SHORT HISTORY OF CUBAN MUSIC
The Caribbean island of Cuba has been influential in the development of
multiple musical styles in the 19th and 20th centuries. The roots of most
Cuban musical forms lie in the cabildos, a form of social club among African
slaves brought to the island. Cabildos preserved African cultural traditions,
even after the Emancipation in 1886 forced them to unite with the Roman
Catholic church. At the same time, a religion called Santería was
developing and had soon spread throughout Cuba, Haiti and other nearby
islands. Santería influenced Cuba's music, as percussion is an
inherent part of the religion. Each orisha, or deity, is associated with
colors, emotions, Roman Catholic saints and drum patterns called toques.
By the 20th century, elements of Santería music had appeared in
popular and folk forms.
of Boogalu DVD with Orisha dance
Cuban music has its principal roots in Spain and West Africa, but over
time has been influenced by diverse genres from different countries. Most
important among these are France, the United States, and Jamaica. Reciprocally,
Cuban music has been immensely influential in other countries, contributing
not only to the development of jazz and salsa, but also to Argentinian
tango, Ghanaian high-life, West African Afrobeat, and Spanish "nuevo
The natives of Cuba were the Taíno, Arawak and Ciboney people,
known for a style of music called areito. Large numbers of African slaves
and European immigrants brought their own forms of music to the island.
European dances and folk musics included zapateo, fandango, zampado, retambico
and canción. Later, northern European forms like waltz, minuet,
gavotte and mazurka appeared among urban whites.
Fernando Ortíz, a Cuban folklorist, described Cuba's musical innovations
as arising from the interplay between African slaves settled on large
sugar plantations and Spanish or Canary Islanders who grew tobacco on
small farms. The African slaves and their descendants reconstructed large
numbers of percussive instruments and corresponding rhythms, the most
important instruments being the clave, the congas and batá drums.
Chinese immigrants have contributed the cornetín chino ("Chinese
cornet"), a Chinese wind instrument still played in the comparsas,
or carnival groups, of Santiago de Cuba.
of Boogalu DVD with Havana Carnaval
The original guajira was earthy, strident rural acoustic music, possibly
related to Puerto Rican jibaro. It appeared in the early 20th century,
and is led by a 12-string guitar called a tres, known for a distinctive
Música campesina is a rural form of improvised music derived from
a local form of décima and verso called punto. It has been popularized
by artists like Celina González, and has become an important influence
on modern son. While remaining mainly unchanged in its forms (thus provoking
a steady decline in interest among the Cuban youth), some artists have
tried to renew música campesina with new styles, lyrics, themes
The European influence on Cuba's later musical development is most influentially
represented by danzón, which is an elegant dance that became established
in Cuba before being exported to popular acclaim throughout Latin America,
especially Mexico. Its roots lay in European ballroom dances like the
English country dance, French contredanse and Spanish contradanza. Danzon
developed in the 1870s in the region of Matanzas, where African culture
remained strong. It had developed in full by 1879. Played by orquesta
tipica, an informal military marching band, danzóns evolved from
the habanera by incorporating African elements, and were played by artists
like Miguel Failde. Failde added elements from the French contredanse,
and laid the way for future artists like José Urfe, Enrique Jorrín
and Antonio María Romeu.
of Boogalu DVD with Danzon
Haitians in Cuba: Charanga
Other forms of Cuban folk music include the bolero ballads from Santiago,
and small French creole bands called charangas. Charangas come from Haitian
refugees during the Haitian Revolution (1791), who settled in the Oriente
and established their own style of danzón, forming a kind of cabildo
called the tumba francesa and became known for comparsa, mambo, chachachá
and other kinds of folk music.
Changuí is a rapid form of son from the eastern provinces (Santiago
and Guantánamo, known together as Oriente), and is best exemplified
by Elio Revé. It is unclear how the changuí originated,
and whether it is a precursor to the classical son, but it seems that
the two developed along parallel lines. Changuí is characterised
by its strong emphasis on the downbeat, as well as being fast and very
percussive. While it was Elio Revé who modernised the changuí,
musicians such as Candido Fabré and more recently Los Dan Den gave
it the contemporary feel it has today. Most importantly Los Van Van, led
by Juan Formell, drew on changuí, adding trombones, synthesizers
and more percussion, to create the songo.
