Music in Global America



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. 

Video Presentation: Cuba 3 - Cuban Music in the Early 20th Century


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 casinos (owned by American mobsters) and new hotels lined wide boulevards. Such venues 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, a string bass, timbales, and guiro, as can be heard 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.  


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. [David Peñalosa,  Rumba Quinto. Redway, CA: Bembe Books (2011) 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 ("mixed-race") 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 guitarstring bass,* tresclavesbongó, 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. 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 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." performed here by Cuban musician Luis Bofill in a tribute concert to Arsenio Rodriguez.
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, in 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.  “La Gente del Bronx”  ("The People of The 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]  


Video Presentation: Cuba 4 - Cuban Music in the United States

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. throughout 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 "El Manisero" ("The Peanut Vendor")  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 to 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 portrays Cuba as a land of jungles, 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 popularized the new music and dance that became a craze in the U.S. and Latin American during the 1950's: the mamboPrado'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, Brooklyn. 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 montuno fomat, its call-and-response 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.

Lyrics translation: The classes in cha cha chá are about to begin. We will teach you how to dance the cha cha chá. The professor is here. The professor will help you. Come to dance. Come and enjoy with your cha cha chá partner.


 Video Presentation: Cuba 5 - Afro-Cuban Jazz, Salsa, and Reggaetón

Afro-Cuban jazz is the earliest form of 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 Cuban 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]
Salsa literally means "sauce," usually a spicy chili sauce in Mexican cuisine. In music, it is a general term to describe a "hot" style of Latin dance music. Salsa originated in New York City as a fusion of Cuban and Puerto Rican dance music. Its basic template is the Cuban son, with added elements from Afro-Cuban jazz and Puerto Rican folk genres (plena and bomba). Machito is recognized as a seminal figure in salsa, although he objected to the term. "It's the same old music that was played in Cuba for fifty years," he told an interviewer in Salsa Magazine in 2005. Nevertheless, the term stuck, as the Latin style of dance music became commercialized and popularized internationally.
The most important step in its commercialization was the New York based Fania Records, founded by Dominican-born Johnny Pacheco and Brooklynite Jerry Masucci in 1964. Fania started as a small company (Pacheco sold independently-produced recordings from the trunk of his car) catering to the New York Latino community, but soon became a wildly successful label and promotion company. Scores of Latin musicians gained national and international fame and fortune recording for Fania.
Early salsa stars included Tito Puente ("King of Latin Music"), a Harlem-born native of Puerto Rican descent, and Celia Cruz ("Queen of Salsa"), a singer whose career began in her hometown of Havana, and who emigrated to the United States after the Cuban Revolution. Puente and Cruz often performed together. One of their biggest hits was "Celia y Tito."
In the 1960's and 1970's, the second wave of salsa musicians was led by Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón. Lavoe was born in Puerto Rico in 1946 and moved to New York City with his family at the age of 16. He won praise for his high, clear vocals and ebullient personality on stage. Colón was born in the South Bronx in 1950 to parents of Puerto Rican descent and began his musical career at the age of 15. The two men joined forced in 1967 and together produced fourteen albums in the 1970's and 1980's before Lavoe's tragic death from AIDS in 1993. Colón is noted for the aggressive, all-trombone sound of his band, and for his songwriting skills. He set the all-time record for sales in salsa with forty productions netting 30 million in sales worldwide. He is also a leading figure as a civil rights and political activist.

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