From Cuba with Love – A History of Cuban Music: African and European Music are Fused Into Marvelous Rhythms

Renowned Cuban guitar professor Isaac Nicola surrounded by his disciples

Even though most of the elements were already in place, there was no Cuban music before the 19th Century. There is an argument over a composition, Son de la Ma’ Teodora allegedly created in Santiago de Cuba in the 1570s. This piece has numerous elements of the son, the quintessential Cuban rhythm, but there are many questions as to when it was actually written.

Early Melodies were Imported

In any case, from the time the Spaniards settled on the island in 1511, the popular music favored by the colonists and criollos (those born in Cuba of European parents) came from Europe. The popular styles were the fandango, paso doble, zapateo and such, later to be joined by the minuet, contredanse and waltz. Europeans also brought their instruments: guitar, violins, horns, military drums and piano

With the arrival of the first shipment of slaves in 1513 a totally different musical philosophy arrived in the island. While the European songs where flowing and smooth, the music of the Africans depended on the heavy beat of native drums.

French colonist and French speaking slaves who escaped the 1791 Haitian Revolution also had a limited impact on Cuban music. The final component was the native people of Cuba, the Tainos. While their music did not survive, some of their instruments like the maracas and the güiro – a dry gourd percussion instrument – did and are used to this day.

In 1836, the first habanera – a simple, cubanized version of the contredanse- appeared. Then in the 1860s La Paloma (The Dove), written by Sebastian Yradier, a Basque living in Havana, became popular in the United States and Mexico. During the following decade the rumba, a lively music of African derivation, and the danzón, more subdue with its French /African origins, became popular. Eventually, the danzón would become Cuba’s national dance and by 1884 would be embraced by the dancers of Mexico.

The bolero, a slow, romantic genre in 2/4 time appeared at the beginning of the 20th Century. It became hugely popular and it influenced Puerto Rican and Mexican music as well as American country songs.

From Cuba to the World

In 1928, El Manisero (The Peanut Vendor) a son composer Mosiés Simons based on the pregón (the street peddlers’ call) was recorded by Rita Montaner and the legend of Cuban music was born. It sold over a million copies of sheet music in the U.S. alone. Two years later Don Azpiazú and his Havana Casino Orchestra re-recorded the song. While there are nor formal sale numbers from the time, it is estimated that Azpiazú’s version became the first Cuban song to sell more than one million records in the U.S.

El Manisero started a wrongly labeled rumba craze in the U.S and Europe. The complexity of the various Cuban rhythms was lost on most people, so rumba, exotic sounding and easy to say, was used (like salsa today) internationally to describe Cuban music.

The conga, another fast, Afro-Cuban dance, became the rage in the U.S during the late 1930s. It was popularized by Cuban-born band leader and singer Desi Arnaz.

The next Cuban music craze came to the U.S. in 1945. The rhythm was the mambo, literally conversation with the gods. While the first mambo had been written in 1938 by brothers Israel “Cachao” and Orestes López it would not become popular until band leader Dámaso Pérez Prado gave it the brassy, upbeat style that the genre is known for.

Nine years later the cha-cha-chá arrived in North America and it brought with it the charanga band. The charanga or typical Cuban band is nothing more than a French chamber orchestra composed of two or more violins, bass, piano and flute with percussion instruments added. These usually are: the tumbadora, a bass drum of African origin: the timabales, kettle drum of Spanish military origin and the already mentioned guiro.

As legend has it, Enrique Jorrín, the creator of the cha-cha-chá, was playing violin for the charanga Orquesta América at a Havana night club, when he realized the tourists, mostly Americans, had problems dancing the syncopated son. He decided to come up with a slower tempo dance music that could be easily mastered by any dancer. So, cha-cha-chá was born. The new genre received its name from some professional dancers that felt the movements of their feet sounded like cha-cha-chá. To Jorrín’s surprise his newfangled style of music not only caught up among tourist but among Cuban dancers, too.

After Fidel Castro took power in 1959, Cuban music took a decisively political turn with La Nueva Trova. The genre has its roots on Cuban folk music, but the message is always political. Other rhythms like timba have developed in the island since, but are not as well known internationally.

In the 1960s, folk singer Peter Seeger and the folk-rock group the Sandpipers popularized an old – written in 1928 – Cuban guajira (a country music style with a combination of ¾ and 6/8 rhythms) named Guantanamera (Girl from Guantanamo) reviving interest for Cuban music in North America.

The latest worldwide rage of Cuban music started in 1996, when American guitarist Ry Cooder gathered a group of old Cuban musicians in Havana and recorded the Buena Vista Social Club. The popularity of the old style songs they recorded had brought Cuban music full cycle.


  1. Sublette, Ned. Cuba and its Music: from the first drum to the mambo. Chicago. Chicago Review Press Incorporated, 2004.
  2. Orovio, Helio. Cuban Music from A to Z. Durham, North Carolina. Duke University Press , 2004