Cuba: A Powerhouse of Latin Music

The traditional and popular music of Cuba is amongst the most widely known and enjoyed music in the world today. As the powerhouse of Latin music, it has produced some of the world’s best-known musicians and genres, in the form of rumba, son and salsa, and it has influenced musicians and musical forms around the globe, from American Jazz to Congolese soukous (‘shake’); Colombian dance to West African Afrobeat; Argentinian tango to Ghanaian highlife; Spanish nuevo flamenco to Senegalese mbalax. As such, Cuban music has a prime place in World Music both in direct representation but also as a fundamental undercurrent of the global movement. Traditional musics in Cuba are syncretic fusions of Spanish and African musical systems (i.e. gradual acculturations and mergings of the two), while its popular musics emerged as an eclectic patchwork combining these creative tensions with other influences predominantly from the USA. The more you learn about la musica cubana, the more difficult it becomes to define as, despite the efforts of salsa to contain it, its plethora of different traditions, styles and genres resist generalisation and are as overwhelming in their intricate musical distinctions as they are irresistible.

Country Profile

Located just off the coast of North America, LaRepública de Cuba, is the largest island in the Caribbean Sea. It has a population of just over 11 million across its 15 provinces. The official and universal language is Spanish, although there are African-derived languages like Lucumí, but, today, these are only used in religious contexts. The dominant religion in Cuba is Roman Catholicism and, due to the pervasiveness of Communism, the next largest group is nonreligious. Other religious affiliations include Protestants and Santería, a syncretic Afro-Cuban sect that merges Yorubafrom Nigeria and Benin and Roman Catholic religious frameworks. Its ethnic composition is majority white Europeans, mainly from Spain; a small black demographic descended directly from African slaves; a medium-sized mulatto group of mixed European and African heritage; and a very small Chinese minority. Despite only having one major city, La Habana(Havana), almost 80% of the Cuban population lives in urban settings, which also include smaller cities like Santa Clara, Santiago and Trinidad.

Cultural History

Around 1000 years before the Spanish ‘discovery’ of Cuba, the Arawak-speaking Taínopopulation dominated the island, with small pockets of Guanahatabey and Ciboney peoples in the West and South of the island respectively. Little is known of Taínoculture, as it was organised around oral traditions that perished with its peoples, but the Spanish wrote that they ‘drank smoke’, having developed a sophisticated system of rolling, preparing, burning and smoking the leaves of a plant they called cohiba (tobacco) over centuries. The first European contact with Cuba came from Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus, who landed on the island during his first voyage to the Americas (1492), naming it Juana (it was later renamed ‘Cuba’, allegedly after the Taíno designation Coabana (‘great place’)). Spanish colonialists, led by Diego Velázquez, then returned to settle the island. They enslaved the Taíno and forced them into hard labour on coffee and sugar plantations, killing any who were not strong bodied (16thC). Within 30 years, almost the entire indigenous population had been wiped out by disease, malnutrition, exhaustion, murder or suicide. Spanish settlers drew on the nascent slave trade to generate a new labour force: they imported huge numbers of slaves from Africa to the island, with Cuba becoming the largest importer of slaves in the Caribbean, bringing over more than 600,000 mainly Yoruba and Bantú slaves from West and Central Africa (16th-18thC), and, following its fortunes, Spaniards themselves, primarily from the poorer south of Spain, flocked to the colony to grow tobacco on small farms as guajiro (peasant farmers). Later on, refugees from the slave rebellion of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1803) also came to find work in Cuba. Dutch and British expeditions attempted to take the island, occupying La Habana (1628) and Santiago (1662) respectively, but Spanish forces in the colony fought them off. Over the next centuries, Cuba emerged as Spain’s most important island in the Caribbean, ‘the Pearl of the Antilles’: it became its largest source of raw sugar and its hub for transporting New World gold back to the motherland. Cuba’s production output increased further still when it became clear that Cuban cigars survived the transatlantic voyages better than tobacco leaves, and so large fabricas (cigar factories) were built on the island.

The USA, buoyed up by the California Gold Rush (1848-1849) and keen on expansion, set its sights on Cuba. Just over fifty years after its purchase of Louisiana from France (1803), the US government offered Spain $130m for Cuba (1854), but the Spanish declined. The Ostend Manifesto outlined the USA’s concerns that a Spanish presence on Cuba compromised its security and declared that it would take Cuba by any means necessary but, when the paper was leaked prematurely, the endeavour was abandoned. In Cuba itself, civil unrest heightened as the Spanish increased taxation and made no concessions on calls for political self-government, culminating in a rebellion against the colonists, which turned into the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878). The rebels, who came from all social classes and ethnic backgrounds including rich Cuban-born plantation owners, white guajiro, free and enslaved blacks and mulattos, were led by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who declared Cuban independence and the end of slavery at the start of their war against the Spanish colonialists. However, the rebels lost and so failed to secure the island’s independence or the emancipation of slaves. A small faction of the remaining rebels refused to surrender and, in the Smallest War (1879-1880), they resumed their struggle, again in vain. Under increasing domestic and international pressure, the Spanish colonists finally abolished slavery in Cuba (1886), the last country in the New World to do so, which resulted in the mass migration of free blacks into the urban centres of Havana, Santiago and Trinidad and a small but significant influx of Chinese immigrants into the east of Cuba. Civil unrest at economic and political suppression built again into a mass uprising with the War of Independence (1895-1898), led by revolutionary leader Máximo Gómez and socialist political theorist and writer José Martí (‘the Apostle of Cuban Independence’), who become a celebrated martyr figure after he was killed in the war and whose ideas prefigured the later Cuban Revolution (see below). However, as Spain and the USA clashed in the Spanish-American War (1898), the destruction of a U.S. navy battleship in La Habanagave the USA an opportunity to occupy Cuba in the course of the three-month conflict. With the threat of another revolt looming, the Americans granted Cuba its long-awaited ‘independence’ (1902), although the Platt Amendment outlined the specifics of its string-attached liberation which protected the USA’s right to oversee all Cuba’s foreign affairs, international commitments and domestic economic policy and to hold a U.S. naval station at Guantánamo Bay, the last of which still endures to the present day.

