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Exploring Cuba through 10 essential songs


The modern history of Cuba can be traced like a needle along the grooves of a 12-inch. This island, nestled between Florida, Jamaica, and Haiti, is a meeting place both geographically and culturally. Situated where the northern Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean meet, Cuba has one of the richest and most musical cultures in the world, embracing sounds from Africa, Latin America, Northern America and Europe in a whirlwind of joyous musical exploration.

The roots of most forms of Cuban music lie in the cabildos, a type of social club that was bought to the island along with West African slaves during the slave trade. These spaces allowed slaves to preserve a number of religious and cultural traditions that would otherwise have been taken from them. In 1886, the Emancipation Act forced freed slaves to join the Roman Catholic Church, leading to the formulation of a religion called Santería, which blended Yoruba beliefs and customs with elements of Roman Catholicism.

The spiritual ceremonies that came to define Santería, and involved participants drumming and singing as a way of communing with the dead, greatly influenced Cuba’s musical culture, with many of the drums and drumming patterns forming the basis of the folk styles that spread throughout Cuba thereafter, including the son montuno (literally, mountain sound), rumba, danzon, and batá.

Cuban music was also greatly influenced by styles imported from Europe, especially from Spain — but that’s the thing about Cuba’s musical history: it has roots everywhere and took influence from all manner of cultures, including France, Jamaica and the US. Similarly, Cuban music has been incredibly influential abroad, birthing the Latin jazz sound that Leonard Bernstein pinched for West Side Story, and influencing the development of West African Afrobeat, Spanish nuevo flamenco, and countless other genres. So it seemed that the most sensible way to explore the modern musical history of Cuba would be to trace it through ten key songs, spanning 1940 to the present day.

Let’s get started, then.

The 10 essential sounds of Cuba:

Arsenio Rodriguez – ‘Dundunbanza’

Cuban music owes a hell of a lot to Arsenio Rodriguez. One of Cuba’s most famous soneros (singers), Rodriguez is widely considered to have brought the son Cubano style back to its African roots in the 1940s by, amongst other things, adding cowbell and conga to the rhythm section. Rodriguez also helped introduce and popularise the montuno or mambo.

Arsenio Rodriguez was ferocious musical talent, an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and tres (a guitar-like instrument with three pairs of strings each tuned to the same pitch) virtuoso despite being blind since the age of seven. Many of his compositions – of which there were over 200 – have since become Cuban standards and are still performed to this day, despite the fact that the most famous of them, ‘Bruca Maniguá’, was written all the way back In 1937. While an original recording doesn’t exist we do have this joyful recording of ‘Dundunbanza’ from the late 1940s.

‘Santa Bárbara’ – Celina González

Celina González was Cuba’s greatest exponent of música campesina, a form of son with roots in the Cuban countryside. González grew up listening to these songs and would have seen them performed in farms and rural towns during the rights of the sugar-cane harvest.

González relocated to the capital, Havana in the 1940s, where she popularised the songs of her childhood, always maintaining that she was a country girl at heart. It was during this time that she wrote her most famous song, Santa Bárbara, composed as a tribute to her Santería faith.

‘Rumba en Swing’ – Chano Pozo

Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, the Afro-Cuban rhythms that had once been a unique part of Cuban culture really started to take off in America. Since the 1930s, groups like the Lecuona Cuban Boys had been popularising the tumbao and the montuno. At this time the rumba, Conjunto son, mambo, chachachá, and rumba all spread like wildfire, both throughout Cuba and in the United States.

Chano Pozo was one of the first Cuban musicians to make a name for himself in America, having struggled to make living in his native Cuba. Black people were prohibited from working most venues outside of the slums in Havana, so Pozo had to earn money playing his drums and singing original songs on the street, or else clean shoes.

On moving to America, however, he became an essential contributor to the ‘Latin jazz’ sound that swept through cities like New York and saw dances like the rumba transformed into glitzy ballroom affairs. In its truest form, however, the rumba is unrestrained and spontaneous. Having originated with the dockworkers of Havana and Matanzas, the latter of which is famed for its rich poetic and folkloric traditions, the word ‘rumba’ comes from the verb ‘rumbear’, to have a good time.

‘Madre Rumba’ – Celia Cruz

The undisputed queen of salsa, Celia Cruz grew up surrounded by the innumerable musical styles that pulsed throughout Havana during her childhood in the slums of Santos Suarez. “I was born singing,” she said in an interview in 1996. “My mother, Catalina, told me that at nine or ten months of age I’d wake up in the middle of the night, two or three in the morning, singing. ‘Esta muchachita va a trabajar de noche.’ Pues la viejita no se equivocó.” (‘This little girl is going to work nights.’)

Celia Cruz is a giant of Cuban music. In her early recordings, she performed with a band called Sonora Matancera. The singer’s association with the group lasted for just over 15 years until the start of the revolution when Fidel Castro overthrow the military dictator Fulgencio Batista, at which point Cruz, along with many other professional Cubans, moved to the US, the disturbing reality of the new Cuban government’s ideology only just beginning to make itself known.

