Cuba has a very strong music tradition, influencing other styles all over the world, from the Americas and the Caribbean to African and Mediterranean music. Cuban music not only influenced many different styles, but in and of itself is a merge of several styles and instrumentation from several different cultures. Initially, its main influences were Spanish (and other Europeans to a degree) for obvious reason, but it also borrowed instruments and styles from the Chinese immigrants who were there and that merged with the Caribbean music of the Taíno peoples who were already there. And as Africans arrived, they added a fourth dimension to Cuban music. There are far more genres and subgenres of Cuban music that I’m not going to go into great detail on; I’m just going to touch on the main ones.
If the guitar is the cornerstone of Cuban music, then percussion is the foundation. The Spanish brought over the guitar with them, as well as musical notation. Other instruments that were used were the clarinet, the violin, and the vihuela (a guitar-like instrument with six doubled strings found on the Iberian and Italian Peninsulas during the Renaissance period. On the percussive side, bongos, congos, and batá drums (a double-headed hourglass-shaped drum used a lot in santería) were often used. There were times when drums were actually banned, and instead musicians used the claves (basically two blocks/sticks beat against each other). Piano is also a very important instrument in Cuban music. Many students start out learning piano from an early age, and it’s used in everything from classical music to traditional folk music.
In the early days – the 18th and 19th century centuries –Baroque music was predominantly the style of composition in Cuba with composers such as Esteban Salas y Castroand Ignacio Cervantes studied and worked with. Laureano Fuentes wrote the first opera called La hija de Jefté. The 20th century brought changes in the classical world as well, with composers and musicians such as Amadeo Roldán, Alejandro García Caturla (who was second chair violin with the Symphonic Orchestra of Havana at the age of 16, later to become a lawyer and judge to support his family, was murdered at the age 34 by a gambler he was getting ready to sentence a few hours later), Gonzalo Roig, Ernesto Lecuona, José Ardévol, among many other accomplished musicians and composers.
There are a lot of different styles of music in Cuba, several of which are stemmed from the theatre. Zarzuela is a form of a light opera or operetta. It generally has developed into a social commentary about Cuban life and problems. Bufo is a theatrical style mostly dealing in satire and comedy. A guaracha is a quick-tempo song that sings about people and events in the new in a comedic sort of way, but using a lot of slang and generally performed in the brothels of Havana. Trova is a style of guitar music played by troubadours traveling around the island singing and playing music. Many times they performed in groups of twos and threes, but sometimes more. Several styles of music are African in origin, such as the rumba and comparsa (or also called Conga). Cuban music was a source of a lot of jazz musicians, and more or less formed its own genre of Latin jazz. Ray Barretto and Tito Puente were key figures of merging Cuban music with jazz and presenting arrangements to the American and European ear. Chachachá was also invented during the 1950s with musicians such as Perez Prada, who gave us the famous song “Mambo No. 5.” (I'm pretty sure the costumer was inspired by a chicken when they made these jackets.)
Probably the most important genre of music coming from Cuba is the son. Definitely using the guitar and the bongo, son typically also uses claves, the double bass, the trumpet (or cornet), and the piano. Today, son has many variations and styles of its own, but the most key part of it is the syncopated bass line (also utilizing the anticipated bass as well). Somehow, a lot of these styles all got lumped under the same category that ended up being called salsa. Cubans themselves don’t necessarily agree with this term, but to many Americans and Europeans, salsa music incorporates a lot of Cuban music styles, especially Cuban dance music.
Dance is also important to Cubans, and a number of dances have become quite popular, not only in Cuba but throughout the Americas. Some of the more popular ones include son, danzón, danzonete, chacha, salsa, mambo, among others. Every time I hear the word mambo, I think of the great mambo dance scene from West Side Story. I don’t know how true of a Cuban mambo dance it is (even though the characters were from Puerto Rico, which does share some similarities in culture), but I had the entire libretto memorized when I was in high school.
When I took a look at my Spotify playlist for Cuba, it was a mix of new and old. Among the new stuff, I mostly had some Cuban hip-hip (like Orishas: I found the album El Kilo at the library and really like it) and Cubatón (Cuba’s form of reggaeton, like Osmani Garcia, Eddy K, and Gente de Zona). Of the slightly older music that I equally liked (and probably listened to more), I came across Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, Compay Segundo, NG la Banda, Carlos Varela, and of course one of my favorites, Celia Cruz. Some artists such as Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan (one of the most successful Cuban musicians, much less Latin musicians, ever) who fled Cuba after the Revolution are considered “unpersons” by the Cuban government and their records aren’t even allowed to be sold in the country.
Up next: the food!