Music in Global America


Photo by Charles Trainor Jr. for The Miami Herald, April 25, 2000. Used with permission.


Only about five percent of enslaved Africans were brought directly to North America during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The southern slave states did not need to import large numbers of Africans because slaves were bred in order to create a permanent self-regenerating slave population.

The figure also indicates that the African population in North America originated in Senegambia and the West Coast while a great proportion of Africans brought to the West Indies and Brazil originated in the Congo forest region. Differences between the music-dance cultures in these two regions of origin -- Forest and Sahel -- help to explain  how black musical cultures in the United States diverged from rest of the Americas. 

Throughout most of Central and Southern Africa, the basic principles of music making are polyrhythm, and cyclic repetition of short melodic patterns. Drums and drumming, and percussion instruments in general, are extremely important. Singing and dancing is communal, and often sacred. Call-and-response format between groups is pervasive. Cuban music, as shaped by slaves and free blacks, emphasizes all of these characteristics. Afro-Cuban religions are closely tied to traditional African religious systems and practices in which polyrhythmic drumming, dancing, and call-and-response singing are necessary elements. These  principles became part of secular music as well: percussion, interlocking rhythmic patterns, repeating melodic patterns, and call and response singing are essential components of Cuban dance music.  

In the Sahel rhythm is generally metric rather than intensely polyrhythmic. Plucked and bowed string instruments, rather than drums, predominate among both settled and nomadic peoples of the region. Vocal music features more soloists, often professionals, especially in traditionally hierarchic societies where griots and jalis were a necessary part of royal courts. Vocal style is often tense, declamatory, and melismatic, reflecting the greater degree of Arab/Islamic influence. A pentatonic scale with wavering, sliding pitches is a marked characteristic of the Sahel. These aspects are reflected in the early musical cultures of North American blacks. Throughout the United States, African slaves and free blacks played string instruments such as the banjo and violin, and developed vocal musical genres such as the blues that have clear connections to African pentatonicism, and vocal and instrumental styles that display bent and sliding pitches. In the United States, African rhythmic practices survived in disguised form, as slaves were prohibited from playing drums.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Conditions of Slavery in the New World

The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes

The musical cultures of Cuba's slaves and their descendants are more closely linked to their African origins than those in the United States.  The differences are due to the dynamics of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and to the conditions of slavery in Spanish colonies compared to North America. Simply put, Africans in North America had a longer and more forced period of acculturation, whereas slaves in Cuba came from Africa at a later date, were less subject to acculturation, and had closer ties to African cultures. 

The African slave trade to Cuba began in the 16th century on a very small scale. Before 1840 most slavery in Cuba was domestic, rather than agricultural. Many Cuban slaves could work part time on their own, purchase their freedom, and even become wealthy, so that there developed a sizable urban black bourgeoisie in nineteenth-century Cuba. Nearly all the Africans brought to Cuba were males between 15 and 20 years of age, making impossible a family-based regeneration model to maintain the slave population. Instead, newly enslaved Africans were needed to replace those who died, and those who were worked to death on sugar plantations. In the United States, on the other hand, slaveholders found it more economical to create a slave class through domestic regeneration and the ideology of heritable, life-long slavery. 

In Cuba, slaves lived and worked outside of the cities and neighborhoods of the Spanish population, in geographically or demographically circumscribed areas. Slaves were not likely to be exposed to Spanish culture, and they were able to develop cohesive communities, unlike slaves who worked on the small-scale plantations of the southern U.S. slave states. Cabildos, mutual aid societies whose members came from the same African region of origin, actually enabled various ethnic groups to retain their languages, cultures, and beliefs, and to continue (often covertly) their native religious practices, which always included drumming, dancing, and singing as crucial elements.

Africans in Cuba also retained their religious practices and beliefs by syncretizing (blending) their religions with Catholicism, "disguising African spirits with Catholic identities" and "incorporating the conqueror's forms, symbols, and rituals as it pleased or as necessary." [Sublette] In Cuba today drumming is still a necessary part of some religions.

In the U.S. southern states, by contrast, slave owners made every effort to scatter African communities, destroy native language and culture, and separate family members.  Drumming, dancing and singing were prohibited, or at least discouraged, especially since Methodists regarded dancing as sinful. Even so, Africans in the United States managed to continue their religious practices in disguised form, and African religious concepts and practices came to be expressed in the context of Protestant Christianity.


