10 Milestones in Cuba’s Music History…and Why You Should Care

“Why should I care about Cuban music?”

cuba art

If you’re not from Cuba and weren’t alive in the ‘50s, this question could have some validity to it. And it’s one my brother asked when I told him I was writing this post.

Since President Obama’s announcement that the US will look to strengthen its diplomatic relations with Cuba, countless articles have been written speculating about the impact this will have on Cuba’s economy. Americans can now bring back up to $100 in Cuban cigars, investors are rushing to gather real estate, and collectors are getting set to bid on artwork that they see as undervalued.

But you have to wonder how Cuba’s music fits into all of this.

Search Cuba’s cars on the internet and you’ll feel like you’ve entered a time-warp that, in truth, summarizes how a 50-year embargo has put this country’s economic advancement on hold.

Cars like this 1952 Buick are often passed down through families. Source: CNNMoney

Arguably however, music hasn’t faltered as much — unlike cars and buildings, which are physical objects that can be embargoed — music, and other cultural ‘necessities’ have continued to be exported. In America alone, we’ve had several music pioneers of Cuban descent such as Gloria Estefan, Celia Cruz, and Tito Puente (and even Pitbull). But one could also argue that most of the ‘influential’ Cuban American music artists were witnessed during the ‘50s mambo craze, or before the embargo was implemented – a time that many find hard to recall now.

So why should you care about Cuban music?

If the travel embargo is lifted, we may see a shift in how promoters begin to view Cuban artists. While Cuban artists do have the ability to tour through America, they often face many obstacles.  One immigration lawyer and producer in California described a Catch-22 that he witnesses in his line of work: “ ‘The promoters were saying, ‘I’m not signing the contracts until they get visas,’ and the artists were saying, ‘We can’t get the visas until we have contracts.’ ”

Only time will tell whether we do indeed get an influx of talent from Cuba, but the importance of Cuba’s music can’t be underestimated, as it shows up in genres that we listen to today, from the likes of jazz to salsa. Still, rather than bore you with an encyclopedia of Cuba’s music history, here’s a list of ten milestones in Cuba’s music history that may intrigue you to dig into the underground world of Cuba’s music…

1. In the 16th Century, the diseases that Christopher Columbus and his explorers’ carried wiped out Cuba’s native population, erasing virtually all of the history of Cuba’s native music, called areito

(depressing I know, but important to note)

2. Son was the most popular Cuban music and dance genre of the 20th century. The earliest surviving Cuban son (son de la Ma Teodora) was created in the 1570s.

Below shows a typical son band, performing son de la loma

3. Sugar plantation owners imported nearly 20,000 slaves to Cuba in the 1780s, strengthening African-derived religious practices on the island, namely santería and palo.

And an interesting fact about Santería: slaves were forbidden to practice non-Christian religions in Cuba, but did so secretly by worshipping Catholic saints in form only, understanding them to be disguises underneath which existed their traditional African deities. Santería was very influential in Cuban music due to its drumming practices.

4. In the 1870s, rumba emerged in Havana, and spread to other lower-class neighborhoods throughout Cuba

Example of rumba:

5. 1870: danzón first appears in Havana and reigns as the national dance of Cuba until the 1930s

6. 1930: Don Azpiazu’s Havana Orchestra performs on Broadway, giving mass audiences in the United States their first taste of authentic Afro-Cuban music

7. 1945: mambo appears in the United States. The word “mambo” means “conversation with the gods” in Kikongo, the language spoken by Central African slaves taken to Cuba. The Cha-cha-cha, a kind of mambo created by Cuban violinist Enrique Jorrin later swept through NYC in 1954 and the rest of the world.

Below is a scene from the 1992 film Mambo Kings, a story about two brothers and aspiring musicians who flee from Cuba to America in the hopes of reviving their failed musical careers.

8. 1947: Dizzy Gillespie’s performance of Afro-Cuban jazz at Carnegie Hall gives overnight status to Latin jazz

9. 1966: Pete Seeger’s recording of “Guantanamera” popularizes guajira music throughout the world

10. early 1970s: salsa becomes the commonly-used word to describe Cuban-derived dance music in the United States

If she can do it, you can do it too…



More on Cuba’s Music History:



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