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This page will explain the history of Cuban music from the very beginning untill the famous Buena Vista Social Club.
In this same page we also give you the possibility to download music through ITunes, one of the best and safest ways to get music on your computer.
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Buena Vista Social Club Cuba music books Compay Segundo
Ibrahim Ferrer    

Cuba and its Music

The Caribbean island of Cuba has been influential in the development of multiple musical styles in the 19th and 20th centuries. The roots of most Cuban musical forms lie in the cabildos, a form of social club among African slaves brought to the island. The cabildos were formed from the Araras, Bantu, Carabalies, Yorubas, and other civilizations/tribes. Cabildos preserved African cultural traditions, even after the Emancipation in 1886 forced them to unite with the Roman Catholic church. At the same time, a religion called Santería was developing and had soon spread throughout Cuba, Haiti and other nearby islands. Santería influenced Cuba's music, as percussion is an inherent part of the religion. Each orisha, or deity, is associated with colors, emotions, Roman Catholic saints and drum patterns called toques. By the 20th century, elements of Santería music had appeared in popular and folk forms.

Cuban music has its principal roots in Spain and West Africa, but over time has been influenced by diverse genres from different countries. Most important among these are France, the United States, and Jamaica. Reciprocally, Cuban music has been immensely influential in other countries, contributing not only to the development of jazz and salsa, but also to Argentinian tango, Ghanaian high-life, West African Afrobeat, and Spanish "nuevo flamenco". Cuban music of high quality includes "classical" music, some with predominantly European influences, and much of it inspired by both Afro-Cuban and Spanish music. Several Cuban-born composers of "serious" music have recently received a much-deserved revival. Within Cuba, there are many popular musicians working in the rock and reggaeton idioms.

Carnaval Santiago de Cuba

Folk Music
The natives of Cuba were the Taíno, Arawak and Ciboney people, known for a style of music called areito. Large numbers of African slaves and European immigrants brought their own forms of music to the island. European dances and folk musics included zapateo, fandango, zampado, retambico and canción. Later, northern European forms like waltz, minuet, gavotte and mazurka appeared among urban whites. Fernando Ortíz, a Cuban folklorist, described Cuba's musical innovations as arising from the interplay between African slaves settled on large sugar plantations and Spanish or Canary Islanders who grew tobacco on small farms. The African slaves and their descendants reconstructed large numbers of percussive instruments and corresponding rhythms, the most important instruments being the clave, the congas and batá drums. Chinese immigrants have contributed the cornetín chino ("Chinese cornet"), a Chinese wind instrument still played in the comparsas, or carnival groups, of Santiago de Cuba.

Hernando de la Parra's archives give many of our earliest available information on Cuban music. He reported instruments including the clarinet, violon and vihuela. There were few professional musicians at the time, and fewer still of their songs survive. One of the earliest is "La Ma-Teodore", which is similar to ecclesiastic European forms and 16th century folk songs.

The original guajira was earthy, strident rural acoustic music, possibly related to Puerto Rican jibaro. It appeared in the early 20th century, and is led by a 6-string guitar called a tres, known for a distinctive tuning

Musica Campesina
Música campesina is a rural form of improvised music derived from a local form of décima and verso called punto. It has been popularized by artists like Celina González, and has become an important influence on modern son.

While remaining mainly unchanged in its forms (thus provoking a steady decline in interest among the Cuban youth), some artists have tried to renew música campesina with new styles, lyrics, themes and arrangements.


Classical Music
Among internationally heralded composers of the "serious" genre can be counted the Baroque composer Esteban Salas, whose music recently has been released on a number of CD's. Some consider him the most advanced composer in the New World at the close of the Eighteenth Century. In the 19th century, several major composers came from Cuba. These included Robredo Manuel, who helped transform contradanza into a litany of future styles, Laureano Fuentes, who wrote an opera, Selia, that is still well-remembered, and Gaspar Villete, who was respected across the Atlantic in Europe. Jose White, a mulatto of half-Haitian origin, was a violinist of international merit, much praised in Paris, who also composed a Violin Concerto reminiscent of Mendelssohn.


It was Ignacio Cervantes, however, who did the most to assert a sense of Cuban musical nationalism, using Afro-Cuban and guajiro techniques. Aaron Copeland once referred to him as a "Cuban Chopin" because of his Chopinesque piano compositions. Cervantes' nationalistic followers, who espoused a philosophy called Afrocubanismo, included Alejandro Caturla, whose music is sometimes redolent of Bartok-mixed-with-Delius, and the percussion stylist Amadeo Roldán. Caturla and Roldán's music would be performed in the U.S. and Europe at concerts of Henry Cowell's Pan-American Association of Composers.

Probably the greatest Cuban musical mind of the Twentieth Century and of all time was Ernesto Lecuona, whose serious works have earned him the title "the Cuban Gershwin," and he recently underwent a revival with the release of at least five CD's covering all of his piano works. Lecuona started as a child prodigy who later on could compose in his head a la Mozart. His most famous work is the "Malagueña", part of his "Spanish Suite" of piano pieces, often erroneously identified as music of a Spanish composer.

