The Music of Cuba

Hispanic musician carrying upright bass in front of Cuban flag mural
Jeremy Woodhouse / Getty Images

Of all the countries that have played a part in its evolution, the small Caribbean island of Cuba has had the greatest influence on Latin music as we know it today.

Due to its dark history of slave trade and serving as an international port for the colonization of the Americas by Europeans and the diversity of its population, Cuba has developed a rich musical history alongside its dark political past.

From salsa to contradanze, rumba to conga, the genres that have emerged from Cuba since its discovery in 1492 have helped to shape Latin music as a whole, lending credence and variety to the music scene domestically and around the world.

A Brief History of Cuba

Originally discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492, Cuba received an influx of over a million African natives in the 300 years preceding Cuba’s abolition of slavery in 1873. Brought into Cuba by the Spanish settlers in order to work the gold mines, sugar and tobacco plantations, the majority of the slaves were originally from what is today Nigeria, the Congo, and Angola.

From this unique blend of origins, the slaves brought with them the rhythms, music, and dance that were an intrinsic part of their religious life back home, creating a musical undertone to the culture that would develop over the course of Cuban history. 

It is this melding of African rhythms together with guitars, melodies and lyricism from Spain that gave birth to Cuba’s wealth of music and dance, and the reason the genre is usually referred to as Afro-Cuban.

Styles and Genres

Since music and dance have always been a way of life in Cuba, all the dance and music styles and their various evolutionary counterparts would fill a book. However, chief among the genres that got their start on this small Caribbean island is danzon, rumba, conga and musica campensina.

In the urban centers, contradanza — based on the French salon style contredanse — evolved into the still popular danzon. Urban street music, influenced by African religious rituals, Christian religious carnivals and Caribbean carnival music similar to Brazil’s samba mixed together and gave birth both to rumba and the conga styles of music.

The music of the countryside, known collectively as musica campensina, gave rise to guajira, the lyrical, sweet musical form that extols the virtues of the land and Cuba’s beauty, while the trova, another rural style of music from the eastern part of the island, dispersed news and gossip, often through satire. The Cuban bolero, evolving from the trova, is the epitome of the romantic love song. And finally, reflecting influences of all of these earlier musical styles is the heart of Cuban music, the son.

Spread and Continued Popularity

As waves of immigrants migrated north to the United States, Cuban music fused with other musical formats in the urban centers. In the mid-twentieth century, new popular musical styles were born from this fusion giving us the mambo, cha cha cha and, of course, salsa.

It’s difficult to say who “invented” some of the popular Cuban-inspired musical forms, combinations of instruments, or evolved rhythms and dances.

Does salsa come from Cuba or New York? Does Latin jazz owe more to Cuban musical traditions or those of New Orleans? Maybe the answer isn’t really important. As the world becomes a global village, Latin music continues to evolve and reflect the global heartbeat.

If you're interested in listening to a historical panorama of Cuban music, I am Time is a 4-CD set that explores the genre. One of the CDs is dedicated to Afro-Cuban religious music, the second to songcraft, the third focuses on Cuban dance music and the last explores Cuban jazz.