Cuba, A Forbidden Musical Paradise

Santiago de Cuba

Shuffle Shuffle Shuffle, Kick!

If Matanzas is the place for rumba, then Santiago de Cuba is where you want to go to see the summer carnaval along with another of Cuba’s popular rhythmic exports, the comparsa. The word comparsa refers both to the groups that play it, as well as the rhythm, which is played on portable instruments including tumbadoras, requinto (resembles a snare drum), bombos criollos (shallow bass drum), as well as bells, sarténes (miniature frying pans played like an agogo bell), and horns. The comparsa groups organize themselves similar to Brazil’s samba schools with distinctive costumes, dances, songs, and traditions that are often passed from one generation to the next.

More than perhaps any other place in Cuba, you can feel and find remnants of the waves of Spanish and French influence as they have mixed with the West and Central African music and religions. As a result, Santiago is the birthplace of many styles that contain these various elements. The Cuban bolero evolved here from Spanish and African influences and this region is also the birthplace of the rural changui, son, and danzon – all building blocks for modern salsa. It’s also the region that brought us Buena Vista Social Club legends Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Eliades Ochoa.

There’s speculation about why we call congas by that name, but you can most likely trace the term to Santiago as well. The Bantu-speaking people from central Africa, or the Congo region, came to this part of Cuba and soon they were referred to as Congo people and their drums as congo drums. The early n’goma, or congo, drums were carved from a single piece of wood (rather than stave constructed) which eventually gave way to the tambores de conga (conga drums) that we see in comparsa. Those “conga” drums are the engine driving the world-famous conga-line that many of us are familiar with. Oh, and did I mention that Desi Arnaz was born here? That may have had something to do with it, too!

Muy Fuerte Señor


Street performer, Havana.

Music in Cuba is strong for many reasons. The first is that the government controls all the artists and venues, and judging by the mansions that some musicians (and baseball players) live in, the Cuban government values and supports music in a way you won’t see in the States. And since everybody from doctor to lawyer to doorman make about the same $40/a month, aspiring musicians don’t need to choose between their passion and a day job.

If there is a positive thing that the Castro government has done, it has been to level the playing field not only between occupations but race as well. Its support of the African-influenced folkloric traditions has brought styles like rumba, which were once relegated to the multifamily homes – or solares in the slums – to where it is today: a national treasure that has managed to transcend both race and class.

Today, nearly all musicians are graduates of the music conservatory where they learn to read, write, and arrange music in addition to mastering their instrument. Even musicians who learn from their family or while playing on the street are evaluated and licensed by the government if they want to play professionally. Without needing a day job in addition to music, artists can concentrate on music as their full-time occupation. They are paid to rehearse, record, and perform and every gig doesn’t have to pencil out financially like it does in much of the rest of the world. The result has been the sky-high musicianship in Cuba that has become the envy of the world.

Monstrous salsa orchestras complete with thick horn sections, roadies, managers, sound engineers, and chartered buses are commonplace. That’s what gives us legendary groups like Munequitos de Matanzas and Los Van Van, which endure over decades even as individual members come and go. Some institutions, like the Afro Cuban Allstars, have become so popular that I’ve heard there are no less than three separate groups touring the world’s stages at any one time. From street performer to the small cuarteto playing small clubs to the regional and international acts, it is all a part of a highly structured, government-supported industry.

But perhaps the most profound reason why Cuban music is so strong is something more philosophical, and something we’ve seen from the villages in West Africa to the favelas (slums) in Brazil: When you live in a poor country without many material possessions you tend to cling to tradition for survival. Your family may not have a TV or microwave, but within hearing the first two clicks of the clave, even Auntie Elena starts to move her hips. Music in Cuba is life, and a day wouldn’t be complete without rhythm, song, and dance.

License To Travel


School kids practice on the streets of Havana.

Without getting into the history here, you’re most likely familiar with the travel restriction instituted by the American government that prevents U.S. citizens from traveling there. Ironically, the rest of the world travels to Cuba freely, and when Americans do arrive they are welcomed with open arms. To make it easy on us they don’t even stamp our passports, but rather stamp a piece of paper, which you give back as you leave the country. Regulations are constantly changing, however, and hopefully we are moving toward a time when we’ll be able to travel without having our hands slapped by U.S. authorities. And although there are still U.S. Federal laws on the books prohibiting most travel to Cuba, enforcement of those laws under the current administration is now lax.

Various non-profit and religious organizations have been quick to take up the slack, organizing tours and educational exchanges. A handful of U.S. colleges currently have licensed study abroad opportunities to Cuba for their students. If you’re thinking about a tour, there are a few who offer legal, licensed trips for the rest of us. These tours are music focused and will connect you to the artists and the scene much faster than if you go on your own. Keep in mind that most Cubans don’t have Internet access or email, making advanced planning on your own almost impossible. On an organized tour, they’ll have everything already lined up for you. Check Chuck Silverman’s site, Plaza Cuba, as well as KoSA to learn more about organized tours from North America. You can also get up to the minute travel information from, and if you want to see in advance what groups might be playing in Havana clubs, take a peek at And while tours are great for initial contacts, it’s by being alone and taking chances that you’ll be able to dive deeper into the world of drumming in its original cultural contexts.

No one can see into the future and know when Cuba will fully open up to foreign capital, joint ventures, and many of the freedoms that we in the rest of the world enjoy. And yet as soon as it happens, some of the cultural richness that we’ve come to expect will undoubtedly shift as musicians migrate to opportunity and better paying gigs abroad. That’s code for the fact that many of the best artists are probably going to split right about when the Chevy’s are sold, the land reclaimed, and boatloads of Americans fill the streets. If you want to be one of those people who can say, “oh yeah, I went to Cuba back with the Castros were still in power and a hand rolled cigar was a quarter,” then it might be time to double-clutch it, and start your research today.

Brad Boynton is owner of Rhythm Traders in Portland, Oregon.

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