Music of Cuba

cuban music

The music of Cuba has evolved from the instruments and dances of Europe (primarily Spain) and Africa (especially West Africa) into a range of creolized musical styles. Unfortunately, almost nothing remains of indigenous musical traditions. Cuban music has enjoyed huge international recognition since the 1900s and, since the introduction of recording technology, it could be argued that it is the most popular form of world music. The music of Cuba contributed not only to the development of jazz and salsa, but also gave rise to the Argentinian tango, Ghanaian high-life, Colombian Cumbia, Dominican Merengue, and Spanish Nuevo flamenco.

Many of the recognizable Cuban rhythms and percussion instruments were adapted by the descendants of African slaves from those they had known in their homeland. There were originally at least fifty different types of African drums present in Cuba, though today only the bongos, congas and batá drums are used regularly. Timbales are also common, but these are descended from the kettle drums used by Spanish military bands. During periods when drums were banned or where unavailable, two other important percussion instruments rose in popularity. These are the claves, two small, hardwood batons that are cupped in the hand and struck together, and the cajón, a type of wooden box originally made from crates. From Spain came the guitar, as well as traditional European musical notation and compositional techniques.

Under these two great influences, the polyrhythmic percussion of Africa merged with the melodies of Europe to form uniquely Cuban style of music. Popular genres range from the old musical theater of Zarzuela and Trova, through the dance music of Waltz and Contradanza, all the way to the religious songs of Yoruban (Lacumi) and Congolese (Palo) rituals. For brevity, this post will only touch on a few styles, beginning first with a few styles of European descent, continuing with styles of African descent, and concluding with a few modern styles.

Zarzuela music is part of a small-scale operetta performance. Originally working with imported Spanish content, zarzuela evolved to present a running commentary on Cuba’s social and political environment. Zarzuela is credited with Cuba’s first recordings. The soprano Chalía Herrera (1864–1968) made the first recordings by a Cuban artist with the zarzuela Cadíz in 1898 on unnumbered Bettini cylinders.

The Cuban bolero is both a style of music and of dance which differ greatly from its Spanish namesake. Its origins in the last 19th century are credited to Pepe Sánchez who wrote the first recognized Cuban bolero, Tristezas, which is still widely sung today. While the original boleros consist of two sections of 16 bars in 2/4 time, with a Spanish guitar interlude between, their adaptability soon gave rise to numerous variations. The bolero-son (see below for more on son music) was for several decades the most popular rhythm for dancing in Cuba. This rhythm was then adopted by the international dance community and taught under the incorrect name “rumba” (see more on rumba below).

A recording of Pepe Sanchez’s Tristezas.

The habanera developed in the beginning of the 19th century from the contradanza, under the influence of French-speaking immigrants fleeing the Haitian revolution. It involves both song and music as well as dance, with a slower tempo than that of the contradanza. By the 1840s, habaneras could be found in Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and Spain. Habanera-like compositions can even be found in the works of Ravel, Saint-Saëns, and Debussy. Since the 1900s, habanera has fallen from general use, though the music retains a period charm. With its similar rhythmic character, some believe habanera to be the musical father of the tango.

In many ways, son is to Cuba what the samba is to Brazil or the tango is to Argentina. Its adaptability and resilience spring from its deep roots in both European and African musical traditions. Instruments most important to son are the tres, or Cuban guitar, and the double-headed bongó. While those two were used both historically and currently, son also incorporates claves, Spanish guitar, and double bass (replacing the early use of botija or marímbula). Historically, the cornet or trumpet were also used and currently the piano is often featured. The many types of son include: son montuno, changuí, sucu-sucu, pregón, bolero-son, afro-son, son guaguancó, mambo, salsa (in large part), and timba.

Son has evolved over the years to become more syncopated and creole in style, from genres like the danzón-mambo and the cha-cha-cha, to complex modern compositions that defy analysis. Today, son can be recognized by its defining syncopated bass pulse that comes before the downbeat. Called anticipated base, this gives son and its derivatives (such as salsa) their distinctive rhythm.

