|Stylistic origins||A fusion of Cuban traditional tres and song, with percussion of Afro-Cuban origin|
|Cultural origins||Cuba (late 19th-century Oriente)|
|Typical instruments||tres, marímbula or double bass, bongo, claves and maracas, guiro|
|Son montuno - Mambo - guaracha - Guajira-son - chachachá - Afro-Cuban jazz|
|Cuba and rest of the world|
|Music of Cuba - Early Cuban bands - Anticipated bass - Clave|
Son cubano is a style of music and dance that originated in Cuba and gained worldwide popularity in the 1930s. Son combines the structure and elements of Spanish canción and the Spanish guitar with African rhythms and percussion instruments of Bantu origin. The Cuban son is one of the most influential and widespread forms of Latin American music: its derivatives and fusions, especially salsa, have spread across the world.
The word son (one of the words that translates to English 'rhythm' from Spanish) has also come to be used for other traditional rural musical styles of Spanish-speaking countries. For example, in Mexico the Son Jarocho of Veracruz and the Son Huasteco of the Sierra Huasteca constitute distinct popular musical genre. They are not derived from the Cuban son.
Although the history of Cuban music dates back to the 16th century, the son is a relatively recent musical invention, appearing no earlier than the end of the 19th century in the mountainous regions of the Cuban province of Oriente. Three other musical genres from eastern Cuba: changüí, nengón, and kiribá, share some of the same instrumentation and musical structure with the son. Changüí authority Benjamin Lapidus states: "The local Guatanameros [musicians from Guantánamo] view of the son's development is that it started with structurally similar variants such as the nengón and kiribá. Soon the music became regina, a repeated melody and choral refrain, which emphasizes vocal improvisation. Changüí was born of regina and ultimately begat son." Cuban historians and musicologists no longer believe that son is related to the story of Ma Teodora. The son migrated west to Havana around 1910. It was at this time that the son most likely adopted the clave rhythm from the Havana-based rumba, which had been developed in the late 19th century in Havana and Matanzas.
Contradanza expert Peter Manuel proposes a contrary theory that a great deal of the son's structure originated from the contradanza in Havana around 1910-1920. The contradanza included many of the forms that are known in the son, such as melodies in duet form, the presence of clave, short vocal refrains, distinctive syncopations, and the two part song form of a "song-like" first part and the ostinato section known as the montuno. Manuel states that syncopations present in Oriente while, probably somewhat influential, were really not used as much as people thought, and in Havana, they became more evolved.
Early 20th century
The emergence of son in the 1910s significantly increased the interaction of African-derived and Iberian-derived cultures. It also gave black musicians not only a source of income by performing, but also allowed them to enter a market that had been previously reserved for European style music only. In Cuba of the 1910s, African cultural retentions of any sort were considered “barbaric” or vulgar. Even those that were considered progressive intellectuals still believed in notions of white superiority. Therefore, African-influenced music to most Cubans at the time was nothing more than erratic music played by children. Because of this, the growing popularity of sones among the black and white working classes caused considerable anxiety among those devoted to European music. Son can be viewed as a stylistically pivotal genre linking the culture of the Afro-Cuban underclasses with that of mainstream society. From the lowest social strata it has proceeded to ascend and strengthen its style, influencing other genres in the process.
The first known son group was the Cuarteto Oriental, formed in 1916 by the Martínez brothers: Gerardo Martínez (claves), Guillermo Castilla (botija), Ricardo Martínez (tres) and Nery Cabrera (maracas). Recording began in 1918 with Sexteto Habanero (a renamed Cuarteto Oriental). Sexteto Boloña was also launched that year, but did not record until the mid-1920s.
Popularization began in earnest with the arrival of radio broadcasting in 1922, which came at the same time as Havana's reputation as an attraction for Americans evading Prohibition laws, and the city became a haven for the Mafia, prostitution and gambling, and also became a second home for trendy and influential bands from New York City. The son experienced a period of transformation from 1925 to 1928, when it evolved from a marginal genre of music to perhaps the most popular type of music in Cuba. A turning point that made this transformation possible occurred when then president Machado publicly asked La Sonora Matancera to perform at his birthday party. In addition, the acceptance of son as a popular music genre in other countries contributed to more acceptance of son in mainstream Cuba.
A few years later, in the late 1920s, son sextets became septets and son's popularity continued to grow with artists like Septeto Nacional and its leader, Ignacio Piñeiro (Echale salsita - Donde estabas a noche). In 1928, Rita Montaner's El Manicero became the first Cuban song to be a major hit in Paris and elsewhere in Europe. In 1930, Don Azpiazu's Havana Casino Orchestra took the song to the United States, where it also became a big hit.
The instrumentation was expanded to include, keyed cornets or trumpets, forming the sextets and the septets of the 1920s. Later these conjuntos added piano, other percussion instruments, more trumpets, and even dance orchestra instruments in the style of jazz big bands.
