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Know Cuba Like Us

The two pillars of Cuban music

The two pillars of Cuban music.
Today's best popular music can be listened to and enjoyed in the Caribbean. As Alejo Carpentier said. "Within the extraordinary diversity of the Caribbean there is a common denominator: music". A music mostly sung in which sad, happy, melancholic and hopeful stories are explained but with a rhythm that even in its slowest paces remind us that its main target is making us dance. People say that Cuba is the place where you can dance the most rhythmic of all that music. It is the homeland of many important rhythms that have influenced music worldwide but the most outstanding ones are the Rumba and the Son.
Have you ever been in a Rumba?
You haven't?
But you have certainly listen to the rhythm of drums. When you see a group of people gathering around a drum, some clapping and moving to the sound of bongos you are undoubtedly watching a Rumba. The Cuban Rumba is one of the most important, difficult and popular folkloric rhythms that are still played in parties and ball rooms. Guaguancó is a Rumba style with a moderate rhythm which is danced by a couple. Since a long time ago the Rumba has been a way of entertainment of a group of people characterized by a very popular level, the Rumba manifests in different styles and ways of sounding. Alejo Carpentier, one of Cuban's most outstanding writers on folklore issues, mentions some names of dances in the 18th century which resembled some of the most popular Rumba rhythms nowadays.
Rumba is considered a pretext for gathering, playing the drums, singing and dancing. The term "Rumbear" (going on Rumba dance) is used for the fact of participating in the Rumba party. Everybody participates, ones playing the drums, others singing the solos, others making the chorus, dancing or simply clapping their hands at the rhythm, and moving their bodies while standing near the Rumba group. The term Rumba is applied not only to the rhythm but also to such parties and dance.
The rhythm is achieved by combining different kinds of percussion instruments which offer a polyrhythmic sound completed by the voices, a soloist who raises his voice on a free song subjected to some specificities and the chorus that answers, expressing an idea always referred to everyday life. The soloist begins his song with a kind of la , la, la or reveille which alerts everybody he is going to begin his impromptus performance which is a narration, generally structured in various continuous verses. Then all of a sudden the song stops and he orders the chorus to answer with a symbolic phrase or word like Guiro!, or Speak!.
The Rumba was taken to Spain by immigrants the same way that had happened with the habaneras and Cuban punto (farmer's music). It was so influenced by Spanish and African rhythms and vice versa that today we can listen to Flamenco Rumba which combines the guitars and drums, or Cuban Rumba in which we can recognise the rhythmic elements of Flamenco.
In the same way Rumba was taken to the USA and incorporated to the jazz bands. Such is the case of Xavier Cugat who founded his own band to play at the ball rooms of the Waldorf Astoria. There other Cuban musicians such as the legendary Rita Montaner, Ernesto Lecuona and Miguelito Valdes joined this movement which turned Rumba into a theatre show. Many Cuban jazz bands also adopted these changes such as Casino de la Playa Orchestra, with Miguelito Valdes and Lecuona Cuban Boys Orchestra. in New York, Machito and his Afro Cubans also made popular a lot of Rumbas, such as Nague, and Blen, Blen .
From the influence that those Cuban musicians who played in North American groups or in groups from other sectors in the New York Latin neighbourhoods, and the exchanges that occurred, the participation of other Cuban artists and musicians in artistic tours along the States and Iberian America increased, placing the Cuban Rumba in very important stages. Today technology has made possible to approach Rumba rhythms to the most modern ones without losing its tradition. Nowadays the electric bass is incorporated as another percussion level, the violin is used in spiritual cantos to the ancestors and the electric piano.
The Rumba is played everywhere in Cuba at present. It has its club "La Peña de la Rumba" which meets every Saturday in a very popular spot in Vedado neighbourhood to dance and play this rhythm. Los Papines are the most outstanding representative of this rhythm in Cuba they are called the Ambassadors of the Rumba because they have taken it to all places in the world. They have magic in their hands. When they play is as if you were watching a magician performance. Their fingers move so fast that you can hardly follow their movement. This group is also accompanied by dancers who perform in couples or in solos. They fancy the lyrics of the song and make movements accordingly.
What can be unknown today when we recognize Cuban Rumba in a great number of international rhythms? This Rumba sends the world a message of Cuban identity. There goes again today's Rumba. Have you ever danced at the beat of a Son? But you have certainly danced at the rhythm of Van Van. Haven't you? So you've danced at the rhythm of a pure Cuban Son.
The Cuban Son originated in the eastern region of this island specifically in the mountains of Santiago de Cuba province by the end of the 19th century as part of the formation of the Cuban Nationality. It became popular in the Carnival parties in Santiago de Cuba around the year 1892. it was originally played with a Tres, a rustic instrument composed of three double strings on a wooden box. This instrument became the symbol of the Son ever since.
In the beginnings the musical structure of the Son was based on the constant repetition of a refrain of 4 compasses or less, repeated by a chorus which was known as the Montuno.(related to the mountains) that was receiving the harmonic improvisation of a soloist. Because of its great acceptance by the public, the Son soon became popular in the urban centers and it began to receive the influence of the European music. Its original instruments were, besides the Tres, the guitar, the bongos, the maracas, the claves "without claves there is no Son" , so they say and finally the marimba and the double bass. The Son combines the musical instruments from both African and Spanish origin.
At the beginning of the 20th century, by the year 1909, the Son spreads to the cities, including the Capital. Groups were mainly composed by 4 people but by the year 1920 they became sextets, the best known at the time was Sexteto Habanero founded in 1920 which by the year 1927, with the inclusion of the trumpet, became a septet although it continued to be called Sexteto Habanero. The Son musical format was defined that way and it greatly influenced the Caribbean. It is important to mention .Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñeiro.
The Son was the dance of the poor people, so at the beginning it was rejected and prohibited by the ruling class because it was considered amoral. But it soon entered the ball rooms of the Capital city Havana and the record companies so it crossed the ancestral home and became part of the Cuban culture and the world. Many people have contributed to the internationalisation of the Son among them Don Aspiazu Orchestra in the USA in 1930 and in Europe in 1931, which made "El Manicero" (the peanut vendor) a world hit and Ignacio Piñeiro's National Septet which performed in the World Fair in Chicago in 1933. In 1940 the format was widened and the septets became groups with the addition of the trumpets, the drums and the piano.
Other groups were distinguished in the 40's Sonora Matancera and Conjunto Casino Benny More, in the 50's created a new school in the interpretation of the Son, he himself accompanied by his Giant Band was a style above competition, something out of this world in the whole Caribbean if you take into consideration that he didn't study music. He "felt" the music in his head and dictate it to his arranger like a la, la, la.
The Son has a great variety of forms among them son montuno, changui, Son habanero, Son Pregon(cry) and the sucu sucu. By the end of the 60's and beginnings of the 70's the well known orchestra Los Van Van directed by Juan Formell brought to life the Songo, a mixture of Son with the electronic music of the Beat. This orchestra is nowadays the most outstanding representative of the Cuban Son. The Son is itself the root where the Salsa originated that's why it's not fair to confuse them. And as the great Son says : "El son es lo mas sublime para el alma divertir" (The Son is the most sublime thing to amuse the soul).

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Original painting decorations by cuban artist Sandra Dooley
graphic design Otto Pantoja