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:



Taylor Swift: The Best Selling Digital Artist of All Time?

Taylor Swift is annoying. There’s no denying it. She looks shocked every time she accepts her umpteenth award, and her face shows up on the big screen at award shows more than the person who’s hosting it. But there’s no denying one simple fact:

She is single-handedly dominating the music industry.

Yes, Taylor Swift, not Beyonce. And you can’t hate…

..nor should you

In their latest cover story, Businessweek analyzes just how much she is dominating the industry right now, and there are a few lines in there that made me understand why she’s always juggling so many awards…


1. Swift’s new album, called 1989, sold 1.29 million copies in its first week. That was 22 percent of all album sales in the U.S.

2. 1989 sales represent the largest sales week for a record since Eminem’s The Eminem Show in 2002, and the biggest release in the past two years by far, topping Beyoncé, Coldplay, and Lady Gaga.

3. Before 1989, this year’s biggest album was Coldplay’s Ghost Story, which has sold a TOTAL of 737,000 since its release in May

4. Spotify is on track to pay Swift $6M in 2014 (this is a lot considering they pay a fraction of a penny per song)

5. sales of CDs for the first half of 2014 were 56M, that’s down from 681M in sales in 2002 (remember the streaming age article?)

And if all of this doesn’t phase you, take a look at Billboard right now. Swift claims two of the top 5 spots on the Hot 100. Shake it Off dropped from #1 to #3 as she beat her own hit with Blank Space (jumped from #13 to #1 post the AMAs).

Taylor Swift may just be the best digital sales artist of all time.

Music for the Weekend: A Look at Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay

Sittin’ in the morning sun
I’ll be sittin’ when the evening comes
Watching the ships roll in
Then I watch them roll away again, yeah

I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh
I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

I love Otis Redding’s ‘Dock of the Bay,’ and after getting it stuck in my head after Scandal last week, I decided to look at the history behind it….

The song was written three days before Redding died in a plane crash on a rainy, foggy night in 1967. It was released in January 1968 and became his only single to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and the first posthumous number-one single in US chart history (first to reach #1 after the death of an artist) . Along with his death, the record label that he helped build saw its demise as well (albeit seven years later).

That label, Stax Records, was not only a big competitor of Motown’s, but also encompassed both blacks & whites at a time when the racial divide was growing wider and wider in American society. Between 1960 and 1975, Stax had 167 Top 100 pop hits and established the careers of Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Sam & Dave, Booker T & the MG’s and Wilson Pickett. Nevertheless, the label failed to gain rights to Redding’s discography, which instead belonged to Atlantic Records. Regarding “Dock of the Bay”, which was released so soon after Redding’s death, his guitarist Steve Cropper recalled:

We got a call from Atlantic saying, “We’ve got to rush something out. What have you got?” And I immediately said, “We need to put our hit out.”

‘They hadn’t even found Otis’s body yet.’

Cropper threw himself into completing Dock Of The Bay. He added electric guitar, seagulls, and the sound of waves.

‘Trying to work on something like that, when you don’t even know where one of your closest friends is, is difficult.’

‘Everybody was walking around staring at their feet for two months after that,’ says Stax musician Marvell Thomas.

‘There was true sadness at that place. Stax was usually a happy, peppy place, there was conversations in the hallways and songwriters over here and a demo going – that all stopped.’

Case of the Mondays – Kirko Bangz “Rich”

I had an interesting conversation with my father the other day. The summarized version of the convo went like so:

Dad: “All kinds of doors open when you have money,”

Me: “Not really…Mo money, mo problems” (clever response, I know)

Dad: “I’d rather have money and problems than no money and no problems”

Me: “Wait what?”

Dad: “You know what I mean…”


The moral argument in life is that you should do what you love – that money shouldn’t be the goal. One of my favorite takes on this idea comes from Aristotle, who beautifully argued in his Nicomachean ethics that happiness is the only thing that is a goal in and of itself:

And of this nature Happiness is mostly thought to be, for this we choose always for its own sake, and never with a view to anything further: whereas honor, pleasure, intellect, in fact every excellence we choose for their own sakes, it is true, but we choose them also with a view to happiness, conceiving that through their instrumentality we shall be happy: but no man chooses happiness with a view to them, nor in fact with a view to any other thing whatsoever.

