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Cuba, 1937. For much of its history, Afro-Cuban culture had been confined to the shadows under prejudicial laws which dated back to slavery. Drums were illegal, and cultural activities were strictly monitored. In the twentieth century, however, Cuba began to loosen the restrictions on its black population. The Batista government’s decision to legalize the drum was a landmark decision, and with it came the liberation of a whole culture. Throbbing, all-night rumbas could take place by daylight. For the first time, everyone from elite Habaneros to schoolchildren from Oriente could turn on their radios and hear Afro-Cuban rhythms.

While black music in Cuba at this time was very much in vogue, black musicians were often restricted from playing in Havana’s most popular clubs. Arsenio Rodriguez, a blind black composer who grew up surrounded by rumberos and their rhythms, was one of the most prodigious talents in the burgeoning world of son. However, he remained outside the popular scene until Miguelito Valdes, the young mestizo leader of the popular band Casino de la Playa, began integrating the songs of Arsenio Rodriguez into his repertoire. In 1937 Bruca Manigua became the first Arsenio Rodriguez song to be recorded, during Casino de la Playa’s historic recording session which laid the foundational tracks of modern Cuban music. Its rhythm was distinctly Afro-Cuban. The lyrics were written in the antiquated Afro-Cuban dialect neo-bozal, and its themes addressed the frustrations of Cuba’s black population. Valdes might have been white, but his music was rooted first and foremost in Afro-Cuba.

Meanwhile, in New York City, the recent flood of Puerto Rican immigration meant that there was a high demand for ritmos latinos. As the son got off the ground in Havana, many Cuban musicians came to make their fortune in New York, where blacks and whites could share the stage, and the hot jazz scene made for an exciting atmosphere of musical innovation. Before long, Miguelito Valdes found himself up north, taking the New York Latin jazz scene to school. Joining forces with Machito and his Afro-Cubans, New York’s most exciting Latin jazz band, Cuban music in the United States was officially established. Between soneros such as these, and the influence of American big band music, the mambo came to life. Before long, mambo giants Benny More, Perez Prado, and Tito Puente would catapult the music onto the world stage, developing the form in Cuba, New York, and Mexico City. In the years before rock and roll came to dominate world radio waves, mambo was all the rage, and it laid the foundation for generations of Latin musical innovators.