The Arawaks or the Amerindians were the indigenous people that the Spanish encountered in Cuba. The Arawaks had a form of music called areito that had the musicians seated at the centre, while the rest of the people formed concentric circles around the musicians and danced to the music. The instruments used were guiros, maracas and slit-drums. The guiro was a scraper and the maracas were rattles, both made from gourd. The guiro and the maracas seem to have contributed toward the percussions of the present time.

The Oriente ( the eastern part of Cuba that is made up of the provinces of Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo, Granma, Holguín and Las Tunas) is the seat of origin of the musical forms son, guajira, and nueva trova. While Guajira is folk or peasant music, son is the oldest form of national music and is Afrocuban, nueva trova is music born in the 70s, with its songs asking for socio-political reforms.

The son that originated in the 1570s has the bass rhythm as it’s distinctive feature and has evolved into various distinct styles over the centuries. A son usually has a solo singer, and a chorus. The two sing in a call-and-response style. De la ma Teodora is the oldest known son and is said to have originated in Santiago de Cuba. The ensemble of son got it’s septeto version in 1930s and consisted of a guitar, tress, marimbula, double bass and two vocalists who played the guiro and maracas. Later in 1940s the Conga, the piano and the second trumpet were added to form the conjunto ensemble.

The 1790s saw the immigration of the Haitians into Cuba and with them the tumba francesa form of music that has its songs of carnival (comparsa) still surviving in the Oriente. This gave rise to the Franco-haitian contradanza form of music that was for the first time the flow of African music into spheres that were otherwise of Spanish or of European origin. The first song of Habnera, the descendent of  contradanza, was written in 1830 and Habanera form of music became popular in Mexico and the United States in the 1860s.

The rumba in it’s original version was a spontaneous street gathering that combined both music and dance. It belonged to the Africans that worked in the plantation as slaves and spread rapidly among the lower class urban Africans in Cuba. The songs were in the call-and-response fashion. Having come into existence in the 1870s, the rumba also developed many distinct styles and became immensely popular outside Cuba too.

Cuban music saw improvisations on the Afrocuban call-and-response style and the result was the hugely popular mambo and cha cha cha that were a craze in the United States of America.

Salsa that developed in New York City in the 1970s was based on Afrocuban music and dance. Cuban music in the 1970s also witnessed the birth of songo that was a mixture of jazz, Brazillian pop, and rock.

The mid 1990s saw the younger generation incorporate the hip hop and rap style into son and the result was the evolution of son into a more daring and forceful form called the timba. It is now the most popular form of Cuban music at home as well as outside Cuba. Timba is not rigid and is open to adapting, and would result in various types of music that would appeal. The traveling of music and dance troupes to the Americas or the Europe popularizing the Afrocuban music and dance has happened ever since the late 1860s and is still continuing to do so.

History shows a flux of human settlement from one part of the globe to another and with it a fusion of art forms and traditions giving rise to newer varieties and structures of music and dance.

A timeline of Cuban music history follows:

Cuban Music History:

Early Cuban Music:

1000 B.C.E.-1492: approximately 250,000 indigenous Taino Arawak and Ciboney people live in Cuba as does their areito music

1492: Christopher Columbus arrives in Cuba and claims it for the Spanish crown

16th Century:

1511: Diego Velázquez arrives near present-day Guantánamo with 300 Spanish soldiers and instigates a series of bloody battles against indigenous Cubans, finally executing their leader and forcing them to convert to Catholicism and work as slaves

1513: African slaves first known to be present in Cuba

1514: Diego Velázquez founds Cuba’s first capital, Santiago de Cuba

1519: early Spanish colonists establish Havana on the north coast of the island after a failed attempt to establish a city of the same name on the south coast

1523: Pope Leo X mandates the construction of a Catholic Church in Santiago de Cuba, thereby transplanting Spanish church music on the island

1526: first known shipment of slaves intended for sale in Cuba carries 145 Africans from Cabo Verde to the island

1534: more than 1,000 Africans live as slaves in Cuba, most of them laboring on sugar plantations and in copper mines

1543: all except 3,000 indigenous people in Cuba are dead from European illnesses or starvation, have been killed by the Spanish or have committed suicide rather than endure life under Spanish rule

1550s: several hundred colonists arrive in Cuba to establish Spanish presence on the island and defend it from French attackers; along with the colonists come such European dances as the fandango, zapateo, zampado and retambico, song forms like canción and theatrical music like the zarzuela