Cuba is the origin of much of the world's dance music: Rumba, Son, Bolero, Salsa, Mambo, Cha Cha Chá, and Timba, to name a few.  Cuba's influence on Latin music is pervasive throughout Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America. Latin music, in the view of scholars such as John Roberts, has been "the greatest outside influence on the popular music styles of the US, and by a very wide margin." (John Roberts, The Latin Tinge)



Contemporary Cuban music was forged in the slave cultures of the island. Slaves in Cuba came from different regions but shared two things: religious beliefs that held drumming, dance, and singing as sacred; and polyrhythmic music. For a variety of reasons, Cuban slaves were able to continue, modify, conceal, or disguise the danced religions of Africa. Cuban dance music evolved from the unique percussion instruments and rhythms of these syncretized religious practices. The African practice of call and response developed into highly sophisticated devices in Cuban song forms.  


From the beginning of Spanish colonization in the sixteenth century, Cuba had a small population of free and enslaved blacks. African slave trading began in earnest after 1790. Slavery was abolished in Cuba in 1880 but did not completely take effect until 1886. Over the period of slavery Africans in Cuba developed a rich music-dance culture that would in time come to influence music throughout the Western hemisphere, Europe, and West Africa.  

Africans who were brought to Cuba during the trans-Atlantic slave trade came in three major groups. Each group came from a different part of the West Coast of Africa and brought its own strong cultural identity. Drums, call-and-response singing, dance, and religious ritual blended in these cultures. 

The first group, who arrived in the early colonial period, were Bantu-speaking people of the Congo region. These slaves were brought to the port of Santiago de Cuba on the east part of the island, isolated from the Spanish population by mountain ranges. Their religious systems became the Afro-Cuban religion known as palo monte. Ceremonies involve drumming, singing, and dancing to call on natural powers (Kimpungulu), or to communicate with spirits of ancestors. Ceremonial drums, based on the construction of drums of the African forest region, are essential in these modes of communication. In this respect, as in many others, palo is a continuation of West Central African religious systems. 

The second group of African slaves, the Carabali, came from the Calabar (the Cross River region of southeastern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroon)  from the period 1821-1840. The carabali were brought to Matanzas, which they helped to develop into a major port and shipyard. They formed a secret male fraternity, Abakuá, whose members converse in a secret language and whose performances by Los Muñequitos de Matanzas are legendary. The carabali were important in the development of rumba, "the wellspring of Cuban music." [Sublette]

A third wave of African slaves, the Yoruba (or Lucumí) from present-day southern Nigeria, were imported from 1851 to 1860 to work on the sugar plantations. Large-scale sugar production demanded intensive mass labor. Cuba had not witnessed the brutality of such slavery, on such a scale, previously. As in Haiti and Brazil, slave drivers on sugar plantations worked slaves to death; because the supply of slaves was plentiful and relatively cheap, they could simply be replaced. 

The Yoruba maintained their religious practices by mixing or disguising them with Catholicism. The religious system is known today as Regla de Ocha or santería. Santería shares with palo a sacred drum-song tradition and many of the same or similar divinities, known in santería as orishas.

The three sacred drums of santería are the African batá drums

In this video the participants in the ceremony sing while the batá drummers play a toque (complex rhythmic pattern) for the orisha Changó, who is represented by the dancer. Changó corresponds to Nsasi in palo and to Saint Barbara in Catholicism, all of whom are dressed in red and white and wield a sword or ax. The dancer or participants in the ceremony may become possessed ("mounted") by an orisha during santería ceremonies, exhibiting the stereotypical movements and behavior of that particular orisha. Both palo and santería are still practiced throughout Cubas, not only by blacks; and in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, the United States, and elsewhere. 

Music for the batá drums alone, without singing or dance, is called oru (or oro) seco. The three drums are the same as those in religious ceremonies, but are not sacred. The repertory of oru seco consists of a vast set of toques, each associated with a particular orisha, and played in a particular order.  



Afro-Cubans invented or modified percussion instruments that are now standard members of Latin music and fusions. These include the tumbadoras, bongó, timbales, maracas, guiro, and claves

Tumbadora and Bongó

The tumbadora (known everywhere as conga drum) was invented in the nineteenth century by Cuban slaves working on shipyards. Originally tumbadoras were fashioned by piecing together salvaged barrels staves, a method that circumvented the Spanish prohibition of Africans drums, which are carved from a single block of wood. 

Tumbadoras are often grouped like drum ensembles on the West Coast of Africa:  three drums of different sizes and pitch ranges, with a fourth instrument of contrasting timbre — such as a cowbell — providing a time line. Unlike similar African ensembles, in which the lowest-pitched drum takes the lead, the lead drum of the tumbadoras is the smallest and highest pitched, the quinto.  

Bongó is an attached pair of drums usually referred to as bongos in America. The larger drum is called hembra (female), and the smaller drum macho (male). Such a pairing of instruments is said to be sexed, and is a typical way of pairing instruments in sub-Saharan Africa. The bongó was a prohibited instrument that was played in secret.