Other significant composers in need of a revival include Joaquin Nin (often misindentified as "Spanish") and Gonzalo Roig, who specialized in orchestrating national themes. After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, a new crop of classical musicians came onto the scene. The most important of these is guitarrist Leo Brouwer, who made significant innovations in classical guitar, and is currently the director of the Havana Symphonic Orchestra. His directorship in the early 1970s of the Cuban Instititute of Instrumental and Cinematographic Arts (ICAIC) was instrumental in the formation and consolidation of the nueva trova movement.

Cuban-born classical pianists include many who have recorded with the world's greatest symphonies, including Jorge Bolet (friend of Rachmaninoff and Liszt specialist), Horacio Gutierrez (former Tchaikovsky Competition silver medalist), and prize-winning pianist and owner of the "Elan" classical CD company, Santiago Rodriguez, a Russian-music specialist. A number of Cuban concert pianists still living in Cuba have been recorded on various major music record labels. Guitarist Manuel Barrueco is considered by some to be the world's greatest classical guitarist.

The European influence on Cuba's later musical development is most influentially represented by danzón, which is an elegant dance that became established in Cuba before being exported to popular acclaim throughout Latin America, especially Mexico. Its roots lay in European social dances like the English country dance, French contredanse and Spanish contradanza.

Danzon developed in the 1870s in the region of Matanzas, where African culture remained strong. It had developed in full by 1879. Played by orquesta tipica, an informal military marching band, danzóns evolved from the habanera by incorporating African elements, and were played by artists like Miguel Failde. Failde added elements from the French contredanse, and laid the way for future artists like José Urfe, Enrique Jorrín and Antonio María Romeu

Haitians in Cuba: Charanga
Other forms of Cuban folk music include the bolero ballads from Santiago, and small French creole bands called charangas. Charangas come from Haitian refugees during the Haitian Revolution (1791), who settled in the Oriente and established their own style of danzón, forming a kind of cabildo called the tumba francesa and became known for comparsa, mambo, chachachá and other kinds of folk music.

Changuí is a rapid form of son from the eastern provinces (Santiago and Guantánamo, known together as Oriente), and is best exemplified by Elio Revé. It is unclear how the changuí originated, and whether it is a precursor to the classical son, but it seems that the two developed along parallel lines. Changuí is characterised by its strong emphasis on the downbeat, as well as being fast and very percussive. While it was Elio Revé who modernised the changuí, musicians such as Cándido Fabré and more recently Los Dan Den gave it the contemporary feel it has today. Most importantly Los Van Van, led by Juan Formell, drew on changuí, adding trombones, synthesizers and more percussion, to create the songo.

Son is a major genre of Cuban music, and has helped lay the foundation for most of what came after. It arose in the eastern part of the island, among Spanish-descended farmers, and is thought to have been derived from changui, which also merged the Spanish guitar and African rhythms and to which son is closely related.

Son's characteristics vary widely today, with the defining characteristic a bass pulse that comes before the downbeat, giving son and its derivatives (including salsa) its distinctive rhythm; this is known as the anticipated bass.

Son traditionally concerns itself with themes like love and patriotism, though more modern artists are socially or politically-oriented. Son lyrics are typically decima (ten line), octosyllabic verse, and it is performed in 2/4 time. The son clave has both a reverse and forward clave, which differ in that a forward clave has a three note bar (tresillo), followed by a two note bar, while the reverse is the opposite.

Batá and yuka
One of the most vibrant cabildos was the Lukumí, which became known for batá drums, played traditionally at initiation ceremonies, and gourd ensembles called abwe. In the 1950s, a collection of Havana-area batá drummers called Santero helped bring Lucumí styles into mainstream Cuban music, while artists like Mezcla and Lázaro Ros melded the style with other forms, including zouk.

The Kongo cabildo is known for its use of yuka drums, as well as gallos (a form of song contest), makuta and mani dances, the latter being closely related to the Brazilian martial dance capoeira. Yuka drum music eventually evolved into what is known as rumba, which has become internationally popular. Rumba bands traditionally use several drums, palitos, claves and call and response vocals.

Abroad, rumba is primarily thought of as a glitzy ballroom dance, but its origins are spontaneous, improvised and lively, coming from the dockworkers of Havana and Matanzas. Percussion (including quinto and tumbadoras drums and "palitos", or sticks, to play a cáscara rhythm) and vocal parts (including a leader and a chorus are combined to make a danceable and popular form of music.

The word rumba is believed to stem from the verb rumbear, which means something like to have a good time, party. The rhythm is the most important part of rumba, which is always music primarily meant for dancing.

There are three basic rumba forms, with accompanying dances: columbia, guaguanco and yambú. The columbia, played in 6/8 time, is generally danced only by men, often as a solo dance, and is very swift, with aggressive and acrobatic moves. The guagancó, played in 2/4, is danced with one man and one woman, and is slower. The dance simulates the man's pursuit of the woman, and is thus sexually charged. The yambú, known as "the old people's rumba", is a precursor to the guaguancó and is played more slowly. Yambú has almost died-out and is played almost exclusively by folkloric ensembles.

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