José Luis Cortés, trailblazing Cuban bandleader, dies at 70

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José Luis Cortés, trailblazing Cuban bandleader, dies at 70
He was trained in the classics and jazz, but he helped popularize a new, danceable genre known as timba.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- José Luis Cortés, a Cuban musician who with his popular band, NG La Banda, helped establish the lively genre of music known as timba and spread the sound with well-regarded albums and rollicking shows that had concertgoers dancing in the arenas and afterward in the streets, died April 18 in Havana. He was 70.

The Instituto Cubano de la Música posted news of his death on its Facebook page and said the cause was “a hemorrhagic encephalic accident.” The post called him “one of the most important figures in contemporary Cuban music.”

Cortés, a flutist who graduated from the National School of Art, was an admired figure in Cuban music for decades, although he had recently been the subject of abuse allegations by a former vocalist with his band. He brought a combination of serious musicianship and showmanship to the street music of Cuba when he founded NG La Banda in 1988. He had earlier played in Los Van Van, the famed dance band of Juan Formell; and Irakere, pianist Chucho Valdés’ genre-straddling group of virtuoso players.

He drew on those influences as the leader of NG La Banda, a large ensemble partial to danceable songs.

“The best way to understand his style is that he brought to dance music the complexity of big-band jazz,” Raul Fernandez, emeritus professor of Chicano and Latin studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of books including “From Afro-Cuban Rhythms to Latin Jazz” (2006), said by email.

The “NG” stood for Nueva Generación, and the band aimed for a young audience, with driving percussion, streetwise lyrics and a brass section known as “los metales del terror.”

“There’s raw power in those terrifying horns, and in the forceful, nasal singing, but sophistication in the arrangements and rhythmic adventurousness,” the Miami Herald wrote in 1992, assessing “En La Calle” (“On the Street”), an album that solidified the group’s reputation. “Dense, driving, dance party music.”

That album included “La Expresiva,” a song that, as Fernandez put it, “paid homage to the barrios of Havana,” which is where the band’s music particularly resonated. That sound was first called salsa cubana but soon had its own name, timba. Fernandez and Anita Casavantes Bradford described the music in an academic paper, “Cuba’s Second Golden Age of Popular Music, 1989-2005.”

“Fast, loud, and characterized by its multiple overlapping rhythms and deep booming bass lines,” they wrote, “timba was also recognizable for its insistent percussion and dense, rushing-note horn patterns.”

It is, they added, “a highly technical style of music, and holding one’s own in a timba orquesta, especially in the horns, or ‘metales,’ section, remains an accomplishment boasted by only the most rigorously trained and disciplined musicians.”

The sound Cortés and his players perfected, the Spanish-language Florida newspaper El Nuevo Herald wrote in 1994, “has breathed new life into dance music, stimulating the listener’s senses while challenging those who venture onto the dance floor.”

José Luis Cortés was born Oct. 5, 1951, in Villa Clara, Cuba. His musical education, he said, emphasized classical and jazz.

“You couldn’t play popular Cuban music in school,” he said in a 1998 interview with the Miami Herald.

He spent the 1970s in Los Van Van, which was breaking new ground by incorporating elements of funk and rock into mainstream Cuban dance music. For much of the 1980s, he was in Irakere, an influential group whose aim was, as Valdés once put it, “bringing together jazz and the ancestral forms.”

Cortés’ nickname was El Tosco (“The Rough One”). Certainly the lyrics in NG La Banda’s songs could be rough, with vulgarity and what some listeners construed as misogyny. He defended those choices.

“Popular music comes from the people,” he told The Observer of Britain in 1993. “I test my songs in the streets; if they like it, it’s a hit.”

He also defended timba as a genre.

“The intellectuals say that timba is crap,” he told the Miami Herald in 1998. “But this is a racist concept. Cuban popular music has always been the music of the people, of the poor barrios, where there are very few whites.”

Some scholars linked the emergence of timba to the difficult economic times Cuba experienced after the fall of the Soviet Union, a time often referred to as the “special period.” The genre’s energy and blunt lyrics, they suggested, spoke to a generation that came of age during the hardships of the 1990s.

The group was popular enough that when it made its New York debut, in 1997, it played Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“When the band did what it does best,” Peter Watrous wrote in a review in The New York Times, “playing long, structurally complicated tunes that mixed funk, stop-time parts, drum sections and Afro-Cuban dance music, all with wild choreography, the audience was up on its feet and screaming.”

Cortés’ career, though, ended under a cloud. In 2019, Dianelys Alfonso, who had been a singer in the band and had had a romantic relationship with him for a time, said he had repeatedly assaulted her. That year, The Associated Press reported that Cortés had not responded to the accusations, but that Alfonso had received both widespread support for coming forward and abusive messages from Cortés’ admirers.

Information on Cortés’ survivors was not immediately available.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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