Son Cubano the Music at the Heart of Cuba

Afro-Cuban music forms basis of salsa music

Senior man playing double bass in Plaza de la Cathedral at night, Havana, Cuba
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The son is at the heart of Cuban music; it is a quintessential Afro-Cuban musical form, referring both to a singing and dancing style. Son means "sound," but it is easiest to think of its meaning as "the basic song." Although there are the early traces of son dating back to the 16th century, modern son first appeared in the eastern part of Cuba in the late 19th century.

Son as the Basis of Salsa

Perhaps the most significant contribution of Son Cubano is its influence on present-day Latin music. Son is specifically considered to be the foundation on which salsa was created.The sound of the son is alive today in its various incarnations, from traditional to modern. Son may be the basis of today’s salsa, although listening to them side by side, it may be difficult to recognize the familiar, lyrical Cuban form.

Rise to Popularity

Around 1909, the son reached Havana, where the first recordings were made in 1917. This marked the start of its expansion throughout the island, becoming Cuba's most popular and influential genre.

The international presence of the son can be traced back to the 1930s when many bands toured Europe and North America, leading to Ballroom adaptations of the genre such as the American rhumba.

The Instruments

The early son orchestra was a trio composed of claves, a percussive set of wood sticks; maracas, a percussive set of shakers, and a guitar.

By 1925, son orchestras had expanded to include a tres, which is a type of six-string guitar modeled from a Spanish acoustic guitar, and bongo drums. The basic son evolved to become two vocalists, one playing claves, the other playing maracas, a tres, bongos, a guiro and a bass.

By the 1930s, many bands had incorporated a trumpet, becoming septetos, and in the 1940s a larger type of ensemble featuring congas and piano became the norm, then known as a conjunto.

The Lyrical Quality

Son played the function of telling the news of the countryside. Among its fundamental Hispanic components are the vocal style and lyrical poetry of the songs. Its call-and-response pattern was based on African Bantu tradition.

Son singers are generally known as soneros, and the Spanish verb sonear describes not only their singing but also their vocal improvisation.

Cuban Music Hits Broadway

One of the most enduring son songs, "El Manicero," meaning "The Peanut Vendor" was written by a young Havana pianist, Moises Simon. In 1931 bandleader Don Azpiazu brought the song to Broadway, rearranged into a rhumba style, which was already known to suit American tastes. It was this song that started the global craze for Latin music.

Resurgence of Son Cubano

In 1976, a group of Havana students formed a son preservation group called Sierra Maestra, which resulted in a new wave of interest in old, traditional songs from Cuban musical culture.

In the 1990's, musical sensation Buena Vista Social Club relaunched the craze for son and went on to sell one million albums, also reviving the careers of a host of aging musicians who thought their musical days were over.