Music & Dance

Music: Son to Mambo

Since the mid-nineteenth century, Cuban popular music has played an important role in urban western culture. From the habaneras danced in the salons of New York City in the 1860s to the congas, rumbas, cha-chas, son-montunos and mambos of more recent vintage, Cuban dance has exerted a powerful international influence.

Most of Cuba’s culture, including its dances, resulted from what Fernando Ortiz termed “Cuban counterpoint,”, the balance of Cuba’s Iberian and African components. One of the best examples is that of “son-montuno.” Depending on where one lived in Cuba, the main cultural influence on music and social activities was either Spanish or West/Central African. In those regions where tobacco was grown, many of the farmers were from Spain or the Canary Islands. Whereas, in the sugar cane growing regions, many workers were slaves brought from West and Central Africa in the mid 1800s.

As the slaves were brought to Cuba, they formed “cabildos” (religious brotherhoods) and kept alive the religious and secular dances of Yoruba, Fon, Ejagham, and Kongo-Angola. The Yoruba and Fon religions worshiped many gods, summoning them in various dances, often possessing the dancer so that the gods “danced in

their (the dancer’s) heads”. The Ejagham men formed secret societies, Abakua’, whose members danced in secret society rites or carnival parades. The members wore masks, “i’remes” (or “diablitos”, little devil in Spanish), representing ancestral figures. The Kongo-Angolans brought their music and dance, profoundly impacting Cuban culture. Their non-ritual celebrations, “congueri’as”, featured their “makuta” and “yuka” dances.

The yuka, similar to the modern rumba, is composed of the “ronquido” and the “campanero”. The former is a series of lateral steps, while the latter’s steps form a figure-eight pattern. The dancers also performed a Kongo ritual combat dance, the “mani’”, similar to the Brazilian “capoeira” and congueri’as. The “yambu’”, “guaguanco’” and the “columbia”, all imitative dances, collectively form the “rumba” and are related to older Kongo forms.

The yambu’ is a slow tempoed danced, often associated with older people, mimicking their motions and difficulty performing every day tasks. The guaguanco’, a modern version of the rumba, includes the “vacunao”, a pelvic movement. In this form, the dance has two sections:

The first simulates the man chasing a female partner as they dance apart;

The second, the vacunao, symbolizes his conquest of her.

Although the vacunao is similar to the “zapateo”, a European couples dance, and the “umbigada”, another pelvic thrust in early Angolan influenced samba dances, it is clearly from the Kongo dance styles.

The columbia, started in rural areas, is a male solo dance featuring acrobatic and mimetic forms, making it the most complex of all the rumbas.

The dancer may imitate a ball player, bicyclist, cane-cutter or cripple or perform some of the Abakua’n ireme’ steps. The dancer and the main drummer challenge each other throughout the dance.

“Comparsas”, on the other hand, are collective street rumba dances. Neighborhoods would form a comparsa and perform in carnivals and other occasions. The dance is similar to the Brazilian samba using dramatic or allegorical themes.

The “conga” is a simpler form of the rumba made popular in the United States in the late 1930s.”Cuba’s two most important dances, the “danzo’n” and the “son-montuno”, emerged from radically different social environments. Both changed dramatically as they moved from eastern to western Cuba, from a more Iberian zone to a more Afro-Cuban one.” The danzo’n, descendant from the French “contredanse,” was brought to Cuba by French planters fleeing Haiti in the late 1700s and eventually evolved in the mid 1800s into the simpler “danza” or “habanera.

“In the late 1870s, the danza evolved into the danzo’n and is now considered the national dance of Cuba. Until the late 1920s, the danzo’n was limited to the upper classes at their private clubs and societies. Then, the danzo’n incorporated a more syncopated final section. In 1938, Antonio Arcano created the “mambo” a new rhythm danzo’n composed of a more swinging, riff-based section played by the charanga orchestras of flute and violins. Soon, the black and working-class Cubans began dancing the mambo. Pe’rez Prado in Mexico and Machito in New York City popularized the mambo in their big bands. The “cha-cha” evolved from the mambo, and thus is also a descendent of the contredanse.

The son-montuno started as a couples dance in Oriente, a Cuban province. The accompanists were typically composed of Spanish-based folk guitarists and Afro-Cuban percussionists. As it moved westward to Havana, the music and dance styles grew and evolved with more percussion, especially in the final montuno section. It became very popular in the 1930s, often mistakenly called the rumba.

Its Spanish and African musical elements form the basis of today’s salsa as well as urban dance music around the world, including French-speaking areas of West and Central Africa and the Caribbean, and Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador.  

Rene & Estela from Cuba in 1938, this is possibly one of the earliest recordings of the influence of Son in New York

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