BY MEG MEDINA
Started in 1998 TimbaSon has Latin horns, percussion and strings that Lorenzo is convinced can make anyone want to grab a pina colada and move. As the city’s Latino population continues to balloon (it’s doubled in the last decade) and hit the radar, it could be that the band’s sound will find a comfortable home here after all.
TimbaSon covers both traditional and new sounds coming out of Cuba. It’s Cuban “folk,” (meaning the Buena Vista Social Club sound that stormed music charts in the late ’90s). And it’s the newer timba that people on the island listen to and dance to today. High trumpets, more electrified bass, tight choruses — Lorenzo says it’s an unforgiving hajiaco (mishmash soup) of R&B, hip-hop, Latin jazz, rumba and a bunch of other genres most of us in the states have never heard of like songo.
“Cuban music is hard to play,” Lorenzo explains. “You really either have to have grown up surrounded by it or you have to have studied it quite a bit.” There are basic recipes: mambo, cha-cha, salsa, son, boleros, all of which can be butchered in a cheesy Doris-Day way. Or you can get the real spine-tingling effect of a dozen instruments improvised layer after layer on a basic rhythm, say, of a guaguanco (Cumba — cun-cun — Cumba-cun-cun), until the room rocks.
All told, TimbaSon puts in about a 50-50 mix of old and new, with most of the original material the work of Rene Herrera, a Bio Ritmo alum and well-known bandleader in Cuba. Lorenzo does only vocals for the band, considering himself primarily a sonero, although definitely a young one. Soneros (like his grandfather) are the old gravel-voiced guys whose specialty is improvising salty lyrics to the melody. In putting together a band, what he was looking for, he says, was an uncomplicated group of musicians ready to play. So far, he’s insisted not only on musicianship, but also on no drugs, alcohol or showing up ridiculously late.
“I’m like an old man,” he says, laughing. “I don’t drink. I don’t smoke — not anything. My only vice is black coffee.”
Several of the band members (only three of whom are Hispanic) are current or former members of other Latin-influenced area bands like Ban Caribe and Bio Ritmo. So far, the mix is working: They performed in March with Latin Ballet of Virginia and have a slot this summer at The Big Gig.
Not surprisingly, Lorenzo works as the band’s booking agent, manager — you name it. And the work is tough. Connecting a Richmond audience to the sounds of a mambo is tricky work, especially when club venues are so scarce in Richmond (especially for a whopping 11-piece band). With Mulligan’s on Broad closed down, the band plays primarily at After Six in Shockoe Bottom and at large private or corporate parties. (In Northern Virginia, where the Latino population is a lot bigger, it’s another story.)
“I think sometimes, club owners here are afraid to risk it with a Latin band,” Lorenzo says. “Maybe they misunderstand Latinos and don’t want to attract Hispanics to their club, I don’t know.” Still, Lorenzo is just as happy to play a corporate event as a club. What’s important to him is just that he can play his music and get people to dance.
“What I see when we play is a group of people dancing and having fun, that’s it. It’s not really important that I’m singing in Spanish or if they’re American or not. If you can transmit your energy through the music, you’re OK. Besides, Cuban music is really just beautiful, and it’s so much more than just salsa.” S