Cuban music has been one of the island’s greatest exports. With roots in the European culture of the Spanish, the Afro-Caribbean culture of many of the Cuban people, and the jazz and pop of American nightclubs, Cuba’s musical influence is felt throughout Latin America and beyond.
Several internationally renowned styles began on the island, including rumba, son, salsa, danzon, mambo, and chachacha. All these styles are based upon complex rhythmic backing, descended from African and Afro-Caribbean drumming and dancing.
Today, the roles are reversed, as musicians from Africa often look to Cuba for their musical cues.
Rumba is the oldest of the various Cuban music styles. Its simple instrumentation --- all percussion with vocal accompaniment --- means that it can be heard throughout Cuba, at music houses, bars, and street corners. Havana’s Sabados de Rumba (Rumba Saturdays) provide a great outlet for roots-style rumba.
More elaborate musical styles evolved in Cuba in the first half of the twentieth century and became popular in the dance clubs of New York and Havana. Danzon, charanga, and chachacha fused Cuban rhythms with traditional European ballroom music and helped influence and were in turn influenced by American jazz. Several pioneers of Cuban danceclub music continue to perform in Havana, the Orquesta Aragon being perhaps the most notable. One modern band, Charanga Habanera, continues to experiment with musical styles, innovating the popular timba style.
Cuba’s most enduring musical style is son, another fusion of Afro-Caribbean and European traditions. Played over a rumba beat, the traditional son band features a tres (a type of Cuban guitar), guitar, bass, bongos, and a pair of vocalists (sonera). Today, son can be played in a variety of forms, from big brassy arrangements to rootsy country styles. Son was very popular in America in the years before the revolution, where it was molded into the popular salsa style prevalent across Latin America today.
The Cuban revolution put enormous strain on music in Cuba. Musicians often struggled to make a living, found it hard to record music, and were restricted from international touring. Beginning in the 1990s, Cuban music has been rediscovered by the international community, largely thanks to the hugely popular Buena Vista Social Club album, which united aging son players to record traditional and popular son music. In a completely different vein, the Paris-based Cuban hip hop group Orishas has become another international musical phenomenon --- one of the most popular Spanish-language rap groups in the world.
Cuba’s musical heritage continues to exert much influence on modern Latin American music. Cuban nueva trova (new ballad) music, which drew on the folk traditions of Cuba, Latin America, and France, and particularly its leading lights ---Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes --- is particularly respected in the Spanish-speaking world.
Music in Cuba is an essential part of the country’s culture. Make sure to seek it out on any visit to the island. Hearing the sounds of a Cuban son band can be one of the most rewarding experiences of a vacation to Cuba.