Cuban music is a dynamic, percussive, electric, colorful thing. It’s a hum, something that floats through the eaves and spills out of windows and infects all aspects of the culture. Its roots are deep and stretch across oceans, borrowing its guitar from the Spanish, its driving drums from West Africa, its lilt from Latin America. It is a breathing testament to the great diversity of the island; therefore, any true understanding of Cuba and its people must also involve an understanding of its music.
The earliest forms of popular music in Cuba were the Spanish Zarzuela, a bright operetta; the Bufo, comedic and satirical; the Guaracha, comedic with a rapid tempo; and the Trova, which was performed by traveling rovers who moved through Havana in the 19th century. As Cuban music evolved, it became more focused on dance: the Waltz, the Zapateo, the Criolla, the elegant and European Danzón and the Son, the most popular of Cuba’s traditional dances, most closely related to the Brazilian Samba or the Argentine Tango.
In the 1940s and 50s, jazz infested the island and the era of Big Band music began. Large scale Cuban jazz bands filled music halls with dotted rhythms and swinging melodies, all with the thrust of the Cuban Rumba. The Tropicana Cabaret Orchestra was one of the most popular musical groups on the island and drew large crowds of locals and tourists nightly. This period also marked the first time in which Cuban music began to infiltrate American sound waves.
In the modern day, Cuban music is known for its relentless mixing of genres. Cuban hip-hop, for example, often mixes the stylings of American rap with the melodies of Salsa and Afro-Cubano drum beats. Cubatón, Cuba’s answer to the Spanish reggae of Panama, is similarly mixed and is used to give voice to the social and political concerns of Cuban people.
Though Cubans take in and celebrate the music of popular Cuban artists, such as Gloria Estefan, Celia Cruz, Ibrahim Ferrer, Rita Marley and Silvio Rodríguez, the best way to experience Cuban music is, simply, to stumble upon it. Listen for the twang of a Spanish guitar pour out of a beachfront café. Groove to a new Reggaeton song as it blasts from a parked car. Spend a night dancing to Salsa in a local Havana dance hall. Take it in and let it wash over you and soon you’ll come to understand why music is such an important, and beautiful, part of Cuban culture.
This is a guest post by Fiona Moriarty