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Santiago, Cuba: The Birthplace of Traditional Cuban Music

Credit Tom Flynn
The Cuba sculpture is a gathering place in Santiago's harbor.

Santiago, Cuba, Oriente Province, is five hours by plane from BWI, via Miami, but centuries away in time. Horse carts clop around town and roosters rule from rooftops on every block of the old city.  And there’s music in the streets in late July.

That’s because the folks in this town, the capitol of this Spanish colony since 1522, are getting ready for the traditional summer Carnival. The final parade of the Carnival takes place July 26, the date of Fidel Castro’s attack on the Moncado Barracks that marks the start of the 1953 revolution.

And while Santiago was the birthplace of Castro’s revolution, it also spawned salsa, timba, mambo, bolero and much of the Latin music we hear today.

Antonio Rodon, a guitarist and singer who frequently performs at a restaurant in Santiago that features live bolero acts, says most of the rhythms of Cuban music started in Santiago.

“La trova, son and bolero,” he says. “Because son is the father of the other rhythms---the cha, cha, cha; the mambo, the Changuiy. The su cu su cu.  All the rhythms are derived from here.”

He says the tradition reaches back several centuries, when Santiago was a crossroads of French, English, Spanish and, as a center of the slave trade, African cultures.

It starts with what they call here “La Trova,” a style of ballad singing.  “Guantanamera,” the song that it seems every Cuban knows by heart, comes from the Trova tradition known as “son montuno.”

Cuban guitarist Mario Zamora says it all stems from one basic rhythm.

“Los Trovadores play son, they play guaracha, and boleros,” he says. “The basic rhythm was the sincopa.”

He says Trova also led to bolero. But the bolero that originated in eastern Cuba is the romantic ballad style, different from the Spanish style that Ravel made famous.

And then there’s Changuiy, the style that comes from Guantanamo, the city near the US Navy base here. Zamora calls Changuiy the “abuelito” or granddaddy of son.

The most recent evolution of “son” added horns, mostly the trumpet.  It was this form of son that evolved into what we know today as salsa.

All these styles are not just alive in Santiago, they’re still growing. Senora Euneisis Gonzales, the head of Santiago’s Museum of Music, says the music is like food to the Cuban people.

“Therefore, when the Cuban identifies so much with his music, he begins to do the work of conserving the music,” she explains. “It forms a part of his identity, forms a part of being a Cuban.”

Yet, with so many good musicians, venues and a reverence for the music in Santiago, the attendance at Carnival is sparse. So the Cuban government is stepping in to help preserve the music.

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