Classic Cuban Son

The existence of most Afrocuban music can be credited to the historic “cabildos”, or self-organized social groups of African slaves. The separate cabildos for each culture preserved the distinct traditions of several groups even after the abolition of slavery in 1886. Among the primary groups are the Yoruba (the Lucumi in Cuba), the Congolese (Palo in Cuba), and Dahomey (the Fon or Arará).

The religious traditions of African origin survive in Cuba as ritual music, song and dance, which are markedly different than Cuba’s secular music and dance. Among these is the Yoruba religion, known as Lucumí or Regla de Ocha in Cuba. Lucumí ceremonies are characterized by the use of consecrated batá drums and gourd ensembles called “abwe”. Lucumí moved into the mainstream in the 1950s, aided by a collection of Havana-area batá drummers called Santero, artists like Mezcla, and the Lucumí singer Lázaro Ros, who combined the style with other forms of Cuban music.

Despite the widespread incorrect use of the word “rumba” to describe a sensual dance (see the description for bolero appove), true rumba is a genre of Cuban music characterized by an entirely African style, and featuring only voice, percussion, and dance. Rumba originates from the docks and the less prosperous areas of Havana and Matanzas. It features a trio of drums called tumba, llamador and quinto (similar in appearance to congas). When drums are unavailable, wooden boxes called cajones may be used. Similarly, while traditional rumba may include claves, spoons are often used as a replacement. Interestingly, though the call-and-response vocals are of a clearly African style they are sung in Spanish. During the last century, three basic rumba forms arose: columbia, guaguancó, and yambú. The columbia is danced only by men, often a single solo dancer, to a 6/8 time beat. The dance is fast paced with large aggressive movements and often acrobatics. The guagancó dance mimics a man’s romantic pursuit of a woman and is danced by one man and one woman. The yambú is now rather outdated and curiously features a type of burlesque performance with an old man and his walking stick.

Rumba Guaguancó – Performance by Ballet Folklórico Cutumba de Santiago, Cuba.

Big Band:
The big band era of the 1940s was present in Cuba as well, and big band survives today as a dominant style of Cuban music. Two great Cuban bandleaders can be credited with spearheading this movement: Armando Romeu Jr. and Damaso Perez Prado. Armando Romeu drew upon his experience with visiting American jazz groups as well his mastery of Cuban music to create Cuban jazz and big band compositions. Damaso Perez Prado is famous for selling more records than any other contemporary of Latin music. While he shaped the Cuban big band sound to be more distinctly Afrocuban rather than American in sound, Prado also drew on the styles of Stravinsky and Stan Kenton. Another musician who shaped this style of music was the great Cuban singer, Benny Moré, who reached his heyday in the 1950s. His expressive phrasing and flexible tenor voice helped promote this style of Cuban music all over the world.

Recording of the Perez Prado orchestra performing Mambo #5

Hip-Hop, Rap and Reggaeton:

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, poverty in Cuba became more widespread as the economy declined. During the 1990s, some Cuban rap and hip-hop artist found a new means to protest this situation, as well as an outlet for creative energy and a means to describe Cuban life and aspirations.

The Cuban government first opposed rappers and hip-hop artists for the sometimes violent image they portray, but gradually acknowledged that it would be better to have hip-hop under their influence. By 1999, the Ministry of Culture recognized hip-hop as an “authentic expression of Cuban Culture”.

Although some Cuban rap groups pride themselves on remaining loyal to the foreign roots of hip hop, others like the Orishas – a Cuban hip-hop group that enjoys success abroad – incorporate salsa rhythms, Afrocuban styles, and even smatterings of French for a truly Cuban, creolized feel.

Like hip hop, reggaeton was an import to Cuba, this time from Puerto Rico. Both lyrics and dance movements have been criticized by the Cuban government, however, and the Ministry of Culture has ruled that reggaeton is not to be used in teaching intuitions, parties or at dance clubs.

Orishas are one of Cuba’s most successful hip hop groups.