Afro-Cubans were quick to transform Spanish kettledrums into open-bottomed  drums called timbales, played with sticks on a variety of positions on the drum head as well as  on the wood or metal shell of the instrument. 

Maracas and Guiro

These instruments of indefinite pitch are probably indigenous to Amerindians. They are played throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central and South America. 
Maracas are a pair of gourds filled with seeds or similar material, and shaken to create rhythmic patterns. (Nowadays synthetic materals are also used.) Cuban maracas are sexed, suggesting African origin, while Colombian maracas are not, suggesting pre-Columbian origin.

The guiro is a gourd, or a gourd-shaped wooden or metal instrument, notched on one side and played by scraping a stick across the ridges to create a sharp rasping sound.  Guiros were played by pre-Columbian Indians as well as by Africans.


Claves (pronounced kla-vays) are a sexed pair of percussion instruments made of hard tropical wood found in Cuba, such as rosewood. This unique and eminently useful instrument was invented in eighteenth-century Havana shipyards by black Muslim slaves and Spanish prisoners from the giant wooden nails that held ships together.
The claves produce a distinctively dry high-pitched "click" that can cut through dense textures. The short repeating clave pattern is the "organizational spine" of all rhythmic activity, functioning like a time line in African music by establishing an eight-beat time cycle.  The clave pattern underlies all Cuban dance music and most Latin dance music. The same pattern occurs across Africa and suffuses popular music of the past hundred years.

The claves were from the beginning linked to song. There were no drums or guitars allowed in the shipyard.…the claves locked the black [workers] and white [Spanish prisoners] together in song — the process of creolization in action… The negros curros [free blacks] brought them into the taverns and gambling houses .. outside the city walls, where sailors and chusma [galley slaves and criminals] were always arriving with new carceleras [prison songs] and martinetes (blacksmith songs).The claves were enthusiastically adopted by the whites, who despised the drums as a thing of negros [blacks] and whose music was more an occasion for singing and poetic improvisation than for dancing. [Sublette]

The clave pattern evolved from earlier rhythmic patterns. The habanera is the generative rhythmic pattern. Its distinctive feature is a "displacement" of the second beat. Clicks (represented by X's) coincide with beats 1, 3, and 4; but the second click occurs between beats 2 and 3. 

Habanero Rhythmic Pattern

One measure in meter of 4:          1       2         3        4   |     

Habanero pattern:                         X           X     X        X   |

The habanera pattern is heard in the bass line of this famous aria from the French Carmen by George Bizet

Tresillo Rhythmic Pattern

The tresillo is similar to the habanera — the second beat is again "displaced" but the third beat is not sounded at all.

One measure in meter of 4:       1      2        3      4   |    

Tresillo pattern:                         X          X            X   |   

Clave Rhythmic Pattern

The clave pattern is comprised of two measures, a total of  eight beats. The first half of the three-two clave pattern is the tresillo pattern; in the second half, the claves are struck on the second and third beats. 

Three-Two Clave Pattern

Two measures in meter of 4:      1      2        3       4    |   1     2     3      4  |

Three-two clave pattern:            X          X             X    |          X     X          |

The two-three clave pattern simply reverses the order of the two halves:

Two-Three Clave Pattern

Two measures in meter of 4:      1      2       3       4   |    1     2      3      4  |

Two-three clave pattern:                    X       X            |    X         X          X  |

Some instances of the clave pattern outside of Cuba:


Musical Instruments

Beginning in the eighteenth century, the sizable free black population in Cuba had increasing access to European instruments. The Spanish army in Cuba established black battalions which gave certain social classes of Afro-Cubans the opportunity to learn wind instruments — fife, trumpet, clarinet —  as well as to learn musical notation and compositional techniques. 

The tres, a plucked string instrument, was created by Afro-Cubans by adapting the Spanish bandurria. It has three widely spaced pairs of strings. Treseros -- musicians who play the instrument -- use a pick and an emphatic plucking technique that gives the tres a percussive quality.
In Sevilla, Spain, the modern six-course acoustic guitar was invented in 1749. By the 19th century it had become a common instrument in the New World, especially among people  in the lower classes, who often rigged together homemade guitars out of odds and ends. Among the black and mulatto bourgeoisie of Santiago de Cuba the guitar became the instrument accompanying heartfelt solo love songs (canciónes) that married Spanish poetic forms and song traditions to Afro-Cuban rhythm.  

