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Cuban Music Lesson: Danzon

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.

Music is more than just entertainment, it is one of the building blocks of cultural identity. Where would we Americans be without rock and roll and jazz? We’d be Canadian, and you’d be listening to Anne Murray right now. In the mid 1800’s, Cuba was trying to forge its own national character independent of Spain. One of the cultural institutions to come out of this time was the danzon.

Back in the late 18th and early 19th century, Cuban culture was dominated by Spain. Young Cuban men were educated in Spain, the fashions came from Spain, and the music came from Spain. At that time, it was unthinkable for a Spaniard living in Cuba to dance to the rhythms of African slaves. By the middle of the 1800’s, the sons of these Spanish colonists were getting fed up with Spain. They liked the beats they heard in the slave quarters and didn’t care that the Ethhhpañoles thought. Let’s face it, the Spanish government of the time were oppressive a-holes. All over Latin America, countries were forging their own national identity and telling Spain they didn’t need them around no ‘mo. You can only take so much tapas and tyranny before you snap.

All this historical stuff is important because the danzon was the beginning of true Cuban music. It was the first synthesis of Spanish creole and African influences. The rhythm came from a dance that the slaves in Matanzas did. They danced together in a large group and held ribbons and flower arches. They’d criss-cross to form patterns with the ribbons and flowers. It was sort of like an English maypole dance, but spicier. The Spanish creoles fused the rhythm of this dance with a homegrown variation of the French contradanza. Much like the waltz did in Europe, the danzon scared the straights in Cuban society. The idea of mixing culturally and socially with slaves was unheard of at the time. But mix they did. Take that dad!

There are specific parts to the danzon: The first part was the paseo, in which you went and chose your dance partner, flirted, plied the girl with alcohol, etc. Next came the thema, or main part of the song when you would actually begin the dance. Thirdly there was the trio, which was a sort of violin solo. Lastly, came the ending which was a faster proto-mambo to finish up with a bang. Danzon was played on timbales, congas, violins, and various wood instruments. Out of danzon, Cuba’s other musical forms would soon develop. By the mid-twentieth century, the danzon was rarely danced in Cuba outside of formal affairs, quinceañeras, and the like. It remains a popular dance in Veracruz and Mexico City, where it was transplanted by Cuban merchants in the late 1800’s. Much like the guayabera, the Veracruzanos have taken a Cuban cultural icon and made it their own.

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