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Cuban Dance 101

By Rocío de Lucía (Cuban Musicologist)

We want to start by saying that perhaps contrary to what many expected, all Cubans do not dance like salsa professionals; not even all of them like to dance. For some, it could be an evident axiom; for others, not so much, so it is worth the clarification. Although, Cubans have alternatives for any dancer. If you prefer slower and more relaxed types, you can practice danzón or son. But, if you desire faster and more energetic movements, you can try the casino, conga, rumba, and even reggaeton with its extreme sensuality add-on. In general, Cuba is full of options when you ask about dance styles. That’s what we want you to learn from our article today. Let’s find out what are Cuban dances like?

Local dances that Cubans like

The last three decades of history have changed the music-dance scene in Cuba quite a bit. Although many people tend to think that people from Cuba only dance casino (salsa style), rumba, and danzón, the truth is that Cubans nowadays practice a diverse and modern variety of dances. The cultural opening of the Island revived its link with international trends, a connection quite similar to other regions of the Caribbean and Central America such as Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico, among others.

Like in other Caribbean contexts, reggaeton has become the favorite musical genre among the youngest and most of the Cuban population. However, even when Puerto Rican reggaeton is widely consumed by the Latinxs community everywhere, Cubans have their own style, different and particular. Without the intention of doing a far-fetched musicological dissertation in this regard, we will comment that this Cuban reggaeton is distinguished by a specific rhythmic cell based on the Cuban clave.

Cuban reggaeton also uses and generates a lot of local slang. Some of the most popular reggaeton names are Chocolate MC, Yomil y el Dany, El Chacal, Divan, El Taiger, Harrison, El Kamel, etc. Then, the dance has particular characteristics and patterns, totally different from the rest of the geographical area.

Besides reggaeton, the other most danced genre is timba, with its casino dance. Timba is a mix derived from Afro-Cuban jazz, similar to son (original type of salsa), but faster and more aggressive. Cubans started calling it casino dance since its widespread use in casino clubs during the ’50s. The style sets the basic rhythm of the salsa, but it does not do it linearly but freely.

This style allows greater freedom of improvisation and more spontaneous and rhythmic movements. You can dance in pairs and around, hence the famous “Ruedas de Casino” (Casino Wheels, a type of casino danced in a group). Among the most popular orchestras of this timba genre are: Alexander Abreu y Habana de Primera, Bamboleo, El Noro y Primera Clase, Alain Pérez, Pupi y los que Son Son, Adalberto Álvarez y su Son, and Manolito Simonet y su Trabuco.

In addition to these dances, we found Rumba dance, a folkloric style that remains strong among Cuban peopleThe Rumba style is divided into YambuColumbia, and Guaguancó. The dancers’ energy and flavor explosion is their central characteristic. Despite its more than a hundred years of history, this “mestizo” style continues to captivate generations and generations of Cubans. 

The dance varies according to the style of each dancer and the type of variant. You can dance in pairs, separate people, or in a group. You can find rumba dance at both public and private parties, as well as in cultural or recreational centers. One of our favorite places to dance rumba is the Callejon de Hamel.

Another folkloric Cuban dance very vivid on the Island is conga. This genre has a marked African influence, where percussion plays the leading role. This style is a single type of dance, but in a group: the musicians play the congas (drums) and horns, and the dancers follow them through the streets, setting a basic rhythm with their feet. It’s also common for Cuban people to dance at least one conga at private parties and Carnivals.

Other styles danced in Cuba.

Cuba has been working hard to preserve a few other famous but “old school” styles among the popularity of many modern dances. “Classical” orchestras are a big part of this effort, groups that have essentially made Cubans dance for decades. Los Van Van and La Orquesta Aragón are two of these bands highly prestigious in the national and international music scene.

Los Van Van developed a music/dance style called Songo, where the Cuban son’s essence is interpreted with a particular rhythmic base and a charanga style of music format. The most faithful follower of this genre has been Maikel Blanco y Su Salsa Mayor. Another of the most beloved by the Cuban people, La Orquesta Aragón, also uses a traditional charanga music format. They mostly performs danzones, chachachás, boleros, and sones.

However, we must point out that these music and dance genres are reserved for most adult populations. In the same sense, you must know that even when it seems paradoxical, the Buena Vista Social Club and its exquisite repertoire are icons currently reserved mainly for tourism and not the Cuban people. But, that doesn’t mean that they won’t enjoy it every time someone plays it. 

