Music of Cuba

The Caribbean island of Cuba has been influential in the development of multiple musical styles in the 19th and 20th centuries. The roots of most Cuban musical forms lie in the cabildos, a form of social club among African slaves brought to the island. Cabildos preserved African cultural traditions, even after the Emancipation in 1886 forced them to unite with the Roman Catholic church. At the same time, a religion called Santería was developing and had soon spread throughout Cuba, Haiti and other nearby islands. Santería influenced Cuba's music, as percussion is an inherent part of the religion. Each orisha, or deity, is associated with colors, emotions, Roman Catholic saints and drum patterns called toques. By the 20th century, elements of Santería music had appeared in popular and folk forms.



Genealogy of Cuban music

See Genealogical chart

Cuban music has its principal roots in Spain and West Africa, but over time has been influenced by diverse genres from different countries. Most important among these are France, the United States, and Jamaica. Reciprocally, Cuban music has been immensely influential in other countries, contributing not only to the development of jazz and salsa, but also to Argentinian tango, Ghanaian high-life, West African Afrobeat, and Spanish "nuevo flamenco".

Foundations of Cuban music

Caribbean music
Cayman Islands
Dominican Republic
Lesser Antilles
Puerto Rico
Turks and Caicos Islands

The natives of Cuba were the Taíno, Arawak and Ciboney people, known for a style of music called areito. Large numbers of African slaves and European immigrants brought their own forms of music to the island. European dances and folk musics included zapateo, fandango, zampado, retambico and canción. Later, northern European forms like waltz, minuet, gavotte and mazurka appeared among urban whites. Fernando Ortíz, a Cuban folklorist, described Cuba'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 most important instruments being the clave, the congas and batá drums. Chinese immigrants have contributed the cornetín chino ("Chinese cornet"), a Chinese wind instrument still played in the comparsas, or carnival groups, of Santiago de Cuba.

Hernando de la Parra's archives give many of our earliest available information on Cuban music. He reported instruments including the clarinet, violon and vihuela. There were few professional musicians at the time, and fewer still of their songs survive. One of the earliest is "La Ma-Teodore", which is similar to ecclesiastic European forms and 16th century folk songs.


Main article: Guajira

The original guajira was earthy, strident rural acoustic music, possibly related to Puerto Rican jibaro. It appeared in the early 20th century, and is led by a 12-string guitar called a tres, known for a distinctive tuning.

Música campesina

Main article: Música campesina

Música campesina is a rural form of improvised music derived from a local form of décima and verso called punto. It has been popularized by artists like Celina González, and has become an important influence on modern son.

While remaining mainly unchanged in its forms (thus provoking a steady decline in interest among the Cuban youth), some artists have tried to renew Música campesina with new styles, lyrics, themes and arrangements. Liuba María Hevia ( is considered the most gifted artist who has tried to improve the genre, despite the early critics she received from the purists.

The Cuban TV program 'Palmas y Cañas' is focused on Música campesina and its cultors.

Classical music

In the 19th century, several major composers came from Cuba. These included Robredo Manuel, who helped transform contradanza into a litany of future styles, Laureano Fuentes, who wrote an opera, Selia, that is still well-remembered, and Gaspar Villete, who was accepted across the Atlantic in Europe.

It was Ignatio Cervantes, however, who did the most to assert a sense of Cuban musical nationalism, however. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire, and under Marmontel, Ruiz Espadero and Gottschalk, and his compositions used Afro-Cuban and guajiro techniques. Cervantes' nationalistic followers, who espoused "Afrocubanismo", included Alejandro Caturla and Amadeo Roldan.

After the revolution of 1959 a new crop of classical musicians came onto the scene. The most important of these is guitarrist Leo Brouwer, who made significant innovations in classical guitar, and is currently the director of the Havana Symphonic Orchestra. His directorship in the early 1970s of the Cuban Instititute of Instrumental and Cinematographic Arts (ICAIC) was instrumental in the formation and consolidation of the nueva trova movement.


Main article: Danzón

The European influence on Cuba's later musical development is most influentially represented by danzón, which is an elegant dance that became established in Cuba before being exported to popular acclaim throughout Latin America, especially Mexico. 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, danzóns evolved from the habanera by incorporating African elements, and were played by artists like Miguel Failde. Failde added elements from the French contredanse, and laid the way for future artists like José Urfe, Enrique Jorrín and Antonio María Romeu.

