Rich, vibrant, layered and soulful, Cuban music has long acted as a standard-bearer for the sounds and rhythms emanating out of Latin America. From the down-at-heel docks of Matanzas to the bucolic local villages of the Sierra Maestra, everything from son, salsa, rumba, mambo, chachachá, charanga and danzón owe at least a part of their existence to the magical musical dynamism that was first ignited here.
Cuba’s contribution to world music isn’t just one band, or even one brand. It's an irresistible, irrepressible call to shake what your mama gave you; and a shot of joy straight to the heart.
You can argue all night about who created salsa (technically, it emerged out of the fertile Latin New York scene in the 1960s and 70s), but the truth is that few people can write it and perform it as well as the Cubans. Not convinced? Take a dance lesson in Havana, or head to one of the city’s two Casas de la Música and see the experts in motion. Or get hold of a few Celia Cruz albums and see if you don't become an instant convert.
An improbable blend of Bob Dylan, Celia Cruz, John Lennon, Víctor Jara and Joan Manuel Serrat, nueva trova is the Cuban Revolution’s lilting musical soundtrack, whose greatest exponents – Pablo Milanés and Carlos Puebla – came from Granma province. Nueva trova came of age in February 1968 at the Primer Encuentro de la Canción Protesta, a concert at the Casa de las Américas in Havana. Cuba’s own mini-Woodstock, the event resounded forcefully among leftists worldwide as a revolutionary alternative to American rock 'n' roll.
An exuberant mix of thumping drums and athletic dancing, rumba is Cuba’s African soul, a musical genre heavy with religious iconography and the painful echoes of slavery. See it at its best in Matanzas, upon whose docks many of the rhythms were first played out during the 1890s. Raw, expressive and exciting to watch, rumba is a spontaneous and often informal affair performed by groups of up to a dozen musicians. Conga drums, claves, palitos (sticks), marugas (iron shakers) and cajones (packing cases) lay out the interlocking rhythms, while the vocals alternate between a wildly improvising lead singer and an answering coro (chorus).
In Santiago they call it son, next door in Guantánamo province they call it sonchangüí - an eastern variation on a traditional Cuban theme that was born in provincial sugar refineries and influenced by slaves. Famously described by Cuban ethnologist Fernando Ortiz as ‘a love affair between the African drum and the Spanish guitar,’ the roots of this eclectic and intricately fused rural music lie in two distinct subgenres: rumba and danzón.
Love it or hate it, reggaetón is the sound of the moment in Cuba. This muscular mélange of rap, hip-hop, reggae and dance emanates ubiquitously from car radios, parks, squares, schoolyards and the hardnosed streets of its spiritual home – gritty Alamar. Despite being viewed early on as subversive and anti-revolutionary, Cuban hip-hop has gained unlikely support from the country's government, whose art-conscious legislators consider it to have played a constructive social role in shaping the future of Cuban youth. Fidel Castro even described reggaetón as 'the vanguard of the Revolution' and – allegedly – once tried his hand at rapping at a Havana baseball game.
This article was originally published in August 2009 and was refreshed in July 2017.