Beach, guitars and mojitos

The Rare Seductive Power of Cuban Music

Cuba, sometimes referred to as “El Cocodrilo” because of the reptilian shape it appears to have when viewed from a plane, is the largest island in the Caribbean. To say that its landscape is diverse is an understatement. Cuba can magically change from lush forests into sun kissed beaches in a heartbeat. The local tourism industry has been flourishing recently, 4.7 million having visited in 2017. You fall in love with Cuba almost instantly. One reason could be that the mojitos really taste like mojitos should. But most of all it’s because you can’t resist the music you hear almost everywhere. It’s so beautifully haunting and unique. 

Son Cubano, one of Cuba’s most iconic genres, became popular at the end of the 19th century. Like so much of Cuba’s music, it resonates with the story of Cuban history. You hear a complex fusion of African, European and Haitian influences when you listen to it. Son guitar melodies have such a lush sound to them, they’re the epitome of romantic. Their exhilarating arrangements can sweep you right off your feet. Bands such as Buena Vista Social Club who many consider the greatest modern ambassadors of traditional Cuban music, gave the Son new life when their songs began to take the world by storm during the nineties. Omara Portuondo is both a solo artist and a band member. A superb and gifted storyteller whose songs can bring you to tears and make you smile at the same moment, can create the drama even when her songs are not live recordings. 

Charanga is a playful but elegant offshoot of Son in which European instruments such as violin and piano groove with African bongos, congas, claves and other nature derived timekeeping devices. It is also incorporates elements of Haitian troubadou, a musical form inspired by old European troubador ballads. The best Charanga songs evoke a lively game of dominoes or a stroll along the Malecón in Habana at sunset. It’s a style of music characterized by carefree flute melodies, 

“Chan Chan” is a Buena Vista hit that’s played guajira style.Guajira songs tend to lend themselves to being sung by a sole guitarist in spite of guajira being such an emotionally moving Cuban music genre. Lyrics run the gamut from nostalgia for idyllic lives in mountain towns to memories of past lovers. Few can bring a guajira to life with more feeling than singer Ibrahim Ferrer. 

Cuban’s hip hop group Orishas is capable of being as urban and funky sounding as any non-Cuban band but with a homegrown spin. In spite of the island’s relative isolation in recent decades, the range of music that continues to be produced on the island is a testament to what an important cultural force in the world it continues to be.