Spanish Guitar

Singer-songwriters would become known as trovadores. Some were itinerant musicians who traveled with their guitars outside of the Oriente, to Havana, then to Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. Eventually, recordings made their songs part of Cuba's national heritage and became known world wide.

Sindo Garay (1867 - 1968!) is the most revered figure in this group. Garay supplemented his meager earnings as a musician by performing as a circus acrobat from the age of nine and taught himself to read at the age of sixteen. Guitars were looked down upon by the Spanish upper classes until the 1920s when the guitar became a fashionable. In time guitarists developed a highly florid and sophisticated style of playing.

Garay's trova Perla Marina performed by famed Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez:

The French Connection

A great influx of French immigrants to Cuba occurred in 1801 when tens of thousands of French colonials, their slaves, and free blacks fled the slave revolution that would result in the first black republic in the New World, Haiti. The elite French immigrants changed the backwater port of Santiago de Cuba into an enclave of shady coffee plantations and haciendas where elegant dances were held. As an indirect consequence of the Napoleonic wars, the French were expelled from Cuba in 1809. Most resettled in New Orleans.

With the restoration of peace between Spain and France in 1814, many French emigrants were allowed to return to Santiago de Cuba. Through the mid-nineteenth century other French colonists and nationals emigrated to the Oriente. [Wikipedia]

The French left their mark on Cuban music with the introduction of the piano, the popularization of the flute, and the contradanza.  

Theatrical Music in Cuba

Cuba's first theater opened in Havana, in 1775. The grand theaters, opera houses, music conservatories, and concert halls of Havana did not appear until the early 20th century. 

Theaters in the 19th century were the outlet for popular music and dance, such as the Bufos Cubanos, vaudevillian variety shows with stereotyped black characters performed by whites in blackface, a practice brought by visiting minstrel show companies from the United States. Black performers excelled in improvised satirical songs known as guarachas.



In the early 1900s the musical genres created by Afro-Cubans spread in waves across the Caribbean, South America, Mexico, Europe, part of Africa and the United States. During the same period, American jazz was having an international impact, and Cuban music would be affected by jazz bands throughout the 1940s, just as Cuban music and dance became enormously popular in the U.S. Television and movies reinforced stereotypical views of Cuba and Afro-Cuban culture while at the same time encouraging the Cuban dance crazes that familiarized Americans with Cuban music. Latin jazz (aka Afro-Cuban jazz) arose from the interaction of Cuban and New York musicians who played and recorded together. 


The Cuban War of Independence from Spain began in 1895. José Martí — the great hero of Cuba's liberation and a champion of racial equality — and General Antonio Maceo, the “Bronze Titan,”  led integrated troops from the countryside against the Spanish military. To quell the uprising the Spanish government forced 300,000 people from the countryside into concentration camps, where large numbers died of epidemics and hunger. There was also a mass movement into Cuban cities of rural black refugees, who brought with them musical cultures that began to shape the future of Cuban music. 

A mysterious explosion on the U.S. battleship Maine offshore of Cuba in 1898 triggered U.S. intervention to keep Cuba from becoming an independent revolutionary state and set off the Spanish-American War. That same year the war ended with Spain ceding Cuba to U.S. custody. (Spain also ceded possession of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands to the U.S.) The U.S. refused to recognize the Cuban Liberation Army and immediately established a military government in Cuba, which became a “captive territory of the U.S.” Americans installed segregation, limited suffrage, appropriated peasants' lands, and took control of industries and capital.  "The famous corruption of the government of the future Cuban republic proceeded from a simple cause: government was the only vehicle for Cubans to enrich themselves.” The U.S. would occupy Cuba three times, from 1898-1902, 1906-1909, and 1917-1922.  “Three things would remain constant: one, the U.S. would give the orders and preempt the Cuban government if necessary; two, the Cuban government would be corrupt …; and, three, the black people would be kept off the governmental gravy train and generally get the short end of the stick.” In 1906, in a campaign to "whiten" Cuba's population and reinforce racism, a new wave of Spanish citizens were recruited to immigrate into Cuba. 

In 1912 black war veterans formed an Afro-Cuban party to demand reparations. In response the government slaughtered three thousand black veterans and imprisoned thousands more black citizens. With help of the United States and the Catholic church, and support from the black bourgeoisie, the government raided Afro-Cuban temples and burned sacred drums. “White Cubans formed militias. Bands of whites attacked blacks on the street in Havana. Constitutional guarantees were suspended. Suspected rebels were arrested or killed…. the need to defend white civilized Cuba from black 'witchcraft' and savagery was extolled.” Government forces machine gunned 150 peaceful peasant protesters, including entire families. The presence of U.S. Marines offshore allowed the Cuban army to indiscriminately kill 3,000 - 6,000 blacks. Comparsas, noisy street parades by black Cubans during Carnival period, were prohibited. Despite the violence, racism, and contempt directed towards Afro-Cubans, music and dance traditions continued to be practiced in the poor black communities situated in slum tenements outside the core city.