1570s: Spanish law of manumission allows African slaves to buy their freedom

1570s: “Son de la Má Teodora,” the oldest known Cuban son, is composed in Santiago de Cuba province

1580s: lack of skilled white musicians in Cuba encourages orchestras to enlist black and mulatto musicians


17th Century:

1605: Gonzalo de Silba becomes the first professional music teacher in Havana, giving lessons in voice and harmony

1607: Cuba’s capital moves from Santiago de Cuba to Havana

1681: performing secular music outlawed in public religious music venues
18th Century:

1728: Dominican friars found the University of Havana, establishing a center for Cuban religious musical instruction and performance

1762: British naval forces invade Havana and occupy it for ten months, during which time British-manufactured pianos, clavichords, flutes, and string instruments appear in Cuba

1776: newly-constructed Teatro Principal opens in Havana, opening the island to European opera troupes

1780s: sugar plantation owners import nearly 20,000 slaves to Cuba, strengthening African-derived religious practices on the island, namely santería and palo

1791: Haitian Revolution brings thousands of Afro-Haitian immigrants to Oriente, with their tumba francesa traditions
19th Century:

1800s: urban white music in Cuba consists mostly of waltz, minuet, gavotte, mazurka and other European genres

1800s: rural white Cubans and mulattos become more visible as santería practitioners

1800: Havana — population of 100,000 — becomes third-largest city in Americas, after Mexico City and New York City

1803: “San Pasqual Bailón,” the earliest surviving contradanza appears

181120: single decade in Cuba’s history with the largest importation of African slaves (161,000)

1824: Cuban musical troupe from Havana performs in New Orleans, marking the first recorded contact between between Cuban music and United States

1836: “La Pimienta,” the earliest published habanera, is written

1860s: Sebastian Yradier’s “La Paloma” popularizes the habanera in Mexico and the United States

1870s: rumba emerges in Havana, and spreads to other lower-class, urban, black neighborhoods throughout Cuba

1870: danzón first appears in Havana and reigns as the national dance of Cuba until the 1930s

1884: danzón becomes popular in Mexico

1888: Cuba outlaws slavery, the last country in the New World to do so

1896: nationalist composer Ernesto Lecuona is born in Guanacaboa, near Havana
20th Century:

1900s: bolero appears in Havana

1900s: second wave of mass immigration from Haiti enters Cuba, strengthening tumba francesa music in Oriente

1920: son appears in Havana, taking on its modern, popular form

1920-25: septeto ensemble format develops; many groups record son music

1925: Septeto Habanero forms

1930: orquestra típica dies out as an ensemble format

1930: conjunto ensemble format develops from the septeto

1930: Don Azpiazu’s Havana Orchestra performs on Broadway, giving mass audiences in the United States their first taste of authentic Afro-Cuban music and spawning an international rumba craze

1938: Desi Arnaz popularizes conga dance music in the United States during a series of concerts in Miami
1939: Orquestra Anacaona forms in Havana

1940: Machito’s Afro-Cubans forms and becomes the most important group in the development of Latin jazz

ca. 1945: mambo appears in the United States

1947: Dizzy Gillespie’s performance of Afro-Cuban jazz at Carnegie Hall gives overnight status to Latin jazz

1947: Tito Puente forms conjunto, The Picadilly Boys, which epitomizes dance-hall mambo in the United States

1948: Pérez Prado begins to record a number of popular Cuban mambos in Mexico

1950s: Cuban dance music becomes popular in metropolitan African cities

1950: Israel “Cachao” López popularizes the big band mambo, creating a Cuban music craze in the United States

1953: chachachá sweeps Cuba

1954: chachachá arrives in the United States, spawning another Cuban music craze and bringing many Cuban charanga orchestras to New York City

1958: bolero becomes popular in the United States and influences Nashville-style country music with its slow 2/4 meter

1959: Cuban Revolution brings Fidel Castro’s Communist government into power

1965: charanga groups lose popularity in the United States

1966: Pete Seeger’s recording of “Guantanamera” popularizes guajira music throughout the world

early 1970s: salsa becomes the commonly-used word to describe Cuban-derived dance music in the United States

early 1970s: nueva trova emerges as a political song form in Cuba

1970s: songo emerges in Havana and becomes popular throughout the Spanish-speaking world

1993: U.S. Supreme Court legalizes animal sacrifices as practiced in santería, creating a surge in Afro-Cuban religious practice — and in santería music — in New York City and Miami