Paralysed by US intervention and plagued by internal corruption, the governments following independence implemented repressive social and economic policies that massively widened inequality on the island, allowing it to become a prosperous playground for rich Americans while the Cuban people were cursed with destitution and little or no education and healthcare system. The situation worsened as the American mafia set up shop on the island, building grand casinos to cover their underworld activities, including drugs and prostitution, which brought violence and exploitation to Cuba. The USA conceded the repeal of the Platt Amendment (1934), albeit maintaining their lease at Guantánamo Bay, and transferred sovereignty to the Cuba people. However, the subsequent governments continued to be characterised by corruption and exploitation. Fulgencio Batista, who had been successfully elected (1940) but was disgruntled when he failed to get re-elected (1944), took power through a military coup (1952) that instigated a regime of unprecedented and subjugation repression.

Driven by the socialist theories of Martí and the hunger for change amongst the suffering Cuban population, guerrilla fighters, led by Fidel Castro and his first military commandant Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (Che Guevara), launched a successful revolution against the regime and established a Communist government (1959). They instituted sweeping social and economic changes that, on the one hand, immediately and dramatically improved the quality of life for the Cuban people through investment in education, welfare, healthcare and the arts, but, on the other, maintained strict restrictions on freedom of speech and personal liberties and, by seizing a great deal of private property, led some Cubans to leave for the USA as refugees. As Cuba started to nationalise all services, including those that were American-owned, the USA broke off all diplomatic relations with Cuba and subsequently imposed a total commercial embargo on the island (1961). Yet, the impact of the US embargo against Cuba was diminished as the Soviet Union counteracted it by offering economic and military support for the island. A failed assault on the Bay of Pigs by US Cuban exiles, orchestrated by the CIA, made the Cuban government increasingly concerned about an invasion by the USA, and so they invited the Soviet Union to expand their military presence on the island. The Cold War between the capitalist USA and the communist Soviet Union started to heat up, and Cuba became the catalyst of a near global war in the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ (1962) when US security forces discovered Soviet nuclear missiles on the island and entered into a confrontational deadlock with the Soviet Union. Fortunately, the crisis resolved when the Soviet Union conceded to remove the missiles if the USA guaranteed it would never invade Cuba. From there, Fidel Castro continued to govern Cuba’s domestic policy while Che Guevara, declaring ‘¡Hasta la victoria, siempre!’ (‘Until victory, always!’), set off to spread the Revolution by fighting in conflicts across Africa and Latin America, including Congo (1965) and Bolivia (1966); and the events leading up to his death in Bolivia (1967) are still shrouded in mystery.

When the Soviet Union collapsed (1991), Cuba’s economy, which had been underpinned by Soviet support and was still isolated by the US embargo, fell with it, heralding a dire economic crisis and a terrible period of suffering for the Cuban people, from which the island has been slow to recover. Today, Cuba stands at a crossroads: it has a new president, Raul Castro, who was gradually granted power by his brother (2006-2008); a new relationship with the USA, as President Barack Obama and Raul Castro moved to normalise a diplomatic relationship; and, paradoxically, it retains a closed Communist system for the Cuban people, boasting world-leading education and healthcare provision albeit with accompanying suppression of freedoms and political representation, and yet it has developed a booming open tourism economy that is bringing travellers from all over the world to the island.

Music Culture


Little is known about Taíno music because, as with their culture, their music was organised around oral tradition and perished with the people. Spanish colonial accounts of Taíno aríetos(festivals) mention, in predictably bigoted language, their ‘savage’ song and dance rituals, which allegedly involved hundreds of participants dancing in concentric circles around musicians playing idiomatic percussion instruments. Certain Taíno instruments also survived, including jingles, güiro (a open-ended hollow gourd with parallel notches on one side played by rubbing a stick), guamo (a snail shell horn) and forms of maracas. However, Taíno music is believed to have had no significant impact on subsequent Cuban music traditions. Instead, Cuban traditional musics developed through transculturación (‘interplay’ or ‘acculturation’, a term coined by folklorist Fernando Ortíz): the long-term transmission and exchange of exogenous cultural traits between Spanish and African cultural traditions, which eventually led to the development of new, original syncretic Cuban musical forms.