Havana was undergoing an economic boom in the first two decades of the century. Massive construction projects took place in the capital. Opera, symphonic music, and music conservatories were flourished. Tourist-friendly high class nightclubs and hotels lined the boulevards. Such institutions however were closed to people of color. 

Cuban society remained highly segregated throughout the 1930s but in 1940 the Cuban constitution outlawed racial discrimination. Black, white, and "in-between" Cubans began to enjoy each other's music and attend each other's clubs and events. The European-influenced charanga and the more Africanized son also shared in the exchange, as audiences began listening and dancing to both.

[Ned Sublette, Cuba and Its Music, Chapters 19 and 24]


The danzón evolved from earlier forms that mixed European and Cuban musical traditions in the late nineteenth century. Manuel Saumell, of a destitute Havana family, is credited by Alejo Carpentier as the composer of Cuba's first nationalist music. Saumell creolized the European contradanza by adding Cuban percussion instruments and rhythmic patterns to his elegant compositions for European winds and strings, such as "La Suavecita."   In the late 19th century, the danza, an intermediate step from contradanza to danzón, was best represented by the piano compositions of Ignacio Cervantes.

The dance of Cuba's black neighborhoods was the danzón, in which couples paired off and danced in close embrace, with shuffling steps and ample pelvic movements that scandalized polite Cuban society. Originally the danzón was played by an orquesta tipico, a military-style brass band with a few violins, bass, timbales, and guiro, as in the 1879 composition "Las Alturas de Simpson" by the "father of the danzón," Miguel Faílde. The African rhythms and sensuality of the dance were irresistible to the younger generation, and dance mania climaxed in the late 19th century when Cuba finally won its independence from Spain. 

The danzón was considerably toned down when it moved indoors to classy salons where  jovenes y señoritas of "proper" Spanish society moved under the watchful eyes of chaperones. The earlier orquesta tipico was replaced by ensembles led by violin, flute, and piano rather than loud brass instruments and timbales. Nevertheless a door had been opened. A truly unique Cuban dance music, incorporating European and African elements, had been created.  


A rumba is a party, and also refers to each of the activities that drive the gathering: instrumental music, dance, and song, all performed with a high level of improvisation. Rumba's erotic, informal, hip-swinging dance style, Afro-Cuban instruments, complex rhythmic layering, and improvisational skills have since become identified with popular Latin dance worldwide.

Rumba arose in among Afro-Cubans in Matanzas and is first referred to in written documents of the late nineteenth century. Since hand drums were banned by the Spanish authorities, rumberos began to play on cajones (modified wooden boxes, i.e., drums in all but appearance), spoons, and claves. 

Havana street rumba

There are three types of dances associated with rumba, all showing strong influences from African dance. The dances are accompanied by percussion instruments and call-and-response singing. Of the three, the yambú is the slowest in tempo, as it is meant to represent the dance movements of an older couple. The flashy solo male dance is the columbia. But the sexiest and most influential of the rumba dances is the fast-tempo couples dance, the guaguancó. The couple in guaguancó engage in vacunao, a game of "pursuit-and-capture" by the male, while the female makes a show of blocking his overt advances. 

Solar de los 6: RUMBA GUAGUANCO

David Peñalosa describes the game of vacunao that the dance involves:

Guaguancó is a couple dance of sexual competition between the male and female. The male periodically attempts to “catch” his partner with a single thrust of his pelvis. This erotic movement is called the vacunao (‘vaccination’ or more specifically ‘injection’), a gesture ... symbolizing sexual penetration. The vacunao can also be expressed with a sudden gesture made by the hand or foot. ... Holding onto the ends of her skirt while seductively moving her upper and lower body in contrary motion, the female “opens” and “closes” her skirt in rhythmic cadence with the music. The male attempts to distract the female with fancy (often counter-metric) steps, accented by the quinto [high-pitched tumbadora], until he is in position to “inject” her. The female reacts by quickly turning away, bringing the ends of her skirts together, or covering her groin area with her hand (botao), symbolically blocking the “injection.” Most of the time the male dancer does not succeed in “catching” his partner. The dance is performed with good-natured humor. [Peñalosa, David (2011). Rumba Quinto. Redway, CA: Bembe Books,p. xxii]


The son Cubano was the first Cuban music that merged the many different Spanish and Afro-Cuban traditions and genres that had developed by the early twentieth century  — African call-and-response singing;  Spanish-influenced peasant song;  the romantic songs of the trovadores;  accompaniment on Spanish guitar and Afro-Cuban instruments;  and the rhythms and dance forms of rumba. 

