Discovering the roots of Cuban music - a history of its diverse genres

Music is a fundamental part of Cuban identity. Its richness and variety have made the island renowned on an international scale. From the relentless African beats of rumba and the catchy rhythms of salsa to the earthy vibes of "Musica Campesina" and the soft sounds of bolero, the island's musical genres have the capacity of making eager listeners vibrate with excitement.

Discovering the roots of Cuban music - a history of its diverse genres

Passion for music is an innate quality for Cuban people. Mind, body and soul are in tune when dancing to the island’s buzzing timba rhythms or singing along to a melancholic bolero tune. The nation’s music reflects the joyful, open and warm nature of its population as well as its marked miscegenation. This is why discovering Cuba’s music is a fantastic way of learning more about the country’s cultural essence and gaining true insight into what makes locals tick.

Cuba’s musical roots stem from its cultural blend. Due to the syncretic nature of most of its genres, Cuban music is often considered one of the richest and most influential regional productions of the world. The mix of West African beats with Spanish melodies resulted in the development of rich musical styles, that were later also influenced by countries like France, the United States and Jamaica. The island’s musicians are prolific creators and the country has contributed to the international music scene with over 25 authentic genres.

Those who are eager to immerse themselves in the vastness of Cuba’s rhythms can read on and gain some insight into the history and evolution of its main genres. Moreover, if you are a music lover planning to travel the island in the future, you will be able to find out more about where to experience buzzing music performances live.

Origins of music innovation in the island

Fernando Ortiz, a Cuban folklorist, described the island’s musical innovations as arising from the interplay between African slaves settled on large sugar plantations and Spanish or Canary Islanders who grew tobacco on small farms. The African slaves and their descendants reconstructed large numbers of percussive instruments and corresponding rhythms; the clave, the congas and bata drum being the most important.

Although timelines are somewhat imprecise on when exactly musical genres first appeared, the most important ones developed through the 19th and 20th centuries; some of which are either still very popular today or have been used as the base of modern beats.

Punto guajiro – Cuba’s country music

Cuba’s musica campesina is the rural form of improvised music. Also named “punto guajiro”, these melodies are usually led by a 12-string guitar called “tres”, known for its distinctive tuning. Singers who improvise the lyrics (repentistas) compose rhymes in ten-syllable verses (decimas) that usually refer to love, friendship and country life. The original guajira was earthy, strident rural acoustic music. It appeared in the earthly 20th century possibly related to Puerto Rican jibaro.

Punto guajiro is an important part of Cuba’s rural identity and is very popular in the countryside. If your itinerary to Cuba includes a stop at a local farmhouse, don’t miss out on the opportunity of requesting a song to repentistas.

Flavourful percussion rooted in Africa - rumba

The large population of African slaves, who brought their culture and traditions with them to the island, greatly influenced Cuba’s music. Rumba originated in the northern regions of Cuba, mainly in urban Havana and Matanzas, during the late 19th century. This genre involves dance, percussion, and song.

Traditionally performed by poor workers of African descent in streets and solares (courtyards), rumba remains one of Cuba's most characteristic forms of music and dance. Vocal improvisation, elaborate dancing and polyrhythmic drumming are the key components of all rumba styles. Cajones (wooden boxes) were used as drums until the early 20th century, when they were replaced by tumbadoras (conga drums).

During the genre's recorded history, there have been numerous successful rumba bands such as Los Papines and Los Munequitos de Matanzas. This genre’s legacy has reached well beyond the island. In the United States, it gave its name to the so-called "ballroom rumba" or rhumba, while its influence in Spain is testified by rumba flamenca and derivatives such as Catalan rumba.

With religious roots in Cuba’s Santeria, the best place to listen to authentic rumba could be receiving an invitation from a local to a “toque de santo”, a religious celebration where believers play rumba music and dance guaguanco.

European heritage of ballroom dance - danzon

The European influence on Cuba's later musical development is most influentially represented by danzon, which is an elegant dance and rhythms that became established in Cuba before it was exported to popular acclaim throughout Latin America. Its roots lay in European ballroom dances like the English country dance, French contredanse and Spanish contradanza.

Danzon developed in the 1870s in the region of Matanzas, where African culture remained strong. It had developed in full by 1879. Played by “orquesta tipica”, an informal military marching band, danzons incorporated African elements, and were played by artists like Miguel Failde, who added elements from the French contredanse.

Though this genre is past its heyday, there are still local bands that fight to keep it alive. La Moderna Tradicion is Cuba’s most famous danzon orchestra. If they are not performing on the island, they could be travelling near you as the band is internationally renowned and has played at prestigious venues like the Lincoln Centre in New York.

Son – the base of Cuba’s modern music

A major genre of Cuban music, son has helped lay the foundation for most of what came after. It arose in the eastern part of the island, among Spanish-descended farmers, and is thought to have been derived from changui, which also merged the Spanish guitar and African rhythms and to which son is closely related.

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.

After son music made it to Havana in the 1920s due to the efforts of legendary groups like Trio Matamoros, the genre was urbanised with trumpets and other new instruments, leading to its tremendous influence on later forms of Cuban music.

Cuban music starts travelling the world – new genres: mambo, cha-cha, conga and Latin jazz

In the 1930s, Cuban musicians began travelling the world and so did new genres like son, mambo, cha-cha, and conga.

