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Cuba, Latin America’s most influential musical powerhouse, has been bringing the world to the dance floor since the first radio waves carried the sounds of the son across the Caribbean. This style of music, an energetic cross section of Cuba’s African and European musical influences, inspired everything from salsa to Senegalese mbalax, and in the mid-twentieth century became Cuba’s primary cultural export.

Despite its later success, playing the son was initially a clandestine affair, as its polyrhythms violated centuries-old restrictions on African drums. Since Cuba’s sugar economy relied so heavily on African slaves, it was in the state’s interest to undermine any symbol of African autonomy. No such symbol was more potent than the drum. In each of the various Afro-Cuban subcultures the drum was central to rituals both sacred and social, and increasing government restrictions meant that continuing these rituals required secrecy. And so, as ballrooms filled with whites dancing the habanera and danzon (European dance music with a Creole Cuban twist) blacks covertly developed African rhythms into percussive forms unique to Afro-Cuba.

Early soneros were steeped in Afro-Cuban traditions, from the thunderous beats of all night rumbas to the mysterious customs of santeria. With the addition of aspects of danzon and brassy jazz they created an irresistible dance music which would not be contained. As the twentieth century progressed, the style spread from black strongholds in Oriente to urban Havana, where six piece bands like the popular ‘Sexteto Habanera’ came to dominate the booming nightclubs and casinos. Antonio Machin and his New York City performance of ‘El Manisero’ brought the son instant international fame, and Cuban musicians began regularly traveling to New York to record and play in Manhattan clubs. Back in Cuba, Arsenio Rodriguez, a blind composer of Congolese descent, became a prominent innovator of the sound by enlarging the bands to include a conga, piano, and additional trumpets. He also placed stronger emphasis on the clave, a rhythmic key which holds together the fast-paced polyrhythms of the son. Before long, Cuban music had become inconceivable without the infectious drumming which brought the country to its feet. By the time Fulgencio Batista’s regime gave way to Castro’s revolution, the son was well established as Cuba’s national musical sensation.