A short guide to Cuban music

A short guide to Cuban music

by WNC

When most of us hear the word Cuba, some of the first things that come to our mind, along with wonderful beaches, cigars, and rum, are the country’s music and dance. Cuba has had a major influence on the music of all Latin America, and is recognized for its musicians all around the world. It is the country of origin of a remarkable number of music genres, and the country’s music is one of the things Cubans feel very proud of.

Table of contents

  1. Roots of Cuban music
  2. Son
  3. Salsa
  4. Rumba
  5. Danzon
  6. Trova
  7. Cha cha cha
  8. Afro-Cuban Jazz
  9. Reggaeton
  10. Music Festivals in Cuba

Roots of Cuban music

Cuban music has been influenced by numerous tendencies from all around the world, but its main origins lay in African and Spanish music. The slaves brought from Africa to Cuba by the Spaniards taught the natives their religious traditions, and thus, the music that accompanied the rituals. They also brought their instruments, which determined the drum as one of the most important instruments in many of the musical genres originated in Cuba.

The European influence on the music of Cuba resides mainly in string instruments, especially the Spanish guitar, and some European folk dances. The Spanish also brought the musical notation and modern composing techniques. Other influences include the French and Chinese immigrants, large communities of which lived in Cuba during some period. Later in time, there has also been a considerable influence by the music of the United States, Jamaica, and other countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.


The Cuban son is one of the most renowned musical genres originated in Cuba. Some even people say that Son gave birth to the rest of the musical genres of the island. It came to be as a combination of Spanish and African cultures: the instruments are the tres, a Cuban musical instrument derived from the Spanish guitar, and African percussion instruments. The composition of the songs is also a merge of the two: Spanish structure of verse plus chorus, and African vocals. The first Cuban Son to be known in Europe was “El Manicero” (“The Peanut Vendor”). It can still be heard in Cuba nowadays, as one of the emblematic songs of the island. Compay Segundo, Beny More, Celia Cruz, Roberto Faz – these are just a few examples of Cuban musicians who sang and played the Son; all of them are among the most famous and respected singers in Cuba.


Although not originally created in Cuba, Salsa is the music the country is best known for nowadays. It is said to have influences from several genres, such as Son, Mambo, and Rumba. Salsa appeared in Cuba in the 1960s, and shortly after they designed a term specially for Cuban Salsa – Timba. Since then Salsa has been a major musical genre in the country, and many of the Cuban musicians working in this genre gained worldwide popularity. Some examples of the most remarkable Salsa singers in Cuba are Juan Formell y Los Van Van, Adalberto Alvarez, Chucho Valdes, and La Charanga Habanera.


Cuban Rumba is strongly associated with the African traditions. The music is mainly based on drums, and it is usually sung by one leading voice and a chorus. But more than the music itself, Rumba is known for its dance. There are three kinds of Rumba dance: two of them performed by a couple, and one being a solo male dance. Being primarily meant for dancing, the music is always energetic, lively, and having a fast, steady rhythm.


Danzon has developed from a French genre called contradanse, which, respectively, originated from the English country dance. It had major importance in Cuba during the XIX century; now it is considered a slow traditional dance rarely performed in modern Cuba, but it still forms an important part of the Cuban cultural heritage. One of the most famous Danzons is the “Buena Vista Social Club”, which gave the name to a 1999 documentary about Cuban music. The film features several legendary Cuban musicians, and has won several awards for the best documentary both in Cuba and abroad.


Trova, sometimes called “The Cuban Bolero”, is a musical genre that is sung while playing a guitar. Urban singers Sindo Garay, Rosendo Ruiz, Alberto Villalón, and Manuel Corona are known as the four greats of the Trova. In the XX century, a new genre evolved based on Trova: the Nueva Trova, or New Trova. The two major representors of this genre are Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes, both popular worldwide, and praised not only for their music, but also for the deep meaning of the lyrics in their songs.

Cha cha cha

This genre developed from the Danzon in the early ‘50s as a dance music genre. It rapidly became popular for its simple repetitive rhythm that represents the footwork of the dancer. The Cha cha cha dance is still popular nowadays, so do not miss your chance to learn it in Cuba and dance to some emblematic song of the genre, such as “Como Bailan Cha-cha-cha los Mexicanos” by Félix Reina or “El Bodeguero” by Richard Egűes.

Afro-Cuban Jazz

The Afro-Cuban Jazz, also called “Cubop”, emerged in the 1940s, and has always been strongly linked to American Jazz. Actually, for some time it was even more popular in the US than in Cuba. A lot of Cuban artists performed abroad during this period, making Cuba’s music gain popularity all over the world, and showing a genre that, while having the traits of the well-known jazz, was very different from any other music, and only existed in Cuba.


Although all of the aforementioned genres still exist and are very popular in the country, modern Cuban music is strongly influenced by worldwide tendencies in the development of music, and modern genres have more importance than the traditional music nowadays. In Cuba, there is pop, hip-hop, rock, and every other kind of modern music, but the overall musical scene of the country is dominated by another genre – the Reggaeton. Reggaeton is a musical genre originated in Puerto Rico in the late 1990s, from the Jamaican Reggae with some influence of hip-hop and other Latin American music genres. In Cuba some of the famous Reggaeton singers are Gente de Zona, Jacob Forever, Chocolate MC, and others. For the last years it remains one of the most popular music genres among the youth.

Music Festivals in Cuba

With Cuban music being so famous all over the globe, it is natural that the country yearly hosts several music festivals that attract visitors from all countries. These festivals also belong to different genres of traditional Cuban music and usually feature performances of some of the best modern Cuban artists. Some of these festivals are:

  • Festival de la Trova Longina (January 8 to 13, 2019; Genre – Trova)
  • Memorial Guillermo Barreto (March 1 to 31, 2019;Genre – Percussion)
  • International Pepe Sanchez Trova Festival (March 17 to 21, 2019; Genre – Trova)
  • Havana World Music Festival (March 21 to 23, 2019)
  • Cubadisco (May 2019)
  • International Electroacoustic Music Festival (March 2019; Genre – Electronic music)
  • Festival Internacional Boleros de Oro (June 2019; Genre – Bolero)
  • Festival del Caribe (Festival of Fire) (July 3 to 9, 2019)
  • Festival Internacional de Rap (1st August 2019; Genre – Hip-hop)
  • Havana Jo Jazz (November 2019; Genre – Jazz)
  • Habana Clasica Music Festival (November 2019; Genre – Classical music)
  • Havana Jazz Festival (December 2019; Genre – Jazz)

If music is one of your highlights when travelling to Cuba you can plan your trip with ViaHeroViaHero is a trip planning platform that will connect you to a local in Cuba to plan your Cuba trip. You can hire a local that specialized in music to help you create the perfect itinerary for your trip.

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