A (very) short introduction to Cuban Music

Beginning with the settlers in Cuba who came in with the second wave of colonizers, the musical life in Cuba was always rich. Cuba, as the colonizers discovered, was populated by three Indian tribes—the Siboney, the Taino, and the Guanatabey. The first hundred years of Spanish rule on the island resulted in these populations being decimated by disease or attrition. None of their music has survived history; contemporary sources, primarily Bartolomé de las Casas, thought it “sweet sounding.”

The major influence on the music on the island at that time was, of course, religion. Liturgical music was the dominant form in Europe and the colonists emulated these forms. The first major composer born in Cuba was Esteban Salas. He composed the typical liturgical music of the day and was good enough at his craft to be recognized as a major composer.

At the same time of this initial burst of homegrown creativity, a new influence would arrive in Cuba that would have the lasting and dominant effect on its musical development. The arrival on the island of thousands of African slaves from many cultures — North African Moorish and Central African Yoruba and Lucumí—would, over the next three hundred years, create an unparalleled number new musical rhythms and forms. The Africans “assimilated” into Cuban culture, outwardly professing faith in Roman Catholicism, while retaining and practicing their native customs and religions, and playing their unique and rhythmic music.

These displaced peoples, over many generations, would bring about the literal birth of “Cuban” musical styles through the ubiquitous way their music was heard on the island. Their original instruments and rhythmic patterns — primarily the clave — became the heartbeat and backbone of Cuban music.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the influence of these native rhythms was so great that a new rhythmic form was created in Cuba—the Habanera. The Habanera rhythm became immensely popular in Europe and was all the rage. Composers of serious music in Cuba began using the Habanera rhythm in their compositions. Composers such as Saumell were taking European forms like the French contredanse and incorporating Habanera rhythms. This contradanza became extremely popular on the island and put Cuban music on the cultural map of Europe, Composers in the 1800s, having these native rhythms in their blood became more and more famous. Saumell, Espadero, Cervantes, White, among many more, were highly regarded as prototypical Cuban composers of serious music.

The development of “serious” music, however, was also paralleled by the music of the black citizens of the island who continued to play and develop their own music. Starting in the middle of the nineteenth century “popular” and “serious” music would come together with the introduction of the danzón. The danzón was a modification of the five-part (ABACA) or seven-part (ABACADA) suite form. Miguel Failde was the “inventor” of this form and introduced in Cuba in 1869. The traditional suite was changed to a six-part suite (ABACAD). This form allowed dance orchestras and ensembles the luxury of composing one basic theme (A) to be repeated, a second theme (B) that was slower, a set of theme and variations that could be quickly “composed” by taking bits and pieces from the popular tunes of the day (C), and finally, a set where the musicians would be allowed to improvise (D) until the “dancing” had to be stopped. The danzón (ABACAD) form became the backbone of the popular forms that were to dominate Cuban music over the next century.

At the start of the twentieth century, all of these preceding influences would coalesce into what has become the most influential popular form of Cuban music: the són. After four hundred years of musical development, and the creation of many unique rhythms and instruments, the són became the driving force in the development of the rich legacy of Cuban music.

(My long essay, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and the Rise of Cuban Music, is available on Kindle for $2.99.)

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