Haitians in Cuba: Charanga

Main article: Charanga

Other forms of Cuban folk music include the bolero ballads from Santiago, and small French creole bands called charangas. Charangas come from Haitian refugees during the Haitian Revolution (1791), who settled in the Oriente and established their own style of danzón, forming a kind of cabildo called the tumba francesa and became known for comparsa, mambo, chachachá and other kinds of folk music.


Main article: Changuí

Changuí is a rapid form of son from the eastern provinces (Santiago and Guantánamo, known together as Oriente), and is best exemplified by Elio Revé. It is unclear how the changuí originated, and whether it is a precursor to the classical son, but it seems that the two developed along parallel lines. Changuí is characterised by its strong emphasis on the downbeat, as well as being fast and very percussive. While it was Elio Revé who modernised the changuí, musicians such as Candido Fabré and more recently Los Dan Den gave it the contemporary feel it has today. Most importantly Los Van Van, led by Juan Formell, drew on changuí, adding trombones, synthesizers and more percussion, to create the songo.


Main article: Son (music)

Son is a major genre of Cuban music, and 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.

Son traditionally concerns itself with themes like love and patriotism, though more modern artists are socially or politically-oriented. Son lyrics are typically decima (ten line), octosyllabic verse, and it is performed in 2/4 time. The son clave has both a reverse and forward clave, which dever because a forward clave has a three note bar (tresillo), followed by a two note bar, while the reverse is the opposite.

Batá and yuka

Main article: Batá and Yuka

One of the most vibrant cabildos was the Lucumí, which became known for batá drums, played traditionally at initiation ceremonies, and gourd ensembles called abwe. In the 1950s, a collection of Havana-area batá drummers called Santero helped bring Lucumí styles into mainstream Cuban music, while artists like Mezcla and Lázaro Ros melded the style with other forms, including zouk.

The Kongo cabildo is known for its use of yuka drums, as well as gallos (a form of song contest), makuta and mani dances, the latter being closely related to the Brazilian martial dance capoeira. Yuka drum music eventually evolved into what is known as rumba, which has become internationally popular. Rumba bands traditionally use several drums, palitos, claves and call and response vocals.


Main article: Rumba

Abroad, rumba is primarily thought of as a glitzy ballroom dance, but its origins are spontaneous, improvised and lively, coming from the dockworkers of Havana and Matanzas. Percussion (including quinto and tumbadoras drums and "palitos", or sticks, to play a cáscara rhythm) and vocal parts (including a leader and a chorus -- see call and response (music)) are combined to make a danceable and popular form of music.

The word rumba is believed to stem from the verb rumbear, which means something like to have a good time, party. The rhythm is the most important part of rumba, which is always music primarily meant for dancing.

There three kinds of rumba rhythms, with accompanying dances: columbia, guaganco and yambú. The columbia, played in 6/8 time, is danced by one man and is very swift, with aggressive and acrobatic moves. The guagancó, played in 2/4, is danced with one man and one woman, and is much slower. The dance simulates the man's pursuit of the woman, and is thus sexually charged. The yambú, known as "the old people's rumba", is a precursor to the guaguancó and is played more slowly. Yambú has almost died-out and is played almost exclusively by folkloric ensembles.

Diversification and Popularization

1920s and 30s

Son music came to Havana in 1920 (see 1920 in music) due to the efforts of legendary groups like Trío Matamoros. Son was urbanized, with trumpets and other new instruments, leading to its tremendous influence on most later forms of Cuban music. In Havana, influences such as American popular music and jazz via the radio were adopted.

The son trios gave way to the septets, including guitar or tres, marímbulas or double bass, bongos, claves and maracas. The trumpet was introduced in 1926. Lead singers improvised lyrics and embellished melody lines while the claves laid down the basic son clave beat.

As time passed, musicians began "whitening up" son for the growing tourist traffic in the Havana nightclubs who did not understand the complex African rhythms.

Cuban music enters the United States

In the 1930s, the Lecuona Cuban Boys and Desi Arnaz popularized the conga in the US and Don Aspiazu did the same with son montuno, while Arsenio Rodriguez developed the conjunto band and rumba's popularity grew. Conjunto son, mambo, chachachá, rumba and conga became the most important influences on the invention of salsa.

