Although many people would imagine the sounds of salsa when thinking of Cuba; this petite country has had an extensive and highly prolific musical production throughout the years. The island has birthed and become renowned for a great number of musical genres; from son, bolero and filin to cha cha, rumba and conga, amongst several others. Even when all these rhythms are part of the nation’s identity, it is perhaps one of the newest genres that has gained the most attention and international status recently.
Cuban reggaeton or “Cubaton” is today one of the island’s most popular music styles, especially amongst the younger generation, who have in great part grown up listening to its beats. Thanks to certain Cubaton artists who have achieved fame through catchy songs and collaborations with international stars, the genre has been spreading quickly throughout the continent (especially in Latin America) and even throughout the global music scene.
If you have recently been drawn to a catchy reggaeton tune and are curious about learning more on this musical variety and how it flourished in Cuba, read on to find the reasons it has become so widely popular. Discover more about the Cuban artists who have been ambassadors for the genre and track down the best spots to listen to some live reggaeton music when travelling to the island.
A small background story of reggaeton
Often mistaken for reggae or reggae in Spanish, reggaeton is a younger genre that originated in the clubs of San Juan, Puerto Rico in the 1990s. The word “reggaeton” (from the Puerto Rican tradition of combining a word with the suffix -ton) was first used in 1995, when DJ Nelson listed it as a potential name for an upcoming album. The genre evolved from the ragamuffin, a type of electronic music which was created from the fusion of reggae and hip hop. Its distinctive rhythm, which is almost always the same, with little variation in its beat, comes from the military drum, and was used and popularized by Jamaican artist Shabba Ranks in 1991 with his song “Dem Bow”. The title of that song appointed since that characteristic beat, and from there it “grew up” for 20 years, maintaining the same “Dem Bow” which is also used in the Cuban reggaeton.
As Caribbean and African-American music gained momentum in Puerto Rico, reggae rap in Spanish marked the beginning of the Boricua underground and was a creative outlet for many young people. It became known as “underground” music, due to its circulation through informal networks and performances at unofficial venues. DJ Playero and DJ Nelson were inspired by hip hop and Latin American music to produce "riddims," the first reggaeton tracks. A few years later, reggaeton had already gained acceptance as part of Puerto Rican culture, and began to make its way to other Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Panama and later to Cuba.
The rhythm of reggaeton, which was already very popular among young people, began expanding into the rest of Latin American countries and even reached the North American audience. This spectacular expansion brought reggaeton unexpected respect and celebrity, while just a few years ago this musical direction had to lead a shadowy existence.
How the genre travelled to the island – the formation of Cubaton
The late appearance of this type of music in Cuba is associated with several factors. The first was the cultural censorship; filtering and preventing vulgar lyrics are broadcast in the media. Another one is the digital isolation of Cuba, which also leads to a natural delay in the arrival of foreign flows. The latter is the tradition of Cuban dance music. While in many parts of the world, electronic music dominates the dance floor, the absence of strong transnationals and the solid tradition of Cuban salsa and son made it more difficult for the new genre to earn some space in the island’s music scene.
Since its arrival in the early 2000s, the Cuban variant was more marked by Caribbean rhythms such as Soca, calypso kin and dance hall. Cubaton developed and grew tremendously in popularity in the first decade of the century. During this period the number of reggaeton bands multiplied and the public increasingly became more interested in this new genre. One of the first successful groups to launch Cubaton was called Cubanito 20.02. This new Cuban reggaeton, marked Caribbean influences, particularly Jamaican music, sensed the way to get away from being just a copy of the Puerto Rican branch. One of their biggest hits was “Ulakalakala”.
From here on, we can start to talk about a true diffusion stage. In the first decade of the 2000s, reggaeton started to fuse with traditional Cuban rhythms, such as salsa, timba and son, bringing a unique sound and flavour to the genre. A number of important groups and figures, some of which would later on gain international praise and recognition, started to arise and Puerto Rican reggaeton influence began to wane significantly.
Cubaton to the world – international expansion of the genre
It was a difficult journey for Cubaton to gain popularity overseas. This was greatly due to the country’s digital isolation for years, which made it difficult for music to circulate within the island, let alone around the world. However, in recent years the panorama has shifted for the better; locals now have wider access to the Internet after the government announced the creation of several Wi-Fi hotspots in parks and other public spaces across various cities, and many others get their hands on music through “el paquete” (the package), a collection of digital material distributed by private workers who make a business of downloading music, series and films online and selling the content.
In terms of putting Cuban music and specifically Cuban reggaeton on the global music scene, it was mainly thanks to Cuban artists being able to travel, collaborating with international stars and signing deals with foreign record labels. The first great success came in 2014, with the song “Bailando”. Incorporating traditional Spanish guitar with sultry reggaeton dembow, the smash hit was written and composed by Cuban songwriter Descemer Bueno, who collaborated with local duo Gente de Zona and the world-renowned Enrique Iglesias.
