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Basic guide to the DNA of salsa, mambo and other Cuban music genres

What is Cuba’s national dance? What are the sources of mambo and salsa? Where does Cuba’s musical richness come from? In this post we’ll answer these and other questions. We’ll talk about the origins of music in Cuba and of the generic cores from which most of its rhythms originate; rumba, mambo, salsa and others. I’ll now start playing a few tracks on my gramophone so that they shed light into Cuba’ s music story and so that you get to know and fully enjoy the island’s wide variety of sounds.

Basic guide to the DNA of salsa, mambo and other Cuban music genres

Where does the island’s diverse sonority come from? How many authentic national rhythms are there? Why; as we Cubans like to say, can a musician in Cuba be found by just turning over a stone? In order to answer these questions, we’ll have to take a quick look at Cuba’s musical history.

The origin of it all

Cuba wouldn’t have its music nor its culture, without the influence of the men and women who were forced to migrate to the island as slaves between the 16th and 19th centuries. Having been uprooted from their original cultures and regions in Africa’s west coast, from the Gulf of Guinea to the current Angola; the slaves brought their memories as their only luggage. And through these they conveyed the sounds of their music and the memories of their ancestors and deities. The mix of the colonised African with the Spanish coloniser, was the element that slowly created a creole culture, a hybrid that would later be enriched by successive migrations from France, China and neighbouring Caribbean countries like Haiti and Jamaica.

Throughout time, Cuban composers have bred a unique sensitivity for music. They’ve done so from the very first stages of a native sonority in the now distant 18th century, to our music’s spectacular irruption worldwide in the 1920s, thanks to the magic of the radio and the cinema. The secret to its success lies in the blending of melodies and harmonies of Hispanic and European origin with the African percussion of "Yoruban", "Bantu", "Carabali" and "Arara" origin. Today we can state that the heart, the key, or the soul of Cuban music, lies in the combination of these ingredients.

Olavo Alén; a great Cuban music historian, defined the five generic cores (magical relics like Harry Potter’s) of Cuban music. These are; rumba, cancion (song), danzon, punto guajiro and obviously; son.

Oh - you’ll surely say – but what happened to mambo and salsa?” And yes; they are our treasures too, probably the most internationally known in our music scene, but as you’ll read later on, both genres are actually an offspring of the five generic cores which Olavo Alén coined.

Son; the wise grandfather of our popular music

Son was created in the late 18th century by people dwelling in the mountains of the "Sierra Maestra"; the same place where the best Cuban coffee is grown. It’s related to less known genres like "nangon" and "changui".

With a “tres” guitar (a three double-string guitar invented in Cuba) at its core, a "bongo drum", "maracas" and "claves" (a percussion instrument consisting of two short sticks knocked against each other); the cheerful son, conveyed Cuban’s joviality, sense of humour and zest for life; but also their frustrations. Later on, the "soneros" (musicians who played son), incorporated other instruments such as the double bass and the trumpet, both of these rendering greater dynamism to this music genre, conceived for dancing.

Some classical sones (son in plural) like “Son de la Loma” ("Son of the Hill”), “El que Siembra su Maíz” (“He Who Plants his Corn”) and “Lagrimas negras” (“Black Tears”); are the ones you’ll hear more often, included in the repertoire of most popular music performers. If you happen to visit cities like Sancti Spiritus or Santiago de Cuba, you must, please; leave a night free to go to the "Casas de la Trova". In them, you’ll get to listen to musicians whose special mission on earth is to interpret the best of sones.

And likewise, if you wish to take a bit of this music home with you, you’ll have no trouble finding CDs of son stars such as "Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro", "Septeto Santiaguero" or the famous interpreter Eliades Ochoa.

The rumba breaks out in the tenement, in the middle of the street…

While "son" is evocative of the Cuban’s character, the "rumba" is considered the expression of the Cuban people’s soul. Created in the 19th century, within the peripheral marginal vicinities of Havana and Matanzas; the rumba stands as the secular expression of the religious drum beatings in which Afro-Cubans celebrate and worship their deities. The "rumba", like son; voices the Cubans’ way of life, their attitudes, customs and beliefs; but with a degree of passion, spirituality and melancholy that no other genre can match. I can assure you that you’ll be surprised by the histrionic capability and the corporal sensuality of its dancers.

In Havana’s municipality of "Centro Habana", very near the multiplex on busy Infanta St., you’ll find "El Palacio de la Rumba" (The Rumba Palace), where you can learn about the genre’s different variants; the "yambu", "columbia", and "guaguanco". If you ask me who are my favourite "rumberos" (rumba performers), I’ll say "Yoruba Andabo", from Havana, "Los Muñequitos de Matanzas", and "Rumbata", from Camagüey. You can catch a live performance from "Yoruba Andabo" in either of Havana’s Casas de la Musica (they often perform there twice-weekly but you can check which days and at what time at suenacubano.com/cartelera/) while the same applies for Matanzas and Camaguey’s Casas de la Musica, respectively. Make sure to check the schedule ahead to catch a live rumba rendition.

How a classy dance; the danzón, gave birth to a wild one; the mambo

As a result of the Haitian revolution of the late 1700s, many French colonists disembarked on the Cuban eastern coast. They not only brought the few slaves they were able to keep by force, but also their taste at leading refined lives. Among their preferred rhythms, was the French contredanse dance, which after a series of crossbreeding with dances from that Cuban area, gave birth to the elegant and stylish "danzon"; largely regarded as Cuba’s national dance.