The son appeared in the Oriente in the late 19th century and was carried to the cities by members of the army who were sent out from their areas of origin. The son first arrived in the black communities of Matanzas and Havana where rumba was already firmly established. At first the son was hidden from the authorities, especially since black drums were still persecuted. By the 1920s the son had become urbanized and essentially replaced the danzón as preferred music for song and dance.  When Gerardo Machado became president in 1925, he encouraged the playing of sones (possibly to thumb his nose at elite Cuban society), and the popularity of son skyrocketed. Sextetos played at private social clubs segregated by race, class, and ethnicity; and at "dance academies" which were really fronts for prostitution where Spanish men (no blacks were allowed) mixed with black and mulato women. Black son ensembles also played and at encerronas (literally, "lockdowns"). "These parties, put on by white gentlemen of means and some political immunity, would take place in mansions or on estates and last for days ... for entertainment, there were plenty of women, and there was a well-paid band." [Sublette]

Radio broadcasting, which began in Cuba in 1922, was a major force in the growth of the son and other popular musical genres because it provided publicity, a large audience, and a new source of income for the artists. Radio also exposed the Cuban public to American jazz. Broadcasts, tours by Cuban artists, and recordings by Cuban bands in the first part of the century spread Cuban music to an international audience. Sublette connects the spread of son Cubano to the influence of American blues and jazz, Argentino tango, and Brazilian samba, which he likens to a "hemispheric musical revolution": "The music of the underclasses was for the first time directly available to vast numbers of potential consumers. This would constitute a major means of empowerment for black people. As the son became more or less acceptable--ultimately becoming lionized by Cuba's white intellectuals--Cuban culture took on a new, blacker image."

Instruments of the Son

The most characteristic instruments of the early son sexteto (sextet) are Spanish guitar, string bass,* tres, claves, bongó, and maracas. Two or more of the instrumentalists also sing while they play. With the addition of trumpet, the sexteto became a septeto (septet).

*The string bass, a European instrument
introduced to Cuba by U.S. jazz players,
replaced the softer, more range-limited
instruments — marimbula
and botijuela — that provided the bass part
in the earlier stages of the son.
Both can be  seen/heard playing with the
Septeto Tipico de Sones performing
"Cuarto de Tula" by Luis Marquetti.

The main lyrics are translated in the
"comments" box. 


Structure and Texture in Son Montuno

The form of the traditional son joins the Spanish verse-structured song form to African rhythms and call-and-response singing.  A son begins with an instrumental introduction after which a soloist sings several verses, sometimes joined by a second vocalist singing in harmony. The second part of the structure, the montuno, features call and response between an improvising vocal soloist (sonero), and an answering group of two or three voices (coro) singing the refrain.

The instrumental accompaniment in son is a polyrhythmic fabric of interlocking patterns governed by the three-two (or two-three) clave pattern. Each layer of the music has a role in the texture. Maracas usually have a simple fixed pattern. The tres and bass instrument play interlocking patterns. The bongósero often departs from the standard repeating patterns to improvise complex rhythms. 

Ned Sublette describes the importance of independent layers in the son's texture as a gateway to funk and other popular dance music styles. "This sense of instruments having independent functions within a rhythmic key [clave], which did not exist in any highly developed way in the U.S. at the time, would pervade popular music worldwide." 

To appreciate the intricacies of how these various elements work, it's worth taking a close look at the functions of the tres and of the bass. The tres has three widely spaced pairs of strings. It is played using a hard pick and an emphatic plucking technique that gives  a percussive quality. While the tres is often played as a melody instrument and may take a featured role at some point in a son, its main function is to provide a guajeo, a repeating melodic-rhythmic cell that interlocks with the patterns of other instruments/vocals. (As the son ensemble grew, other instruments, especially piano, took over this role.) The guajeo is similar to the repeating riffs of Central African music: it combines polyrhythmically with the other instruments and vocals, especially the bass patterns known as tumbaos. The electric bass player in the video on the right plays a tumbao against a 2-3 clave pattern. In the second half of the video he plays much faster and makes the bass line more melodic.


Arsenio was born in Cuba's Matanzas province to a poor family of Congo origin. He was blind from the age of seven, the result of a mule kick. He showed musical perspicacity at an early age, playing Afro-Cuban instruments before devoting his talents to the tres, eventually becoming one of history's greatest treseros.