It’s pretty hard to argue against the idea that most of what we do is with an aim towards happiness (though the definition of happiness itself can be debated, at least in my opinion). Whether you work a 9 to 5, play sports, have children, etc. – almost everything we do in life is with an aim towards self-fulfillment – even making others happy (or miserable, if you’re that cruel) reverts back to one’s own happiness.

On the other side of the coin however, it seems like society constantly perpetuates materialistic things as the primary means by which one achieves happiness. And to attain these materialistic things, you need money. This idea really came to mind as I was walking through Jeff Koons’ exhibit at the Whitney Museum this past weekend. He has to be one of the most ‘oxy-moronic’ artists alive today. Most of his pieces seem to take a jab at the over-indulgence of the consumer, yet the consumer is the one that pays millions for his work…and he walks to the bank. I found this quote below particularly interesting:

I’ve always tried to use materialism to seduce the viewer and to try to meet the needs of the viewer, just like the church uses materialism. Every industry uses it, but the church is the great master and a great manipulator of materialism. If somebody walks into a church and they’re hungry and they do not feel secure with their own economic position in the world, they’re not in a position in the world, they’re not in a position to have a spiritual experience. So the church uses the Baroque and the Rococo, you just go in there and you feel like you’re participating in social mobility. This is how the Baroque and the Rococo were used; so that the public felt their needs were being met. I’ve always tried to do the same thing with my works.

So, he uses materialism to try to meet the needs of the viewer. The viewer of today, is a consumer who indulges in materialistic things to fulfill what? Happiness? Or are the materialistic things the goal in and of itself? For as my dad pointed out above, money does open up a lot of doors, and never has the economic disparity in America felt as large as it does now. You just have to wonder if there’s a shift in the mindset of the consumer occurring in our world right now. And as shown by our case of the Mondays song, if music is perpetuating it.


Kirko Bangz, “Rich.” Full disclaimer: I actually really like this song.

Music for the Weekend: Esperanza Spalding

Little Fly
Thy summer’s play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush’d away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink & sing;
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength & breath;
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

-William Blake


It’s a little strange how I stumbled upon Esperanza Spalding again. While she’s an extremely talented musician, I haven’t encountered her music since she won a Grammy for Best New Artist a few years ago (where she was the first jazz artist to do so). To be frank, the only reason I stumbled upon her music is Pandora. I needed some help sleeping last night, so I gave my Pandora a spin and put on the ‘jazz’ genre. Later (must have not been that much later since I hadn’t got the “we try not to play to an empty room” notice yet), I found my dream being interrupted by a beautiful song. Have you ever felt like you were half asleep, yet half awake? Well, that was me. “This sounds so wonderful,” I thought…I subsequently rolled over, pressed my iPhone and tried to find the like button through my blurry vision.

Ironically, I didn’t remember that I did this until about an hour or so ago. Our subconscious has a funny way of thinking doesn’t it? What’s even better, here are some of the lyrics of the song:


They say if you live in a dream,
You’re hopelessly lost
Well this ain’t just any old dream
For our paths have crossed
And I may be hopelessly lost
But somehow I’ve managed to find heaven

I briefly found heaven in this song, and as always, thought I’d share (video below). Hopefully she makes a comeback one of these days…though, as we know, artists are always disappearing from the mainstream scene. If you’re in NYC, Esperanza will be playing this weekend at the Jazz Standard ($30). See here for more: http://www.jazzstandard.com/

New Song: Brika – Options

I can’t stop playing this song. It’s so good, that I’m going to let the music speak for itself on this one. But in case you’re curious about the artist, here’s a bio from Brika’s VEVO page:

Brika can best be called a product of her unique surroundings. She was born and raised in Miami and despite her eclectic taste, her primary influence is Coldplay. Her music can best be likened to a Pollock painting or a Rauschenberg collage; overflowing with fast, temperamental bursts of creativity, imbued with a daring sense of honesty, and charged with a damning refusal to be categorized or quelled for the sake of fitting a description. Her natural charisma and traveler’s air lend an impulsive and nomadic tone to a body of work characterized by simple, cryptic lyricism and minimalistic production. Thematically, her mind seems attached to a few key fixations (loss, psychology, and the nature of truth), all expounded on in fresh and innovative ways through the power of song. A true iconoclast, Brika is a talented singer-songwriter with enough rawness and accessibility to enthrall audiences the world over.

Remember the First iPod?

