By Michael King
The history of Cuban music is closely tied to the development of Cuba as a nation, and the gradual migrations which have created a sizable diaspora within the United States. Cuba originated as a Spanish colony following the arrival of Europeans in the New World. During the 17th century, a large population of African slaves was brought to the Caribbean island. The creolization of these influences led to what is known as Afro-Cuban music, characterized by a percussion rhythm and a sensual beat (Brozensky, Cabrera, & Collins, 2006). Although Cuban music was made popular around the world during the early 20th century, it was not until the 1960s that a significant concentration of Cubans appeared in Florida.
Many of the instruments, singing and dancing styles associated with Afro-Cuban music are influenced by Africa. The bongo and conga drums have their analogues in Central Africa. The clave is another instrument that defines Cuban music. Used as rhythmic accompaniment in traditional folk music, it has become a keystone instrument in subsequent musical styles. The rumba, with its fast tempo and relatively complex arrangement, was massively popular in the United States during the 1950s. Dancing is highly integrated with Cuban music – dances such as the conga, cha-cha-cha, mambo, and salsa continue to be associated with popular music (Sublette, 2007).
Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution of 1959 forced many expatriates and refugees to flee to the United States. Cubans emigrating to Florida often settled in Miami, similar to Cuba in both climate and weather (Sublette, 2007). Upper and middle class Cubans were the group most negatively impacted by Castro’s new regime, believing they would have an easier time producing music in the United States. Musicians found a built-in audience for Cuban music, which had been enjoyed some popularity in the previous decades. Salsa became the dominant form of Latin music. The large presence of Americans and other Latin ethnicities allowed the Cuban music diaspora to broaden its horizons to pop, rock n roll, and jazz (Brozensky, Cabrera, & Collins, 2006).
The Little Havana neighborhood in Miami, Florida, is the cultural epicenter of Cuban Americans. Cultural organizations based in Little Havana host a variety of festivals which are designed to unite and celebrate the vast Cuban and Latino ethnic communities that reside in Miami. Viernes Culturales, a monthly festival, features outdoor musical performances, art exhibits, cultural activities and street food. The Calle Ocho Street Festival, now on its 33-year anniversary, is one of the largest festivals in the world. Every year it gathers approximately one million people to a 16-block area west of downtown Miami. Over 30 stages encourage participants to dance along with an eclectic assortment of Cuban music. The spectrum of music ranges from traditional salsa routines, to popular Latin music genres such as hip/hop, rap, and more. Also located in Little Havana is the “Walkway of the Stars” which honors many significant Cuban artists from Miami, including Gloria Estefan, also known as the “Queen of Latin Pop” (Kucawca, 2011).
The Cuban embargo that has lasted several decades remains a controversial subject. In April 2011, a county commissioner cancelled a South Florida concert that would have featured artists from the island of Cuba. The organizers of the Fuego Cuban Music Worlds Festival are suing over the issue of free speech, which they feel was violated. The diaspora community of Cuban-Americans, especially those in politically active Miami, Florida, has mixed views on cultural exchange with the socialist state (Wides-Munoz, 2011). In order to obtain direct financial support and permission to travel abroad, the content of artists’ music must please the Cuban government. This pre-condition is a valid concern for Cubans in Florida, who have gone through difficulties so they could express themselves through music in a free and open society.