Early Spanish and African Traditions

The Spanish colonists played traditional music from their homeland. These included Spanish church music genres, such as hymns and villancicos (Christmas carols), but also semi-religious canciones, song genres with religious and pastoral texts, which alternated estribillos (refrains/choruses) and coplas (stanzas/verses). These folk songs were performed for dance and for entertainment, and offered a means of maintaining a connection to Spanish culture and identity. Later, once Cuba had been firmly established and protected as a Spanish possession, colonists from high Spanish society came over to the island and so art music and European ballroom dances became popular in its emerging urban centres. Song forms included the zarzuela, a light operatic song genre from Andalucíafeaturing a distinctive modal I-VII-VI-V progression, while dances featured mainly waltzes, mazurkas, gavottes and minuets and, later, the French contradanza. These were performed as a stimulus for dance and as a form of aesthetic pleasure and entertainment at social events, but they also acted as a signal of class and power, an affirmative symbol of the wealthy, educated elite who ruled the island.

As the colonists imported slaves into Cuba, traditional African musical forms came to the island. The slave trade routes meant that Central African Bantúslaves were mostly transported to the east of Cuba while West African Yorubaslaves were mainly settled in the west. For both groups, music revolved around drumming and dance related to religious worship, including ritualised communication with the spirit realm and spirit possession ceremonies. The Spanish forced all slaves to convert to Roman Catholicism, but they permitted them to maintain their own traditional customs and to run their own cabildos (social associations administering their communities and their cultural and religious practices). The cabildos thus became the site of the first transculturación processes: the transmission of Christian religious beliefs and motifs into African devotional practices. Over time, the Bantú slaves and their descendants, known as Congos, and the Yoruba slaves and their descendants, known as Lucumí, both developed whole new syncretic religions: Palo and Santería. These religions merged Yoruba and Bantú religious sects with Catholic motifs, and both christened their spirit powers, the kimpungulu(Bantú) and the orichas (Yoruba), as corresponding Catholic santos (saints). They also integrated some aspects of Christian worship, such as Catholic liturgical chant, but they both largely maintained their traditional worship customs and, by extension, their religious music practices.

In the east of the island, which became known as the Oriente, the Congos, through their Palo religion, maintained their religious customs, such as the building of pagan prendas (altars) from piles of palos(sticks) as a tribute to nature, and their devotional song, dance and drumming traditions, which involve polyrhythms on single-headed ngóma drums to establish a beat for responsorial song in which the role of gallo(caller) is passed around the gathered community and can take the form of puyas (riddles) as well as singing. These practices praised the mystical power of nature and would also sometimes call on the spirits for advice, blessings or medicine.

Similarly, the Lucumí maintained and adapted their own, totally distinct, religious, cultural and musical practices through the Santería religion in the west of the island.  They reconstructed their holy double-headed hourglass-shaped batá drums (iya ilu, lead ‘Mother’ drum; itotele, middle drum; okonkolo, smallest drum), which they believe to be infused with afia (sacred force) that enables them to communicate with the orichas/santos viatoques (sacred polyrhythmic patterns where each particular pattern is devoted to a specific oricha/santo). The central musical, cultural and religious ritual of Lucumí worship is the bembé (a fiesta for the orichas). It starts with the ‘Oru del Igbodu’, where the bataleros(batá drummers) play the Oru(a liturgical sequence of more than twenty toques), praising each oricha/santo by playing their toque, often accompanied by a specific song and/or dance,in front of their igbodu(spiritual throne). It then often proceeds to the Tamabor(a ‘party’ for the orichas), with wild polyrhythmic drumming from the batalerosalongside other instruments, including chékere(a shaken gourd-based rattle similar to the güiro), yesa (asingle-headed profane drum) and agogo (a metal bell).  These are played in interlocking rhythms, alongside responsorial song and lively dance together with spirit possession practices; thebataleros play a specific toque to call an oricha/santo to ‘mount’ the ori (‘inner essence’) of a santero/a (priest/priestess), who would receive divine blessings, advice and guidance and dance ecstatically under the thrall of the power. In the early days of Santería, the patterns were lexical, reflecting the tonal Yoruba/Lucumí language, meaning the iya and itotele drums could actually  ‘speak’ to each other in a verbal conversación (conversation) and, beyond this, thetoqueswere designed so that the bataleros could actually ‘speak’ with the orichas/santosin a spiritual conversaciónand so essentially perform ‘praise songs’ through their drumming. Now, as the Lucumí language has subsided and knowledge of these specific tonal customs has been lost, the toques, and the conversación with the orichas/santos, is symbolic rather than lexical.

Both the Lucumíand Congos also maintained secular traditions, which became known as fiestas rumbosas(‘festive’ street ‘parties’). The content of these fiestas was diverse, spontaneous and variable: the Lucumí tended to include vocal improvisation, ecstatic and elaborate couple dancing and complex polyrhythmic drumming and cross-rhythmic patterns on cajones(wooden boxes); the Congos tended to focus more on responsorial song forms and simpler interlocking rhythms on ngóma drums, and upbeat walking dances, which tend to accent the fourth beat of the measure, for collective crowd dancing that winds through the streets alongside the marching musicians. In thesefiestas lie the Afro-Cuban prototypes of son and rumba, with their distinctiveclaves son and claves rumba rhythms, as well as the conga dance and the congas drums. For both the Lucumí and Congos, music was essential to religious devotion but, beyond this, the Afro-Cuban traditions, developed in the cabildos and through the new syncretic religions, provided a means of strengthening their communities, reinforcing their cultural norms and preserving their motherland heritage while also adapting to life in their new home.

