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 "Overview of the Slave Trade out of Africa" shows that the African population in North America originated primarily in Senegambia and the West Coast, while a great proportion of Africans brought to the West Indies and Brazil originated in the Congo/Cameroons/Angola forest region. Differences between the music-dance cultures in these two regions of origin — Sahel and Forest — 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 and 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 Arabic musical 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.  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. Unlike institutional slavery in the U.S., 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.

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)


Video Presentation: Cuba 1 - African Roots of Cuban Music

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 monte 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 monte 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 monte, and to Saint Barbara in Catholicism — all three figures 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 Cuba, 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, as they have not been blessed. The repertory of oru seco consists of a vast set of toques, each associated with a particular orisha, and played in a particular order.  


Video Presentation: Cuba 2 - Instruments and Rhythms in Cuban Music


Afro-Cubans invented, modified, and popularized percussion instruments that are now standard members of Latin music and fusions. These include the tumbadoras (conga drums), 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 that defines the cyclic framework. Unlike similar African ensembles, in which the lowest-pitched drum takes the lead, in Cuba the lead tumbadora is the smallest and highest pitched (the quinto). 

Bongó (or "bongos") is an attached pair of drums. 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, played in secret in Cuba, until the 1940s.


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 indigenous to both Africans and 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 indigenous 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 a time cycle of eight beats (two measures in 4/4 time).  The clave pattern (described below) 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. 

Habanera 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 that opens this famous aria from the 1875 opera Carmen by French composer Georges 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          |

Two-Three Clave Pattern

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

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 composition 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, the modern six-course Spanish 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. 

Singer-songwriters who accompanied themselves on guitar 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 worldwide.

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 instrument in high Spanish society. 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 during the Haitian Revolution when tens of thousands of French colonials, their slaves, and free blacks fled the slave revolt that birthed the first Black republic in the New World, Haiti, in 1804. 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.


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 Socialist 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.

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