Sunday, March 26, 2006

The evolution and potential of Cuban music

This is from my paper on the origins of Cuban music and what makes it so powerful. I wrote this as part of the Cuba GATE course, so this has nothing to do with Fuqua as such, except that I got this opportunity to explore Cuban music while I am here! To all the music lovers out there...

As we sat outside at a plush restaurant in Havana one sunny afternoon, three musicians, wearing colorful Hawaii-style shirts, started playing what struck me as traditional Cuban songs. What caught my immediate attention was the simplicity of the music. With two guitars and a pair of maracas (1) and use of vocal harmonics, they were able to convey a variety and depth that makes Cuban music so enticing. After listening to a few songs, there was no mistaking their talent. Needless to say, when the lead singer approached our table with a CD, I grabbed my opportunity and bought their recording for ten pesos. As I was exiting the restaurant, I proudly showed the new addition to my collection to our tour guide and he congratulated me at making a good selection. Little did I imagine that this local album would become one of the most precious items in my collection.

One week later, I took the help of a new singer friend, and burrowed through numerous Cuban CDs, looking for authentic Cuban music that could tell a story about Cuban music as it evolved, and I bought music albums covering Jazz, Trova and Son Cubano (2). Long after we returned from our trip, the music I heard in Cuba was ringing in my ears and these albums became part of my regular hearing. It is one of the richest forms of music I have come across. This tiny island boasts of a tradition of music that is old and cross-continental. The roots of Cuban music is in Europe and Africa. Cuba was a Spanish colony for many centuries and like America, imported a lot of African people as slaves. Both these cultures brought music with them and along with Jazz music from America in the early 20th century, formed what is the Cuban music of today.

The African influence in Cuban music is primarily in three important ways: the singing style, the percussions and the musical form. The African singing was nasal and was the case for a long time and became one of the characteristics of Afro-Cuban music. Later on, it became embedded in the form of vocal harmonics and in portions in modern day Cuban songs. The second significant impact that was also clearly observable was the unique use of percussions. Like many eastern music forms such as Arabic and Indian music, percussions and rhythm form an integral part of melody in Cuban music. The African slaves lacked string and wind instruments and necessity being the mother of invention in this case, the African slaves made innovative use of percussion instruments to form their melodies. This was further enhanced by clever use of syncopation (3). Finally, with respect to the form of the Afro-Cuban music, the typical structure of a Cuban song is based on a call and an answer. The vocalist starts a song by a call to the people of the village and the people answer him or her.

With increasing integration of Spanish invaders into the Cuban society, string and wind instruments became more available and the spirit of the Cuban people took the form of melodies in these instruments. The work of slaves in the sugarcane farms in Cuba parallels the work on cotton fields by the slaves in America and the birth of blues music. The Cuban slaves were well-fed because work on sugarcane farms required energy and strength, but it was a tiring job, much like work on cotton fields in the middle of the day. This fueled creativity and the Cubans took to Spanish instruments, and this is one of the most discernible portions of what we know as Cuban music today.

However, in the modern day, what makes Cuban music even more interesting is the Jazz influence from America. This was the final and one of the most important influences in the formation of today’s Cubano music. Today in Cuba, you can find Jazz that is significantly more melodic, like that of José Miguel Crego (4), but what is even more interesting is that the typical Latin American salsa and rumba rhythms are interrupted by Jazz-like formations. A classic example of this interesting feature is the mixing of solo piano or trumpet from time to time into what is largely Latin American rhythms of Maraca (5).

The American trade embargo on Cuba has significant ramifications for Cuban music. America has traditionally been the most influential market when it comes to music and cinema. Though many of the rock n’ roll bands of the 60s came from the United Kingdom, their success was considered complete only when they made a mark in the US market. The embargo, which is nearing 50 years, has essentially kept Cuban music out from this mix, and considering the pace of innovation in music in the last half a century, the face of music today would have been very different. On the other hand, much of the Latin American music is only picking up now and Cuba can still play a significant role in this very interesting evolution.

Cuban music largely served the local market all through the initial decades of the Cuban revolution in 1959. In the mid nineties, a phenomenon called the Buena Vista Social club came into being (6). It all started with Juan de Marcos González, who sought to bring together generations of Cuban and Afro-Cuban musicians and record an album (7). This was a huge success and Cuban music started getting recognition and acceptance all over the world. This was further fueled by the relaxation by Cuban government in the nineties to allow Cuban musicians to emigrate and spread the music outside. Today, musicians are increasingly traveling abroad in search for acceptance.

Musicians from outside world are also finding interest inside Cuba. The recent concert by Audioslave in Havana was a huge success and was attended by over 60,000 people. According to my singer friend who happened to sneak into the VIP section, it was loud and it stayed on in the minds of people for a long time. The concert a few months later by Air Supply was dull. It is little wonder that musicians wanting to sell inside Cuba will need to break into long established and extremely rich Cubano music culture.

The biggest barrier for outside music in entering Cuba, in my opinion, is overshadowing the essence and richness of the Cuban rhythm. This was more than evident in our interactions with Cuban people. We went to Havana clubs with a group of graduate students from the University of Havana. When a particularly popular hip-hop song started playing, one of the students turned to me and said, “I don’t like this song. The beat in this song is loud and boring and you just can’t dance to it, you know.” I understood immediately. It will take a whole lot more to move a Cuban to your rhythm.

(2) For more information on these forms, please read
(3) Syncopation: A shift of accent in a passage or composition that occurs when a normally weak beat is stressed.


Clear Admit said...

Congratulations on your nomination for Clear Admit’s 2006 Best of Blogging competition! As an MBA blogger, we value your opinion and ask you to weigh in with your thoughts on which blogs have been the most enjoyable and helpful over the past year. To receive a copy of this year’s ballot, please email Thank you and good luck!

machete said...

"The American trade embargo on Cuba has significant ramifications for Cuban music."

The problem is not the embargo. The problem is castro.

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