By the late 1930s, the heyday of “classic son” had largely ended. The sextetos and septetos that had enjoyed wide commercial popularity increasingly lost ground to jazz bands and amplified conjuntos. The very music that son had helped to create, was now replacing son as the more popular and most requested music in Cuba. Original son conjuntos were faced with the option to disband and refocus on newer styles of Cuban music or go back to their roots to perform solely in the Afro-Cuban community.
In the 1940s, Arsenio Rodríguez became the most influential player of son. He used improvised solos, toques, congas and extra trumpets, percussion and pianos, although all these elements had been used previously (Papauba - Para bailar son montuno). Beny Moré (known as the El Bárbaro del Ritmo, "The Master of Rhythm") further evolved the genre, adding guaracha, bolero and mambo influences. He was perhaps the greatest sonero (Castellano que bueno baila usted - Vertiente Camaguey ); another sonero has been Roberto Faz.
With the arrival of chachachá and mambo in the United States, son also became extremely popular. After the Cuban Revolution separated Cuba from the U.S., son, mambo and rumba, along with other forms of Afro-Cuban music contributed to the development of salsa music, initially in New York.
The mass popularization of son music led to an increase valorization of Afro-Cuban street culture and of the artists who created it. It also opened the door for other music genres with Afro-Cuban roots to become popular in Cuba and throughout the world.
By the late 1940s, son had lost its controversiality even among conservative Cubans which made it even less appealing to Cubans. A development that led to the decrease in popularity of the original son occurred in the 1940s. The son grew more sophisticated as it was adopted by conjuntos, which displaced sextetos and septetos. This led to big bands replacing the conjuntos, which managed to keep its flavor despite elaborate arrangements.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the tourism boom in Cuba and the popularity of jazz and American music in general fostered the development of big bands and combos on the island. These bands consisted of a relatively small horn section, piano, bass, a full array of Cuban percussion instruments and a vocalist fronting the ensemble. Their polished sound and “cosmopolitan” – read “commercial” – repertoire captivated both Cuban and foreign Audiences.
The commercialism of this new music movement led Cuban nightclub owners to recognize the revenue potential of hosting these types of bands to attract the growing flow of tourists. Additionally, as a result of the increasing popularity of big band music and in an effort to increase revenues, the recording industry focused on producing newer types of music and essentially removing son from their music repertoires. These developments were a big blow to the prospects of son and its popularity even amongst Cubans.
Current state of the son
At present the traditional-style son is seldom heard, but has been assimilated into other genres and is present in them. Thus, other types of popular Cuban music and other Latin styles of music continue using the essential style of the son.
Another important contribution of the son was the introduction of the drum to mainstream music. The increase in popularity of the son unveiled the huge potential of music with Afro-Cuban rhythms. This led to the development and mass distribution of newer types of Latin music. Additionally, genres of the later 1940s such as mambo manifest many characteristics derived from son. Charanga orchestras, also developed dance music heavily influenced by son.
Although the son continues to be a very important musical foundation for all kinds of Latin music it is no longer a popular music genre in Cuba. Younger generations of Cubans prefer the faster, dance-oriented music such as timba or salsa. Older generations continue to preserve the son as one of the music genres they listen to, specifically in Oriente, where they tend to maintain more traditional versions of the son compared to Havana.
The demise of the USSR (Cuba’s major economic mainstay) in 1991 forced Cuba to encourage tourism to attract sorely needed foreign currency. Along with tourism, music became one of Cuba’s major assets. The Buena Vista Social Club album and film as well as a stream of CDs triggered a worldwide Cuban music boom. In addition to the original Buena Vista Social Club album, there has been a stream of solo CDs by the members of the “club”. These individuals were subsequently offered individual contracts, ensuring a continued flow of CDs that include many original Cuban son classics.
Thanks to the Buena Vista Social Club album, film, and follow-up solo albums there has been a revival of the traditional son and a rediscovery of older son performers who had often fallen by the wayside. Although most Cubans don’t see the value of the Buena Vista Social Club album and feel it doesn’t represent present time Cuba, it has introduced the Cuban son to younger generations of people from around the world that had never heard of son. It has also introduced an important part of Cuban music history to foreign audiences.
The basic son ensemble of early 20th-century Havana consisted of guitar, tres, claves, bongos, marímbula or botija, and maracas. The tres plays the typical Cuban ostinato figure known as guajeo. The rhythmic pattern of the following generic guajeo is used in many different songs. Note that the first measure consists of all offbeats. The figure can begin in the first measure, or the second measure, depending upon the structure of the song.
Later on, the double bass replaced the marímbula, and bongos and a trumpet was added, giving rise to sextetos and septetos. In the early 1940s the piano and the tumbadora (conga drum) were added, as well as one or two extra trumpets, which gave rise to the conjunto format popularized by Arsenio Rodríguez.
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- Video of son performed by Cutumba
- History of Cuban music, with section about son (in Spanish)
- "Valle Son Music" Traditional and Contemporary Son from Viñales, Cuba
- Cuban son complex More about the traditional evolution of Cuban son