Cuba has always been an island brimming with culture. The country’s music scene is just one branch of a flourishing tree. Many of the world’s current artists can trace the roots of their ideas back to Cuban music. The island’s sound, at the vanguard of world music, is constantly evolving. To put it simply, Cuban music is much more than the soundtrack to your family meal out at Chiquitos.
The term ‘Cuban music’ encompasses a number of distinct sub-genres, each comprised of their own sub-sub-genres and so on... Take rumba for example, a style said to have three traditional forms, all emerging from Afro-Cuban culture which dates back to the 16th century when enslaved Africans were brought to the island.
Many of the sub-genres, notably guajira, son, and rumba, went on to inspire Flamenco rhythms, New Orleans R&B, and the infectious reggaetón, famously known as the music of choice for booze cruises across the globe.
To understand the basics of Cuba’s distinct sound, look no further than the pioneers of the music scene on the Caribbean island – the Buena Vista Social Club. Founded in the heart of Havana as a hedonistic, fraternal society before the revolution, the Buena Vista Social Club is now emblematic of Cuba’s musical golden age. Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, and Rubén González, all former members of the group, are considered the founding fathers of Cuba’s modern music scene.
In recent years, young artists have rejuvenated the scene. Far from breaking with traditional techniques, musicians such as pianist Roberto Fonseca and singer Daymé Arocena have sought to breathe new life into the island’s music scene, adapting and customizing the treasured rhythms of old.
Daymé Arocena is the country’s latest musical export. The young prodigy merges the piano lines made famous by the greats with more daring time signature changes and personal lyrics related to her religion, Santería, that she invokes with haunting chants.
Arocena’s introduction of electronic sounds into her album Cubafonía subtly fuses modernity with tradition, and while more conventional rumba often follows a set pattern, her songs are made up of unexpected twists and turns.
Cuba’s music scene is sophisticated, nuanced, and timeless. The sounds that emanate from the island have left a musical legacy strong enough to withstand today’s most unbearable chart-toppers. At night I sleep soundly knowing that, centuries from now, future generations will pour themselves a glass of rum, light a cigar, and kick back to some upbeat guajira.
Written by Thomas Davidson