The most popular music in the Spanish Caribbean consists of several genres of dance music that are of regional origin but show a fundamental influence of African culture. Perhaps because of its size, Cuba, the largest of the Greater Antilles, has played a central role in the evolution of Caribbean music in general and has been the birthplace of many musical genres that later spread throughout the Caribbean, Central America and Latin America.

These musical genres’ origins date to the sugar plantations of the 18th and 19th centuries, where the French contredanse was mixed with the music of African slaves. The slaves, who were generally not allowed to play their drums or sing and dance to the songs of their African cultural heritage, came into contact with the cultural traditions of their European owners, especially the French contredanse, which was in style throughout Europe in that era. They reproduced these European dances but adapted them, often in a burlesque and critical tone that made fun of the plantation owners’ culture.

During the second half of the 19th century, various forms of danceable music became widespread in Cuba, including the danzón and the habaneras, the rumba and the guaracha. The habaneras and the danzón came from the Havana region. The habanera was the local version of the contredanse in Cuba, also known as the danzón. In the late 19th century, it became popular in Spain, where it was given the name habaneras. But both the danzón and habaneras were island forms of the contredanse and were danced to in groups.

In the eastern part of Cuba, and particularly in the city of Santiago, the son, a kind of regional rumba, was the dominant music of the era. Rumba is a term that is collectively used to include a wide variety of dances in Cuba in the middle 19th century. Although there are three variations of rumba (guaguancócolumbia and yambú), the guaguancó is the most elaborate and best known. The guaguancó was the traditional dance in the black neighborhoods of Havana and it is thought that it originated from an Afro-Cuban fertility folk dance with roots dating back to the 18th century.

The guaracha, meanwhile, is a Cuban musical genre associated with the street theater of the early 19th century. It was a picaresque, baroque, comedic form of theater that used parody to comment on the most important local events. It served an informational role, an oral form of the press.

From this spirited musical heritage, other musical genres emerged during the first half of the 20th century, such as the bolero, mambo and the chachachá, that not only became very popular in Cuba, but also spread throughout Latin America, the United States, Europe and even parts of Asia. These new styles led to a transition in dance music from groups to couples.

The bolero is a musical genre that was highly popular in Cuba by the middle of the 19th century. Historians of the bolero agree that the song Tristezas, written by ”Pepe” Sánchez, a Cuban songwriter, in Santiago de Cuba in 1886 was the first known bolero. In its classical form, the bolero was performed with musical accompaniment consisting of a trio of guitars usually accompanied by percussion instruments. But by the early 20th century, the bolero came to be associated with the tropical big bands and symphonic orchestras that spread throughout the Hispanic Americas, in particular in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Chile and Venezuela, during the 1920s and 1930s.

Another musical genre strongly influenced by the danzon, the mambo, emerged in the late 1940s. Danzón arrangements by Orestes López and the charanga orchestra Arcaño y sus Maravillas, and later by Dámaso Pérez Prado and Benny Moré, who would become famous in the rest of the world, played a foundational role in the emergence of this new genre. The mambo was the first Cuban music to be promoted commercially in the United States and Europe. Later, other Cuban dance music, such as the chachachá, the son montunoand the guaracha, would have equal or greater success.

In the 1950s, the chachachá emerged, also strongly influenced by the danzón. Unlike other musical genres of the era, the origin of the chachachá is traced to a single individual: Havana violinist and composer Enrique Jorrín. In the 1960s, pachanga, a freer, more open form of chachachá in which the dancers had more freedom to improvise also became popular. The improvisation greatly added to its popularity.

After the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the popularity of Cuban dance music subsided and the music evolved among the Latino populations of the two most important Latino urban centers in the United States, New York City and Miami. The Cuban heritage was strongly felt in Puerto Rican salsa, which competed with other musical genres from the Dominican Republic, such as merengue and bachata.

In general terms, salsa is considered to be a term that synthesizes various Cuban musical influences, such as the danzaguaracha,guaguancó, mambo, chachachá and the son montuno. Salsa boomed in the 1970s with the appearance of the Fania All-Stars and the record label of the same name, Fania Records, both founded in New York City by Dominican Johnny Pacheco and U.S. businessman of Italian-Jewish descent Jerry Masucci. Among those who appeared on the scene were figures such as Larry Harlow, Willie Colón, Héctor Lavoe, Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente, all of Puerto Rican descent, but playing music clearly influenced by the Cuban forms imported to New York during the period before the Cuban Revolution. In the late 1990s, salsa began to decline in popularity, mainly due to the growing presence of Dominican immigrants in the United States, who brought merengue and bachata with them.

