David Calzado - Charanga Habanera 
Timba band

It might come as somewhat of a surprise to learn that the Charanga Habanera — the popular timba orchestra that has been seducing Cuban youth with its furiously contemporary lyrics and over-the-top choreographies for nearly three decades — actually started out as a project inspired on traditional Cuban music that was geared at an overseas audience. You might be equally surprised to hear that David Calzado – who’s been directing the band for over twenty years — was on the verge of setting off for the Soviet Union to train as a concert violinist when a juicy offer got him to reconsider his plans and stay in Cuba. 

Back in the late 1980s, when David joined the Charanga Habanera following stints at Pancho Bravo, Ritmo Oriental and Violines de la Tropicana, the goal was not to fill up arenas in Cuba, but to entertain Montecarlo’s cabaret goers with vintage tunes from the 1940s and 50s and a few international covers. The years spent in Monaco were a formidable learning experience to Calzado, who had the chance to see the likes of Stevie Wonders, Whitney Houston, James Brown and Tina Turner in action from up-close. Above all, he understood that musical prowess was not enough to make it big: “You need to know how to put on a show,” he says.  

Calzado has been applying this lesson to the letter ever since. Over time, the Charanga Habanera evolved towards a more contemporary sound – in part by fusing Cuban timba with other genres like rock and reggaeton — and focused on writing original lyrics that chronicled Cuba’s collective fixations and coming up with brazen dance moves.  

The band’s taste for pushing boundaries and testing the authorities’ tolerance is no taboo. You could even say it has become their trademark and at least part of their appeal. “Our videos are often banned from Cuban television,” says David - referring to numerous controversies where they have been accused of extravagance, vulgarity and a long etcetera -, “but we don’t care. They’re all over nightclubs, all over Facebook, with thousands of clicks.” 

David also speaks overtly about sex appeal and the constant renewal of band members as success factors. “The singers need to have a nice voice, but they also need to maintain their physical appearance,” he explains. “We don’t let musicians grow old in the band.” 

The Charanga’s unabashed quest for commercial success and popularity through adaptability does not exclude a very strict work ethic. “We rehearse Monday through Friday,” says David. “This is something that not all bands do.” Their charming and somewhat precarious practice space in the humble Havana district of El Fanguito also serves a street laboratory where David can judge from the neighbors’ reactions whether a new tune has potential for success.  

Today, the Charanga is indisputably a musical - and social - phenomenon firmly anchored in Cuba with the ability to draw crowds in Peru, Mexico, the United States, Europe and even Japan. David’s great aspiration for the band is longevity – something the band has already achieved, you could argue — and invokes the example of Juan Formell, the recently deceased leader of Los Van Van, another Cuban orchestra that, like the Charanga, seems to whizz through decades without so much as scratch in its popularity.