In the rural countryside of the Oriente, the guajira (the poor white Spaniards who had moved to Cuba from the south of Spain, mainly from Andalucíaand Las Islas Canarias, to work on small tobacco farms) also developed their own new Cuban traditions. Their early music bore some affinities to that of the folk music of the earlier Spanish settlers, and they too sang religious and pastoral canciones, but their traditions were influenced by newer Arabic-infused Andalusian musicsand, as they adapted their form to their new life in Cuba, their texts, soundworld and purposes for music emerged as completely distinct.

Drawing on their Iberian roots, the guajiradeveloped their música campesina (‘country music) called punto guajiro (named after its distinctive guitar/tres punteando (‘picking’) playing style). Its tonadas (melodies) could be libre(‘free’), improvised in unmetered recitative style often with melismatic embellishments, or fijo (‘fixed’), sung in a clear metric patterns using set notes and contours committed to memory; and its coplasfollowed the décima (ten-line stanzas with an espinela (ABBAACCDDC) rhyme scheme) and its lyrics tended to express witty or romanticised reflections on countryside life or wistful professions of love. Its rhythms and modalities are distinctively Andalusian, featuring the sesquiálterarhythm (a polyrhythmic hemiola technique using alternations of 6/8 and 3/4 that create a 3-3-2-2-2 (X..X..X.X.X.) rhythmic beat), as are its harmonies, as with its the Phrygian descending tetrachordal progression Ib-VII-VI-V and its switches from minor to major modes between sections. Its instrumental accompaniment was played with rasgueado (strumming) playing styles on the Spanish guitar or the new Cuban tres (a six-string guitar variant with three courses of two strings traditionally tuned G4, G3, C4, C4, E3/E4, E4).

The most famous composer of guajiramusic was Faustino ‘El Guayabero’ Oramas, whose lyrics were considered scandalous for their sexual innuendos. Puntowas popular at guajiro parties and community events, and the libre style was particularly used in a competitive song practice, the controversia humorística, in which veteran poetic singers would duel in a battle of improvising the most inspiring décimas without mistakes and without repeating the same word twice. This music served as a form of recreation and aesthetic pleasure for individuals and for guajiracommunities, who would not only perform these songs at communal gatherings but would also sing them across the tobacco farms to each other in a responsorial fashion as they worked the fields.

In the urban centres of La Habana and Santiago, European dance traditions evolved into the syncretic Cuban danzón. The ‘contradanza’has a complex history, leading one Cuban musicologist to label its genre sarcastically as anglofrancohispanoafrocubano, so it is worth recognising that there are three distinct lines of danzón that developed in Cuba: the contradanza, a purely European ballroom dance form of English (country dance) and French (contre dance) descent employed by the aristocratic Spanish colonists; the Francophone Haitian contradanzathat, via the tumba francesa (‘French drums’), combined Spanish and Creole French styles with Afro-Cuban rhythms to develop into a different form of danzón in the Oriente; and the contradanzaof the workers’ dance halls inLa Habana that evolved into the habanera (‘Havana Dance’), with its own signature rhythm (X..XX.X.).

The Haitian-derived Creole danzón was significant in that it combined European classical harmony, binary form and graceful movements of ballroom with the cross-rhythms Afro-Cuban percussion instruments, bringing syncopated African-derived rhythms into elite salons of the Oriente for the first time. It also developed the charanga, a new street band ensemble of strings and flutes with claves(hard wood sticks struck against one another), güiroand timbales (pairs of shallow, single-headed drum), that, until the early 20thC, became a standard ensemble for a whole range of Cuban musical performance.

In the West African milieu of the dance halls around La Habana, the contradanza, which the colonists had introduced to some of their slaves to ‘civilise’ their dancing, was creolised into the habanera which maintained its binary form but introduced the tresillo (X..X..X.) syncopation to create the dance’s idiomatic, and world-famous, cross-rhythmic pattern (the bass plays the duple-pulse  ‘habanera’ (X..XX.X.)  against a triple-time tresillo or later cinquillo (X.XX.XX.), pattern in the accompaniment); and the danzón habanera became the national dance of Cuba in the late 19thC. Around the same time, itinerant black and mulattoartisans, based in Santiago in Oriente, developed a vocal tradition, trova, which involved the sentimental performance of poetic song genres like bolero accompanied by guitar. Trovadores could achieve a great deal of fame and recognition with their compositions and performance talents and, as wandering musicians, theyplayed a key role in transculturación by spreading diverse regionalised Hispanic and Afro-Cuban styles around the island.

Rumba in the West, Son in the Oriente

Through transculturación between these diverse constituents (African-derivedtraditions in Matanzas and Havana and Congoguajiraand Haitian tumba francesatraditions in the Oriente), la musica cubana grew as a love affair between Spanish melody and harmony and Afro-Cuban rhythm and refrain. The intricacies of the interactions, exchanges and transmissions are mind-bogglingly complex, but can be generalised into two main strands: rumba in the West and son in the Oriente. In a sense, both rumba and son could be accused of being catch-all terms for an enormous diversity of active traditions in these regions, but, as long as they are understood as musical and cultural ‘complexes’, as crossroads that symbolise the process of transculturación and the common creativities it fosters between these traditions, they can be very useful in conceptualising the distinct strands of Cuban music that rose to prominence in the late 19th-mid 20thC.

