The Music of Cuba

14 October 2020

Cuba the largest island nestled in the Caribbean sea, guards a fascinating history. From Spanish Colonisation in the 15th Century, to American occupation and then independence. It got caught in the middle of the cold war under communist Fidel Castro, and is responsible for a string of humanitarian accomplishments. Geographically at a crossroads, many people have found their way to Cuba, and the island has certainly carved a name for itself in history. Its uniqueness is often expressed through music and dance.

With influences spanning from West Africa to Europe, notably, of course, Spain, Cuban music genres are often considered one of the richest and most influential regional musics of the world.

Music often tells a tale, and Cuba reflects it’s people’s histories and cultures. Home to people of different ethnic, religious and national backgrounds, Cubans generally do not equate their ethnicity with nationality but with citizenship and their allegiance to Cuba. This melting pot of a nation has resulted in a fantastic amalgamation of musical styles and composition.

“For instance, the son cubano merges an adapted Spanish guitar (tres), melody, harmony, and lyrical traditions with Afro-Cuban percussion and rhythms.”

Since the 19th century Cuban music has been hugely popular and influential throughout the world. Since the introduction of recording technology, Cuban music has contributed to the development of a wide variety of genres and musical styles around the globe, most notably in Latin America, the Caribbean, West Africa and Europe. Examples include rhumba, Afro-Cuban jazz, salsa, soukous, many West African re-adaptations of Afro-Cuban music (Orchestra Baobab, Africando), Spanish fusion genres (notably with flamenco), and a wide variety of genres in Latin America.

Let’s check some of them out

PEASANT MUSIC (MÚSICA CAMPESINA) perhaps some of the oldest popular musical styles from Cuba include punto guajiro, zapateo, criolla.

A variety of musical styles in Cuba can be grouped for their AFRICAN HERITAGEClave, Cuban carnival, Tumba Francesca all call on their African heritage, often combining religious rituals with songs and dance.

Tumba francesa combines musical traditions of West African, Bantu, French and Spanish origin. Cuban ethnomusicologists agree that the word “tumba” derives from the Bantu and Mandinka words for drum. In Cuba, the word tumba is used to denote the drums, the ensembles and the performance itself in tumba francesa.

Tumbas francesas are directed by a mistress of ceremonies called the mayora de plaza. Performances generally begin with improvised solo singing in a mixture of Spanish and French patois termed kreyol cubano or patuá cubano by the lead vocalist. Following this, the catá (a wooden cylindrical idiophone struck with two sticks) is played, and the lead singer alternates call and response singing with a group of female vocalists (tumberas).After the catá establishes the beat, the three tumbas are played. source

Originating in Europe, CONTRADANZA, where it was known as the “country dance” in the late 18th Century was adapted in Cuba. Mixing African musical styles with European, “this creolization is an early example of the influence of the African traditions in the Caribbean. Most of the musicians were black or mulatto (even early in the 19th century there were many freed slaves and mixed race persons living in Cuban towns)” source

The HABANERA developed out of contradanza in the early 19th century. Setting it apart is the fact that it was sung, as well as played and danced. Written in 2/4 meter, the Habanera is characterized by an expressive and languid melodious development and its characteristic rhythm called “Habanera Rhythm.” Versions of habanera-type compositions have appeared in the music of Ravel, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Fauré, Albeniz. The rhythm is similar to that of the tango, and some believe the habanera is the musical father of the tango.

The GUARACHA uses rapid tempo and comic or picaresque lyrics, and was most often sung in brothels. The genre became an integral part of bufo comic theatre in the mid-19th century. The guaracha survives today in the repertoires of some trova musicians, conjuntos and Cuban-style big bands.

RUMBA is a secular genre of Cuban music involving dance, percussion, and song. It originated in the northern regions of Cuba, mainly in urban Havana and Matanzas, during the late 19th century. It is based on African music and dance traditions, namely Abakuá and yuka, as well as the Spanish-based coros de clavesource

The origin of the Cuban SON can be traced to the rural rumbas. It gained worldwide popularity during the 1930s. Son combines the structure and traits of the Spanish canción(song) with Afro-Cuban stylistic and percussion elements as does much of the music from Cuba. However, the Cuban Son is one of the most influential and widespread forms of Latin American music today: its derivatives and fusions, especially salsa, have spread across the world. source Its most characteristic instruments are the Cuban instrument known as the tres, and the well-known double-headed bongó. Also typical are the claves, the Spanish guitar, the double bass (replacing the early botija or marímbula), early on the cornet or trumpet and finally the piano. This fusion of instruments is typical of the musical genre.

After the Spanish-American war, a variety of musical genres emerged as musicians from Cuba traveled to America and back. AFRO-CUBAN JAZZ, MAMBO, CHA CHA CHÁ all became popular.

Cuban music hit the US after World War II,  Mario Bauza and the Machito orchestra on the Cuban side and Dizzy Gillespie on the American side were prime motivators. Chano Pozo, a Cuban jazz percussionist, was also important, for he introduced jazz musicians like Dizzy to basic Cuban rhythms. The mambo first entered the United States around 1950, taking it by storm, however it had been developing in Cuba and Mexico City for some time. Cuban jazz has continued to be a significant influence.

Cuban music has continued to diversify through the 1950s, the revolutionary 60s and 70s, and Cubans have been singing and dancing to a variety of genres such as FILIN and NUEVA TROVA. Cuban influenced Salsa music emerged in New York and recently the TIMBA, which differs from their salsa counterparts, in that timba emphasises the bass drum, which is not used in salsa bands. Lately CUBATÓN which evolved from dancehall and has been influenced by American hip hop, Latin American, and Caribbean music has taken precedence with the younger generation. Vocals include rapping and singing, typically in Spanish.