Son is a major genre of Cuban music, and has helped lay the foundation
for most of what came after. It arose in the eastern part of the island,
among Spanish-descended farmers, and is thought to have been derived from
changui, which also merged the Spanish guitar and African rhythms and
to which son is closely related.
Son's characteristics vary widely today, with the defining characteristic
a bass pulse that comes before the downbeat, giving son and its derivatives
(including salsa) its distinctive rhythm; this is known as the anticipated
Son traditionally concerns itself with themes like love and patriotism,
though more modern artists are socially or politically-oriented. Son lyrics
are typically decima (ten line), octosyllabic verse, and it is performed
in 2/4 time. The son clave has both a reverse and forward clave, which
dever because a forward clave has a three note bar (tresillo), followed
by a two note bar, while the reverse is the opposite.
of Boogalu DVD with Son
Batá and Yuka
One of the most vibrant cabildos was the Lukumí, which became known
for batá drums, played traditionally at initiation ceremonies,
and gourd ensembles called abwe. In the 1950s, a collection of Havana-area
batá drummers called Santero helped bring Lucumí styles
into mainstream Cuban music, while artists like Mezcla and Lázaro
Ros melded the style with other forms, including zouk.
The Kongo cabildo is known for its use of yuka drums, as well as gallos
(a form of song contest), makuta and mani dances, the latter being closely
related to the Brazilian martial dance capoeira. Yuka drum music eventually
evolved into what is known as rumba, which has become internationally
popular. Rumba bands traditionally use several drums, palitos, claves
and call and response vocals.
of Boogalu DVD with Bata
Abroad, rumba is primarily thought of as a glitzy ballroom dance, but
its origins are spontaneous, improvised and lively, coming from the dockworkers
of Havana and Matanzas. Percussion (including quinto and tumbadoras drums
and "palitos", or sticks, to play a cáscara rhythm) and
vocal parts (including a leader and a chorus) are combined to make a danceable
and popular form of music.
The word rumba is believed to stem from the verb rumbear, which means
something like to have a good time, party. The rhythm is the most important
part of rumba, which is always music primarily meant for dancing.
There three kinds of rumba rhythms, with accompanying dances: columbia,
guaganco and yambú. The columbia, played in 6/8 time, is danced
by one man and is very swift, with aggressive and acrobatic moves. The
guagancó, played in 2/4, is danced with one man and one woman,
and is much slower. The dance simulates the man's pursuit of the woman,
and is thus sexually charged. The yambú, known as "the old
people's rumba", is a precursor to the guaguancó and is played
more slowly. Yambú has almost died-out and is played almost exclusively
by folkloric ensembles.
of Boogalu DVD with Rumba
Diversification and Popularization
1920s and 30s
Son music came to Havana in 1920 (see 1920 in music) due to the efforts
of legendary groups like Trío Matamoros. Son was urbanized, with
trumpets and other new instruments, leading to its tremendous influence
on most later forms of Cuban music. In Havana, influences such as American
popular music and jazz via the radio were adopted.
The son trios gave way to the septets, including guitar or tres, marímbulas
or double bass, bongos, claves and maracas. The trumpet was introduced
in 1926. Lead singers improvised lyrics and embellished melody lines while
the claves laid down the basic son clave beat.
As time passed, musicians began "whitening up" son for the growing
tourist traffic in the Havana nightclubs who did not understand the complex
Cuban Music Enters the United States
In the 1930s, the Lecuona Cuban Boys and Desi Arnaz popularized the conga
in the US and Don Aspiazu did the same with son montuno, while Arsenio
Rodriguez developed the conjunto band and rumba's popularity grew. Conjunto
son, mambo, chachachá, rumba and conga became the most important
influences on the invention of salsa.