Mambo first entered the United States in the early 40s. The first mambo, "Mambo" by Orestes "Cachao" Lopez, was written in 1938. Five years later, Perez Prado introduced the dance to the audience at the legendary Tropicana nightclub in Havana. Mambo was distinguished from its immediate predecessor, danzon, by elements of son montuno and jazz. By 1947, mambo was wildly popular in the US, as well as its dance accentuating the movement of legs and shoulders.

The cha-cha-cha or simply cha-cha was introduced by Cuban composer and violinist Enrique Jorrin in the early 1950's. To make his music more appealing to dancers, Jorrin began composing songs where the melody was marked strongly on the first downbeat and the rhythm was less syncopated. When Orquesta America performed the new pieces at the Silver Star Club in Havana, it was noticed that the dancers had improvised a triple step in their footwork producing the sound "cha-cha-cha".

In the case of conga, the genre existed since the 19th century but only became widely popular in the early 20th century thanks to artists such as Eliseo Grenet. Congas are played by Cuban comparsas, large ensembles of musicians, singers and dancers with a specific costume and choreography which perform in the street carnivals of Santiago de Cuba and Havana. Congas in Havana differ from those of Santiago in many aspects including the use of Chinese cornet in this last case.

Though these genres are today considered “traditional” Cuban music (meaning it’s not the kind of music you will heart at a night club), there are plenty of local bands that play these rhythms through the busy streets and bustling cafes of Old Havana and the tourism hotspots of all other Cuban cities.

Finally, Cuba’s contribution to jazz is also a highlight of this period. Taking its earliest form in Afro-Cuban jazz, Latin jazz mixes Afro-Cuban clave-based rhythms with jazz harmonies and techniques of improvisation. It first emerged in the early 1940s with the Cuban musicians Mario Bauza and Frank Grillo "Machito" in the band Machito and his Afro-Cubans, based in New York City. In 1947 the collaborations of bebop innovator Dizzy Gillespie with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo brought Afro-Cuban rhythms and instruments, most notably the tumbadora and the bongo, into the East Coast jazz scene. The best moment to appreciate this music is attending the annual Latin jazz festival.

Late 20th century: Salsa, timba and ruedas de casino

Modern Cuban music is known for its relentless mixing of genres. In the 1970s and onwards, son montuno was combined with other Latin musical forms, such as the mambo and the rumba, to form contemporary salsa music, currently immensely popular throughout Latin America and the Hispanic world. However, the origin of salsa is highly disputed amongst the region’s nations and it is in the later timba that Cuba’s true salsa identity can be found.

Since its appearance in the early 1990s, timba has become the most popular dance music in Cuba, rivalled only lately by reggaeton, the Cuban version of Jamaican reggae and dancehall music. Though related to salsa, timba has its own characteristics and history, and is intimately tied to the life and culture of Cuba, and especially Havana.

This fast tempo salsa with a strong Afro-Cuban influence makes for very vibrant songs with catchy beats. Timba orchestras are complete with backing vocalists who keep the standard response running while the lead vocalist improvises and incorporate many other rhythms into the songs during breaks. Reggae, rap and hip-hop have a huge following in Cuba, and the timba musicians love to play with those rhythms and intertwine them into their salsa.

As for the dance, Cubans call their salsa dance style "casino”. In the decadent days of Old Havana, all the action in town was going down at the Casinos. The gambling haunts had the money to bring in the big name bands, so that’s where people would go dancing. Comes the revolution, the casinos were closed, and the people started to dance style in the local community halls the casinos had been transformed into, thus perpetrating the name.

Cubans usually perform the dance in a circular dynamic and sometimes create “ruedas de casino”, large circles of dancing couples that synchronise and make amazing improvised choreographies. Timba and salsa music is all over in Cuba’s night clubs and music venues, so travellers are spoilt for choice if they want to test their feet at “casino”.

Cuban ballads – bolero, filin and nueva trova

There is certainly room for soft-tempo tracks in the island’s music. Cuba’s most renowned ballads come in the form of boleros. Bolero had its origin in the late 19th century with Pepe Sanchez, an untrained musician with remarkable natural talent who is known as the father of the trova style and the creator of Cuban bolero. With lyrics mostly dedicated to romance, the genre and its most famous tunes including “Te Quedaras” and “Nosotros” became tremendously popular in Latin America in the 1950s.

Another more toned-down Cuban beat is “filing”. Derived from the English word “feeling”, the term describes a style of post-microphone jazz-influenced romantic song (crooning). Filin singers included Cesar Portillo de la Luz, Jose Antonio, Elena Burke and the still-performing Omara Portuondo.

Boleros and filing music are usually played in several of Havana’s nightclubs, including the “Jazz Cafe”, “La Zorra y el Cuervo” and “El Gato Tuerto”, a glam old-world venue where Omara Portuondo still presents herself occasionally.

Finally, nueva trova is the latest of Cuba’s ballads. Cuba's political and social turmoil in the 60s and 70s produced this socially aware form of music. Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes became the most important exponents of this style. Nueva trova songs are usually accompanied by acoustic guitars and its lyrics are usually deep, complex and focused on social and emotional issues. La Casa de la Trova in Santiago de Cuba and la Trovuntivitis group based in Santa Clara offer amazing live performances.

Daniela Corona

Daniela Corona

With a passion for travelling and discovering flavours from all around the world, my Cuban roots are...

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