‘La Tirana’ – La Lupe

Cuban music is especially porous, famed for soaking up a variety of musical influences and transforming them into something unique. In the ’60s, this trend continued, and there are few finer examples than the music of La Lupe. Tracks such as ‘La Tirana’, taken from La Lupe’s 1967 album Reina De La Cancion Latina (The Queen of Latin Soul), combined the lush arrangements of American diva-era soul with the slow percussive pulse of Afro-Cuban rhythms at a time when the political relationship between the two countries was especially tense.

Following the break-up of the group she’d formed with her husband, Los Tropicuba, La Lupe began taking to the stage as a solo act in La Red, a cosy nightclub in Havana. There, she developed an adoring fanbase that boasted the likes of Tenessee Williams, Simone de Beauvoir, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Marlon Brando to name but a few. Indeed, in the late ’50s, Havana was home to some of the most beautiful and hedonistic spaces anywhere in the world, with clubs such as the famed Tropicana attracting the rich and famous of America and Europe in their hordes.

‘Bacalao con Pan’ – Irakere

Beginning in the 1970s and lasting well into the late 1990s, something like one and a half million Cubans left their homeland for the United States, often in small rafts and dingies, many of which sank before they reached the mainland. It is estimated that between 30,000 and 80,000 Cubans died as a result of making this dangerous crossing. Some, however, decided to stay, travelling only in the imagination and innovating Cuban music as a result. Groups such as Irakere, for example, began using batá, a double-headed drum, in a big band setting; this became known as son-batá or batá-rock.

Formed in 1973, Irakere blended jazz, rock, classical music and traditional Cuban rhythms to create something that makes the prog-rock of the day sound like a tin can being dragged along a stretch of tarmac. This recording, taken from 1974’s Grupo Irakere blends the scratched funk guitar of Parliament with vibrant horn sections and intoxicating polyrhythms, making it what has to be one of the best dance recordings of the 1970s.

‘Amore Verdadero’ – Afro-Cuban All Stars

Formed in the early 1990s, amid the crippling economic crisis that followed the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the musicians that make up Afro-Cuban All Stars are the best of the best. Many of them, including Rubén González, Ibrahim Ferrer, Guillermo Rubalcava, Amadito Valdes, and Manuel ‘The Guajiro’ Mirabal, have become international stars in their own right. But it is when they all come together in the same room that the magic really happens.

Afro-Cuban All Stars is a cross-generational orchestra that, at times, has comprised of over 60 musicians, all working together to create a constantly evolving wave of Afro-Cuban rhythms, virtuosic trumpet solos, and montuno-infused piano. It truly is a wonder to behold live, and practically impossible not to dance to. The joy contained within ‘Amore Verdaredo’ stands in stark contrast to the reality of Cuban life in the early ’90s. In those years, city’s such as Havana bore very little resemblance to their former hedonistic selves, littered, as it was, with piles of rubble, abandoned houses, and snaking lines of people leading towards barely-stocked shopfronts.

‘Chan Chan’ – Buena Vista Social Club

Immortalised in Werner Herzog‘s legendary 1999 music documentary of the same name, Buena Vista Social Club is perhaps the best-known of any Cuban group. But, at the time, few could have imagined the levels of success and notoriety that this rag-tag group of musicians would rise to. Indeed, prior to Herzog’s documentary, they weren’t even a formal group – rather a collection of players from across generations who hurriedly assembled for the occasion.

Nevertheless, the world quickly fell in love with Buena Vista Social Club, whose warm tones seemed to evoke the vitality of Cuba’s musical golden age in the 1940s and ’50s, largely thanks to the fact that many of the musicians involved, including pianist Rubén González and singer Ibrahim Ferrer had been playing Cuban standards since as early as the 1920s.

‘Mistica’ – Orishas

A bit of a left turn now, with Orishas’ intoxicating 1999 track ‘Mistica’. Taking their name from the spirits that play an essential role in the santería religion, Orishas ushered in a new age of Cuban music, embracing the sound of hip-hop that had been radiating from New York since the 1980s and blending it with their own nation’s polyrhythms.

Orishas rose to fame by servicing a hunger for modern African-American-inspired sounds. Singing about everything from cutting sugar cane to growing up in the working-class neighbourhood of Cayo Hueso in Havana, Orishas quickly earned a reputation as the voice of Cuba’s disillusioned youth.

‘Bibisa’ – Roberto Fonseca

Following the 1990s, Cuba began to flourish once again. Old Havana, for example, the oldest quarter of the city, which had been left to decay for so long, was revitalised. Today, streets that once contained nothing but rubble are quickly garnering the attention of foreign investors, and are now lined with colourful restaurants, bars and hotels just as they were in the 1950s. That isn’t to say that the political unrest that has defined Cuba’s modern history is in any way a thing of the past, however.

In this track from Cuban pianist Robert Fonseca’s 2012 album Yo, he somehow manages to blend the sound of vintage Cuban-American jazz with traditional west-African instrumentation and minimalist classical music, creating something that at once is incredibly virtuosic and quietly moving. Fonseca is the perfect artist to wrap up this list. His music, at times, feels like an exhibit of all the various influences that have made Cuban music so consistently revitalising for so many years.