Author Norman Mailer scolded President Kennedy for the Bay of Pigs defeat by asking, “Wasn’t there anyone around to give you the lecture on Cuba? Don’t you sense the enormity of your mistake—you invade a country without understanding its music.” These days it’s Cuba that’s invading the United States and the rest of the world. Says Rhythm Music magazine: “From Babalu to Bamboleo, a wealth of musicians is pouring out from under the Mango Curtain.” The rhythm juggernaut is typified by the explosive 1999 success of the Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club.
Music—the pulsing undercurrent of Cuban life—is everywhere. Dance, from the earliest guaguancó to the mambo craze, has always been a potent expression of an enshrined national tradition: Cuban sensualism. Girls are whisked onto the dance floor and whirled through a flurry of complicated steps and sensuous undulations just a little closer than cheek to cheek. It’s a wonder the birth rate isn’t higher.
In Cuba, folkloric music (música folklórica) usually refers to Afro-Cuban music. The earliest influence was Spanish. The colonists brought the melodies, guitars, and violins from which evolved folk music, or guajira, influenced through contact with black culture. The fusion gave rise to punto campesino (peasant dances), including the all-important danzón (the first dance in Cuba in which couples actually touched each other), the zapateo, the slow and sensual yambú and the colombia, a solo men’s dance performed blindfolded with machetes—all popular in past centuries among white country people and accompanied by small accordions, kettledrums, gourds, and calabashes. The melancholic love song Guantanamera is undoubtedly the most famous of Cuban guajiras.
From Europe, too, came the trovas, poetic songs (canciones) concerned with great historical events and, above all, with love. Trovas, which were descended from the medieval ballad, were sung in Cuba throughout the colonial period. Trovadores performed for free, as they still do at casas de la trova islandwide. The duty of the casas is to nurture the music of the provinces, and their success is one reason why Cuba is today a powerhouse on the international music scene.
This century has seen the evolution of the sultry bolero (a fusion of traditional trovas with Afro-Cuban rhythms), and more recently trovas nuevas, which often include subtle criticism of governmental dogma, as echoed by Pablo Milanés and Silvio Rodríguez.
Almost from the beginning, the Spanish guitar (from the tiny requinto to the tres, a small guitar with three sets of double strings) joined the hourglass-shaped African bata and bongo drum, claves (two short hardwood sticks clapped together), and chequerí (seed-filled gourds) to give Cuban music its distinctive form. Slaves played at speakeasies in huts in the slaves’ quarters. Their jam sessions gave birth to the guaguancó, an erotic rumba—“a vertical suggestion of a horizontal intention,” it has been called—in which the man tries to make contact with the woman’s genitals and the woman dances defensively, with handfuls of skirt in front of her groin. Later, slaves would take the guaguancó a few steps farther to create the sensuous rumba, a sinuous dance from the hips from which tumbled most other forms of Cuban music, such as the tumba francesa, a dance of French-African fusion, and son.
Son, which originated in the eastern provinces of Oriente, derived as a campesino-based form combining African call-and-response verse to Spanish folk tunes using décima verses (octosyllabic 10-line stanzas). Popularized on radio by 1920s artists such as Rita Montaner and Ignacio Piñero’s Septeto Nacional orchestra, son became the national music form.
By the 1930s, son was adopted and melded with U.S. jazz influences by large band orchestras (orquestras típicas) with percussion and horn sections and tall conga drums called tumbadores, epitomized by the roaring success of Benny Moré (born Bartolomé Maximiliano Moré, 1919–1963), the flamboyant bárbaro del ritmo—the hot man of rhythm—who became a national idol and had his own big band, the Banda Gigante. The success of big band paved the way for the eventual evolution of salsa. Such contemporary salsa groups as Los Van Van have incorporated the son, which has its own variants, such as son changüí from Guantánamo Province , typified by the music of Orquestra Revé.