The precise origins of rumba (possibly from Spanish rumbo, ‘uproar’, or Afro-Cuban tumba, ‘party’) are highly contested. Those who believe that rumba is tantamount to African rhythm hold that the secular street festivities, like those of the Lucumíthat had been present since the early days of Cuban slavery, constituted a form of rumba (N.B. rumba should not be confused with the US rhumba (1930s), which fused American big band jazzwith Afro-Cuban rhythms and, despite its name, actually mainly drew on rhythms associated with son cubano (see below)rather than rumba as those of the latter were generally considered overly complex and syncopated for purposes of ballroom dance). Others believe that rumba only truly emerged when African slaves became the urban working class in urban Matanzas and La Habana. This ambiguity reflects the looseness of rumba itself in its early days, which, in a sense, simply referred to the presence of Afro-Cuban dance, rhythm and song in a festive atmosphere; the specifics of style depended on the music and dance traditions of those who came to the collective ‘party’. In the late 19thC, after the emancipation of slaves (1886), free black and mulatto Cubans started to move from the plantations and the baracones (slave barracks) all over the island into the central urban cities including Matanzas and, especially, La Habana. In the barrios, like the famously musical Pueblo Nuevo and Cayo Hueso neighbourhoods, Afro-Cuban forms mingled together and, over time, rumba started to formalise into a triad of distinct dance and rhythmic styles: guaguancó, a fast couple dance (key rhythm: X..X…X..X.X…); yambú, a slow couple dance (X..XX..XX.X.X…); and columbia, a fast male dance (X.X.XX.X.X.X).

Theguaguancó is the most popular and influential of the three. Choreographically, it uses semi-improvisatory routines with stylised movements that revolve around a sexual interplay and competition between male vacunao (‘injection’; seductive elaborate gestures often involving complex rhythmic syncopations and body isolations culminating in the thrusting of the hips) and female botao (‘blocking’; seductive rotation of the body and hips but the routine covering of the groin with the hand or skirt, symbolically blocking the vacunao), where the woman usually ends rejecting the man’s advances. Its standard ensemble emerged as gallo (lead singer) and coro (chorus), with congas (trio of barrel-shaped drums: salidor, tres-dosand quinto) and claves together with other percussion instruments. It features responsorial singing with vocal improvisation in the diana (opening section) followed by alternation between versos (sung in harmony by gallo and coro, with vocal flourishes between lines from the gallo), estribillos (a specific form of call and response involving an improvised call from the gallo which is taken as a repeating refrain for the coro against which the gallo improvises interjections) and instrumental solos. The yambú is similar, but is slower, more subdued and less explicitly sensual, and the columbia uses ornate melismatic vocal improvisations, drawn from Arabic tradition via Andalusianinfluences brought by the guajiro, and, as such, extends the diana(known as llorao in columbia) into a long opening vocal gambit.

The guaguancópopularised the so-called rumba clave rhythm (a cross-rhythmic two-measure (2/4) reversible ostinato pattern featuring a tresillo followed by two beats), which became pervasive not just inrumba itself, but in a huge variety of subsequent Cuban popular music styles (it is often referred to as the ‘heartbeat’ of all Cuban music). The rhythm is a fascinating lesson in the migration of cultures and overlapping histories because both Afro-Cubans and Hispanic Cubans often claim ownership of it and, in a sense, the evidence suggests that they both have a good claim: the roots of the rhythm lie in the traditional musics of Sub-Saharan Africa, from where it travelled both to the Yoruba and the Bantú in West Africa and also to the Spanish via the Moors in Iberia; thus, it is possible that it came to Cuba either (or indeed both)through the Andalusian-derived music of the guajira and the African-derived traditions of the Lucumíand the Congos. It is perhaps pre-existing affinities between Spanish and African music traditions like these that made the process of transculturación in Cuba so compelling and embedded a capacity to produce syncretic styles of music that appealed to Cubans of all different heritages.

While rumba galvanised in the west, son cubano (‘Cuban rhythm’), the prodigal son of transculturación, rose in the Orienteas the popular song and dance genre that most intimately married the music traditions of the African plantation slaves and the Spanish guajiro. The prototypal form of son is often identified as changüí, which referred to both the name of the ‘party’ where the music was played and the music itself. Changüímusic is based on formalised versions of the Congo music traditions that would have been found at their street parties, featuring syncopated polyrhythms and a range of percussive instruments held together by the claves, but also infused these with punto influences, including canción song structures, tonadas procedures, harmonic progressions and accompaniment on the guitar/tres. One of the characteristic features of changüí is the guajeos tres playing, which combines guajiro-style melodies utilised within a Congo-style syncopated framework.

