Take a walk down the cobblestone streets of Havana Vieja and you’ll hear music pouring out of the cafés, restaurants, and bars. The music is always live and always good. You might hear any number of musical styles being performed, including son, salsa, and trova. The groups usually have one or two guitarists, a bassist, percussionist, and vocalist. The singers are especially impressive, with deep and powerful voices. While you’re in Cuba, take time to listen to the local music wherever you go. You’ll be amazed at what you find.
Cuban music has evolved over the past several centuries thanks to Spanish, African, and European influences. The arrival of the Spanish brought guitars and new melodies to the island; these would eventually merge with African rhythms and call-and-response traditions. From the 16th to the 18th century, Cuban music mostly stayed on the island. The 19th century saw Cuban music popularized throughout the rest of the world—this helped Cuban sounds contribute to the development of other musical genres, including salsa and rumba. The 1950s witnessed the introduction of mambo and Latin jazz to the US, as well big band groups like those of Benny Moré.
However, it wasn’t until the Buena Vista Social Club that Cuban music enjoyed true international fame. The Buena Vista Social Club formed in 1996, when a Cuban music promoter rounded up a group of veteran musicians to make an album. The result was the eponymous Buena Vista Social Club, which was released in 1999 and won a Grammy the same year. The record introduced outsiders to the son and bolero musical styles, and received widespread critical acclaim. A documentary – also called Buena Vista Social Club – chronicles the group’s recording of the album and concerts on the international stage. It also gives insight into the artists’ life in Cuba. As of 2015, six of the original members have died, including Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer. However, the group continues to tour as the Orquesta—the lineup sometimes changes, but larger events usually include original members Omara Portuondo and Eliades Ochoa.
Listen to the Music
You’ll encounter a number of musical styles in Cuba, especially if you patronize the Casa de la Música, Casa de la Trova, or Casa de la Cultura. These casas are devoted to preserving and nurturing the musical scene in Cuba and are found in nearly every major city. They have live music most days of the week, and are wonderful places to listen to music and dance. Afternoon concerts are typically mellower than those in the evenings, where the dance floor fills up with locals and foreigners. The casas are often the most reliably fun place in town, and the music is guaranteed to be great.
Outside of these venues, you’ll find music being performed in bars and restaurants. In local bars, you might find a group of guitarists huddled around a table drinking rum and swapping songs. At more touristy watering holes, you’ll usually find a full band performing to a group of beer-swigging foreigners. The bars are fun places to grab a drink and listen to a few songs. Cuban restaurants often have live music as well—the volume is usually held to a level that still allows you to talk to other diners.
During performances, onlookers may be invited to join the musicians in a song or two onstage. If you accept, you’ll usually be given a pair of claves (hardwood percussive sticks) and be taught the song’s basic rhythm. Other musicians may invite couples to dance during an especially festive song. If you get the opportunity, say yes and get up on stage—it’s a fantastic opportunity to participate in Cuban music.
After a performance, musicians will usually walk around to tables to sell CDs and ask for tips. If you enjoyed the music, please tip them. This is an important source of income for these people, and will ensure their ability to continue playing music.
Types of Music
Cuban music is intricately linked to the Spanish, who brought instruments and melodies over to Cuba. The guitar plays an important role in all Cuban music—keep an eye out for the tres, a guitar that has three pairs of double strings. Rhythm is the backbone of Cuban music, with percussive instruments that include claves, bongo drums, and maracas.
Europe introduced Cuba to trova, a type of music that revolves around love ballads. Trovas originated from medieval ballads, and the singers traditionally performed for free. This is still the case at the Casas de la Trova, where you can enjoy a complimentary show in the afternoon. The 20th century saw the emergence of bolero, which mixed trova with African-Cuban rhythms and developed in Santiago de Cuba.
Son combines call-and-response verses and Spanish folk songs. It developed in Eastern Cuba, and became popular in the 1920s. The sound shifted in the 1930s thanks to the influence of jazz, and it developed into larger orchestras with brass and percussion sections. Benny Moré and his Banda Gigante are representative of this genre.
During the early years of the revolution, jazz was discouraged in Cuba, since it came from the United States. However, by the 1980s, the government had relaxed and jazz began to be appreciated. Today, Cuba has ample jazz venues that are home to excellent musicians. The most popular contemporary jazz artist is Cucho Valdés, a pianist who has won five Grammys.
Salsa is huge in Cuba, and you’ll no doubt hear it during your travels here. Salsa combines various musical traditions – including son, bolero, mambo, and even jazz – and is played at dance halls, restaurants, and bars. It means “sauce” in Spanish, and appropriately, it’s a spicy, sensual musical style that encourages dancing. There are dance schools across the country where you can take salsa lessons. After a few lessons, hit the local dance halls to practice your moves.