Arsenio Rodriguez is the most important musician associated with the son from the 1930s through the 1950s, the "golden age" of son. Orlando Fiol in "Musical Travel and the Blind Imagination" writes that "Arsenio’s innovations became the foundation of both Cuba’s subsequent conjunto tradition and pan-Latin salsa." Max Salazar in Mambo Kingdom claims that Rodriguez was "the best musician to come out of Cuba. No one will ever top the legacy he left us.”

Rodriguez was the key figure in forming and composing for larger bands, influenced by the multiple trumpets and saxophones in American jazz bands. In 1940 he formed the conjunto, an ensemble of three singers (playing claves, maracas, and guitar) two to four trumpets, tres, piano, and string bass. He brought cowbell, a metal percussion instrument, into the son montuno. Rodriguez also introduced the the Afro-Cuban tumbadora and bongó -- previously forbidden hand drums -- playing as a pair, as in "Tumba y Bongó." It was not until 1942 that all of the hand drums previously prohibited in public became acceptable. 

His songs were also arranged for all-white bands like the Orquesta Casino de la Playa. An orquesta adds saxophone and violin to the conjunto. This famous orquesta was the house band at one of Havana's classiest casinos. Such venues were open only to white clients and hired only white musicians. Ironically, many of Rodriguez's songs such as "Bruca Maniguá" ("Harsh Land") celebrated black pride and African heritage while criticizing the history of racism and continuing discrimination in Cuban society. 

Yo soy carabalí, negro de nación; sin la libertad, no pue'o viví
(I am carabalí, black of nation; without freedom, I can't live) 

The white man [slave owner] with his hostility/ he’s always deceiving/
he’s saying many things I don’t understand / he always mistreats me /
he’s killed me / with his abuse.

[translation as per David Garcia, Arsenio Rodriguez]

Rodriguez was one of the most famous and popular musicians in New York City during  the 1950s. He is credited with "bringing the mambo rhythm into the dance-halls from the Congolese-derived religious groups" in such songs as "Pimienta" [John Storm Roberts, The Latin Tinge]. In the 1960s Rodriguez experimented with various styles and genres, including a retro look at the sexteto format.  “El Elemento del Bronx”  locates Rodriguez as a member of the Hispanic community in New York. The song "celebrates local neighborhood music and cultural tastes. With lyrics such as ‘the people of the Bronx / dance mambo and danzón / they like dancing cha cha chá / they like dancing guaguancó / the people of the Bronx / they like to dance rock ’n’ roll’  and ‘the barrio is for dancing/the barrio is for having fun,’ these songs positioned the uptown scene as the place for music and dancing." [Christina Abreu, Rhythms of Race]  


Beginning in 1920s Harlem Afro-Cuban musicians met and fraternized with musicians from Puerto Rico, and Central and South America.  Cuban musicians immigrated to New York, stayed on extended visits, or toured internationally from a home base in the U.S. thoughout the 1940s and 1950s.  In New York,

dancers partied in apartments and basements with Victrolas and 78-rpm records. There was a blaring jukebox at the Weekend Bar on 108th street and Madison Avenue, where the kids gathered  out front to listen and dance to the hits of the day. Then there were the local record stores, with their own small labels, where they played the discs before you paid.”   [Salazar, Mambo Kingdom]

The 1930 recording of "The Peanut Vendor" by Moisés Simon was the first Latin music million-selling song. Who would have thought that one song about a peanut vendor would bring about a worldwide obsession with Cuban music? The song was added to every U.S. dance band's worksheet. The National Recording Preservation Board notes that "this recording launched a decade of 'rumbamania', introducing U.S. listeners to Cuban percussion instruments and Cuban rhythms."
Some Cuban musicians in the U.S. crafted a type of performance that appealed mostly to white North American audiences throughout the first half of the century. "Desi Arnaz and other light-skinned charismatic musicians like him, including Xavier Cugat ... participated in the production of images and stereotypes that emphasized Cubanness as nonblackness, tropical escape, and sanitized exoticism." [Abreu, Rhythms of Race] 

Desi Arnaz rose to popularity after appearing in a 1940 Hollywood film version of the Broadway play Too Many Girls. "A boisterous lot of nonsense" snorted Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review and continued by exhibiting racist stereotypes that were widespread and acceptable at the time: "Mr. Arnaz is a noisy, black-haired Latin whose face, unfortunately, lacks expression and whose performance is devoid of grace." As it turned out, the public did not agree with Mr. Crowther, at least not about Desi. 
Desi's signature song was "Babalú-Ayé", but the singer who first recorded "Babalú-Ayé" was Miguelito Valdés. As a young man Miguelito decided to quit boxing and pursue music instead.  He gained a national reputation as a vocalist in the top Cuban bands, emigrated to New York in 1940, and launched his international career. This early clip of  portrays Cuba as a land of jungle,    unbridled macho peasantry, strange religious rites, lots of drums, and an eroticized "primitivism" directed at a white audience. The fact that Babalú-Ayé is an orisha in the santería religion, and that the song is one of praise, would of course be lost on non-Cuban listeners.   