The 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 La Tropicana, a 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, but the craze lasted only a few years.

Other influential musicians prior to the revolution were Ernesto Lecuona, Chano Pozo, Bola de Nieve, who lived in Mexico, and Mario Bauza, who, along with such "Nuyoricans" Ray Barreto and Tito Puente made innovation in mambo which gradually would produce Latin jazz and later salsa. A large number of musicians left Cuba between 1966 and 1968, after the Cuban government nationalised the remaining nightclubs and the recording industry. Among these was Celia Cruz, a guaracha singer, who gave strong impulses to the development of salsa. In later years Cubans were very active in Latin jazz and early salsa, such as percussionist Patato Valdés of the Cuban-oriented "Tipíca '73", linked to the Fania All-Stars. Several former members of Irakere have also become highly successful in the USA, among them Paquito d'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval.


Main article: Habanera

In the late 19th century, the habanera developed out of the contradanza which had arrived from Haiti after the Haitian revolution. The main innovation from the contradanza was rhythmic, as the habanera incorporated Spanish and African influences into its repertoire.

In the 1930s, habanera performer Arcano y sus Maravillos incorporated influences from conga and added a montuno (as in son), paving the way for the mixing of Latin musical forms, including guaracha, played by a charanga orchestra. Guaracha (sometimes simply called charanga) also drew from Haitian musical forms, has been extremely popular and continues to entertain audiences.

It was not, however, until 1995 that a Cuban artist first recorded a complete disc in the Habanera genre, when singer/songwriter Liuba Maria Heviarecorded ( some songs researched by musicologist Maria Teresa Linares, then director of the Cuban Museum of Music. Even then, the original intention was to supply the Cuban Museum of Music with some sound references of the genre. It is worth mentioning that the same artist, unhappy with the technical conditions at the time (Cuba was in the middle of the so-called Periodo Especial), re-recorded most of the songs in the 2005 CD Angel y habanera.

The fact that the above mentioned CD Habaneras en el tiempo (1995) was mainly distributed in Barcelona underlines the fading interest on this kind of music in the island, specially when compared to the vigorous popularity of the Habanera in the Mediterranean coast of Spain.

1940s and 50s

Arsenio Rodriguez, one of Cuba's most famous soneros, is considered to have brought son back to its African roots in the 1940s by adapting the guaguanco style to son, and by adding a cowbell and conga to the rhythm section. He also expand the role of the tres as a solo instrument. Rodriguez introduced the montuno (or mambo section) for melodic solos and his style became known as son montuno.

In the 1940s, Chano Pozo formed part of the bebop revolution in jazz, playing conga and other Afro-Cuban drums. Conga was integral part of what became known as Latin jazz, which began in the 40s among Cubans in New York City.

Cuban music in the US

Main articles: Chachachá and Mambo

A charanga group called Orquesta America, led by violinist Enrique Jorrín, helped invent chachachá, which became an international fad in the 1950s. Chachachá was popularized by bands led by Tito Puente, Perez Prado and other superstars. Many of these same performers also updated mambo for modern audiences.

1960s and 70s

Modern Cuban music is known for its relentless mixing of genres. For example, the 1970s saw Los Irakere use batá in a big band setting; this became known as son-batá or batá-rock. Later artists created the mozambique, which mixed conga and mambo, and batá-rumba, which mixed rumba and batá drum music. Mixtures including elements of hip hop, jazz and rock and roll are also common, like in Habana Abierta's rockoson.

Castro and Cuban exiles

The arrival to power of Fidel Castro in 1959 signified on one side mass exile to Puerto Rico, Florida and New York, and the protection of artist by the Communist state, reflected in state-owned record labels like Egrem. In Cuba, the Nueva Trova movement (including Pablo Milanés) reflected the new leftist ideals. Young musicians learned in music school. The state-run cabaret Tropicana was a popular attraction for foreign tourists, though more well-informed tourists sought out local casas de la Trova. Musicians were full-time and paid by the state after graduating from a conservatory, but as much as 90% of their income was taken by the Ministry of Culture. Castro's government eventually forced even early supporters like Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D'Rivera into exile. The fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s eventually changed the situation quite a bit, and musicians were then allowed to tour abroad and earn a living outside the state-run system.

