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José Luis Cortés, a pioneering Cuban bandleader, dies at the age of 70

José Luis Cortés, a Cuban musician who with his popular band, NG La Banda, helped to establish the lively music genre known as timba and spread the sound with reputable albums and rolling shows that made concertgoers dance in the arenas and afterwards in streets, died April 18 in Havana. He was 70.

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

Mr. 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 from a former vocalist with his band. He brought a combination of serious musicality and showmanship to street music in Cuba when he founded NG La Banda in 1988. He had previously played in Los Van Van, Juan Formell’s famous dance band, and Iraqi, pianist Chucho Valdés’ genre. strenuous group of virtuoso players.

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

“The best way to understand his style is that he brought to dance music the complexity of big-band jazz,” said Raul A. Fernandez, professor emeritus 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 via email.

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

“There is raw power in these fearsome horns and in the powerful, nasal song, but sophisticated in the arrangements and the rhythmic adventurous spirit,” wrote The Miami Herald in 1992, rating “En La Calle” (“On the Street”), an album which strengthened the group’s reputation. “Close, running, dance party music.”

That album contained “La Expresiva,” a song that, as Professor Fernandez put it, “paid homage to barrios in Havana,” which is where the band’s music particularly resonated. That sound was first called salsa cubana, but soon got its own name, timba. Professor 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 many overlapping rhythms and deeply rumbling bass lines,” they wrote, “the timba was also recognizable for its insistent percussion and dense, rushing horn patterns.”

It is, they added, “a highly technical style of music, and staying in a timba orquesta, especially in the horns, or ‘metals’ section, remains an achievement that can only be praised by the most strictly trained and disciplined musicians. “

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

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

“You could not 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 Iraq, an influential group whose goal, as Mr. Valdés once put it, was to “unite jazz and the forms of the ancestors.”

Sir. Cortés’ nickname was El Tosco, “the rough one.” The lyrics in NG La Banda’s songs could certainly be crude, with vulgarity and what some listeners perceived as misogyny. He defended these 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 timba is shit,” he told The Miami Herald in 1998. “But this is a racist concept. Cuban popular music has always been the music of the people, the poor barrios where there are very few whites.”

Some scholars linked the emergence of timba with 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 the Lincoln Center.

“When the band did what it’s best,” Peter Watrous wrote in a review in The New York Times, “played long, structurally complex tunes that mixed funk, stop-time parties, drum sections, and Afro-Cuban dance music, all with wild choreography, the audience was on their feet and screaming. ”

Sir. Cortés’ career, however, 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 period, said he had repeatedly assaulted her. That year, The Associated Press reported that Mr Cortés had not responded to the allegations, but that Mrs Alfonso had received both broad support for coming forward and insulting messages from Mr Cortés’ admirers.

Information on Mr Cortés’ survivors was not immediately available.

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