Next month, October 23, 2014 will mark the 13th anniversary of Steve Jobs’ introduction of the iPod. Given the upcoming release of Apple’s new iPhone 6 on Sept 18th, it seems like a perfect time to look back on the day when Steve Jobs unveiled this device. Arguably, this was the presentation that marked the beginning of a new era for music, technology, and our world.

People hate change, even when it’s necessary. So perhaps it wasn’t exactly surprising to see the amount of naysayers that emerged on the back of this release. CNET’s post after the event was titled:

Apple’s iPod spurs mixed reactions

Comments on macrumors, which seems to hail Apple as a god these days, were pretty bad to say the least…

NO! Great just what the world needs, another freaking MP3 player. Go Steve! Where’s the Newton?!

I still can’t believe this! All this hype for something so ridiculous! Who cares about an MP3 player? I want something new! I want them to think differently!


OH NO! Just checked Apple Store – they want $399.00 for this thing…Ouch!!!


All that hype for an MP3 player? Break-thru digital device? The Reality Distiortion Field™ is starting to warp Steve’s mind if he thinks for one second that this thing is gonna take off.

Just another MP3 player right? Little did they know, that iPod’s sales would not only look like this


…but would also change the face of both music as we knew it. Indeed, iTunes + iPod spurred a revolution in the music industry – from the way labels release music, to the way consumers listen to it.

Steve Jobs was a visionary. And the success of his $600B market cap company adds testament to the fact that you cannot let the opinion of others change your vision…something perhaps said better by the man himself:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.

Every week, we aim here to discover new music & pieces of culture, to try to go against the “normal way” of thinking. Apple is a tech company, but it is ever so present in music and even the fashion/design industry. So, perhaps it’s important to not only come up with new ideas, but also to transcend sector boundaries – allowing one to broaden his or her horizons and way of thinking.

Really, our time is limited, so Think Different.

10 Things to Do in NYC this Fall

It’s starting to get a bit chilly here in New York. I saw a woman wearing a scarf under her suit during her morning commute. I myself had to opt for boat shoes instead of sandals during mine. Hopefully winter isn’t coming, but summer is definitely going away.

In preparation for the cold weather, people – New Yorkers especially – tend to swap light clothes for dark ones, and huddle around fires inside . Sounds depressing doesn’t it? Luckily, much can be done to combat this. After all, NYC is a big city with a lot to offer.

Below are 10 “artsy” events that I pulled from a great interactive article by the NY Times of the “100 events that have us especially excited”. Take a look for yourself to see what you prefer, but here’s my list (it’s not just a music list, for once):

1. Ernest Cole’s photographs of life under apartheid

  • 100 photographs by one of South Africa’s first black photojournalists give insight into life under apartheid
  • Date: through Dec 6.
  • Location: Grey Art Gallery, New York University / nyu.edu

2. Classics from the Classical Age at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

  • Exploring the decentralized, mercantile societies of an expanding Assyrian Empire, this major international loan exhibition will include some 260 works from 41 museums in 14 countries.
  • Date: Sept 22 – Jan 4.
  • Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art / metmuseum.org

3. Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan Steps out

  • It is a busy season in New York for the talented Israeli-born pianist, who plays a solo recital at SubCulture in September, a program with the Jerusalem Quartet at the 92nd Street Y in October and concerts with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, both in November. He also begins a multiyear term as the New York Philharmonic’s first “artist in association,” an intriguing position intended to give rising artists extensive exposure to the orchestra’s audiences. In December he plays a chamber recital with Philharmonic musicians and his frequent collaborator, the cellist Alisa Weilerstein, then Dvorak’s Piano Quintet on the stage of Avery Fisher Hall in February before his full-orchestra debut in March with Ravel’s Concerto in G.
  • Date/Location: Various

4. Tail! Spin!…Politicians (try) to say they’re sorry on stage

  • This verbatim re-enactment of email, text messages and tweets that screamed “sex scandal!” and changed the lives of formerly successful politicos including Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford and others, created and written by Mario Correa, gets an Off Broadway bow after a successful run at the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival. Dan Knechtges (“Lysistrata Jones”) directs
  • Date: Previews begin Sept. 18. Opens Oct. 1. Closes Nov. 30.
  • Location: Lynn Redgrave Theater at the Culture Project, 45 Bleecker Street, near Lafayette Street, East Village

