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The Cuban Son

The Cuban Son is the root of most Salsa music today.

The first time that the Clave rhythm was played in public was in the Cuban Son. After the Salve revolution and later emancipation in La Hispañola many rich French Caribbean families and their house slaves emigrated to the Oriente province in Cuba from what is now Haiti. Some of these slaves were educated in music and knew both European music and African secular music.

Around 1917 when the "Danzon" was the most popular national dance in Cuba, a new musical style known as the Cuban Son appeared in Havana. The Son was accepted with such enthusiasm that soon it became very popular without taking anything away from the "Danzon". The "Danzon", which had been the national dance of Cuba since 1879, could be found everywhere from the popular dance halls to upper class social clubs. The Son had the same elements as the "Danzon" but was different in its form. It is due to the Son that the African instruments came to light to animate the orchestras that were prevalent and typical at the time in Havana.

These instruments exposed the deep currents of African rhythms in Cuba brought over by the slaves on their painful journey from Africa. Although the Son was accompanied only by percussion and rhythmic instruments it had its own distinct music and sound. In the Son, it is the rhythm that is most prominent. The Son originated in the Eastern region of Cuba, known as the Oriente Provence, among the country folk. This was probably due to the influence of the freed African slaves that arrived shortly after their emancipation from the French in "Hispañola" (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic.)

It was around this time that several other instruments also appeared.

The bongos (which are pressed between the knees and struck with one or more fingers), the marimbula, the quijada, the timbales criollos, the cowbell (which was played using a small metal bar and now usually played with a hard wooden stick), the botijuela (a wide earthen jar which is played by applying ones lips and blowing air through the thin opening at its neck) and the diente de arado ( a piece of a plow blade which sounds like a deep cowbell when struck), were all introduced into popular Cuban music through the Son.

Cubans also discovered the musical potential of a type of hardwood used for building ships, and from this the claves were born. The claves are a pair of cylindrical wooden sticks which when struck together produce a metallic sound that rises above all other instruments. The claves are the key to keeping the rhythm of the Cuban Son, and they also direct the dancers footsteps. In addition there are the palmadas (Flamenco hand claps) as well as the guiros, the maracas, the guitar and its derivative, a Cuban innovation known as the "tres". This is the battery of rhythmic instruments that have accompanied the Son since it came into being in 1920 and lasted until 1930 when other instruments were added.

In Havana, the trumpet was also added to the Son. The botijuela was replaced by the double bass, and the "claves" kept the rhythm with the bongo drums. Various foreign composers that visited Cuba and heard the typical way of playing the Son were impressed with its rhythm. One of them, the American composer George Gershwin, incorporated the Son written by Ignacio Piñero entitled Echale Salsita as the principal theme for his work Opertura Cubana. The Sons which were maintained in their purest form came from the Oriente Prowence. These Sons were mainly influenced by French blacks who came from what is now Haiti and Santo Domingo. The composers from Havana sometimes produced Sons closer in form to the Cuban "Canción".

The form of the Son is not complicated. It consists of the repetition of a chorus (el estibio) of four bars that since the beginning have been known as the Montuno, and a chorus sung in response to a soloist. In its purest form it consists of the "largo" and the "montuno". The largo is initially recited in a single voice and is followed by the call and response of the percussion and voices in the "montuno". This is quite similar and most probably derived from the "pregon" of African origin.

There is evidence that suggests that the Son was born at the end of the nineteenth century in the mountains of the Oriente Provence and acquired its distinctive musical personality in Havana in the 1920s. Some musicologists attribute the Son’s arrival in Havana to members of the Cuban army from the Oriente Provence that were transferred to Havana and the Matanza Provence. It should be noted that this popularity was defined by the formation and success of the Sexteto Habanero, the many prizes they received, their trips abroad, their recordings, their famous Sons and their participation in many popular films. Although it appeared between 1917 and 1920, this form of call and response already existed in the Son, "Ma Teodora" which was composed by the elder of the Gines sisters, Teodora. It is almost certain that it is the first Son ever to have been written down, although the notable musicologist Eduardo Sanchez de Fuentes has stated that it has a decided aboriginal influence based on the form of the Areito found by Christopher Columbus in Cuba and danced by the native peoples. It should be noted that this Son was composed by Teodora Gines on her "bandola" in the region of Baracoa which coincides with the fact that the Son as we know it was born in Baracoa Oriente.

The musical movement of the Son was so creative and convincing that it was capable of producing its own instruments, interpreters, authors and even its own original choreography. This dance is similar to the way that people dance Salsa today.

By J. Fernando Lamadrid, Based on "Historia de la Música Cubana" by Elena Perez Sajurjo, and on conversations with my Grandmother.

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