Cuba is something of a musical mystery in Latin America. It is the largest of the islands of the Antilles and the Spanish settlers who came here were much the same as those who settled the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The first Spanish settlers arrived to find an indigenous population that could not stand up to the demands of forced plantation labor that the full exploitation of the land required. Thus they killed them all off either directly or indirectly through excessive forced labor or through the introduction of diseases that were new and unknown to them. Africans brought in through the slave trade replaced the indigenous population and therefore, Cuba, like Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic developed an Afro Hispanic culture. So closely parallel to Puerto Rico and the Domincan Republic it remains difficult to explain why Cuba, in particular, should have generated the unique powerful creative energy that flowed out of it and for so many years.
With the exception of the Argentine Tango, and the Brazilian Samba and Bossa Nova, almost all other popular Latin American dance forms have come from Cuba. These dances have exerted a powerful influence on the music of other Latin American countries, and even the United States and Europe From the famous 'habanera' in Bizet's opera Carmen and Ravel's habaneras in the 'l'Heure Espagnole' and in his other compositions, until the contemporary 'salsa' in the United States, it has been Cuban rhythms and dance patterns that have not only dominated, but which have generated every decade or so, until the United States blockade of Cuba in 1958, a new dance rhythm which in successive waves would sweep the world. On a global level there has never been anything to duplicate the massive creative force and influence which Cuba has represented in the history of the transmission of popular music. There seems no single adequate way to explain it other than through the excellence of the music itself.
As in Puerto Rico, the Spanish settlers who came to Cuba came in largest measure from the Southern region of Spain, from Andalusia. While it appears evident that the African slaves brought to Cuba were from many different regions of Africa, it is also clear that the it was the Yoruba among them who quickly became organized and found a means of continuing the performance of Yoruba ritual, as they did in Haiti and Brazil.
The powerful influence which African musical elements had on the musics of those Latin American cultures that brought in a sizable number of slaves contrasts with the pattern of the United States. To understand this, it is important to remember that slave policy in the Latin countries was very different from that in the United States. These cultures, the French, Portuguese and Spanish, came out of a common background of old Roman Law. This old Roman Law recognized that slaves had certain, however minimal, rights, such as legal marriage between slaves, legal children of slaves, etc., and most important of all, that the slaves however unfortunate and exploited, were still human beings. None of these rights existed in the United States in colonial times and under slavery. Therefore, although we know from available historical records that Yoruba from Nigeria were most certainly among the slaves brought to the United States, it was the terrible Anglo-American fear of African culture and the fear of potential rebellion that prevented the organization of African ritual and the development of virtually anything recognizably African in the United States.
In the highlands which run through the central section of Cuba live mountaineers peasants, known as guajiros. In these rural areas of Cuba it is the Guajiros who have retained the purest elements of the old Spanish traditions. Here, like in Puerto Rico and the Veracruz area of Mexico, the old Spanish tradition of the improvisation of decimas has been kept alive. Two musical settings of these old Spanish forms are known among the guajiros. The 'decima' is a set of couplets of ten syllables each sung in free rhythm while the 'punto' is a sung improvisation in a fixed rhythmic pattern accompanied by guitars.
While the Cuban villagers and farmers in the highlands retained the old Spanish flavored forms like the punto and decima, the Cubans of the cities gradually developed their own polite society and while also drawing on Spanish roots, reacted to the new forms appearing in Spain and in other Spanish colonies. During the 19th Century from within the musical ambiance in Europe which included the waltz, polka, mazurka and schottische, Cuban polite society, like that in Puerto Rico evolved their own particular dance form, the danza. Drawn from an older popular Spanish dance called the Contradanza, the Cuban and Puerto Rican danza was at once a polite social dance rhythm and yet showed the unmistakable tinge of something new, in fact something African. In this way the Cuban-Spanish danza was; like ragtime in the United States, particularly in the refined notated piano version which many came to know; a musical step towards the recognition of the growing African culture which was making itself felt all around.
From the danza came a new popular social dance, the danzon. This was popular from the end of the 19th century and into the 1930s when it was gradually replaced by newer Afro Cuban forms. It was the formal social dance music of the upper classes in Cuba for many years. Based on the rhythm of the danza but with more pronounced African elements incorporated, the music was played by a small salon orchestra of mixed strings and winds with the addition of a pair of timpani, or kettledrums, without pedals. The danzon soon caught on all over Latin America. Aaron Copland's famous composition, El Salon Mexico, is based on the danzon and is based on his recollection of attending a dance hall in Mexico City during the 1920s, at which everyone was dancing the Cuban danzon.