Son is a rather loose style and its unifying quality is often described as an idiomatic ‘mood’ or ‘feel’ that is relaxed, sultry and sentimental. This comes from: its melodic lyricism, its melodic, rhythmic and verbal improvisation and its romantic poetry; the use of call-and-response singing between a soloist and chorus; the use of syncopated rhythms on the guitar/tres and cross-rhythmic patterns on Afro-Cuban percussion (originally, marímbula(a plucked African-derived keyed instrument), botija (water jug) and claves and, latterly, more often congas,claves, güiro, guayo(a metal scraper) and maracas); and the idiomatic  syncopated rhythmic ‘push’ from the anticipated bass that enters in advance of the expected downbeat. Its rhythms are underpinned by the son clave rhythm, which is similar to the guaguancó clave rhythm but involves an earlier placement of the third beat of the tresillo which softens the syncopation, and its larger rhythmic texture is generally notably less complex and densely polyphonic than rumba. It often features a Phrygian descending tetrachordal progression (Ib-VII-VI-V), although it included a vast range of metric, rhythmic and harmonic frameworks beyond these. Son is rather loose in style: it can range from romantic love professions, to spiritual songs, to upbeat dance jams, and it includes a whole range of subgenres such as guajiro son, which foregrounds punto influences like pastoral poetry and straight guitar/tres accompaniment, and montuno son, which places greater emphasis on the Afro-Cuban interplay of soloist and chorus in responsorial singing. It became the quintessential music of the melting pot of the Oriente and, now, it is often described as the ‘soul’ of the nation.

Music of the Revolution

Rumba and son dominated Cuban musical life during the late 19thC-early 20thC, especially in the cities of La Habana and Santiago where (as the saying goes) ‘they played rumba and son and son and rumba – in that order’. In the 1920s and 1930s, son entered its ‘golden age’, during which it became pervasive across the island and groups like Trío Matamoros, Septeto Nacional, Orquesta Aragón, Orquesta Ritmo Oriental, Orquesta Original de Manzanillo and the all-female Anacaona, achieved nationwide fame. The ensemble typical of the modern son sound emerged in this period in the form of the septeto: an ensemble setup of sonero/a (solo improvisor) and coro (chorus) singers, trumpet or flute, guitar, tres, trumpet or flute,marímbula, bass, maracas and congasor bongos; in the latter decade, the trumpet really came to prominence as a virtuoso solo instrument. Trova practices actually cultivated many of the musicians who took part in this for son, including Compay Segundo.

Yet, in many respects, these music traditions lived dual lives: they continued as community music, as folk music, for the poor guajirain the Oriente and the deprived black and mulatto workers in the urbanbarrios, but, at the same time, they served as entertainment and recreational dance for audiences on the stages of music clubs like La Tropicana and the Buena Vista Social Club. Closer relations between Cuba and the US in the 1920s sowed the seeds of a musical revolution in both countries: in Cuba, sonbecame increasingly influenced by US jazz music, itself a syncretic tradition integrating West African, Western, African-American, Jewish and other musical influences; and, in the US, rumbastarted to gain some following amongst dancers and dance music aficionados. In the 1930s, ‘Latin jazz’ was pioneered by leading Cuban son ensembles in La Habanaand picked up by American jazz stars like Dizzy Gillespie; son became incredibly popular throughout Latin America thanks to touring Cuban musicians like Beny Moré, the effects of which are still clear in the dominance of son across South America today; son conjunto emerged as a new son ensemble pioneered by Arsenio Rodriguez that combined vocals, piano, guitar/tres, trumpets and other brass (e.g. horns), bongos and congas, creating a greater emphasis on brass and drum timbres and playing a fusion of various Afro-Cuban dances with clear influences from Latin jazz; rumba was staged in simplified form as rhumba on Broadway, after which it became a nationwide music craze in the US, as did the Conga dance through groups like the Lecuona Cuban Boys and Desi Arnaz; and the habanera evolved into guaracha, a musical style played by charanga bands like Arcano y sus Maravillos and Charanga Habanera, that constituted a fusion of the habanera with the energetic son montuno, Haitian musical traditions and other Latin musical forms. Sustained musical exchange then led to new forms of son and danzón in Cuba: changüí re-emerged through groups like Los Dan Den and especially musician Elio Revé with a new contemporary feel that combined fast and percussive rhythms with new jazz and popular music trends; mambo, an upbeat instrumental dance music form, initiated by Orestes ‘Cachao’ Lopez and popularised by the likes of Perez Prado, combining son-style call-and-response for its ‘verses’, the rumba-styleestribillo responsorial for its ‘refrain’ and the straight vamping of the danzónfor its ‘interlude’, all played by woodwind and bass instruments with lush jazz harmonies; and chachachá, which sped up the danzón, developed its own distinctive rhythmic motif (X.XXX.X.) as the habanera had done before it, added bouncier dance choreography and initiated a new form of extended call-and-response reimagined with the solo verse as the call and the entire chorus as response. In a sense, the mambo and chachachárepresent the gradual Westernisation of Cuban traditional music, which replaced an emphasis on complex African-derived rhythms and communal music with a greater emphasis on melody, harmony and virtuoso individual performance, but they nevertheless maintained trademark elements of Afro-Cuban rhythm and syncopation. Once established in Cuba, they both became highly popular in the US, leading to the famous ‘mambo craze’ in the late 1940s, the establishment of chachacháas a cornerstone of US Latin dance in the 1950s, and the development of Cuban-style big band music led by musicians including Beny Moré and Chico O’Farrill. Cuban music was pervasive up and down the East Coast of the US; and evenguajira music became famous through Pete Seeger’s cover of the classic ‘Guantanamera’.

