Cuba has produced a rich catalog of musical styles, especially since the beginning of the 20th Century. We will briefly describe some of these styles, shortly. However, one thing that you should not do, is refer to these styles as “Salsa”.
The reason was explained by Afro-Cuban jazz legend, Mario Bauzá, during a 1992 television interview. Said Bauzá: “After the [Cuban] Revolution…they started calling everything ‘Salsa’. That’s why I don’t like it. Because ‘Salsa’ don’t mean nothing. There’s no rhythm that you can say is a ‘Salsa’ rhythm…Any Cuban music, they called ‘Salsa'”.
Ever since I heard those strong words from Dr. Bauzá, I have tried very hard, to avoid using that term, except when speaking of what I like on my tortilla chips (though I have occasionally slipped). So before we get to five more great names in Afro-Cuban Jazz, let’s briefly describe some of the more well-known Cuban musical styles:
Cha-Cha-Cha – A style that developed out of the Danzon-Mambo, in the 1950’s. According to Enrique Jorrín, one of the acknowledged creators of the style, he noticed that most of the dancers had some trouble following the highly syncopated rhythms of one of his compositions. He then simplified the musical texture, using as little syncopation as possible. When the dance was coupled to the rhythm of the music, it became evident that the dancer’s feet were making a peculiar sound as they grazed the floor on three successive beats. “Cha-cha-cha”, described this sound.
Descarga – An improvised jam session consisting of variations on Cuban music themes, primarily son montuno, but also guajira, bolero, guaracha and rumba. The genre is strongly influenced by jazz and it was developed in Havana, during the 1950s.
Guaguancó – A subgenre of Cuban rumba, combining percussion, voices, and dance. There are two main styles: Havana and Matanzas.
Mambo – a genre of Cuban dance music pioneered in the late 1930s and later popularized in the big band style by Pérez Prado. It originated as a syncopated form of the danzón, known as danzón-mambo. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, mambo had become a “dance craze” in the United States. Mambo continued to enjoy some degree of popularity into the 1960s and new derivative styles appeared, such as dengue.
Rumba – a secular genre of Cuban music involving dance, percussion, and song. It originated in the northern regions of Cuba, mainly in urban Havana and Matanzas, during the late 19th century. It is based on African music and dance traditions. Traditionally performed by poor workers of African descent in streets and solares (courtyards), rumba remains one of Cuba’s most characteristic forms of music and dance. Vocal improvisation, elaborate dancing and poly-rhythmic drumming are the key components of all rumba styles.
Son Cubano – a genre of music and dance that originated in the highlands of eastern Cuba during the late 19th century. It is a genre that blends elements of Spanish and African origin. Among its fundamental Hispanic components are the vocal style, lyrical meter and the primacy of the “tres”, derived from the Spanish guitar. Its characteristic clave rhythm, call and response structure and percussion section are all rooted in traditions of Bantu origin.
We’re going to stop at six styles, with the full knowledge that we are leaving out others, such as Bolero, Charanga, Guaracha, Montuno, etc. To keep this post from becoming book length, we had to quit while we were ahead. Feel free to continue the research on your own. And whatever you do, don’t call it “Salsa”
Here are five more names, in our list of fifteen notable pioneers of Afro-Cuban music, along with a currently available, representative album, to use as an introduction to their music.
- Graciela (1915 – 2010) – Graciela Pérez Gutiérrez, was a female vocalist, who like Celia Cruz, insistently made her way in that male dominated field. Graciela was known for her big voice and risqué stage presence. She first came to prominence in the big band led by her adoptive brother Frank “Machito” Grillo. She emigrated to New York in 1943 to help Mario Bauzá front Machito’s band after Machito was drafted during WWII. Upon her brother’s return, Machito, Bauzá and Graciela were a force that dominated the Palladium, for the next twenty years, until the legendary ballroom shut down.
- Irakere (1973 – present) – The legendary Cuban band, that was an incubator for living legends such as Paquito D’Rivera; Arturo Sandoval and Chucho Valdés. Irakere, was founded at the height of the cold-war tensions, in 1973, and out of it grew musical ideas that influenced jazz, Cuban pop, rock dance and Afro-Cuban music. Despite jazz being literally outlawed in Cuba, at the time when the group came into being, Valdés (the musical director), Sandoval and D’Rivera found creative ways to bring the jazz that influenced them, into their performances and get around their government censors. In doing so, they discovered some remarkable new ideas.
- Machito (1908 – 1984) – “Machito” was the nickname given to Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo, a bandleader, who played a major role, along with Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauzá, in the development of Cubop and other Afro-Cuban jazz styles. Under Bauzá’s musical direction, and with his younger sister Graciela, on vocals, Machito’s big band, the Afro Cuban’s, became extremely influential. Jazz greats such as Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Stan Kenton, all listed Machito’s band as a musical inspiration. George Shearing pointed to Machito as someone who helped him understand what “Latin music was about”. A teenaged Tito Puente made some of his first recordings, with Machito and a young Willie Bobo, acted as a roadie for Machito, just to be near the band, in the hopes of eventually getting to play; he did, which gave Bobo his start.
- Benny Moré (1919 – 1963) – Bartolomé Maximiliano (Benny) Moré, possessed one of the most beautiful and expressive voices to ever grace Afro-Cuban music. Known as “El Bárbaro del Ritmo” (The Master of Rhythm), Moré was considered a master of numerous Cuban musical styles, including mambo, son, guaracha, son montuno, bolero and cha cha cha. From 1953, until his death, he led one of the most popular big bands in Cuba, “La Banda Gigante”. Although he could not read music, Moré would compose and arrange music by singing each part to his arrangers. He had become extremely popular, throughout Mexico, the Caribbean region and even in the U.S. (he sang at the 1957 Oscars), by the late 1950’s. Had he chosen to leave during the Cuban Revolution, his fame would have likely increased. However, Benny Moré chose to remain among what he called, “mi gente” (my people). An alcoholic, he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1963.
- Chico O’Farrill (1921 – 2001) – Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill was born in Havana to an Irish father and German mother. He rejected his family’s desire that he go into the family law practice. Instead, Chico gravitated to the jazz that he loved. His family was scandalized by Arturo’s desire to hang out with the local black musicians but Arturo would not be dissuaded. A Julliard educated trumpet player, he had done some arranging and composing for among others, Stan Kenton, Count Basie and Benny Goodman, who gave O’Farrill his nickname, because he had trouble pronouncing “Arturo”. An acolyte of Dizzy Gillespie, O’Farrill was there at the beginning of “Cubop”, along with Diz, Bauzá and Machito. His conservatory training caused O’Farrill to fully voice the Cuban rhythms, while also providing robust big band charts as well. His “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite”, for Machito’s Orchestra, featuring Charlie Parker, stands as one of the great Afro-Cuban jazz works of all time.
In the third and final part of this primer, we will touch on five more great Cuban musicians with many more rare video clips.
In or near Charlotte and want to hear some great Afro-Cuban Jazz, live? Then join us in Jazz Arts Charlotte’s THE JAZZ ROOM, on Friday and Saturday, April 26 & 27; as we will be en fuego, with the authentic sounds of Cuba. For tickets and info, visit the Jazz Arts Charlotte Website www.thejazzarts.com.
Hasta la próxima, el jazz continúa …