Cuban Music – What Are They Listening to on the Street in Cuba?

From the shadowy, balcony-lined alleys of Old Havana, to the close quarters of the city bus, or guagua, Cuban music pervades Cuban life. Through music, Cubans find a way to transcend the political and economic struggles they face daily. In the United States, this forbidden isle has experienced a surge in popularity during the last decade, due in no small part to the music of the Buena Vista Social Club, a group of veteran Cuban performers brought together by an American producer.

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Cuban Music is a Dynamic, Ever Evolving Sound

But rarely will you hear the Buena Vista Social club as you stroll the weathered stones of Havana’s famous Malecón wharf, nor from the open windows of a 1940’s taxicab with tail fins. While life in Cuba may sometimes seem static, Cuban music is a dynamic, ever evolving sound. Cuban popular music is inspired by the modern trends of rap, hip-hop and techno, but still sounds unmistakably Cuban, anchored by the sensuous rhythms of the island.

Cuban Music - Havana Streets

Buena Vista Social Club It’s Not

One day, during my four months as a student in Havana, my friend Rusbelt greeted me excitedly with news of a concert that was to take place that Friday at the Teatro Nacional.

“You want to hear some good music?” he enthused. “Really good music, way better than Buena Vista Social Club?” How could I refuse?

The concert featured Aceituna sin Hueso (which literally translates to Pitted Olive) and Sintesis (Synthesis), two groups who currently enjoy popularity on the island. We bought our tickets for less than two dollars. The Cuban leadership, to their credit, does a good job of making the arts accessible to ordinary people, providing, of course, that the artists conform to country’s socialist ideology.

The Lyrics Invoke the Island, the Poverty and Celebration of Cuban Life

Aceituna sin Hueso opened the show to raucous applause. The group’s raven-haired singer, Miriela Moreno, mesmerized her audience with her soaring vocals. My best attempt at describing Acietuna sin Hueso’s musical style is as Cuban folk music infused with flamenco and Celtic rhythms. But in contrast to the imported sounds, the lyrics invoke the island, the poverty and celebration of Cuban life. After the show, I was surprised to find Moreno, sans entourage, in the lobby of the theater, signing autographs and chatting personably with fans.

Sintesis

The headlining act was Sintesis. And, the name of this group describes it perfectly. Although conceived, incredibly, as a prog-rock band in the ’70s, Sintesis’ style has evolved to blend rock, Jazz, and African rhythms with Afro-Cuban religious chants. Lyrics in Spanish, English and Yoruba contribute to the international vibe. The group brought the audience at the Teatro Nacional to its feet, swaying and clapping and singing along with every word.

“What did you think?” Rusbelt asked as we exited the theater. “Better than Buena Vista Social Club?” I honestly didn’t know how to compare the classic Caribbean style of Buena Vista Social Club with the dynamic new sounds I had just experienced. But in the weeks that followed, I came to appreciate a variety of other new artists, whose gritty and sensual sounds that I will forever associate with my time in Cuba. Far more so than with the music of Buena Vista Social Club.

Los Van Van

Apart from Acietuna sin Hueso and Sintesis, one of the best of groups I discovered is Los Van Van. Los Van Van reinvented Cuban salsa in the ’60s and have continued to innovate in their later incarnations. The group’s founder, Juan Formell, coined the term “songo” to describe his daring mix of synthesizers and dance beats ranging from Brazilian, to rap, to meringue.

Salsa Revolutionized the Cuban Music Dance Scene

The sexual charged salsa music of Charanga Habanera revolutionized the Cuban dance scene when it burst forth in the ’90s.  In ’97. Following a sexually explicit television performance, the group was sanctioned for six months by the government. The scandal only increased their popularity. Their aggressive sound resonates with Cuban youth, a generation adrift in time, seemingly without present or future.

Orishas

Although the group is now based in Spain, the music of Orishas captures the mood of Havana and its unique mixture of hedonism and despair. While influenced by US rap and hip hop artists, the incorporation of son, guaguancó and rumba give them a clearly identifiable Cuban sound.

Reggaetón (Cubanito 20.02)

Another Cuban group that has made hip hop their own is Reggaetón, formerly Cubanito 20.02, who have been called the Beatles of Reggaeton. The mix of reggae and hip hop mostly associated with Daddy Yankee’s hit “Gasolina.” But Daddy Yankee sounds insipid compared to Reggaetón, whose hard core, Latin flavored rap is true to its reggae roots.

The Queen of Salsa

I can’t talk about Cuban music without mentioning the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz. While the late exile’s music is officially banned by the Cuban government, it can still be heard echoing through the streets. Although she lived most of her life away from the island, Cruz’s songs still capture something essentially Cuban. Anyone who has every watched the sensuous sway of a Cuban beauty walking down the street will instantly understand what Cruz means by, “La Negra Tiene Tumbao.” “La Guagua” resonates with anyone who has ever dared set foot on a Cuban bus, It’s where sweaty bodies are packed together with aggravating, comical and even erotic results.

Cuban Music – What Are They Listening to on the Street in Cuba?

Cuban Music is Readily Available in the United States

Cuban music is becoming more readily available in the United States. Look for these releases and more in your independent record store or Internet music retailer:

  • Aceituna sin Hueso: Marginales.com (03), Consumir Preferiblemente Antes de… (’05).
  • Sintesis: Ancestros (’87),  Ancestros, Vol. 2 (’92),  Orishas  (’97),  Ancestros, Vol.3 (’05), Habana a Flor de Piel (’01).
  • Los Van Van: Te Pone la Cabeza Mal (’98), Llego Van Van,(’99), ¡Ay Dios! ¡Amparame! (’96) The Legendary Los Van Van: 30 Years of Cuba’s Greatest Dance Band (’99).
  • Charanga Habanera: Hey, You, Loca! (’94), Pa’ que Se Entere La Habana (’95), Tremendo Delirio (’97), Soy Cubano, Soy Popular (’02).
  • Orishas: A lo Cubano (’00), Emigrante, El Kilo (’05).
  • Cubanito 20.02: Soy Cubanito (’03), Tócame (’05).
  • Celia Cruz: Azúcar Negra (93) Mi Vida Es Cantar (’98), Siempre Viviré (’00), El Carnaval de la Vida (’03), Regalo del Alma (’03), Exitos Eternos (’03).

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Cuban Music – What Are They Listening to on the Street in Cuba?
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