On the other hand, it is essential to talk about foreign dance styles currently popular in Cuba, like merengue and bachata. For the youngest, electronic and pop music also appear in their tastes. These styles have become very famous after the abundance of more modern music festivals on the Island. In this realm, we need to add a special mention of a phenomenon called Cimafunk. This band has made the funk style fashionable and danceable among Cuban youth, mixed with Afro-Cuban rhythms and other indigenous stylistic features.

Where do Cubans like to dance? 

As a general rule, family celebrations, national anniversary dates, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Christmas, the New Year, school graduations, religions, and the reception of friends or relatives who live in other regions are often top reasons to organize a party. Food, drink, and dance music will not be missing in these celebrations. We must add that, in reality, there is not always a reason for this kind of event; many times, Cubans meet only for leisure and recreation.

Yes, socialization and partying are essential elements in Cuban society. To better illustrate the Cuban character on this topic, note that some dates indicated as “International Worker’s Day” or “International Women’s Day” are usually commemorations of struggle and protest in other world regions; in Cuba, they are holidays. In addition, we will mention events such as Festivals and Carnivals, different spaces that occur regularly, and where music and celebration abound.

So, if you are looking for a community where you can find cultural parties, not so much in clubs, but spontaneous and artistic events, full of traditions, culture, and joy, Cuba is one of the best places for it. However, you can also find all kinds of venues around the Island with excellent music and an impressive number of people dancing. 

 

If you want to learn more about Cuban dance, we highly recommend the Music Education & Cultural Cuba Tour

Cuba, a benchmark for dancers

We could list hundreds of reasons in favor of travel, and about the benefits of visiting and interacting with new cultures. One of these, without a doubt, is that knowing a new city allows us to confront stigmas and stereotypes usually built around culturally different communities. Cuba has not been exempt from this condition. That is why it is necessary to talk about these common stigmas related to Cubans and their culture.

If you like to dance, undoubtedly, Cuba will not disappoint you, especially since the conceptions of dance tend to be more accessible and without so many rigid structures of interpretation. As a general rule, Cubans value the atmosphere, the energy more than the virtuosity of the movements. Their celebrations are full of life and flavor, a friendly spirit, and communion. Even if you are not a dancer, but you like to enjoy this type of environment, in Cuba, you will have unforgettable experiences, and you will indeed be infected with the joy and warmth of its people.

The Buena Vista Social Club Today

 

By Rocío de Lucía (Cuban Musicologist)

When we talk about The History of Buena Vista Social Club Part 1 and The History of Buena Vista Social Club Part 2, we find that Buena Vista Social Club was the name of a Social Club where the best “soneros” of the 50s used to sing in Cuba. Then, it was a song that paid tribute to those sublime encounters and musical sessions of the homonymous Club. Later, the song would give the name to an album, a project, and finally to a musical artistic concept, with a particular style and format, founded on bringing together the glorious musicians and songs of previous decades. All that is Buena Vista Social Club.

The project traveled the world always changing the members of the orchestra. Although, it is true that some figures achieved greater popularity, becoming a kind of Buena Vista icon. Many of these original interpreters passed away a few years ago, others are now of advanced age. Let us remember that, by the creation date of the project in the 90s, the vast majority of artists were over 65 years of age.

What happened in Cuba? 

Currently, in Cuba, the legacy and principles of the Buena Vista Social Club continue to be exalted, in a project called Tradicionales de Los 50. Because the original name is the intellectual property of the record company that recorded the homonymous album, the longest-lived figures of the Cuban son, they meet every night at the Rosalía de Castro Club. Located in the heart of Old Havana, there those songs that for years have brightened the lives of all those who enjoy them are honored.

Former members of the Sonora Matancera -the orchestra with which Celia Cruz recorded her first two musical albums in Cuba and a legend of Latin American dance music of the last century-, along with other great stars of the Buena Vista Social Club and Afro-Cuban All-Stars have been part of this project since 2002.

Among the most prominent figures who have collaborated, we find Julio Alberto Fernández, Barbarito Torres, Amadito Valdés, “El Guajiro” Mirabal, Julienne Oviedo Sánchez, Carlos González Cárdenas, Lázaro Villa, Rosa Fornés, Rolo Martínez and Manolo del Valle. These names are joined by other great personalities of the Cuban music scene: Rolito, Armandito y Navarro, Feliz Baloy, Hector Téllez, Alfonsí Quintana, Caridad Hierrezuelo, Hilda de la Hoz, María Elena Pena, Xiomara Valdés, Teresa García Caturla, Ela Calvo, María Victoria Gil, Amparito Valencia and Luis Téllez.