Merengue is a musical style that originated in the Santiago de los Caballeros area in the region of the Dominican Republic known as Cibao during the early 19th century. Like many of the Cuban dance music genres, it is characterized by the fusion of contredanse, mazurka and waltz, all of European origin, with elements of Afro-Caribbean and indigenous music. In the beginning, the classical form of merengue, known as perico ripiao, was performed with three main instruments: the accordion (of European heritage), the drum (of African heritage) and the güiro (of indigenous heritage). This is why the music was considered emblematic of the racial mixing on the island. Some of its most outstanding artists are Juan Luis Guerra, Wilfrido Vargas and Johnny Ventura.

The bachata, meanwhile, is a more recent form of dance music from the 1960s. It represents a hybrid of the bolero and other Afro-Cuban and Afro-Dominican musical influences such as the sonmerengue and chachachá. Some also see influences from other Latin American genres popular in the 1950s in the Dominican Republic, such as the Mexican corrido, the huapango and the pasillo.

Beyond the musical forms with Afro-Cuban roots, several important dance music genres with strong African influences emerged in the continental Caribbean. Among these are two genres from the Caribbean coast of Colombia, cumbia and vallenato.

Cumbia is a traditional musical genre of Colombia that originated on the Caribbean coast of the country during the 1940s as a product of the musical and cultural fusion of influences from indigenous culture, black slaves from Africa and, to a lesser degree, Spaniards. Instrumentation includes drums that are clearly African in origin, maracas, the guache and whistles and flutes of indigenous origins, while the songs and verses come from Spanish poetics. The flute plays a central role in this form of music. In classical forms of cumbia, the main instruments are the kuisi sigí (called the gaita macho or male flute in Spanish), the kuisi bunzí (called the gaita hembra or female flute in Spanish) and the maracas. This musical genre was exclusively instrumental (never sung) and consisted of the fusion of indigenous melodies with the rhythm of African drums. The music accompanied a dance characterized by sensual and seductive movements, common among dances of African origin.

Vallenato is another musical genre that originated on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, more precisely in the ranching region of Valledupar. It is believed that the cowboy songs sung by the workers on the huge ranches during their workdays were the basis for what later became sung histories and from which the vallenato songs were derived. In its traditional form, the vallenato was performed with just three instruments: two percussion instruments called the caja and the guacharaca, that set the beat, and the diatonic accordion, of European origin, that plays the melody. The caja was a small drum made by artisans from the hollow trunk of a dry tree and sealed on one end with a piece of tanned leather. This was accompanied by the guacharaca, which was an ancestral indigenous instrument that was made from the stalk of a palm plant known as the uvita de lata. A series of grooves was cut into the stalk to produce a rasping sound when it was rubbed with a bone or stick. Finally, in the late 19th century, the diatonic accordion was added. It was an Austrian instrument invented by Kiril Demian in Vienna in 1829 that was smuggled into the country from Curaçao by German immigrants until 1885 and became the main instrument in a typical vallenato musical group. The accordion player was the leader in this kind of music and would go from town to town to spread news of the latest events. This music’s popularity spread rapidly to countries such as Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Mexico and it achieved great popularity in the late 20th century and early 21sth century, thanks to the development of vallenato pop, whose most famous performer is the singer Carlos Vives.

Around 1920, a genre of dance music emerged on the Caribbean coast of Colombia that would later, in the 1970s, be called champeta. From the beginning, champeta was associated with the Palenque culture of San Basilio, a settlement with many African descendents near the city of Cartagena de Indias.

Beyond the genres with Afro-Caribbean roots, whose sensual dances have become popular around the world, the Spanish Caribbean also has musical traditions that emerged from the rural, white populations and are not directly associated with the African heritage. Cuba has guajira music (the term means campesina, country folk), with strong influences from music of the Canary Islands. A type of music that is similar in concept is also found in Puerto Rico, called le-lo-lai. Another example of a genre with minimal African influence is the nueva trova music of Pablo Milanés or Silvio Rodríguez in Cuba, or Roy Brown in Puerto Rico, which fall within the general category of protest music and which became popular after the Cuban Revolution.


Author: Luis Galanes
Published: May 22, 2012.

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