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Cuban Music Lesson: Son

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.

If you’ve been reading these Cuban music posts, you’ve noticed that Cuban musical history is more of a spider web and less of a straight line. Various influences met, got drunk, ended up in bed together, and then didn’t call each other back after a lovely evening. It’s the nature of art, by which we mean artists are all thieves who rip off ideas wherever/whenever they can. It’s been said that Cuban culture is like ajiaco soup, a dish in which you put in a bunch of stuff in a pot and create a tasty, hearty stew. A big hunk of meat in that stew is el son.

Son came about in the 1920s in Santiago de Cuba, a part of the island nations where the majority of Afro-Cubans are descendants of the Bantu people of Africa. The Bantu had a specific rythm that was played on thick sticks called claves that became the basic son beat.  White musicians from Santiago dug the beat and added spanish guitars. Thus the son was born. The upper crust white folk in Cuba at the time were super racist, seeing as they used to own Cuban blacks only 20 years before. As a result, they were suspicious of any of this cultural music mixing with saucy African rhythms. It took the a-hole dictator (er.. President) Gerardo Machado to change things. Machado was Cuba’s dictator in the 20s and 30s. Along with being a murderous son of a bitch, he also enjoyed Cuban popular music and had the Sonora Matancera come and play son at his birthday party. The rich white folks took this as permission to start enjoying Afro-Cuban music. Soon, the soneros started getting gigs at the ritzy clubs in Havana and the mafia-owned casinos. The rest is history.

Son is the basis for all subsequent Cuban music. Mambo, cha cha cha, salsa, etc., are all descendants of the son. In the last 15 years, son has had a renaissance thanks to the efforts of everyone’s favorite team of old fart Cubans, The Buena Vista Social Club. Son was the crucial piece in the Cuban musical puzzle that took it from something only Cuban blacks enjoyed to something transracial. Plus as George Carlin’s Rufus character from “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” said, “Aaaand! It’s excellent for dancing!”

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