The mambo first entered the United States in the early 40s. The first
mambo, "Mambo" by Orestes "Cachao" Lopez, was written
in 1938. Five years later, Perez Prado introduced the dance to the audience
at La Tropicana, a nightclub in Havana. Mambo was distinguished from its
immediate predecessor, danzon, by elements of son montuno and jazz. By
1947, mambo was wildly popular in the US, but the craze lasted only a
Other influential musicians prior to the revolution were Ernesto Lecuona,
Chano Pozo, Bola de Nieve, who lived in Mexico, and Mario Bauza, who,
along with such "Nuyoricans" Ray Barreto and Tito Puente made
innovation in mambo which gradually would produce Latin jazz and later
salsa. A large number of musicians left Cuba between 1966 and 1968, after
the Cuban government nationalised the remaining nightclubs and the recording
industry. Among these was Celia Cruz, a guaracha singer, who gave strong
impulses to the development of salsa. In later years Cubans were very
active in Latin jazz and early salsa, such as percussionist Patato Valdés
of the Cuban-oriented "Tipíca '73", linked to the Fania
All-Stars. Several former members of Irakere have also become highly successful
in the USA, among them Paquito d'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval.
In the late 19th century, the habanera developed out of the contradanza
which had arrived from Haiti after the Haitian revolution. The main innovation
from the contradanza was rhythmic, as the habanera incorporated Spanish
and African influences into its repertoire.
In the 1930s, habanera performer Arcano y sus Maravillos incorporated
influences from conga and added a montuno (as in son), paving the way
for the mixing of Latin musical forms, including guaracha, played by a
charanga orchestra. Guaracha (sometimes simply called charanga) also drew
from Haitian musical forms, has been extremely popular and continues to
It was not, however, until 1995 that a Cuban artist first recorded a complete
disc in the Habanera genre, when singer/songwriter Liuba Maria Hevia recorded
some songs researched by musicologist Maria Teresa Linares, then director
of the Cuban Museum of Music. Even then, the original intention was to
supply the Cuban Museum of Music with some sound references of the genre.
It is worth mentioning that the same artist, unhappy with the technical
conditions at the time (Cuba was in the middle of the so-called Periodo
Especial), re-recorded most of the songs in the 2005 CD Angel y Habanera.
The fact that the above mentioned CD Habaneras en el tiempo (1995) was
mainly distributed in Barcelona underlines the fading interest on this
kind of music in the island, specially when compared to the vigorous popularity
of the Habanera in the Mediterranean coast of Spain.
1940s and 50s
Arsenio Rodriguez, one of Cuba's most famous soneros, is considered to
have brought son back to its African roots in the 1940s by adapting the
guaguanco style to son, and by adding a cowbell and conga to the rhythm
section. He also expanded the role of the tres as a solo instrument. Rodriguez
introduced the montuno (or mambo section) for melodic solos and his style
became known as son montuno.
In the 1940s, Chano Pozo formed part of the bebop revolution in jazz,
playing conga and other Afro-Cuban drums. Conga was integral part of what
became known as Latin jazz, which began in the 40s among Cubans in New
Cuban Music in the US
A charanga group called Orquesta America, led by violinist Enrique Jorrín,
helped invent chachachá, which became an international fad in the
1950s. Chachachá was popularized by bands led by Tito Puente, Perez
Prado and other superstars. Many of these same performers also updated
mambo for modern audiences.
of Boogalu DVD with Cha Cha Cha & Mambo
1960s and 70s
Modern Cuban music is known for its relentless mixing of genres. For example,
the 1970s saw Los Irakere use batá in a big band setting; this
became known as son-batá or batá-rock. Later artists created
the mozambique, which mixed conga and mambo, and batá-rumba, which
mixed rumba and batá drum music. Mixtures including elements of
hip hop, jazz and rock and roll are also common, like in Habana Abierta's
Castro and Cuban Exiles
The arrival to power of Fidel Castro in 1959 signified on one side mass
exile to Puerto Rico, Florida and New York, and the protection of artist
by the Communist state, reflected in state-owned record labels like EGREM.
In Cuba, the Nueva Trova movement (including Pablo Milanés) reflected
the new leftist ideals. Young musicians learned in music school. The state-run
cabaret Tropicana was a popular attraction for foreign tourists, though
more well-informed tourists sought out local casas de la Trova. Musicians
were full-time and paid by the state after graduating from a conservatory,
but as much as 90% of their income was taken by the Ministry of Culture.
