Cuba is the most important source of music in Latin America. The island has produced dance music that has traveled all over the world. At home music is inseparable from Cuba’s daily life and history.
The Spanish imported African slaves to Cuba until the 1880s. Little surprise, then, that Cuban music has deep roots in African ritual and rhythm. By contrast, there is almost no influence from the pre-Hispanic tribes that were effectively obliterated by Spanish colonisation.
By the 1840s, slaves constituted half of Cuba’s population. They asserted their distinct cultural identities through cult religions. The complex rhythms from these cults are the heartbeat of Cuban popular music. The physical and emotional intensity of Cuban music comes from African ritual cults.
Rumba has roots in Afro-Cuban religion, but its modern repertoire is secular. It divides into three main dances: the guaguancó (a flirtatious couple dance), yambú (a slower couple dance) and columbia (an acrobatic solo male dance).
Rumba consists of voice and percussion, including tumbadores, high-pitch conga drum, and palitos (sticks beaten against the body of one of the drums). The vocal parts involve a leader and chorus.
Rumba has key rhythms called the clave or ‘key’. It is often played by a pair of round wooden sticks (claves). Around the clave, interlocking cross rhythms are created. The basic pattern of rumba informs much Afro-Cuban music. Rumba is generally sung in Spanish. One famous Cuban rumba group, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, have been performing for almost fifty years.
Danzón, Charanga and the Chachachá
Danzón evolved from European country dances, becoming Cuba’s own original dance music. It is played by orquesta tipicas, which developed from military marching bands.
The dances and orquestas were gradually Africanised, becoming the habanera. The Cuban band leader, Miguel Failde is credited to have established the habanera form in the 1880s.
Danzón orquestas also created an offshoot called charanga, which replaced brass instruments with violins, flute, double bass and piano. The charanga ensembles thrived for decades, especially in the mid-1900s. Great charangas included Orquesta Aragón, Orquesta Riverside and Orquesta America.
The chachachá, created by Orquesta America, swept across Europe and America in the 1950s. The 1-2-3 footwork was popularised by big bands including Perez Prado, Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez. Younger generation charangas include Candido Fabré y sus Banda and Charanga Habanera.
Son is the predominant musical force in Cuba and the symbol of the island. Structurally, there are two parts: an opening verse followed by a montuno section in which the improvising singer is answered by a chorus. Sones are centered upon a clave rhythm.
Francophone immigrants brought new elements to Cuba’s African and Spanish mix, forging son in the 1880s. Its success is attributed to the advent of Cuban radio in 1922 and the broadcasting of live bands.
In the late 1920s, a trumpet was added and the son began to swing. One of the most significant ensembles, Septeto Nacional, began in 1927. The son, “El Manicero” (1928) was the first Cuban in Europe. By the 1940s, Cuban son had become part of the main-stream popular music in North and South America as well as the Caribbean.
Two instrumentalists furthered the son sound, Arsenio Rodríguez and Félix Chappotín. Rodríguez expanded his group with congas and more trumpet and percussion. Chappotín added tight horn arrangements. Another influential musician, Beny Moré, drew on a spectrum of styles, including guaracha, boleros, and mambo.
Music and the Revolution
After Castro’s 1959 revolution, radio stations and record companies became state institutions. Many musicians left country. For Cubans who remained, the US boycott meant a desperate struggle for economic survival.
The post-revolution music scene shifted to more local music-making centred on a system of state-employed musicians. Promising young players were given a Conservatoire training and profesionales drew a state salary.
The mid-1990s brought welcomed change. Musicians could work freely inside and outside the country. Successful musicians are among the best-paid professionals on the island.
The Son Goes On
All of the best-known contemporary Cuban bands and musicians have evolved from the son tradition. Two important musics that have influences son are the rural música campesina and changuí.
The most important twentieth-century son group was Los Van Van. Adding a trombone, synthesizer and drum, they developed a variant of son called songo. The group Irakere, the first big contemporary Cuban jazz group, took son in a jazz-oriented direction.
The group NG La Banda set out to ‘search for the Cuban music of the future’, creating a new generation of son. NG La Band remain hugely popular and innovative, mixing in rap and jazz.
In the 1990s there was an emergence of high profile soloists that are all key figures in timba—contemporary son with hip-hop and salsa influences. Currently, Cuban music scene is now more open than at any time since the 1950s, allowing for continuing development.
Sierra Maestra are the guardians of the Cuban son music tradition. They creatively preserved this infectious dance music and have gone on to be its finest performers. Always popular with dancers as well as listeners, they have played at clubs and festivals around the world to huge acclaim.
The band who are largely responsible for the style’s revival, present their personal account of the genre’s development on Riverboat Record's albums, Son: Soul Of A Nationand Rumbero Soy. Charting son’s development from the early days before horns were introduced, through the additions of trumpets, piano and big bands, to the original modern son sound, their albums are a glorious tribute confirming the dictum that ‘Son is the soul of our nation’.