i- The French Connection
In 1791 an event occurred in Haiti that would change forever the course of Cuban history: the overthrow of the French masters by African slaves in Haiti. The French colonist fled Haiti with some of their slaves and established themselves in what was then known as the province of Oriente in the easternmost part of the island of Cuba. There they established coffee plantations and in a short time, by their economic power became a force in local affairs. Santiago de Cuba was then, as it is now, the second largest city in the country and there the French became a part of its higher society. The French also brought with them dances such as the gavotte and saraband, as well as the contradanza or danza Francesa, a salon dance based on French country dancing which had found considerable popularity among the French middle class. This dance was played with European musical instruments but often the musicians they used were blacks or mulattoes. The orchestra that played this danza francesa would eventually be known as "orquesta tipica" or typical orchestra. It consisted of woodwinds (two clarinets), brass (one trumpet, two horns), strings (two violins, one contrabass), and tympani drums.
Of course, native drums were not used in these dances as they were thought to be a "lower" kind of musical instrument reserved for African slaves and not suitable for European ears. The sound of the tympani wasn't quite right for these dances with a more pronounced rhythmic pattern than their European ancestors and would eventually be replaced by a Cuban instrument, the timbales (more on that on the next section) and a guiro added. It is interesting to note that even though the drums became the center of Afro-Cuban music in the XX century, as late as the 1950s drummers and percussionists were still the lowest paid musicians in the Cuban orchestras! So much for lingering cultural attitudes and prejudices!
The black and mulatto musicians in the French orchestras who played the danza francesa often played the violins as a percussion instrument. The resultant rhythm owes its vitality to the "cinquillo," a rhythm element clearly of African origin. The "cinquillo" can be found in the bata-rhythms of the Santeria cults, as well as in Haitian voodoo. The cinquillo consists of a five note syncopated pattern. It would eventually be joined by an additional measure and that would become the pattern for one of the first true Cuban dances: el danzon.
ii- The First Cuban Dances and Genres and la
Two of what are known today as typical Cuban genres, the rumba and the guajira, are recognizable early in the XIX century. The rumba is the profane version of sacred African music played by the slaves for their amusement and entertainment. The guajira is a descendant of Spanish folk music played by Cuban country folk with guitars and lauds and to which maracas and shakers are later added. These early forms are more Spanish and African than Cuban, but soon two new dances, quite typically Cuban, would arrive: the habanera and the danzon.
As far back as 1836 an anonymous piece of music "La Pimienta" is found in one of the music catalogues of the day. This is in what we now know as "habanera rhythm" and is catalogued as contradanza habanera. After 1840, the term contradanza is dropped and the new form is known throughout the world as habanera. This is the first Cuban dance to take the world by storm, but it certainly wouldn't be the last! In 1840, habaneras were being composed in Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and above all in Spain, where it is still a viable musical form.
It is interesting that although of Cuban origin,
the habanera flourished mostly outside of Cuba. In fact, the most
famous habanera, "La Paloma" with its famous lines:
Cuando sali de la Habana valgame Dios / nadie me vio salir si
no fui yo...
(When I left Havana, by God / Nobody saw me leave, not even I), wasn't even written by a Cuban. A Spaniard, Sebastian Yradier, composed in 1860 and for many it is a typically Cuban piece.
It is interesting to note that the Cubans of the period never called the musical form habanera. To them it was but a variation of the contradanza. The habanera later gave birth to the Argentinian tango, as well as the Spanish couple.
The world took to the habanera rhythm, but the Cuban would come to love what became the national dance of Cuba: el danzon. What is considered the first danzon was written in 1879 by Miguel Failde and it was called "Las alturas de Simpson." It was like the habanera, a direct descendant of the contradanza francesa brought from Haiti by the French. You can also find its roots in the early XIX century, in the work of a Cuban musician devoted to nationalism and independence: Manuel Saumell. Saumell, a classically trained pianist (with command of the classical repertoire of Beethoven, Lizt, Chopin and Bach) had an extensive body of work based on Cuban creole style. Recent researchers have suggested
that the tempo of the habanera can be heard
in his work, for instance in "La Tedesco" The first
part is like the danzon, which definitely came later. You can
hear many more future Cuban musical "themes" in his
work, including son and guajira.
The danzon was slower in tempo than the contradanza or the danza. It also had separate movements with structural variety. The danzon was interpreted by the aforementioned orchesta tipicas, ensembles that consisted of woodwinds, brass, strings and tympani drums.
These four, the rumba, guajira, habanera and danzon, were but the first wave of typical Cuban music. Another of Cuba's important musical genres that made its appearance in the late XIX century was the bolero. The bolero arrived in Havana from the Eastern provinces, specifically Santiago de Cuba, and its origins can be traced to the 1830s and to the Cuban "cancion" (song) sung by the "trova" (troubadours). The first "official" bolero, "Tristeza" was written by Pepe Sanchez in 1883. The singer-songwriters Sindo Garay and Alberto Villalon gave the genre a great impetus early in the XX century.
The stage was now set for an explosion of Cuban popular music. The best was yet to come, as we shall see in the subsequent sections.