The catchy tune quickly became a global phenomenon, charting in more than 50 countries worldwide, with most success in the Spanish and Portuguese speaking region, topping the charts in Colombia, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Portugal, Spain, and the Latin based charts in the United States. The song then went on to receive numerous accolades, namely three Latin Grammys for Song of the Year, Best Urban Performance and Best Urban Song award. “Bailando” without a doubt paved the way and opened the door not only for Cuban reggaeton and Cuban music in general to reach the world, but also for many other Cuban artists to become renowned across the globe.
Most popular Cuban reggaeton artists
Gente de Zona
The first artists on the list would undoubtedly have to be Gente de Zona. Founded in 2000 by Alexander Delgado, today the duo is formed by himself and Randy Marcos. Gente de Zona is famous for being one of the first to combine reggaeton rhythms with more traditional forms of Cuban music. Many songs have the element of trumpets and bongos, which are very present in timba music, a trait that has doted the duo with a unique sound.
Back in 2015, Gente de Zona published two more songs that instantly became popular, “La Gozadera” and “Traidora” both were in collaboration with Marc Anthony. A year later, their third album entitled “Visualizate” was published under the label Sony Music Entertainment US Latin LLC and Magnus Media, LLC. They have continued to collaborate with a range of famous artists, including Jennifer Lopez, Kylie Minogue, Laura Pausini and Pitbull.
Jacob Forever became famous as a member of Gente de Zona, along with DJ and producer Nando Pro. After nine years, internal divergences made Jacob and Nando decide to stop working with Alexander Delgado and develop their solo career. Jacob recorded “Mas duro” and “Son muchas cosas”, but nothing compares to “Invicto”, which includes the smash hit “Hasta que se seque el Malecon”, a song that increased his popularity in the island and throughout Latin America. The executives of Sony Music hired him to produce three albums. That’s how the “Immortal”, as he calls himself, stood out as the first Cuban reggaeton singer to work with one of the top three record companies of the world.
“Ay mi Dios!”, together with renowned Puerto Rican singers Yandel and Pitbull, gave Cuban Ramon Lavado, “Chacal”, the opportunity to perform on big stages; although this reggaeton singer had been championing this musical genre in Cuba for over ten years. Chacal used to be in a duo with Baby Lores, as part of Clan 537, and he later joined Yakarta. In his solo career, besides “Ay mi Dios!” he has recorded other international hits like “My Moonshine” with Akon.
His double-meaning lyrics with plenty of catchy rhythms helped this artist, who labels himself as “The Voice”, be heard throughout Latin America. Now established in Miami, Osmani Garcia launched his solo project in Cuba back in 2008 and got his fame with “Chupi Chupi”, which turned out to be a polemic video clip; but “El Taxi” has undoubtedly been his biggest hit.
Michael Fernando Sierra, known as “El Micha”, didn’t study music; however, his lyrics, singular voice and stage control have put him on the map, not only in Cuba, but also overseas. In fact, the artists, who is known for his excellent rapping skills recently collaborated with Enrique Iglesias and Descemer Bueno in this year’s summer hit “Nos fuimos lejos”.
Recognised as one of the genre’s new voices in Cuba, the young artist began his career at the early age of 20. His laid-back, melodic and romantic reggaeton soon became popular with the island’s public, and Divan began collaborating with important local artists like Jacob Forever. The youngster has already begun to do shows abroad and seems to hold a promising career before him.
A night of heated dancing – best spots for Cubaton concerts
Although there is no shortage of places where you can listen to recorded Cuban reggaeton (almost every night club in the island), planning an outing to a concert is a little trickier to achieve. This is simply because performances are not usually announced until a few days before. To make it easier for those who would like to attend a live Cubaton performance, these are some of the venues where you are most likely to enjoy a vibrant reggaeton concert. Calling these establishments a few days in advance will let you know if one of your favourites is playing.
Located in Miramar, next to the Karl Marx theatre, the daytime restaurant of Cuban fisheries becomes party central on the weekends, particularly on Friday night. Don Cangrejo is the setting for amazing al fresco performances by big-name acts that include some of Cubaton’s finest.
Set in the hip neighbourhood of Vedado, Bolabana is a small but charming bar with great ambiance that hosts exciting concert nights. Booking a table in advance is the best idea on a concert night, and covers range from 10 to 20 CUC depending on the artist.
Merely steps away from the Malecon seawall and the US Embassy in Havana, 3D Café is an ice-cool place to see and be seen. This tiny but superslick bar/club attracts a mixed crowd of locals and foreigners that are there to enjoy nightly humour acts and live music shows, including concerts from the top reggaeton artists. Food comes in small tapas and cocktails are de rigueur. Drop by or phone ahead as it has a reservation policy.
One of the favourites amongst Cuba’s young generation, Sarao is one of Havana’s largest and most upscale bars. Set within Vedado, the plush venue serves high quality drinks and bottles and offers concerts every weekend. Performers are not announced more than two days in advance, so make sure to call and ask which artist is playing. The prices of the covers may vary depending on the performer.
Reggaeton has been part of making the island more renowned across the globe. If after reading this or listening to a Cubaton track, you are intrigued or already captivated by the vibrant, catchy beats of the genre, make sure your visit to Cuba is complete with a fun and exciting musical experience.