Music & Dance

Music: Cuban Son

“Cuban “Son” music is to salsa as roots are to a tree. Salsa has many roots, but the style that gave rise to and shaped it more than any other is Cuban Son. Son is the most important and influential music to have evolved in 20th Century Cuba. Armando Sa’nchez, leader of Conjunto Son de la Loma, states that the Son “is a people’s music-a true expression of the Cuban people’s history and life.” This music, more than any other, expresses and identifies the ethos of the Cuban people. “Son originated in the 1800’s in the mountains of Oriente… 

a Cuban province. It evolved from the “changui’”, a form of music rooted in African music brought to Cuba by the African slaves in the early 1900’s and carried on by their descendants. 

As the Africans moved to Havana, the Son became a popular music style of the working class. Musicians began to incorporate African and Spanish music styles, such as the rumba and the music of “santeri’a,” “decima” and “guajira.” By the 1920’s, Son was the most popular music and dance for Cubans at all levels of society.

By synthesizing African and Spanish music styles and appealing to all Cubans, Son essentially became Cuba’s national music. After World War I, many wealthy tourists and white upper class Cubans flocked to Havana, creating a demand for night life. Son was played in the night clubs but Sa’nchez commented, “The whites couldn’t understand the African rhythms and the musicians had to adjust. … We had to accept their standards and “whiten up” the music.” Two of the most typical “conjuntos” (ensembles) at this were Sexteto Habanero and Septeto Nacional 

By 1918, Sexteto Habanero developed the “Son conjunto” sound: three voices, string bass, “tres” (6 or 9 string guitar), maracas, bongos, claves (wooden sticks struck together for the time-line rhythm), trumpet, and guitar. In the late 20′, Septeto Nacional expanded the Son style, by using tighter vocal harmonies, rhythmic complexity, and a faster tempo. This faster, more complex style became internationally popular. However, in the late 30’s, Arsenio Rodri’guez (one of Cuba’s greatest musician and composer) began reconnecting Son with its African roots.

“Arsenio brought us back to our roots, and in doing that, he moved us forward,” states Sa’nchez. Through his many innovations in style and instrumentation, Rodri’guez expanded the Son sound to emphasize or re-incorporate many of the African elements which many of the earlier son conjuntos omitted or simplified. He synthesized and maintained the integrity of African and Spanish elements.Some of his innovations were: 

 – 1) Adapting the Guaguanco’ to the Son style; 

 – 2) Adding a cowbell and conga to the rhythm section; 

 – 3) Expanding the role of the tres as a solo instrument, and 

 – 4) Introducing a “montuno” (or mambo) section for melodic solos. 

Arsenio’s songs made philosophical statements about Cuba, community life, and ethnic pride. His style became known as “Son montuno” and formed the basis of the mambo craze in the 40’s, influencing Latin popular music in New York for years to follow. By the 30’s, the popularity of Son and mambo spread to Puerto Rico where musicians incorporated the style with their own. As Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians emigrated to the US, especially New York, they took that style with them, forming Cuban/Puerto Rican Son conjuntos. “Since the 1960’s Arsenio’s sones and his conjunto sound have been reinterpreted by Salsa musicians. While Salsa has many roots, and its primary exponents are Puerto Rican, the Cuban Son is clearly the primary foundation of Salsa.” “Salsa” is primarily a commercial tag for contemporary Latin pop music. It connotes a feeling as well as a variety of redefined/reinterpreted styles and traditions. African-American big-band jazz stimulated the formation of Latin big-bands in the late 40’s.

Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and African-Americans joined to play a style which integrated the compositional concepts of the big-band horn sections with the Afro-Cuban rhythm sections, eventually evolving into the New York Latin sound, mostly played by Puerto Ricans. Big band leaders, such as Puerto Rico’s Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez and Cuba’s Machito, expanded the mambo section of the Son, creating its own style and form, the first major “cross-over” from Afro-Carribbean music. The Cha-Cha-Cha and the Mambo, both internationally popular, were also incorporated into this style, forming the foundation for “Salsa.” Until the US severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1962, the New York and Cuban musicians continually interacted, forming parallel Latin music styles. After 1962, New York-based music began incorporating the inspiration of the world around them, forming a distinctively New York style. One result of the Latino and Black communities interaction was Latin “bugalu”, adapted from the popular African-American dance of the mid 60’s. Latin bugalu used the standard Latin musical instruments, added a set of trap drums, and had lyrics sung in Spanish and English. Another result of the interaction was the incorporation of the cumbia, merengue, and bomba, plena, “jibaro” (from the mountains) music styles from Columbian, Dominican, and other Puerto Rican peoples living in New York.

“The influx of Cubans in the early 1980’s and the visits of some Cuban bands, have resulted in a reconnection with and influence of Cuban music. But salsa remains a uniquely New York phenomenon whose primary exponents are still New York Puerto Rican musicians, although musicians form all over the Caribbean and Latin America, as well as European Americans, also participate in its performance.” 

by Dr. Roberta Singer 

Music By Arsenio Rodriguez


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