On Calle Heredia, people are dancing. Swirling, swaying, shimmying: complicated patterns of movement turning sound into substance. Underlying it all, the driving rhythms of són, the music that defines Cuba’s eastern provinces.
Santiago de Cuba, the regional capital, is beyond a doubt the island’s most musical city. It throbs, day and night, with everything from sexy salsa to romantic bolero; from primal drumming to intricate choral confections. Music — most of it live — exudes from bars, parks, concert halls, patios, even private homes. Rhythm, in this city, is life, and dancing is as inevitable as breathing.
Not surprisingly, Santiago and the surrounding Oriente province are the birthplace of són (pronounced “song”), a genre which has branched out in multiple directions, the best known today being salsa. (Cubans, in fact, are somewhat dismissive of salsa, despite its worldwide popularity. “Soneros say that salsa doesn’t really exist,” declares Fernando Dewar, leader of the Septeto Santiaguero, a band which has won two Latin Grammy awards. “Salsa is a movement, not a genre. Són is the trunk of the tree.”)
Every tree, of course, has roots; and these are what make Cuban music so rich. With its history of Spanish colonialism, the enslavement of Africans, and French immigration, the threads have wound together to create an intricate tapestry of sound that hearts and feet and hips cannot resist. From the soulful bolero to the wicked guaracha, the intimate trova to the compelling conga, the polyrhythms of the various Cuban musical traditions bring joy to a society where life is often hard.
At the heart of it all, says Juan Carlos Berbes, a specialist at Santiago’s Museo de la Musica, is la trova — music born of one man and a guitar, the trovador, the cantante ambulante. “You could find him on a street corner, a park bench, a barbershop, under a balcony, anywhere.”
Trova — clearly an offshoot of the European troubadour tradition — appeared on the Cuban scene around the end of the nineteenth century, with the legendary José “Pepe” Sánchez, who moulded the music into something distinctly Cuban. “It is, in fact, the first genre of real Cuban music to rise up,” Berbes says. “All the subsequent genres come out of la trova, and bear some aspects of it; they took the elements that suited them and created something new. Trova enriches them.” Trova is not, primarily, meant for dancing;it is poetry on the hoof. “The songs tell a tale, a story, something that happened, en una manera pausada: tranquilly, poetically. It is to be listened to.”
Drifting from the countryside into the city, trova became less picaresque, picking up a few additional instruments on the way: maracas, clave, a bit of percussion. The poetry became more important than the wandering; today, most Cuban towns and cities have a Casa de la Trova, where this form of music, and its offshoots, are performed.
By 1925, trova music was evolving into something more lively, with the appearance on the scene of Miguel Matamoros, initiator of the són and bolero movements. The prolific Trio Matamoros dominated the scene for more than thirty years, generating such standards as “Són de la Loma”, “Lagrimas Negras”, “Alegre Conga”, and “Juramento” — all of which remain popular today, thanks to the ubiquitous music groups that perform them in Santiago’s many bars and patios.
The essential quality of són, says Berbes, is that it is bailable — danceable. While trova encourages you to sip some rum and listen appreciatively, són sweeps you irresistibly to your feet, mojito forgotten on your table as you abandon yourself to the beat. “It invites you to dance,” says Berbes, in the year’s understatement.
“The són cubanois the fusion of Spanish and African music,” says musician Ernesto Valera, explaining its infectiousness. “Són is characterised by its cadenza, or rhythm: not too fast, not too slow.” Valera is the leader of the Familia Valera-Miranda, a group famous for being among the region’s earliestperformers. Dating back to 1868, this musical family played at rural celebrations and fiestas, passing their lyrics and melodies from generation to generation. Valera views it as his sacred mission to keep the tradition alive. “It’s an obligation,” he says simply.
This is a sentiment echoed by many of the city’s soneros. There is a widespread consensus that the country’s traditional music needs to be staunchly defended from modern incursions such as the hip-hop–inspired reggaetón, beloved of Cuban youth. “Són has lost strength,” laments Valera. “Reggaetón has invaded. I don’t like it — the lyrics are stupid, empty, gross, insulting to women.”
“It is inevitable that the young people are attracted to music coming from different countries,” points out Maria-Mercedes Soto, leader of Morena Són, one of the rare all-female groups. “The outside influence is very strong.”
