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Son, Salsa and Reggaeton – The Rhythm of Cuba

Cuba has produced arguably more music styles than any other similar-sized country in the world.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Son, Salsa and Mambo conquered the world from this Caribbean island. In the 1990s, Wim Wenders’ cult film “Buena Vista Social Club“ sparked a real Cuba hype in Europe and the US. Ironically, the first major Cuban music festival was brought to Havana by Roger Furrer from Switzerland. Now domiciled in the Cuban capital, he has taken his Zurich-originated “Caliente! Latin Music Festival” to several other countries. And in March 2016, the festival was held in Cuba for the second time.

”De Alto Cedro voy para Marcané, llego a Cueto voy para Mayarí.“ Anyone spending time in Cuba, especially in Havana, is bound to hear these first lines from the ”Buena-Vista-Social-Club“ song ”Chan Chan“. As soon as street musicians spot tourists sitting in the Cuban sun, they get out their guitars and drums and start playing this Cuban hit song from the 1990s.

The music project of US musician Ry Cooder and the associated documentary directed by cult film director Wim Wenders turned a group of elderly Cuban musicians around singer Ibrahim Ferrer and guitarist Compay Segundo into celebrated stars overnight. The endeavour led to the sale of eight million records worldwide – when the project’s shooting stars were well over seventy.

Photos: Shane Banks/Caliente

A fusion of African and European styles

As becomes instantly evident countrywide, rhythm and music are the heart and soul of Cuba - and not just since the success of ”Buena Vista Social Club“. There is song, dance and music in every nook and cranny of this Caribbean island. Concerts are held daily, not only in clubs but also in the streets, in alleyways, even in stairways. “When I am here, I try to visit at least two or three concerts a day,” says “Caliente” festival founder Roger Furrer. “Music is my life, my passion, my vocation. I can never get enough of it.“ Music is clearly one of the reasons why Zurich-born Furrer has moved his centre of life to the Cuban capital where his two sons – aged fourteen and eight – are enrolled in the French school.

“Cuban music is extremely diverse which makes it so fascinating,“ says Roger Furrer. “It expresses the Cuban approach to life better than anything else.” The sound of Cuba has its roots in a fusion of African and European styles, created by Spanish immigrants and African slaves. That is how rural “folk music” like Guajira and Música campesina became Son, one of the principal directions of Cuban music. Son, in turn, provided the foundation of a broad variety of genres, including Salsa and Timba. The most popular representative of Timba is the “Los Van Van“ musical group. Founded in 1969, the group was the first to “infuse“ traditional styles with synthesisers.

Back to the roots. The first “Caliente“ festival in Havana

In 2001, the ”Los Van Van“ played at the closing concert of the first “Caliente” festival organised by Roger Furrer in Havana. Other musicians playing at the huge open air event were Isaac Delgado and jazz legend Herbie Hancock, then smuggled into the country more or less illegally. Furrer’s first visit to Cuba was in 1990: “Before then, I had been at the San Remo music festival managing a performer, and there was a Cuban band in the dressing room next to us,” he explains. Roger Furrer and the Cuban band hit if off so well that the band invited him to Cuba. A joint tour through Cuba ensued. “An exciting time,” as he recalls. “It was just after the collapse of the USSR, Cuba’s most important trade partner. There were hardly any cars and almost no petrol available. The only reason we could go on tour was because the band we were travelling with had close government ties.“

That is how contact to the Cuban government was established. It was also the birth of the idea to take the hitherto Zurich-based “Caliente” festival to its roots. The first such festival in Havana was held in 2001 – after which Roger Furrer was in need of a break. “It was incredibly complicated to organise and involved a huge effort. I needed a break and wanted to experience something a bit different.“ Which is precisely what he made happen. In 2009, besides Zurich, his “Caliente” festival was held in Miami and, in 2013, in Punta Cana (Dominican Republic) as well. And a few years ago, Roger Furrer decided to return to Cuba. “I suddenly felt the urge to organise another festival here.” Especially since so much had happened in Havana since his last visit. “You get good food here now. There are Spanish restaurants and Italian ones like the Corte del Principe owned by Sergio in the city district of Miramar. Superstars, such as Mick Jagger or Zucchero, have eaten at Sergio's.”

Reggaeton – the sound of the moment

Thus, the second “Caliente” festival was held in Havana in March 2016. This time around, organising the event was much simpler. That said, the blessing of the government was still required – “and three days before the festival, we did not know if we could hold the scheduled open air closing concert,” says Roger Furrer. Ultimately, everything went smoothly. And the superstars of “Los Van Van“ had the crowds on their feet dancing.

Meanwhile, besides the traditional Son and Salsa, there is another genre conquering the music world and, above all, the hearts of young Cubans: Reggaeton. The blend of Latino rhythms, Reggaeton, Dancehall and Hip-hop has produced its own stars in Cuba. The “Gente de Zona“ music group is touring the world, and “El Chacal“ –whose real name is Ramon Lavado Martinez– can also boast international success. In their first year on the Facebook social media platform, ”Yomil y El Dany“ have garnered almost 60,000 likes. The duo states “conquering the world with our music” as one of their “interests”. Considering that the rhythms of Cuba have already done just that, the odds could well be in their favour.

Cuba’s most important music styles

Son: Son is one of the main styles of Cuban music, based on guitar and African rhythms. A basic element of Son is the typical anticipated bass. The Chanqui, a faster version with more emphasis on the percussion, is believed to be a precursor of the Son. Salsa and Cha-cha-chá are examples of music derived from Son.

Salsa: In the 1970s, the Son was combined with other Latino forms, with Mambo and Rumba for instance. The result was Salsa.

Rumba: The Rumba was originally a dance of Havana’s port workers. It is characterised by rhythm created by different percussion instruments. The word “Rumba” is derived from the Spanish verb “rumbear“ which means “to have a good time”.

Habanera: The Habanera emerged in the nineteenth century from the music and the dances of Haitian immigrants. In 1995, Cuban singer Liuba Maria Hevia recorded her first entire album with Habanera music. However, the album sold much better in Spain than in Cuba.

Timba: The Cuban adaption of Salsa originally evolved in the US. Timba is slightly faster and harder than Salsa.

Reggaeton: In recent years, Reggaeton –or “Reguetón“– has become particularly popular among young Cubans. It has elements of Son, Salsa, Reggae, Hip-hop, Dancehall and electronic dance music and is continuously evolving.

(Text: Sandra Casalini)