However, musical revolution gave way to political revolution and, once the Communist state had been established (1959) and the US embargo had set in (1961), Cuban music changed direction dramatically. Fearing the collapse of the commercial music industry, many of the ‘greats’ of the ‘golden age’ of sonleft Cuba for Puerto Rico, Miami and New York as refugees. However, Castro’s Communist government invested heavily in the arts through the Ministry of Culture at both grassroots and elite levels, granting musicians a full state salary on graduating from music school; though the ministry would take 90% of any further income gained by the musicians, meaning that becoming a rich ‘star’ was now impossible. While some of those used to fame and fortune left for the USA after a few years of Communist rule, including Latin jazz stars Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera, its nationalised arts model nevertheless sustained a thriving popular music scene, supported a renaissance in traditional musics and also cultivated ‘high art’ performance in Cuba, most notably in the form of distinguished ballet and modern dance performers. Trovadores like Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanés started to develop explicitly political songs that exulted leftist ideals, drawing, for example, on the writings of José Martí; and this movement became known as nueva trova. In line with the Communist emphasis on racial equality, Afro-Cuban traditional musics became very popular nationally. The state promoted rumba in particular as symbolic of the music of universal, proletarian Cubanidad (Cubanness), maintaining that ‘without Cuba, there is no rumbaand,without rumba there is no Cuba’. It set up conjuntos nationales (national mixed race folk ensembles) that played rumbain the public spaces of the cities in a style that moved away from the ‘Westernisation’ of the previous decades towards a ‘re-indigenisation’ of it through a greater emphasis on complex African-derived rhythms like the guaguancó and expanded drum and percussion sections. Their legacy endures today with the spectacular rumba gatherings that now occur in La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) on Callejón de Hamel on Sundays.

In recent years, it has become clear that black Cubans themselves had mixed opinions on these policies: on the one hand, they brought Afro-Cuban music to the fore in Cuba and halted a path that could well have led Afro-Cuban music into a highly Americanised milieu; on the other, this, in a sense, constituted the appropriation of Afro-Cuban music as a national form, detaching it from its embedded community contexts that had managed to co-exist alongside the more Westernised forms, and, in trying to achieve racial colour blindness, the state would not tolerate institutions that specifically served black communities and, as  it stripped these away, it threatened black musical traditions and left deprived black communities in some ways even more (culturally) marginalised than before at ground level.

In the USA in the 1960s, Cuban music fell out of favour from its earlier fervour due to the tense relations between the two countries. However, in the 1970s, it rose from the ashes as Cuban refugees started to gain musical presence and recognition and through the creation of a marketing ‘power word’: salsa. Exploding in New York City, salsa branded Cuban dance music as ‘hot’, ‘spicy’, ‘up-tempo’ and ‘uplifting’, and it encouraged stylistic fusions between the array of Afro-Cuban musical traditions and other Latin American dance music influences, notably from Puerto Rican bomba. It also devised a formalised dance approach for Cuban dance styles, including standardised movements, choreography and routines. Nuyoricans (Puerto Ricans in the USA, especially New York City) like Ray Barreto and Tito Puente galvanised the salsamusic movement in the USA, and it went on to produce stars like Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan who, today, represent ‘Cuban’ music to the world as much as most Cuban musicians themselves. Indeed, in later years when Cuba started to open up again, Cuban musicians playing in the burgeoning tourism industry adopted the term in the form of ‘Cuban salsa’ as a way of symbolising their vast array of different Cuban styles, including son, rumba, guajira, guaracha, mambo, chachachá and others, all of which of course predated the salsa label. They also labelled their spontaneous and improvisatory approach to dancing to styles like sonas ‘Cuban salsa’ as a way of linking it to, and yet differentiating it from, the prescribed New York dance style.

Since the 1970s, in Cuba itself, traditional and popular music has been through waves of fusion and nostalgia. Songo, popularised by the group Los Van Van, developed in La Habana as a combination of Afro-Cuban dance styles with American rock and jazz and Latin, especially Afro-Brazilian, dance styles, and its ensemble is essentially an electrified charanga.Novísima trova, which took off in the hard times after the fall of the Soviet Union,emerged as a generation of new songwriters who started to criticise aspects of the Revolution and voice comment on modern society, often subtly and metaphorically drawing attention to gap between the principles of socialismo and its realities in Castro’s state. Son experienced a surging revival in the 1990s-2000s with reunions of groups like Septeto Nacional and Sierra Maestra and the revival efforts of musicians like Eliades Ochoa. Along with other traditional Cuban genres, son achieved international fame in ‘World Music’ through the Buena Vista Social Club album (1997) and film (1999), which involved a collaboration between American guitarist Ry Cooder and veteran Cuban musicianslike Juan de Marcos González, Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Manuel ‘Guajiro’ Mirabal, Rubén González and, later, the prolific Omara Portuondo. Timba, pioneered by groups like NG La Banda, Orishas and Son 14,arose as a fusion of Afro-Cuban music with the African-American forms like hip-hop and funk and other Afro-Caribbean forms like reggae and dancehall, and focuses on black Cuban ‘street’ experiences.  The state reacted ambiguously to this, on the one hand founding the Cuban Rap Agency to support it and, on the other, promulgating ‘moral panic’ and economically censoring emerging musicians if they were too outspoken about issues like racial discrimination; it has, nevertheless, reinstated a uniquely and proudly black Cuban identity. In a sense, Cuban music since the Revolution has continued to narrate the story of Spanish and African fusion, harbouring the spirit of transculturación: always adapting, always infusing and always changing.

