I naively arrived in Cuba with the idea that all Cuban music is based on Buena Vista Social Club, my benchmark of it, but it was described to me as ‘traditional’ music. I had to come to the sad realisation that I don’t much care for Salsa music, not having been to a Salsa dance class before arriving in Cuba. I also learnt that if I do not like the music, I cannot dance to it.
I researched the history of Cuban music from the ‘Cuba’ Lonely Planet Guide, which describes it as ‘rich, vibrant, layered, and soulful’. Influenced by its proximity to Latin America, with some European and African rhythms too, as well as American, Haitian and Jamaican music influences, a number of dance styles evolved from the musical fusion, including Salsa of course, having its home in Cuba, son, rumba, mambo, cha-cha-chá, charanga, and danzón. Children can dance perfect Salsa steps at an early age already, and no one is self-conscious about dancing here.
The dance style that was Cuba’s National Dance was the Danzón, in 1879, introduced in Matanzas. Dancers danced as couples rather than in groups, as was the fashion of the day before then, it was a slower dance, and the music was instrumental only. It grew in the addition of conga drums and vocalists. It evolved into charanga, more often danced by the ‘moneyed white society’.
Slaves arriving in Cuba from Africa introduced rattles and basic batá drums, adding rhythm to religious music. It is described as being ‘rhythmic yet highly textured’. It evolved into rumba, in the 1890s, emanating from the Havana docks, where workers created beats on packing cases, adding vocals over time, becoming the ‘voice’ of Black Cubans. Three dance styles evolved out of the rumba, the ‘overtly sexual dance’ guaguancó, the slow dance yambú, and a fast and aggressive columbia dance. Over time the rumba styles merged with son, and that again into son montuno, the foundation of Salsa. By the 1930s the Son sextet of guitar, a three-set double string guitar tres, double bass, bongo, and two singers, expanded into the addition of a trumpet. Over the next two decades the bands expanded in size, with horn and percussion add-ons. Cha-cha-chá emerged in 1951, originally referred to as mambo-rumba.
Salsa had its origin in ‘Latin New York
’ in the Sixties, a blend of son, jazz, and rumba, ‘a new brassier sound’.
Celia Cruz was referred to the ‘Queen of Salsa’
, taking the music with her to ‘self-imposed exile’
in America, and therefore not being as well-known in her land of birth as elsewhere in the world. Los Van Van was one of the most influential salsa bands, formed by Juan Formell in 1969. I love sipping chilled pineapple juice in the trendy music bar VanVan in Old Havana, created in honour of this band. It is said to still perform around Cuba. It even won a Grammy in 2000, for its album ‘Llego Van Van’. In the past forty years modern Salsa has been influenced by hip-hop, reggae, and rap.
Oddly, the Lonely Planet guide book does not mention Buena Vista Social Club, which put Cuban music on the (Western) map, if I am a sample of one.
Right at the beginning of my stay I attended a ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ show at El Guajirito, a total tourist rip-off, at an entrance fee of 30 CUCs which included three drinks, with only one hint of a Buena Vista Social Club song right at the start of the show. The package at 60 CUCs comes with very poor Dinner, and the reader is highly advised to not support this tourist trap. Luckily I was advised to not book the Dinner part of the show. Walking up and down the most popular tourist pedestrian mall Obispo and around the Central Parque area, where bands spontaneously play at hotels, restaurants, and Bar venues.
I often heard the music of Buena Vista Social Club performed, by the band on the right, at the Opera Bar and Restaurant. It may cost one a drink at the venue, and a donation and/or the purchase of a CD at most to hear far better quality traditional Cuban music.
Other instruments I saw in Cuban music bands in Havana were the violin and flute.
The link between Cuban music and Salsa will be explored in a separate Blogpost.