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Cuban Music Lesson: Filin

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.

By Jack Tomas

Cuba and the United States used to be besties. They used to have sleep overs, do each other’s hair, and talk about boys. Then, like a 14 year old girl who heard that their bestie said they were stuck-up, the U.S. and Cuba have not spoken…for 50 years. If one looks at the history of this long and tempestuous relationship, you can see the influence each country had on the other. Cuba gave the United States Afro-Cuban rhythm, Salsa dancing, and Andy Garcia and Cuba got a rich mix of American cultural influences that led to the development of a musical style called filin. They also got Andy Garcia. His face belongs to the world.

Much like a baby conceived at a frat party, no one knows exactly who created it. Something was in the air in Cuba of the 1940’s that helped create filin. The 40’s and 50’s were the golden age of Cuban popular music, with stars like Benny More, Perez Prado, and Celia Cruz doing there thing. But a lot of American stars also played in Cuba. Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Perry Cuomo, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra were all regular performers at the big clubs in Havana. In fact, Frank Sinatra took Eva Gardner to El Hotel Nacional in Havana on their honeymoon to his regular suite. Later, in the 50’s vocal groups like the Platters and other early doo-wop and rock groups also started popping up in Havana. Cubans are a synchronistic people. They take all the influences around them, mix them together, and create something new. Look how many of them are members of the Communist party, but go to church on Sunday, and then go sacrifice a chicken to Yamaya. Filin, (which is totally Spanglish for feeling), was a mix of all of these influences.

Vocal groups like Los Zafiros and Cuarteto D’Aida, became huge stars both inside and outside of Cuba. It was as if the Supremes had gotten a mambo band to play back-up. They sang jazzy takes on boleros as well as doo-wop style dance songs. By the mid-sixties, anything that smacked of American influence was frowned upon as a bourgeois imperialist blah, blah, blah. Los Zafiros broke up, Cuarteto D’Aida began singing more “Cuban” songs, and other singers like Pablo Milanes joined the growing nueva trova movement of folky commie singers. Omara Portuondo, who was the lead singer of Cuarteto D’Aida, went on to great fame as a member of the old fart extravaganza The Buena Vista Social Club. Still, filin was an interesting phenomenon that showed how BFF Cuba and the U.S. were. Alas, they were not BF for F.

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