Famous artists from the Cuban exile are Celia Cruz, La Lupe, Willy Chirino and Gloria Estefan. Many of these musicians, especially Cruz, became closely associated with the anti-Castro movement.


Main article: Salsa music

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.

Nueva trova

Main article: Nueva trova

Paralleling nueva canción in Chile and Argentina, Cuba's political and social turmoil in the 60s and 70s produced a socially aware form of new music called nueva trova. Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés became the most important exponents of this style. It arose from travelling trovadores in the early 20th century, including popular musicians like Sindo Garay (best-known for "La Bayamesa"), Nico Saquito, Carlos Puebla and Joseíto Fernández (best-known for "Guantanamera"). Nueva trova was always intimately connected with Castro's revolution, but its lyrics frequently expressed personal rather than social issues, focusing on intense emotional issues.

Nueva Trova began to evolve after the fall of the Soviet Union, adapting to the new times. Examples of a new, non-political line in the Nueva Trova movement could be Liuba María Hevia (, whose lyrics are focused on other subjects like love and solitude, sharing with the rest a highly poetical style. On the other side of the spectrum, Carlos Varela ( is famous in Cuba for his open criticism of some aspects of Castro's revolution, while at the same time being included in the Nueva Trova genre.

The term Novísima Trova (literally 'Newest song') is often used to describe a new generation of songwriters whose main references are Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanés.

1980s and 90s

Son and nueva trova remain the most popular forms of modern Cuban music, and virtually all Cuban artists play music derived from one of these two genres. Son is best represented by long-standing groups like Septeto Nacional, which was re-established in 1985, Orquesta Aragón, Orquesta Ritmo Oriental and Orquesta Original de Manzanillo. Septeto Nacional, alongside groups like Sierra Mestra, have sparked a revival in traditional son. Meanwhile, Irakere fused traditional Cuban music was jazz, and groups like NG La Banda, Orishas and Son 14 continued to add new elements to son, especially hip hop to form timba music, as they got hold of imported electronic equipment.

There are still many practitioners of traditional son montuno, such as Elias Ochoa, who have recorded and toured widely as a result of the upturn in interest in son montuno since the mid-1990s.

In the 1990s, increased interest in world music brought Cuban music, especially traditional styles like son montuno, again into the limelight. This development went hand-in-hand with the post-Soviet Union periodo especial in Cuba, during which the economy began opening up to tourism.

Orquesta Aragon, Charanga Habanera and Candido Fabré y su Banda have been long-time players in the charanga scene, and helped form the popular timba scene of the late 1990s.

The biggest award in modern Cuban music is the Beny Moré Award. The antagonism between Cuban politicians of Florida and the island forced the celebration of the Grammy Latinos awards in Los Angeles instead Miami.


Main article: Timba

Since its appearance in the early 1990s timba has become the most popular dance music in Cuba, rivalled only lately by Reggatón, the Cuban version of Jamaican ragga 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. Timba is to Havana what tango is to Buenos Aires, or pagode to Rio.

Buena Vista Social Club

Main article: Buena Vista Social Club

The watershed event was the release of Buena Vista Social Club (1997), a recording of veteran Cuban musicians organized by the American musician and producer, Ry Cooder. Buena Vista Social Club became an immense worldwide hit, selling millions of copies, and made stars of octogenarian Cuban musicians such Ibrahim Ferrer, Joseíto Fernández, and Compay Segundo, whose careers had stagnated in the 1950s.

Buena Vista resulted in several followup recordings and spawned a film of the same name, as well as tremendous interest in other Cuban groups. In subsequent years, dozens of singers and conjuntos made recordings for foreign labels and toured internationally. The interest of world audiences in exile and pre-revolutionary musicians has stirred some resentment among younger musicians that feel that their work and evolution of forty years is being ignored.

See also


  • Musiques cubaines, Maya Roy. 1998
  • Fairley, Jan. "Troubadors Old and New". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, pp 408-413. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
  • Fairley, Jan. "¡Que Rico Bailo Yo! How Well I Dance". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, pp 386-407. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0

External link

nl:Cubaanse muziek zh:古巴音乐


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