The government, however, has pushed back. “Five years ago, all you heard on the street was reggaetón,” says Berbes. “But now the traditional music has returned and is making a comeback. It is being presented in many venues, all over the place. The authorities want to keep the tradition alive.” And what the Cuban authorities want, the Cuban authorities get. Traditional musical instruments (such as the trés guitar, the clave, the bongos) are now taught in the conservatories, alongside the classical.
“Before, the trovadores were street musicians,” says Soto. “Now they have better technical formation.” Her own band is an example, with all her musicians possessing the sought-after Aval de Professionalidad, a performing licence granted only after a stringent audition before an official panel of top musicians. The licence may be essential for the soneros to find work, but as for the music itself — “nuestra musica,” Soto adds with a smile, “ya en la sangre está” (“it’s in the blood”).
Today, the heart of Cuban són is the city of Santiago, where bars such as ARTEX and the Casa de la Trova on Calle Heredia offer trova and són (in all its variations: bolero-són, guaracha-són, són montuno, són guaguanco) from 11 am to 7 pm daily. The Sala de los Grandes (above the Casa de la Trova) takes over at 10 pm, presenting the larger, louder groups to an enthusiastically dancing audience of locals and visitors alike.
The Septeto Santiaguero is a big favourite at this venue — when they’re not busy touring abroad or producing Grammy-award–winning albums (2015, 2018). The group plays “traditional music with contemporary amplification,” says Dewar. “We have to defend the tradition. If we lose this music, we lose the essence of who we are.”
Són vs salsa
So where does salsa come into the picture? Every Cuban dances it, but every Cuban musician declares that his music is són. According to Fernando Dewar, leader of the Grammy Award-winning Septeto Santiago, salsa is “not a genre,” but rather a fusion of styles created in New York, when Latin musicians from various countries and traditions came together to play.
A new mix emerged from these collaborations, with hotter rhythms and — for the dancers — quicker turns. Són, I am told, is danced “a contra-tiempo” to the bass, while salsa is danced “a tiempo.”
“For someone who doesn’t know the genres, it’s complicated to tell the difference,” says Dewar. “There are many small details.”
Completely separate from the sóntradition, conga is nevertheless a vital part of the Santiageuran identity. Far removed from the silly conga lines of American movie tradition, Cuban conga delves all the way back to the roots of the enslaved Africans who were brought to the island by Spanish — and later French — colonials, mostly in the nineteenth century.
Conga is essentially an ambulant percussion group: various styles and sizes of African drums beat to age-old rhythms as large crowds shuffle and dance (it’s called arrollando) behind them. Community-based, they came about as accompaniment to the African celebrations and festivals during and after the days of slavery. Today they are an essential part of the annual Santiago Carnaval.
The instruments of són
What creates those unique rhythms, those catchy melodies and complex harmonies? Són throws a couple of unfamiliar instruments into the mix.
The clave: Essentially, two short hollow sticks, knocked together to keep time. It looks dead simple, but it is the heart of the music: all the other instruments, and the singers (and the dancers), take their tempo from the clave. “It is the boss,” says Juan Carlos Berbes. The player must have a rock-solid sense of rhythm; if he falters at all, says Ernesto Valera, “puede ser un desastre” (“it could be a disaster”). The clave’sdifferent tempos and rhythms define if a piece is trova, són, bolero, rumba, etc.
The trés: This is a guitar like no other, the lead instrument in són. Described by Wikipedia as a “three-course cordophone of Cuban origin,” the trés (“three”) is somewhat smaller than a regular acoustic guitar, and tuned differently. Its six strings are strung in pairs; it is not strummed, but rather intricately picked to support or play counterpoint to the singer. Complex trés improvisations are common; one veteran tresero described his instrument as “the piano” of són.
The botijuela: This unusual instrument is actually made of clay: an earthenware jar formerly used to transport liquids. Musicians blow into a small hole carved in the side; the low hollow sound emerges through the mouth of the jar. While sometimes used in són, the botijuela is more commonly to be found accompanying the purely African rhythms of the conga.
The quijada (jawbone): Teeth and all! The cleaned and dried jawbone of a donkey or cow, this is struck and shaken, to click and buzz and rattle as part of the percussion. It’s most likely to be found in the more folkloric versions of són.