Cuba is among the Caribbean islands best known for its extensive and varied musical forms. To begin with, two cultural currents formed the basis of Caribbean music, particularly Cuban music: music of European origin and music of African origin. The presence of both of these musical currents was the result of the colonization of the island by the Spanish crown from the 16th century to the late 19th century. During this long period of colonization, the island was the scene of various waves of immigrants from the Iberian Peninsula, the Canary Islands, and above all from the various regions of sub-Saharan Africa, giving Cuba its demographic and cultural profile.

From 1540 on, the port of Havana served as the shipyard for the Spanish fleets that left the Americas for the Iberian Peninsula. Significant economic activity — as part of the services offered to the fleet — made Havana a busy port that saw all the new musical trends, instruments and traditions from Europe, Africa and the various territories in the Americas that were conquered by Spain. The economic rise of the port of Havana made the first wave of black slave labor and free laborers essential during the first years of the colony, with the construction of military forts and ships. It is notable that the free and slave populations of blacks and mixed-race workers enjoyed a certain level of autonomy that was not allowed in Spanish jurisdictions of that era. Havana in the 18th century had a relatively heterogeneous population with about 57% white and 34% black or free mixed-race. During the early years of colonization, various socio-cultural elements converged on the city that would influence the creation of new and different forms of Cuban music.

The collapse of the Haitian economy after the triumph of the Revolution in 1804 had economic, social and cultural repercussions for the rest of the Caribbean, and especially for the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Sugar production in the largest of the Antilles took up most of the arable land. Between 1792 and 1806, the number of sugar presses increased from 237 to 492 in the Havana area. The sugar boom also altered the island’s demographic composition. It is estimated that between 1763 and 1862, 750,000 African slaves arrived in Cuba. By 1827, slaves represented more than 40% of the total population. The white and free black and mixed-race populations also increased considerably after the Haitian Revolution and the sales to the United States of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 and Florida in 1819.

The foundations of Cuba’s economic and social development led to intense and continual interaction among groups of various ethnic origins. These socio-musical interactions allowed Cuban musical forms to be created and prosper.

Music of European heritage

The music of the guajiros, the rural working class, has its origins in Spain and the Canary Islands. This is shown by the preponderance of instruments such as the guitar, lute, mandolin and the tres, as well as the structure of the songs with stanzas of 10 lines. The most typical genre is the Cuban punto, which has 10-line stanzas with eight syllables per line as its main literary base. The stanzas usually have a pattern of ABBAACCDDC. In the western tobacco-growing region the punto libre form is more common, while in the central part of the island the punto fijo is most popular. This genre has evolved into numerous forms of singing and playing across the island of Cuba. In the controversias, for example, two singers face off in a battle to improvise the best verses. The pie forzado, meanwhile, requires the singer to make the verses rhyme and end with the theme that was provided, making the final verses a true improvisational delight by the singer.

In the city, white cultural music was strongly influenced by imported genres, mainly from Europe, such as the minuet, the mazurka and the waltz. These were gradually replaced by distinctively Cuban forms. By the middle of the 19th century, the most important musical genre in the Cuban national culture was the Havana contradanza, which developed after the British and French contredanse arrived to the island after the British took Havana and after the events in neighboring Haiti. In Cuba, the contradanza took on syncopated elements (tango rhythm) derived mainly from the Afro-Cuban experience, which differentiated it from the European forms. The Havanacontradanza was led by the caller, who directed the choreography of the dancers. This change created one of the first called dances in the Americas.

The popularity of the Cuban contradanza in the marginalized communities of Havana and Matanzas was testimony to the interacting influences between black music and the upper class that attended the popular dances. In this gradual process, the contradanza as it evolved on the island eventually gave way to the danzón. Miguel Faílde of Matanzas is credited with inventing the danzón, but it would be presumptuous to give him all of the credit, because like any popular genre its elements took shape in anonymous form and were later crystallized in the work of a composer. Such is the case with the danzón and many other Caribbean genres.

