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Cuban Popular Music: Renewal From Above
September, 2004

Caribbean specialist/radiojournalist
Social cultural and community organizer
Radio Habana Cuba
Radio CMKS Guantanamo

The popular rhythm complex, SON, faces serious constraints. One of the reasons could be the disappearance of the societies of people of African descent, which were shut down by the Revolution in 1959. But there was also a deliberate policy put into motion aiming at introducing new music styles to cope with the new social and political system introduced in 1959. The Nueva Trova was introduced as the de facto official national music.

What else took place with popular music in Cuba? The official cultural policy – makers felt the need to create more new rhythms, sounds and timbre. Apparently, the SON was considered obsolete and as belonging to the capitalist past.

In one of the many talks at the home of Angel Eduardo Rosillo Heredia, eminent Son music promoter of Radio Progreso, he pointed out to me the following.

Juan Formell, who in the sixties and early seventies was the band director of Orquesta Habana Libre and, was officially assigned the task of creating new rhythms for popular music in the new revolutionary era.

He came out with the following creations:

1. “Pucuete”

Among the most significant examples of that so called PUCUETE style, the following songs were officially promoted through the media.

“De Chiripa“
“El Flit”

After being bandleader of Hotel Habana Libre’s band and the adventure with ‘PUCUETE’, Juan Formell joined Guantanamo born Elio Revé’s band. Formell became the arranger and at times composer of Revé’s Charrangón and tried to introduce a new style called CHANGUISON.

Lilí Martínez Griñan 
y los Champions de Guantanamo…

The Changüi as an early rhythm originating from the Guantanamo region was incorporated within orquestrated Son music long before Formell’s attempt. I refer to, amongst others, the unforgettable Guantanamo-born composer, pianist and arranger, Lili Martinez Griñan’s composition CHANGUISON with the same name performed by Conjunto Estrella de Chocolate. There are others as well, such as La Sonora Matancera with Celia Cruz singing, who have internationalized the Changui. 


2. Changuison by Formell

que bolá que
changüi con son
el martes
el jueves
yo quiero una flaca

After leaving Elio Revé’s band, Juan Formell, already an officially well – promoted musician, formed his own group under the name of Los Van Van.

In that era, the same bandleader, composer, and arranger attempted again to create a new music expression called “SONGO”.

None of these creations of Formell really developed into genres that fully transcended beyond Cuban borders, like the Cha Cha Cha, which was the last well defined genre of the Son rhythm - complex.


While the SON had to struggle for its survival, a new tendency was put into motion in Havana. Young musicians were graduating from the Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA), which means the National School of Arts, and also the Instituto Superior del Arte (ISA), the Superior Institute of Arts, and they did not know how to play SON music as a long-standing popular Cuban art – form. They knew best how to exploit experimental jazz. At the end they were playing some sort of ‘globalized’ music. 

At first, that ‘globalized’ music was entitled ‘Salsa Cubana’. From the 60’s through the 80’s, the “New York Salsa” was officially despised for being ‘outside’ music. But, that “New York Salsa” was plain CUBAN SON music, which the promoters preferred to call “Salsa” instead of SON for political reasons. For saying son would have meant saying Cuba, and that would have provoke political problems in the United States which had imposed a economic and cultural blockade on Cuba. All of a sudden now, moved by the idea of conquering a lost position on the international music market, the official promotion centres, such as CUBARTISTA transformed into ARTEX, were promoting groups that were playing a type of music which they entitled ‘CUBAN SALSA’. In practice, this was an upbeat music which over-exploited ‘experimental jazz’ in a noisy manner and with the tendency of ‘de-africanizing’ the broad and longstanding heritage of Cuban popular music. 

In the late 1980’s, I was asked by the unforgettable promoter of Cuban popular dance music in Curaçao, Angel Job, to look for groups for him to contract. I can remember that ARTEX officials, whom I won’t mention by name, stated that those groups that play SON were not there any longer. They showed me instead, as they said, “UN GRUPO DE NEGRITOS FEITOS, PERO QUE HACEN COSAS INTERESANTES EN EL ESCENARIO” – “a group of funny ugly blacks, but they do interesting things on stage.” That group was “La Charanga Habanera” and their music was the new trend of music that they were promoting now.

Radio Progreso’s Angel Eduardo Rosillo, director, producer and host of the most outstanding music shows of Cuba: “LA DISCOTECA DEL AYER” and “UN DOMINGO CON ROSILLO”, put this new tendency of so called ‘SALSA CUBANA’ into public debate and critique.

Soon after, the term Salsa was slowly replaced by TIMBA. This was a perversion of the original meaning of that word, for TIMBA was usually employed to indicate the RUMBA complex. Conjunto Chappottin y sus Estrellas has a song known as ‘GUAGUANCO A LOS RUMBEROS’ in which Miguelito Cuni sings “Me acuerdo de esos rumberos, me acuerdo de esos timberos de mi Cuba que cantaron guaguanco…” “I remember those rumberos, I remember those timberos who sang guaguanco in my Cuba”

Finally, the field is split in Cuba, between SON and TIMBA. 

The old and rejected sonero vanguard like Compay Segundo and the Buena Vista Social Club had to come and reaffirm on the international front that Cuba is a fusion of Africa and Europe as far as music is concerned. All who want to de-Africanize the legacy of Africa in Cuba aim at destroying our Caribbean Cultural Identity.


See Angel Eduardo Rosillo Heredia on AfroCubaWeb


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