Whether these forms represented a conscious taming of the African elements encountered or were simply the extreme limits to which the current tradition could be taken in the direction of a musical heritage which was so different in its principles from the European is impossible to say. Most likely both things were true and the evolution of the danza simply represented a natural process of acculturation. What is significant is that in Cuba this new step, occurring probably about the same time that the African drum ensembles in Cuba were beginning to adapt Spanish melodic types and singing patterns into their music, was the beginning of a process from which evolved many of the most popular dance forms of all of Latin America and in fact of the world for many, many years.
It is in the creation of a body of new forms, based in part on Spanish song types with the addition of African rhythms in which the uniqueness of Cuban music lies. One of the fundamental rhythmic pattern of Cuban music is the 'rumba'. One of earliest known manifestations of the 'rumba' pattern was found among Afro Cubans playing of drum patterns beaten out on wooden boxes. This ensemble eventually added the guitar and a few other instruments and the dance form known as the rumba came into being.
Small street bands called comparsas consisted of a group of musicians singing in Spanish and playing on drums of the conga drum type as they walked or marched or danced through the streets of cities like Havana. From these comparsas grew an entire range of Cuban bands which mixed elements of Spanish melody and harmony with African rhythmic patterns which in turn began to influence the development of Cuban melody and harmony as well. The comparsas repertoire consisted primarily of two song/dance types, the guaguanco which blended with the rumba to become one the most important and most influential dance types of Cuban music, known as the rumba-guaguanco or usually just as rumba. The other form was a kind of marching or processional music called the 'conga' which became an important dance type of its own.
Of the hundreds of different types of Cuban dance ensemble, only a few can be described and only rather broadly. Probably it was the guitar which was the first European instrument to be grafted on to the Afro Cuban drum ensembles after these were established in the comparsas and rumba ensembles. The addition of the guitar strengthened the European harmony and melodic line, without weakening the African rhythmic elements and allowed the blending in of call and response singing patterns and melodic type which were African in origin as well.
One of the significant ensembles of Cuban music and one which had a very important role in the popularization and dissemination of the Cuban music known as 'salsa' was the small 'conjunto', combinations, of one or more, guitars and voices to which are added maracas, bongos, which are a pair of small differently pitched drums played by a single player, and perhaps a trumpet. From evidence in recordings we note that there were a great number of these trios and 'conjuntos' playing from the 1920s and such ensembles are still playing in Cuba today.
The trumpet in Cuban music was often added to the singing street bands, the comparsas, particularly in the playing of the congas. The sound of the trumpet in Cuban music and its importance add a distinctive element to Cuban music, one which is only paralleled by the use of the trumpet in th mariachi music of Mexico. From the comparsa band the trumpet went on to be frequently used in the trio and small conjuntos. In addition, however, a new kind of dance band evolved. This was the 'sonora', best exemplified by one particular group, the Sonora Matancera, which formed in the 1920s in Cuba went on to become one of the well known Cuban bands in all of Latin America. Recorded extensively and widely imitated, outside Cuba as well, this sound of Cuban percussion, with guitar, piano and two trumpets, contributed importantly to the development of 'salsa' in the 60s and 70s and was the inspiration for Willie Colon's later group using two trombones.
During the 1940s and 1950s there came a new kind f Cuban music, the mambo, made most famous by Perez Prado. The music was played by a band which resembled a full American dance or Jazz band with saxophone, trumpet and trombone sections, to which had been added a Cuban percussion section. This had wide influence as a new dance form all over the world, but had a particular impact on American Jazz during the 1940s and 50s. After that Cuba evolved a new kind of dance orchestra, one which came out of the danzonera, the little orchestra used to play danzones. This was the charanga, an ensemble of Cuban percussion with piano and with a quartet of violins and a flute and the new dance forms which it accompanied were the pachanga and the cha-cha-cha.
After the blockade of Cuba in 1958, no more new forms came out of Cuba since musicians could not travel freely in and out of the country, but also changes were going on within Cuba which altered the context in which this music had originated. Before long the hunger, particularly in the United States for Latin music led to a rediscovery of Brazil and Bossa Nova, and in other parts of Latin America forms like the Colombian cumbia and the merengue from the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Puerto Rico began to fill in some of the void left by the absence of Cuba as a major musical force. Slowly however, the force and impact of Cuban music was reawakened. Kept alive by Cuban musicians mostly living in New York and then gradually joined there by musicians from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Columbia and eventually from all over Latin America and even the United States, the Cuban music tradition lives on strongly in the form of 'salsa' and continues to be the most significant single influence on all the music of Latin America.
The list of Cuban musicians one could pursue is long, indeed, albeit, today most of the recordings are difficult to find. Some of the names to look for are Celia Cruz, The Sonora Matancera, El Septeto Nacional, Trio Matamoros, Los Guaracheros De Oriente, Guillermo Portabales, Acerina y sus Danzonera, Compay Segundo and among the newer groups from Cuba, Irakere.
Robert Garfias 1995
Page updated May, 8, 1997