5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

  • Those who keep an eye on London theater have been hearing about this show — and reading the rapturous reviews — for a few years, so it’s exciting that Simon Stephens’s multiple Olivier Award-winning play about a teenage boy with difficulty connecting to the world around him, who tries to solve the mystery of a dead dog, is headed to New York. Marianne Elliott (“War Horse”), the original London director of this drama, adapted from the novel by Mark Haddon, is on board.
  • Previews ongoing. Opens Oct. 5. Telecharge.
  • Location: Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47th Street, Manhattan / curiousonbroadway.com

6. Henri Matisse cut-outs

  • Centering on MoMA’s newly conserved Matisse cutout “The Swimming Pool,” this largest show ever devoted to the artist’s late cut-paper works will include some 100 examples and related drawings, illustrated books, stained glass and textiles.
  • Date: Oct 12 – Feb 8
  • Location: Museum of Modern Art / moma.org

7. The music of South Africa, with films by William Kentridge

  • This capacious festival, organized by Carnegie Hall, sprawls over jazz, classical and indigenous music, including maskandi (known as the “Zulu blues“) and folk music from the country’s Cape region. The concerts include the New York recital debuts of the South African sopranos Pretty Yende and Elza van den Heever as well as a musical and theatrical evening conceived by the violinist Daniel Hope and a program of films by the artist William Kentridge, set to music by Philip Miller.
  • Date: Oct 10 – Nov 5
  • Location: Carnegie Hall

8. Sculptor Judith Scott at the Brooklyn Museum

  • The sculptor, who was born with Down syndrome and worked with the Creative Growth studio program for adult artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities, wrapped scavenged objects in lengths of yarn and thread. This is her first retrospective in the United States.
  • Date: Oct 24 – March 29
  • Location: Brooklyn Museum / brooklynmuseum.org

9. Artists inspired by “Ebony” and Jet magazines

  • The longstanding magazines Ebony and Jet have frequently appeared in contemporary artworks; this show takes a deeper look at the phenomenon.
  • Location: Studio Museum in Harlem / studiomuseum.org

10. Bradley Cooper brings “The Elephant Man” to Broadway

  • Bradley Cooper stars as the severely disfigured Joseph Merrick in this revival of Bernard Pomerance’s Tony Award-winning 1979 drama. Mr. Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson will reprise roles they played in a 2012 Williamstown Theater Festival production. Scott Ellis, who directed then, does the same for Broadway. Previews begin Nov. 7. Opens Dec. 7. Telecharge.
  • Location: Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street, Manhattan / elephantmanbroadway.com


Over the next few weeks, I’ll be updating the calendar on this site of interesting upcoming events that I come across. Let me know if you hear of anything too – what type of events are you looking out for?


One of those Days? Take a Listen to Kait Dunton

Every once in a while, you get that feeling of exhaustion. You just want to fall backwards onto the floor, spread your arms out wide like an angel’s arms and slowly whisper, “why me?”

If today’s one of those days for you, then take a listen to Kait Dunton. Kait is an incredibly talented pianist/composer whose music tells a story…and while us millennials have seemed to stray away from the jazz age in favor of something more “electronic”, sometimes — when it’s one of those days — raw music is all you need. Here’s a snippet from Kait’s bio:

KAIT DUNTON is a Los Angeles based jazz pianist and composer. Kait’s music pushes the definition of jazz into new realms with her expansive and richly compositional concept for piano trio and other ensembles. Her love of story and travel imbue her music with a sense of journey and imagination, inviting listeners through her sonic creation of narrative and mood – and on the bandstand, Kait and her trio radiate with musical joy and energy.

My favorite is “Real & Imagined” …

Chance the Rapper Samples the Theme Song from ‘Arthur’…and it’s Beautiful

ONE: I used to love Arthur as a kid. Seriously, he even inspired me to read – which is a tough task when you’re 5 years old.


ONE: I also love pianos, and dissonant tri-tones and minor keys…

EQUALS TWO: where 2 is Chance the Rapper’s new song titled Wonderful Everyday: Arthur, featuring the Social Experiment. Listen all the way through because it sounds strange at first. Seriously, I had to pause to make sure I wasn’t listening to two songs at once by accident. It gets pretty epic around 2:00. Epic’s probably not the right word, but you’ll see what I mean.

Doesn’t it sound like one of those songs where you feel like you should be walking along with an angel who shows you flashes of your childhood? Or something?