Xavier Cugat's big band played at New York's Waldorf Astoria for many years, and he appeared in several Hollywood movies in the 1940s and 1950s, like this scene from Neptune's Daughter. 

Cugat, Machito, and other Cuban musicians were highly paid, but blacks were excluded from the Waldorf and other high-end venues, and only white-skinned musicians were allowed to play in the bands at such venues. In 1942 Cugat and similar bands earned twice as much as other Latin bands in New York "even though their repertoire at the downtown clubs consisted of bland, Americanized Latin tunes.” [Salazar, Mambo Kingdom]

Perez Prado was among of the first wave of Cuban composers and arrangers who brought the loud brassy sound of U.S. big bands (Bandas Gigantes) to Latin music and invented the new music and dance that became a craze in the U.S. and Latin American during the 1950's: the mambo. Prado's recordings sold more than any other Latin music of the day.  Under his leadership as pianist/arranger for the Orquesta Casino de la Playa in 1944, the orchestra began to sound more Afro-Cuban, and at the same time Prado took influences from avant-garde composer Igor Stravinsky,  jazz artist Stan Kenton, and others. By the time he left the orchestra in 1946 he had put together the elements of his big band mambo. His band was hugely popular when they toured Mexico in the 1940s and then located in New York City in the 1950s when the mambo craze took off in the U.S. 

The popular sitcom "The Honeymooners" began to air in 1955, during the peak of the mambo craze. The comedy series was the first to follow the everyday lives of working-class people. The title characters are Ralph, a New York City bus driver, and his wife Alice, who live in a run-down apartment building in Bushwick. In this episode, "Mama Loves Mambo," Ralph returns from work to find Alice and other female tenants of the apartment house learning how to mambo:

Tito Rodríguez (1923-1973) was a popular 1950s and 1960s singer and bandleader born in Santurce, Puerto Rico to a Dominican father and a Cuban mother. He became interested in music as a child. (His older brother was an important local bandleader.) He moved to New York City and performed with Latin bands in the 1940s, served in the U.S. Army during the Second World War, and returned to form his own band in New York. 

Tito's band was a charanga, the same ensemble that had arisen in Havana in the 1920s. The charanga is driven by Cuban percussion but favors flute, piano, and violins over the loud brass instruments of mambo. Charangas gradually adopted the son's montuno fomat, coro section and extended instrumental solos. The lighter sound of charanga was ideal for the chachachá, which rivaled mambo in popularity. By 1954, two-thirds of all New York recordings were chachachá. 
The Orquesta Aragón was founded in 1939 and is still active in Havana. One of Cuba's best and best-known charangas, Orquesta Aragón was a key ensemble in creating chachachá. Their recordings are classics in the genre. "Las Clases del Cha Cha Chá" ("Cha Cha Chá Classes") was written in 1955 by Mexican composers Sergio Marmolejo and Ramón Márquez.


Afro-Cuban Jazz

Afro-Cuban jazz is the earliest form of Latin jazz.  Latin jazz . It mixes Afro-Cuban  clave-based rhythms with jazz  harmonies and techniques of improvisation. Afro-Cuban jazz first emerged in the early 1940s with the Cbuan musicians Mario Bauzá and Machito in the band Machito and his Afro-Cubans , based in New York City. In 1947 the collaborations of bebop innovator Dizzy Gillespie  with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo  brought Afro-Cuban rhythms and instruments, most notably the tumbadora and the bongó , into the East Coast jazz scene. ["Afro-Cuban Jazz,' Wikipedia]


Cuban music and Cuban music in America post 1960. Possible topics: Palladium dance hall in NYC. Afro-Cuban jazz. Salsa as hybrid of Cuban and Puerto Rican music. Spanish rap and reggaetón.


Ned Sublette, Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, Chicago Review Press, 2004.

Christina Abreu, Rhythms of Race: Cuban Musicians and the making of Latino New York City and Miami, 1940-1960, University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

Raul Fernandez, From Afro-Cuban Rhythms to Latin Jazz, University of California Press, 2006.

Robin D. Moore, Music and Revolution: Cultural Change in Socalist Cuba, University of California Press, 2006.

John Storm Roberts, The Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin American Music on the United States

Max Salazar, Mambo Kingdom: Latin Music in New York, Schirmer Trade Books, New York, 2002.

This page references: