Every now and then, while browsing YouTube or reading some of the stuff that people post on Facebook, I come across some comments in which people injudiciously apply the label “Afro-Cuban music” to son music, specially its more modern version: what people call “timba.” I do not know if this is due to the tremendous exposure to Afro-Cuban culture on a global scale, with the growing number of Afro-Cuban dance workshops that are being taught nowadays all around the world. Or if it is because most of the Cuban musicians that people see nowadays do happen to be black.
Whatever the reason, this assertion—that son/timba is (only) Afro-Cuban music, or music of the black Cubans—lacks veracity.
In this piece, I examine the “wrongness” of the aforementioned assertion by going through a series of reasons which should, at the end, make it very clear that son/timba are in fact, more than “Afro-Cuban music,” but instead, they are the result of a creolization of musical traditions from both Spain and some regions of the African continent. With this I do not mean to argue that Spanish and African contributions to son music are equal. African-influenced contributions far outweigh the Spanish-derived ones, which may be one of the reasons as to why people think of it as “Afro-Cuban music”. Nonetheless, there are Spanish influences in son music.
Let’s start simple: Wikipedia. Wikipedia itself tells you that son (music) “combines the structure and elements of Spanish canción and the Spanish guitar with African rhythms and percussion instruments of Bantu origin.” Although it is Wikipedia—that is, this should not be taken as a trusted source most of the time, or at least that is what they tell you in school—this definition of son is consistent with that of many others who study this music, such as that of Ned Sublette, who, in his book, Cuba And Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, defines son thusly: “The genre called son is a Cuban synthesis: Bantu percussion, melodic rhythm, and call-and-response singing, melding with the Spanish peasant’s guitar and language” (p. 333).
Peter Manuel, a renowned ethnomusicologist who has done a great deal of research on Cuban music, asserts in his article, “From Contradanza to Son: New Perspectives on the Prehistory of Cuban Popular Music” that “According to a conventional Cuban view, reiterated in numerous publications, the primitive son [was] sung to the accompaniment of the bongó, guitar, and/or tres” (p. 186).
(I will be referencing this article throughout this essay. For copyright reasons, I cannot make it available online; but if you wish to read it, feel free to send me an e-mail at email@example.com, and I’ll pass it along to you.)
The “conventional Cuban view” of son’s origins emphasizes a variety in the instrumentation that does not uniquely correspond to the African continent. Indeed, while certainly African-influenced, the bongo is a Cuban instrument. The tres, likewise, is Cuban. The European guitar, on the other hand, arrived to Cuba via Spain. So, right then and there we see that the first sones were not just simply Afro-Cuban.
The other reasons as to why son is more than Afro-Cuban music has to do with its geographic origins. The prevailing theory is that son originated in the Eastern region of Cuba—known as Oriente. Peter Manuel, in the same article which I referenced, states that while the western parts of Cuba—Occidente—were highly-polarized racially,
“The topography of Oriente, by contrast, was more conducive to production of tobacco, coffee, and subsistence crops, typically done on a small-scale, family level rather than a slave plantation. Importation of slaves occurred earlier and on a more limited scale (and involved more Congolese than Yorubas), and generations of manumission and miscegenation produced an overwhelmingly mulatto and creole society rather than a racially divided one. Hence, it is argued, the quintessential products of Oriente’s artistic culture were distinctively creole, such as trova and, allegedly, the son.” (p.187; my emphasis)
Because Oriente’s artistic culture was “distinctively creole,” it stands to reason that, if son was indeed developed there, then its development did not occur out of one single cultural and musical tradition. Therefore, it cannot be “just” Afro-Cuban music.
There is a more recent theory which questions the emergence of son from Oriente by analyzing the production of contradanza music in Occidente, especially in Havana, and its similarity to what we know as son music today. This more recent theory is put forth by Peter Manuel in the aforementioned article (which, again, I can provide to you upon request). I will not go into this similarities myself because they are far too technical for most of my readers. Instead, I will go right into his conclusions.
