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Cuban Music Lesson: Cuban Instruments

Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

It occurred to us that there are certain instruments that are indigenous to Cuba that some of you may be unfamiliar with. Music, after all, is written to be played by specific instruments. Can you imagine Jimi Hendrix playing “All Along The Watchtower” on a tuba? Most of the instruments in Cuban music exist elsewhere, the piano, guitar, trumpet, flute, etc. But the instruments on this list are specific to Cuba. Cuban culture is a mix of various influences, and these instruments are no exception. Spanish, Gypsy, African, Native-American, and Moorish influences are apparent. It is these badboys that give Cuban music its particular flavor.

The Conga

The conga, or tumbadora, is the backbone of Cuban percussion. In case you couldn’t figure it out from the name, the conga comes from the Congo. An unknown number of Congolese people immigrated to Cuba from the 16th to 18th century. By immigrate we mean chained and forced into slavery. They brought the tradition of their makuta sacred drums with them. Over time the conga developed from the ceremonial to the secular instrument of today. It’s played with the hands, making a tumbadoro’s palms as hard and rough as sandpaper covered cement. It’s a versatile instrument that can play everything from a waltz-like danzon to reggaeton. The conga’s little brother, the bongos, are also integral to the Cuban beat.

The Cuban Laud

This nifty mandolin on steroids, is a descendant of the Moorish lute. The Moors ruled over much of Spain for 700 years until they were forced out by Ferdinand and Isabella. The same F-pain and Isi that sent Columbus barrelling towards the West Indies and his mission of genocidal fun. The Spanish brought this lute with them, and soon it was modified to a specific tuning native to Cuba. The most famous Cuban laud player is Barbarito Torres of The Buena Vista Social Club. This guy is the Eddie Van Halen of the laud.

The Tres

The tres is the Cuban peasants ax of choice. It has six strings like a normal guitar, but it is grouped into three sets of two strings tuned to the same note. Hence the name tres, get it? The tres is the foundation of the son. This special guitar appears to have developed among the guajiros that live in the rural parts of Cuba, hence its connection to the son. The tres takes a skilled set of hands to play. Hands that like a poor unlucky superhero, cut sugar cane by day and strum the tres by night.


Yes, two sticks count as an instrument. The clave is a descendant of musical sticks used by the Dahomey people of what is today Benin. They too were brought to Cuba as slaves, because treating only one group of Africans as chattel wasn’t bad enough. The clave is tuned to a specific note, and different lengths and widths make different sounds. It’s particularly popular in the son form of guaguanco. The guaguanco beat goes clak-clak-clak clack-clack…if that makes sense. Even The Beatles, (who were huge Cuban music fans), used claves in a couple of their songs, including “And I Love Her.” If Ringo used it, you know it’s awesome.

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