James Nissen (The University of Manchester), April 2017

Sources & Reading Suggestions

Los 100 Sones Cubanos [Documentary Film] (2010).

Buena Vista Social Club [Documentary Film] (ICAIC, 1999).

In Cuba [Radio Broadcast] (BBC, 2008).

‘Musical Atlas of Cuban Music’, PBS Online, <>.

Nosotros la música [Documentary Film] (ICAIC, 1964).

Roots of Rhythm [Documentary Film] (CRC Inc, 1984).

Under the Radar: A Survey of Afro-Cuban Music [Documentary Film] (Black Fire Music, 2009).

Amira, John and Steven Cornelius, The Music of Santería: Traditional Rhythms of the Batá Drums (Reno: White Cliffs, 1999).

Aveling, Marisa, ‘Rhythm in Your Blood: Meet the Young Artists Keeping Cuba’s Traditional Music Alive’, Pitchfork, 13 June 2016, <>.

Baker, Geoffrey, Buena Vista in the Club: Rap, Reggaeton, and Revolution in Havana(Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

Barton, Laura, ‘Buena Vista Social Club: the legends look back’, The Guardian Online, 22 March 2015, <>.

Béhague, Gerard and Robin Moore, ‘Cuba’, Grove Music Online, 2013, <>.

Boggs, Vernon, Salsiology: Afro-Cuban Music and the Evolution of Salsa in New York City(New York: Greenwood Press, 1992).

Carpentier, Alejo, Music in Cuba(Minneapolis: University of Minnesot Press, 2001).

Courlander, Harold, ‘Cult Music of Cuba’, Smithsonian Folkways Online, 1951, <>.

Daniel, Yvonne, Rumba: Dance and Social Change in Contemporary Cuba(Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995).

Fairley, Jan, ‘Cuba’, in Simon Broughton, Mark Ellington and John Lusk (eds.), The Rough Guide to World Music (London: Rough Guides, 2000).

Farr, Jory, Rites of Rhythm: The Music of Cuba (New York: Regan Books, 2003).

Henken, Ted, Cuba: A Global Studies Handbook (Santa Barbara: ABC, 2008).

López, Victor, ‘Latin Rhythms: Mystery Unravelled’,Conference Paper, 2005.

Knight, Franklin and Sandra Levinson, ‘Cuba’, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 2016, <>.

Manuel, Peter (ed.), Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae (Philadelphia: Temple, 2016).

Mick Winter, Cuba for the Misinformed (Napa: Westsong, 2013).

Moore, Robin, Music and Revolution: Cultural Change in Socialist Cuba(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

Moore, Robin, Nationalizing Blackness: Afrocubanismo and Artistic Revolution in Havana, 1925–40 (Philadelphia: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997).

Morah, Moshe, Fiesta de Diez Pesos: Music and Gay Identity in Special Period Cuba (London: Routledge, 2016).

Orovio, Helio, Cuban Music from A to Z (Durham, Duke University Press, 2004).

Ortiz, Fernando, Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, trans. Harriet de Onís(Durham: Duke University Press, 1995).

Pareles, Jon, ‘Rumba, the Heartbeat of Cuban Music’, The New York TimesOnline, 11 June 2000, <>.

Peñalosa, David and Peter Greenwood, The Clave Matrix: Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins (Redway, Bembe Books, 2012).

Perna, Vincenzo, Timba: the Sound of Cuban Crisis(Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).

Ramone, Jenni, ‘Education and Art for All: Castro’s Cultural Legacy’, The Conversation, 29 November 2016, <>.

Rodriguez, Olavo, ‘Cuba’, in Bruno Nettl et al., The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music (London: Garland, 1998).

Roy, Maya, Cuban Music: From Son and Rumba to the Buena Vista Social Club and Son Cubana (Princeton: Markus Weiner, 2002).

Santos, John, ‘Music of Cuba’, Smithsonian Folkways Online, 1985, <>.

Sublette, Ned, Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo(Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004).

Sweeney, Philip, The Rouge Guide to Cuban Music (London: Rough Guide, 2001).

Voss, Michael, ‘Buena Vista Social Club: Cuban Band or Brand?’, BBC News Online, 25 February 2010, <>.

Sources of Images

Header image: Flickr

Map of Cuba: Britannica

Slavery in Cuba: Discovery Education

José Martí: O R Alvarez, Havana Times

Havana: Charlotte Nissen (2017)

Shrine, Trinidad, Cuba: Charlotte Nissen (2017)

Batá drums:

Lucumí rituals Bembé: Kenneth Schweitzer,

Cajon instrument: Manley Lopez

El Guayabero: Montuno Cubano


Pepe Sánchez: Mi País

Cuban rumba: YouTube

Grupo Changüí Guantánamo 1962: Centro Inciarte Archive

Anacaona:Montuno Cubano

Beny Moré: Latin Pulse Music

NYC mural in memory of Celia Cruz: City Tech OpenLab

Buena Vista Social Club: Buena Vista Social Club

The Buena Vista Social Club, Havana (2017): James Nissen (2017)

Trovador cubano Raúl Torres, Corner, Havana (2017): James Nissen (2017)