DJ and producer Gilles Peterson gives the lowdown on Cuban music, including rumba, recording under Communism, and why the best parties are in the street
Young people dancing a rumba (Dreamstime)
When most people think of Cuban music, they think of Buena Vista Social Club. With their iconic big band, harking back to 1940s-era Havana, they brought the spectacle of son and cha-cha-cha to Europe and beyond in the 1990s.
But if you dig further back into Cuban music, it’s the sound of rumba that’s really the foundation. Involving intricate, overlapping drummers, dancers and singers follow the rhythmic pattern laid down by rumba’s iconic clave.
Young Cubans grow up hearing rumba in and around the house, forming their basic musical know-how around it. So, even if it’s not always obvious, the sound of rumba is always feeding into other Cuban musical forms.
Multi-ethnic youths in Havana (Dreamstime)
The history of Cuba has created an interesting hybrid of different cultures. It was colonised by Spain first, who brought their European culture and religion to the island. Later, huge numbers of slaves were shipped from West Africa, bringing their own cultures, embedded in the Yoruba language and religion.
The Santería religion is a good example. The slave community adapted their religion to fit with Catholicism as a way of keeping their roots without being punished by the slave owners. With Yoruban ideas, like the orichá icons, becoming interchangeable with Catholic saints, the two have overlapped in ways that have long become ingrained.
The two wooden claves (percussive instrument that's bashed together) that keep rumba’s clave rhythm as well is a Latin instrument that’s become vital to Afro-Cuban music.
Streets of Matanzas (Dreamstime)
With music being such a part of day-to-day life, different parts of Cuba have a particular feel to their music. If you go to the far southeastern corner of the island, you can go to Guantanamo and hear people playing changüi, a mix of Spanish guitar and African drums that’s changed little over the years.
Likewise, if you drive an hour out of Havana to Matanzas, you can hear the town’s slower, more gentle style of rumba. Listening to a group like Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, who’ve been going in one shape or other since 1956, there’s a more easygoing pace compared to some of the fiery performances you might see elsewhere.
Old street musicans playing traditional songs (Dreamstime)
With Cuba having a state-controlled economy, that means most parts of the economy, including music, are controlled by the government. That's why there’s only one government-approved studio where bands can go to record albums: Egrem Studios.
Owned by the state-run record label of the same name, it’s located in central Havana. So, as you’d expect, it means most Cuban musicians have passed through there at one time or another.
Going there to record albums for the Havana Cultura project, it was amazing to think of the legends, like Chucho Valdés and Omara Portuondo, who would have passed through its doors.
Dancers on the streets of Havana (Dreamstime)
There’s plenty of music to be heard in bars and live venues around Cuba. But if you’re a tourist, it’s easy to feel like you’re not quite seeing the real deal. You can definitely find killer live shows in more traditional live venues, but it’s by walking around that I started to see where the most exciting parties were happening.
It seems like there’s always music coming from some courtyard, house or other, bringing together families and friends from the local neighbourhood. With music being a key part of Santería rituals and celebrations, this means they’ll often be marked by a big, loud, all-day musical get-togethers.
If you’re able to speak a bit of Spanish, locals are often keen to share their culture with you, and you might just be invited to join the party.
Gilles’ new compilation Havana Cultura Anthology, in collaboration with Havana Club, brings together the highlights of eight years of his musical adventures uncovering the best new Cuban music. It’s out now on Brownswood Recordings. Click here for more information or to buy the album: havanacultura.bandcamp.com
Havana Cultura is the cultural platform for Cuban music and culture driven by Havana Club. Read more at havana-cultura.com
For more on Gilles, see www.gillespetersonworldwide.com
Main image: Gilles Peterson (Dave O’Donnell).