The current stars, all stand out for an important musical trajectory, of excellence within Cuban music. There we will find Rolando Montero, Mundito González, José Valladares, Jorge Mulet, Migdalia Hechavarría, Jose Luis Arango, Sergio Farías, Raquel Hernández, Flora Max, Pablo Santamaría, Millán Zuaznabar, Leonor Zayas, Feliz Bernal, Yanko Pizako, Emilio Ramos, Adalberto Ávila “Candela”, Martha de Santelices, Andrés Sánchez, Maria Elena Lazo, Alfredo Rodríguez, Laura Rodríguez and María de Jesús López.

The wide versatility of the project and its classic sound make this show a jewel of Cuban cultural heritage. A repertoire that ranges from the great classics of Miguel Matamoros, Miguel Cuní, Benny Moré, Compay Segundo, Celia Cruz, and Sonora Matancera -among others-, continues to transport us to the golden age of Cuban music, with the particular timbres and styles of each interpreter.

All of them preserve that old and delightful essence that allows us to enjoy, even in the XXI century, those glorious moments that made the Havana nights of past decades shine. An enjoyment turned into a privilege to get a live glimpse of the flavor and talent of the musicians who have made the whole world dance and distinguished the name of this beautiful island through passion and art.

You can find Parts 1 and 2 of this blog trilogy in the following links:

THE HISTORY OF BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB PART 1: THE VINDICATION OF CUBAN MUSIC

THE HISTORY OF BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB PART 2

The best musicians in the world. The secret of Cuban music

 

By Chaz Chambers(Musician, Tour Guide Leader, and Director of Havana Music Tours and Musical Getaways)

Every time I go to a show in Havana or anywhere in Cuba, I am stunned by the musicianship. The impressive music scene that I always found there makes me love Cuban Music more and more each time.

Havana makes me think of 1950s New York City, not only because of the vintage cars but because of the superior musicianship. It reminds me of the greats like Miles Davis and John Coltrane on the come-up. It’s like traveling into a Time Machine. But with unique modern aspects that make it much better.

What does a music venue look like in Cuba?

The music venues in Cuba sometimes remind me of New York in many ways. Famous Cuban jazz venues like La Zorra y El Cuervo or Jazz Café Havana could make you feel that you are in an underground jazz club in the heart of Greenwich Village. It has the same feel and ambiance; the only difference is the authentic Latin Jazz. If you are a Jazz lover you should join us on Cuban Jazz, Music, and Cultural Tour Featuring Havana Jazz Plaza Festival 2023.

If it is about vintage vibes, in Cuba, especially in Havana, you will be able to find some Cabaret-style venues that take you on an exciting trip to the 50s. Some of them are Tropicana, Habana Café, Parisien, among others.

In Cuba, you can also enjoy concerts in elegant colonial-style theaters such as the Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso (Havana), Teatro Martí (Havana), Teatro Terry (Cienfuegos), Teatro Heredia (Santiago de Cuba). However, there are other more modern and relevant ones, such as Teatro Karl Marx and Teatro Nacional de Cuba, both in Havana.

But, not everything is vintage and nostalgic in the Cuban music scene. You can also find bars and nighttime clubs very similar to the rest of the world. Places where you can find both live and recorded music; are usually full of people dancing and drinking until very late in the night. One of our favorites is the Café Bertolt Brecht, especially if Interactive is playing there.

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How to describe a Cuban musician?

Over the years, I’ve understood why this may be (in my opinion). First of all, there are  FREE music schools in Cuba where children start studying music as young as eight years old. Around half of the day is spent learning music and the other half with traditional academics. They will continue this through “secondary school,” also known as High school in America. By the time these kids get to a music university level, they are already impressive.

I also believe that the sociocultural and love of music inspires the musicians to practice a lot. There isn’t any extra money to be spent on excess things for Cubans most of the time. So maybe they will spend more time at home with their instruments instead of going out to bars, to eat, in movie theaters, etc. I think this all contributes to the practice culture of Cuban musicians.

The other aspect of becoming a musician and maybe why there are so many musicians in Cuba is that it could serve as an opportunity to travel to the world. Most of the great musicians around Cuba will flock to Havana to seek opportunities to play with groups that can gain international attention. Once they can begin touring out of the country, it can provide a much greater lifestyle than the typical Cuban.

I believe that Cuba has the best musicians globally, and all of my experiences traveling tell me the world needs to know this. You can see at least a few world-class performances in only one week, artists like Alain Perez, Alexander Abreu, Interactivo, Isaac Delgado, the modern-day Buena Vista Social Club, Afro Cuban All-Stars, and so many more. I hope that everyone has a chance to travel to Cuba at least once and experience the music of Havana.

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