Castro's government eventually forced even early supporters like Arturo
Sandoval and Paquito D'Rivera into exile. The fall of the Soviet Union
in the 1990s eventually changed the situation quite a bit, and musicians
were then allowed to tour abroad and earn a living outside the state-run
Famous artists from the Cuban exile are Celia Cruz, La Lupe, Willy Chirino
and Gloria Estefan. Many of these musicians, especially Cruz, became closely
associated with the anti-Castro movement.
In the 1970s and onwards, son montuno was combined with other Latin musical
forms, such as the mambo and the rumba, to form contemporary salsa music,
currently immensely popular throughout Latin America and the Hispanic
of Boogalu DVD with Cuban Salsa
Paralleling nueva canción in Chile and Argentina, Cuba's political
and social turmoil in the 60s and 70s produced a socially aware form of
new music called nueva trova. Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés
became the most important exponents of this style. It arose from travelling
trovadores in the early 20th century, including popular musicians like
Sindo Garay (best-known for "La Bayamesa"), Nico Saquito, Carlos
Puebla and Joseíto Fernández (best-known for "Guantanamera").
Nueva trova was always intimately connected with Castro's revolution,
but its lyrics frequently expressed personal rather than social issues,
focusing on intense emotional issues.
Nueva Trova began to evolve after the fall of the Soviet Union, adapting
to the new times. Examples of a new, non-political line in the Nueva Trova
movement could be Liuba María Hevia, whose lyrics are focused on
other subjects like love and solitude, sharing with the rest a highly
poetical style. On the other side of the spectrum, Carlos Varela is famous
in Cuba for his open criticism of some aspects of Castro's revolution,
while at the same time being included in the Nueva Trova genre.
The term Novísima Trova (literally 'Newest song') is often used
to describe a new generation of songwriters whose main references are
Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanés.
1980s and 90s
Son and nueva trova remain the most popular forms of modern Cuban music,
and virtually all Cuban artists play music derived from one of these two
genres. Son is best represented by long-standing groups like Septeto Nacional,
which was re-established in 1985, Orquesta Aragón, Orquesta Ritmo
Oriental and Orquesta Original de Manzanillo. Septeto Nacional, alongside
groups like Sierra Mestra, have sparked a revival in traditional son.
Meanwhile, Irakere fused traditional Cuban music with jazz, and groups
like NG La Banda, Orishas and Son 14 continued to add new elements to
son, especially hip hop and funk, to form timba music; this process was
aided by the acquisition of imported electronic equipment.
There are still many practitioners of traditional son montuno, such as
Eliades Ochoa, who have recorded and toured widely as a result of the
upturn in interest in son montuno since the mid-1990s.
In the 1990s, increased interest in world music brought Cuban music, especially
traditional styles like son montuno, again into the limelight. This development
went hand-in-hand with the post-Soviet Union periodo especial in Cuba,
during which the economy began opening up to tourism.
Orquesta Aragon, Charanga Habanera and Candido Fabré y su Banda
have been long-time players in the charanga scene, and helped form the
popular timba scene of the late 1990s.
The biggest award in modern Cuban music is the Beny Moré Award.
The antagonism between Cuban politicians in Florida and on the island
forced the celebration of the Grammy Latinos awards in Los Angeles instead
Since its appearance in the early 1990s timba has become the most popular
dance music in Cuba, rivalled only lately by Reggatón, the Cuban
version of Jamaican ragga and dancehall music. Though related to salsa,
timba has its own characteristics and history, and is intimately tied
to the life and culture of Cuba, and especially Havana. Timba is to Havana
what tango is to Buenos Aires, or pagode to Rio de Janeiro.
* Musiques cubaines, Maya Roy. 1998
* Fairley, Jan. "Troubadors Old and New". 2000. In Broughton,
Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.),
World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia
and Pacific, pp 408-413. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
* Fairley, Jan. "¡Que Rico Bailo Yo! How Well I Dance".
2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James
and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America,
Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, pp 386-407. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin
Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
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