After a thorough study of the contradanza in Cuba, Manuel states that “the practice of segueing from an initial through-composed section to a more creole, indefinitely extendable, montuno-type section may have been well established in contradanzas and presumably popular songs of Havana (and possibly Santiago) by the 1850” (204). This last sentence could be better understood if we remember the basic structure of a son song: it has an introduction, and then a montuno. What Manuel is trying to argue here is that contradanza already exhibited these traits before son allegedly came to Havana. The reason as to why this is important is because it is often argued that son gained its montuno section through rumba, which is indeed an Afro-Cuban musical genre, once it arrived to the western parts of Cuba (rumba was created in Matanzas, a province adjacent to Havana; rumba does not come from anywhere in Africa).
If son, in part, stylistically received its bi-partite structure from contradanza, then son cannot be Afro-Cuban music, for contradanzas does not really Afro-Cuban in origin. As Manuel states, contradanza, a descendant of the English country dance:
“became particularly popular in Havana, a port city whose inhabitants and visiting sailors were celebrated (or denounced) for their love of dancing. In the years around 1800, the advent of tens of thousands of refugees from the Haitian Revolution further stimulated the contradanza in eastern Cuba, especially Santiago. By that period the contradanza had already assumed a creolized form, as evidenced by the earliest documented Cuban contradanza, “San Pascual Bailón” of 1803, with its prominent use of the syncopated “habanera” (or “tango”) rhythm in its B section. In the subsequent decades, the sugar boom provided the economic base for a lively entertainment culture in Havana and other Cuban towns. (p. 192; my emphasis)
As Manuel states, contradanza was a creole artistic expression, and “in most Cuban contradanzas, the distinctive creole character resides in the rhythms, and especially the habanera pattern of the bass” (Manuel 194).
In his conclusion, Manuel does not totally disregard the contribution to son music coming from the eastern regions of Cuba, such as the guajeo in the tres. But his research does suggest that son’s alleged eastern origin is not as clear as people make it to be. Indeed, what we know as son today seems to be a confluence of music from both the eastern and western part of the island. To this effect, Manuel states:
“The classic son’s distinctive and defining syncopations – and especially an- ticipations – appear to have taken form in Havana as elaborations of ger- minal features brought from Oriente by treseros and soneros. The duet format of its melodies may have come from the guitar-based trova and bolero, while the call-and-response form of the montuno was well entrenched in several genres throughout the island, including Havana.” (209)
At any rate, what is clear is that son, wherever it comes from, did not stem only from the Afro-Cuban musical tradition. Therefore, it cannot be argued that neither son nor its more modern version, timba, is just Afro-Cuban music. With this I am not saying that there are not Afro-Cuban musical influences in son or timba. Of course there are. All I am saying is that that is not all there is to it.
On the other hand, I am not saying, either, that Afro-Cuban music does not exist. Of course it does, rumba being one of the genres. (Though even here, the picture is not so clear-cut, either, as Philip Pasmanick in his study of the use of the Spanish décima in rumba singing, titled “Decima and Rumba: Iberian Formalism in the Heart of Afro-Cuban Song”, has shown). But again, son does not fall into this category.
Perhaps the best case as to why son is not just Afro-Cuban music–as some may want it to be–is in fact made by the Afro-Cuban dance curriculum itself, in which son dancing is nowhere to be found. If son dancing is not part of the Afro-Cuban dance tradition, because it clearly is more than that, then it stands to reason that the music is, likewise, more than Afro-Cuban.
And while it is true that most Cuban musicians nowadays who play this type of music are of African descent (for which there are various socio-economic factors into play here which I will not go into detail), do not let that fool you. Quite simply put, just because an African person wears a suit, it does not make the suit African.
Son has always been a synthesis of different musical traditions.
So next time you listen to son, don’t let yourself get carried away by the conga and forget every other instrument that is also playing in the band. Remember that there are also trumpets (at least as we know them today, and sometimes saxophones and flutes; that there is a bass, maybe a guitar or a tres, and a piano. And that these instruments do not come from Africa.
Manuel, Peter. “From Contradanza to Son: New Perspectives on the Prehistory of Cuban Popular Music.” Latin American Music Review. 30.2 (2010): 184-212.
Pasmanick, Philip. “”Décima” and “Rumba”: Iberian Formalism in the Heart of Afro-Cuban Song.” Latin American Music Review / Revista De Música Latinoamericana. 18.2 (1997): 252-277.
Sublette, Ned. Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. Chicago, Ill: Chicago Press Review, 2004.