When we hear the expression 'Cuban traditional music', we immediately go back to the sounds, or rather the sounds and styles of popular music listened in Cuba during the first decades of the 20th century.
At that time, our most representative musical genres consolidated; and sextets and septets soneros , charangas danzoneras , ensembles and sonoras , among other instrumental or vocal formats like the trios , were also created. Even if the so-called typical orchestra, that since the 19th century was performing the danzón or the jazz bands that introduced Cuban music rhythms into their instrumental structure, coexisted with the above-mentioned formats, nowadays the sonority of the septets, ensembles and charangas has been recognized, mainly internationally, as our purest tradition.
No wonder. These groups were created to perform Cuban popular music, the septets to perform the son; the charangas, the danzón and the cha cha chá , and, in the case of ensembles, to recreate the son and as ideal vehicle to play boleros . These orchestral formats have played an essential role in the development of Cuban popular music and thanks to them our most representative musical genres consolidated thus reaching their typical sonority. Therefore, when speaking of Cuban traditional music, we are not referring to any particular musical genre or rhythm, but to an entire time that paved the way for the further development of Cuban popular music and even the most contemporary Latin dancing music composed and performed today in many countries. And, notwithstanding its great variety in rhythm and sonority, this music has a distinctive imprint, a cadence, a spirit, easily identified even by neophites.
The Cuban popular music has very particular characteristics as to its broad rhythmic diversity and sound wealth that distinguishes it from the rest of the Latin American countries. These characteristics are associated with the formation process of this music itself which began with the combination of musical elements from Europe -mainly from Spain--and elements from different African cultures that converged in the island.
Our country did not experience what happened in Mexico and other Latin American regions who have musical manifestations inherited from native cultures still present in the music of these countries. American civilizations like the Aztecs, the Mayas and the Incas were already strong enough when the Europeans arrived in our continent. So, in spite of the consequences of the conquest and the devastating colonization later on, important elements of these cultures managed to survive until now.
On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of our cultural manifestations in the island, with an inferior development compared with the above-mentioned ones, were completely destroyed during colonization. The music of our Taínos and Siboneyes was never known. Only some musical instruments were known through written references though nothing about sounds, rhythms, songs, etc.
The genesis of what today is considered as Cuban music comes from two fundamental musical sources: a European source and an African source. For centuries, and when thousands of Africans -as slaves- arrived in Cuba, these two types of music, quite different, initiated an interrelationship, a merging that required a long cross-cultural process which concluded with the emergence of a new music, neither European nor African, but purely Cuban.
During the 18th Century the slave trade intensified, thus the presence of blacks in the island increased too and, as a consequence, their musical instruments, rhythms, songs and dances also disseminated across the country together with men and women imported from that remote continent. Africans grouped in the so-called Cabildos , associations made up by citizens of the same nation or region. They met in these Cabildos and held parties and rites that kept their cultures of origin alive, namely, their music.
But those slaves did not limit themselves to beating the drums or singing their ritual songs, they were gradually integrated to the musical life of the country and very soon learned how to play instruments such as the guitar, the mandolin, the harp, the violin, the clarinet and all those European instruments. Thus, this white music was "stained" with new rhythms and the incorporation of percussion instruments -which although not exactly the same- came from the African music in Cuba. For example, the marímbula is an African instrument that was incorporated, as a bass, to son groupings at the beginning of the 20 th Century.
During the 19 th Century, and especially during the second half of the century, all necessary elements for the creation of the Cuban nationality met. Its highest expression was the patriotic feeling of the Creole population which resulted in the Independence Wars. At that time, this transformation and merging process of both types of music -though not finished- started bearing fruits. A definitive example is the Cuban contredanse that emerged as a result of the French contredanse but with quite different and absolutely Cuban musical characteristics. Manuel Saumell, considered the Father of our contredanse, is also viewed as the beginner of Cuban music nationalism.
Since the times of Saumell`s contredanses and the emergence of "La Bayamesa" song by Céspedes, Fornaris and Castillo, during the first half of the 19 th century up to now, deeply rooted rhythms and musical genres had been welcomed internationally throughout history. Examples include the cha cha chá , the son , the mambo , the bolero , the danzón and the beautiful pages written by the Cuban trova in our history of songs.
The Cuban popular music is a rich combination of rhythms, forms and sonorities that stemmed out throughout many years and conforms the heritage of an extremely musical people with a creative talent. Few countries can show such a musical wealth to the world. So, we, Cubans, feel proud.