The mambo, like the cha-cha, which evolved from son, is a derivative of the danzón jazzed up with rhythmic innovations. Mambo is a passé but still revered dance, like the jitterbug in the United States, danced usually only by older people. Created in Cuba by Orestes López in 1938, mambo stormed the United States in the 1950s, when Cuban performers were the hottest ticket in town. Though the craze died, mambo left its mark on everything from American jazz to the old Walt Disney cartoons where the salt and pepper shakers get up and dance.
The mix of Cuban and North American sounds created blends such as filin music, a simple, honest derivative of the bolero, as sung by Rita Montaner and Nat “King” Cole, who performed regularly in Havana ; and Cu-bop, which fused bebop with Afro-Cuban rhythms, epitomized by Moré, who was considered the top artist of Cuban popular music.
Salsa is the heartbeat of most Cuban nightlife and a musical form so hot it can cook the pork. Los Van Van—one of Cuba’s hottest big, brassy salsa-style bands—and Irakere have come up with innovative and explosive mixtures of jazz, classical, rock, and traditional Cuban music that have caused a commotion in music. They regularly tour Europe and Latin America. And Bamboleo is a leader in timba (high-speed new-wave salsa).
For a long time, the playing of jazz in Cuba was discouraged as “representative of Yankee imperialism.” The government began to lighten up in the 1980s. Today, Cuba boasts wonderful jazz players. The undisputed king of contemporary jazz is pianist Chucho Valdés, winner of five Grammy awards for his scorching-hot compositions.
More recently, rap has come to Cuba. Although the rhythms, gestures, and posturing take their cues from U.S. urban ghettoes, Cuban hip-hop is gentler, less dependent on guttural, driving aggression and more based on melodic fusion. Rap-based, reggae-influenced reggaeton is now the most universally popular and ubiquitous sound on the island, performed by such groups as Sintesis and Obsesión. Beginning in 2002, the government responded to increasingly critical hip-hop content with a severe yank on the leash, ironically by lending it official support (there’s even a Minister of Hip-Hop), permitting the government to usurp and control it. The state decides what music can be played, and when and where. Playing unofficial venues can get performers arrested, and it is not unknown for officials to literally pull the plug on unofficial rehearsals and concerts.
The same holds true for rock, which has been lassoed by the Unión Juventud de Cuba (the Young Communists) to corral disaffected youth. Rock was once officially banned. Cuba’s roqueros (rockers) and frikis (freaks, known for their torn clothes and punkish hair) faced a hard time of things for many years, as the government considered them social deviants. Foremost groups include Combat Noise, Zeus, and Garage Hall.
It is astounding how many contemporary Cubans are accomplished classical musicians. Everywhere you go, you will come across violinists, pianists, and cellists serenading you for tips while you eat. Cuba also boasts several classical orchestras, notably the Orquestra Sinfónica Nacional. Watch, too, for performances by Frank Fernández, Cuba’s finest classical pianist.
Cubans love ballet, which is associated in Cuba with one name above all: Alicia Alonso. Havana  got its own ballet company—the Sociedad Pro-Arte Música—in 1931, with a conservatory that produced many outstanding ballet dancers, including Alonso, born to an aristocratic family in Havana on December 21, 1921. Alonso was a prima ballerina with the American Ballet Theater since its inception in the 1940s. She returned to Cuba and, sponsored by Batista (who hated ballet but considered her star status a propaganda bonus), founded the Ballet Alicia Alonso, which in 1955 became the Ballet de Cuba. Alonso was outspoken in her criticism of the “Sordid Era,” and she went into exile in 1956 when Batista withdrew his patronage. The Revolution later adopted her (Alonso is a favorite of Fidel), and her ballet company was re-formed and renamed the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Her company is renowned worldwide for its original choreography and talent.
The Camagüey Ballet—founded by Alicia’s husband, Fernando Alonso—is also renowned for its innovative streak, as is the Santiago-based Ballet Folklórico de Oriente, which lends contemporary interpretations to traditional themes.