried up. Those that did reach us were of ever deteriorating quality. Part of the problem was a decentralisation of music publishing which made it ever harder to track down new material. More fundamentally, the bands were becoming an extension of Varadero. Their music targeted the ears that had the money while losing connection to their inspiration- urban Cuban life. If originality and authenticity is what drew us to Timba in the 1990’s, after a wave of CDs in 2000 that filtered through and sustained us for some years, the new releases were increasingly clichéd and lacking in spark. La Casa Cubana broke the routinism of conveyor belt mainstream Salsa and showed that Timba could draw a crowd here, but by 2004, for lack of fresh input, we were only establishing our own routine. It was little loss, then, when La Casa Cubana doors shut and later, unable to source new material, TimbaMerchant’s shutters came down.
I moved in 2006 with partner Julie and our young family to the Midlands. All remaining TimbaMerchant CD’s were stuffed away in an attic. Come January 2017, with my kids fast growing up and a few decent albums among recent releases, I retrieved them to restart where I’d left off. So here, once again but now on the internet, you have TimbaMerchant.