As a genre, "danzon" birthed two more daring and spectacular musical forms. One of them is the cha-cha-cha, which in the midst of the 20th century put the world to dance with songs like “El bodeguero” (“The shopkeeper”). This musical form was famously performed by the legendary and still active Aragon Orchestra.

The other one is "mambo". Its name, translated from Congo’s Bantu languages means “conversation with the gods” and that’s exactly what the López brothers; Israel “Cachao” and Orestes tried to do when in the 1930s, as members of the "Arcaño y sus Maravillas Orchestra", they hastened the pace while playing "danzones" (danzon in plural), by introducing a syncopation in the percussion.

Other important contributions to what we now know as "mambo", were made by Arsenio Rodriguez; “el ciego maravilloso” (“the wondrous blind man”) who added "tumbadoras" (large conga drums), a piano and another trumpet to his style of playing son. Damaso Perez Prado contributed by adding saxophones and trombones, furnishing the "mambo" interpretation with that delirious wild spirit typical of a jazz band.

And even though there’s no current Cuban orchestra solely dedicated to playing "mambo", the island does have spectacular groups and orchestras like NG La Banda, "Interactivo and Havana d’ Primera", who include the genre’s expressive resources in their music.

The less known music style; countryside controversies

Countryside music in Cuba is a direct inheritance of the popular Hispanic song. The "punto guajiro" and the "guateques" (countryside parties), are one of Cuban music’s most unexplored areas; but their elegance and uniqueness may fascinate you.

You have to listen to the great Celina Gonzalez singing “Que viva Chango” (“Long Live Chango”; Chango being a god in the Yoruban religion) or “Yo Soy el Punto Cubano” (“I’m the Cuban Punto Guajiro”), to know what I mean. Celina Gonzalez; now deceased, remains this music genre’s undisputed queen. In the 1950s, she brought out the countryside music from its intimate space within the "bohio" (typical dirt-floor countryside dwelling), and make it public through radio and TV.

It’d be great for you to go to the "Centro Iberoamericano de la Decima y el Verso Improvisado" (Latin American Centre for the Ten-Line Stanza and the Improvised Verse) on A street between 25th and 27th streets in Havana’s Vedado vicinity. There; you’ll enjoy the countryside poets’ amusing song controversies (in which two singers tease each other and compete with witty lyrics to ridicule their opponent) and sight-reading sessions.

The timba (or salsa); the prodigal daughter

Having a wise grandfather like "son", and a wild father like "mambo"; the "salsa", which in Cuba we also call "timba", is the genre that best defines the mixture and crossbreeding in Cuban popular music. It’s as if Harry Potter had transformed all his relics in a super-powerful one.

Displaying a strong rhythmic base, always keeping in mind the demanding dancers’ corporal needs; "timba", literally exploded in Cuba in the early 1990s through fine interpreters like NG La Banda, Issac Delgado and Juan Formell y los Van Van; all of them Grammy winners.

During an interview, founder of Los Van Van, Juan Formell was asked if his orchestra played salsa. His answer was:

“No; my orchestra plays timba.”

He went on to explain that "salsa" was a concept invented in New York with the purpose of providing the market with a light "son", commercial and slow; focused more on the romanticism of its lyrics, than on the musical potential of its rhythms.

That’s why Cuban musicians prefer "timba", which in Cuba, by the way, also gives name to a delicious dessert made of guava and cheese. If you like "timba"; (the music style, not the desert), then you have to visit places like "La Tropical" and the "Casas de la Musica of Galiano" and Miramar If you want to listen to the strong beats of "timba" from home, CDs like NG la Banda’s “Echale Limon” (“Add Lemon to It”); Issac Delgado’s “Dando la hora”, (“Always in Time”); and Los Van Van, “Llego Van Van” (“Van Van’s Here!”), are a good place to start.

The trademarks of our music; the voices and the songs

We can proudly state that there are many ways to create songs in Cuba and that each of them demands a specific singing technique. "Son" and "rumba" are merely two examples because we also have "boleros", "habaneras", "zarzuelas", "guajiras", "congas", "guarachas", and troubadour music songs among others. Most of these musical forms emerged in the 19th century and today make up a wide range of musical possibilities, whether they classify as music to dance to or concert music.

My recommendations list would be too long. Thus, I’ll suggest three unforgettable performers; who we Cubans revere as gods; Benny More, Elena Burke and Bola de Nieve (born Ignacio Jacinto Villa Fernandez but known as Bola de Nieve, which means snowball). You’ll find these and other singers’ CDs in every Artex and Egrem CD store throughout the island.

Wise Cuban musicologist Fernando Ortiz once said:

“We Cubans with our music, have exported more fantasies and delights than with our tobacco and more sweetness and energy than with our sugar.”

And yes, each and every one of these music genres will make your trip much more enriching, and will pack your luggage with unforgettable melodies to which, no doubt, you´ll try to come back to over and over again.

Marcel Lueiro

Marcel Lueiro

Gramophone Operator

As if he were standing in front of a gramophone in an old bar in Havana, Marcel Lueiro uncovers and...

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