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Music of Cuba

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 Santeria was developing and had soon spread throughout Cuba, Haiti and other nearby islands. Santeria's 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 toquess. By the 20th century, elements of Santeria music had appeared in popular and folk forms.

Foundations of Cuban music

The natives of Cuba were the Taino, 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, zarzuela, 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 Islandersers (guajiros) who grew tobacco on small farms. Chinese immigrants have contributed the cornetín chino, a Chinese wind instrument.

Son montuno

The earliest known form of modern Cuban music is the son, known to date from the late 1500s. 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 bass. Contradanza and habanera were also early forms of Cuban music and dance, and the habanera especially has proven extremely influential on virtually all forms of Latin American music, especially in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico.

Son is derived from Haitian, African, Spanish and native musical influences, arising first in the Oriente province, reaching Havana around 1909. The most influential group from this period was the Trio Oriental, who stabilized the sextet format that soon came to dominate son bands. In 1912, recording began with groups like Sexteto Habanero (a re-named Trio Oriental) and Sexteto Boloña, and popularization began in earnest with the arrival of radio broadcasting in 1922, which came at the same time as Havana's reputation as an attraction for Americans evading Prohibition laws and the city became a haven for the Mafia, prostitution and gambling, and also became a second home for trendy and influential bands from New York City. A few years later, in the late 1920s, son sextets became septets and son's popularity continued to grow with artists like Septeto Nacional and its leader, Ignacio Piñeiro. Piñeiro experimented with fusing son with other genres of music, forming guajira-son, bolero-son and guaracha-son. In 1928, Rita Montaner's "El Manicero" became the first Cuban song to be a major hit in Paris and elsewhere in Europe. In 1930, the Havana Orchestra took the song to the United States, where it also became a big hit. Arsenio Rodríguez then became the most influential player of son and the origin of the modern Afro-Cuban sound, followed by Beny Moré and others who helped develop salsa music. Arsenio Rodrigíguez was especially influential, incorporating improvised solos, toques, congas and extra trumpets, percussion and pianos. Beny Moré (known as the "Barbarian of Rhythm") further evolved the genre, adding guaracha, bolero and mambo influences, helping make him extraordinarily popular and is now cited as perhaps the greatest sonero.

With the arrival of pop chachachá and mambo in the United States, son also became extremely popular but was usually called rumba, which more properly refers to a specific genre of music. Son, mambo and rumba, along with other forms of Latin music contributed to the development of salsa music, which quickly became perhaps the most popular form of Latin music ever.


The original guajira was earthy, strident rural music. It was refined and popularized by the Cuban singer-songwriter and guitarist Guillermo Portabales, whose elegant style was became known as salon guajira. From the 1930s until his untimely death in a traffic accident on Puerto Rico in 1970, Portabales recorded and performed salon guajira throught out North and South America to tremendous popular acclaim.

Batá and yuka

One of the most vibrant cabildos was the Lucumí, 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, a clave and call-and-response vocals.

Música campesina

Música campesina is a rural form of improvised music derived from a local form of decima and verso called punto. It has been popularized by artists like Celina González, and has become an important influence on modern son.


Changuí is a form of music influenced by son, batá and other genres, and is best exemplified by Elio Revé and, more recently, Dan Den and, most importantly Los Van Van, led by Juan Formell. Formell added trombones, synthesizers and more percussion, helping to invent a son-influenced variety called songo.


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 tumbadores drums and palitos) and vocal parts (including a leader and a chorus -- see call and response) are combined to make a danceable and popular form of music.

Other early genres

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 took influences from danzón, forming a kind of cabildo called the tumba francesa and is known for comparsa, chachachá and other kinds of folk music.

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. Played by orquesta tipica, an informal military marching band, danzóns became Africanized and evolved into habanera music, invented 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. In the 1930s, 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 charanga. Charanga, which drew equally from Cuban and Haitian musical forms, has been extremely popular and continues to entertain audiences. Orquesta Aragon, Charanga Habanera and Candido Fabré y su Banda have been long-time players in the scene, and eventually helped form the popular timba scene of the late 1990s.

A charanga group called Orquesta America, led by violinist Enrique Jorrín, helped invent chachachá, which became an in international fad in the 1950s. Chachachá was poopularized by bands led by Tito Puente], Perez Prado and other superstars.

International popularity

Son music came to Havana in 1920 (see 1920 in music) due to the efforts of legendary groups like Trío Matamoros. Son was urbanized, which trumpets and other new instruments, leading to its tremendous influence on most later forms of Cuban music.

In the 1930s, 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.

In the 1950s, groups like Orquesta Aragón helped invent a highly rhythmic form of music called chachachá while Pérez Prado, Benny Moré, and Cachao López started a craze for mambo. Later, artists like Tito Puente and Fania Records helped update mambo for modern audiences. The influence of Puertorican musicians in New York resulted in salsa music. Others used traditional forms, especially the conga, to make Latin jazz, which has remained more closely linked with Cuba than other Latin countries; it begin in the 1940s in New York City's Cuban community.

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 learnt in conservatories. 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 changed the situation quite a bit, and musicians were then allowed to tour abroad and earn a living outside the state-run system.

Famous artists from the Cuban exile are Celia Cruz, La Lupe and Gloria Estefan. Many of these musicians, especially Cruz, became closely associated with the anti-Castro movement.

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 musc 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.

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.


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. The watershed event was the release of Buena Vista Social Club (1998), a recording of veteran Cuban musicians organized by the American musician and producer, Ry Cooder. Buena Vista Social Club became an immense worldwide hit, selling millions of copies, and made stars of octogenarian Cuban musicians such Ibrahim Ferrer, Joseíto Fernández, and Compay Segundo, whose brilliant careers had stagnated in the 1950s. Buena Vista resulted in several followup recordings and spawned a film of the same name, Buena Vista Social Club, as well as tremendous interest in other Cuban groups. In subsequent years, dozens of singers and conjuntos made recordings for foreign labels and toured internationally. The interest of world audiences in exile and pre-revolutionary musicians has stirred some resentment among younger musicians that feel that their work and evolution of forty years is being ignored.

The biggest award in modern Cuban music is the Beny Moré Award. The antagonism between Cuban politicians of Florida and the island forced the celebration of the Grammy Latinos awards in Los Angeles instead Miami.

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 was jazz, and groups like NG La Banda, Orishas and Son 14 continued to add new elements to son, especially hip hop to form timba music, as they got hold of imported electronic equipment.