Two-four time dominates in the danzón, unlike the Spanish dances in which six-eight time was commonly used. Additionally, they were based on rhythmic patterns of eighth and sixteenth notes called cinquillos and tresillos that did not fit easily into six-eight or three-four time. The danzón broadened itself by breaking with the ABAB rhyme schemes of the danzas and adding variations. Other derivations of the danzón continued to arise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the danzonete, the mambo and the cha-cha-cha. The relationship between musical genres and ethnicity became ever fainter due to the musical syncretism that fed both musical traditions.

Music of African heritage 

African slavery, which was officially abolished in Cuba in 1886, was widespread through the entire island. It was in the ports of Havana and Matanzas, however, that the Yoruba and Arara rituals found fertile ground. The syncretic religion called Regla de Ocha that formed from the fusion of Yoruba and Catholic elements was accompanied by rhythms, usually played on drums that had various names, depending on their size, such as okonkoloitótele and iya. The güiro or abwes and drums called iyesas, which were cylindrical in form with a single drumhead, were other instruments that were used. In a complex system, the Catholic saints (imposed) corresponded to various deities or orishas in the Yoruba pantheon, and each had a particular pattern or rhythm.

New religious and musical displays of the Bantu people, though less obvious than the Yorubas, also were created on Cuban territory. The dominant instruments in these forms were the makuta drums from which congas, drums frequently used in Afro-Caribbean bands, were derived. Other African influences can be seen in the Abakuás groups or the ñáñigas and Ararás sects and in the French tumbas of eastern Cuba, which displayed percussive virtuosity with a variety of drums.

These interacting influences of African displays in Cuba gave way to new genres and rhythms beyond the scope of the limitation of rituals. This led to countless rhythmic patterns, instruments and elements that permeated Cuban popular culture and, naturally, its music.

The rumba, a primordially urban and secular genre, consists of three styles known as the guaguancó, the columbia and the yambú. Spanish and African elements were synthesized in the rumba, with the latter influence having the larger effect. The rumba developed after emancipation as various socio-economic layers converged in the poor urban sectors.

Musical syncretism

Cuban popular music’s influence on the international scene is in large part a product of the beautiful and harmonious synthesis of the European and neo-African elements in many of the popular genres. The son, which originated in eastern Cuba, can be considered the epitome of that musical fusion.

In the montuno son, the European characteristics are more obvious, as seen in the predominance of string instruments (the guitar and the tres). By 1920, it was famous in Havana. Its subsequent evolution was marked by the sophistication of the sound, by the inclusion of complex jazz harmonies, and by the gradual adoption of faster beats and more aggressive percussion.

The canción and the bolero were two of the most popular genres in the Cuban popular repertoire. Various rhythmic and harmonic elements associated with European and African influences converged in both. Singer Pepe Sánchez is credited with originating the bolero with his song Tristezas in 1883. This genre, primarily slow and romantic, but danceable, used the cinquillo pattern in its beautiful melodies. In its most traditional forms it consisted of 17 verses with an interlude. Some of the most outstanding composers in the early 20th century were Sindo Garay, Rosendo Ruiz and Alberto Villalón, later joined by Nilo Méndez and Manuel Corona. The Cuban bolero found fertile ground throughout the Caribbean Basin and in Mexico thanks to composers of such renown as Rafael Hernández and Pedro Flores of Puerto Rico or Agustín Lara, Roberto Cantoral, Fernando Maldonado and Armando Manzanero of Mexico.

Revolutionary period

The revolutionary period has nurtured new styles, bands and rhythms that have become internationalized. In dance music, two outstanding examples are Los Van Van and Irakere, two groups influenced by jazz but retaining popular and danceable forms.

But the most distinctive music of this era was associated with the Revolution and is known as nueva trova: the Cuban version of Latin America’s nueva canciónNueva trova was born in the early 1970s and since then its most emblematic representatives have been Pablo Milanés and Silvio Rodríguez, both of whom became international stars, especially among the educated youths of Latin America. The main sounds of this musical style are more based on rock ballads than on Afro-Cuban music. Their themes, though varied, are mostly about love, but also socio-political in nature. In the early 1990s, Carlos Varela joined the ranks of the nueva trova signers, expressing the sentiments of youth.

Cuban music, especially popular music, goes far beyond its geographic borders, reaching into all of Latin America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.



Author: Zahira Cruz
Published: April 25, 2012.

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