Exploring Cuba Through Its Music And Art

Susana Corona Cruz

For a relatively small nation, Cuba punches way above its weight and has a global cultural impact. Some of the world’s most popular genres of music, dance and art originated on this island and exploring Cuba through its art gives you an inside look on what makes this incredible country tick.

Cuban music

Sure, salsa is a big deal to the Cubans – but it has much deeper historical roots. Mambo, conga, rumba, cha-cha-chá, danzón, son (of Buena Vista Social Club fame) and guaracha were all born in Cuba as precursors to the globally-exported salsa.

These genres developed as the Cuban national identity evolved, blending Afro-Cuban influences with Hispanic culture, and absorbing waves of immigration from other parts of the Caribbean and beyond.

Incidentally, Cuban salsa is more accurately called timba: a freer style more given to improvisation. Well-known timba bands include Charanga Habanera, José Luis Cortés y NG La Banda, Havana d’ Primera and Grammy-winning Los Van Van. Compare them to the traditional salsa performers of Colombia and Puerto Rico, such as Hector Lavoe, Marc Anthony and Grupo Niche and you’ll quickly spot the differences.

For the best live shows, simply find the local Casas de las Musica (there are two in Havana and at least one in every other city). Salsa/timba performances usually start around 10pm, preceded by other traditional sessions.

Cuba has also produced some of the world’s best jazz performers, from veterans Chucho Valdes and Arturo Sandoval to the more recent Michel Herrera, Cesar Lopez, and Achy Lang, whose band AfroCuba blends Latin jazz with mambo, rumba, cha cha chá, son and changüí.

But perhaps the country’s most evocative style is the trova, which originated in the 19th century from groups of troubadours - itinerant musicians who walked the streets earning a living by singing and playing guitar.

Cuba’s most famous trova artists are Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes, although probably the most famous trova song of all is Hasta siempre (Until always) by Carlos Puebla, a goodbye song to Che Guevara written after his death.

You’ll find live performances in the Casas de la Trova in most cities, but El Mejunje in Santa Clara is one of the best places to experience this genre at its rawest and most authentic.

Cuban dance

Accompanying this musical heritage is an equally rich tradition of dance, and once again – there’s much more to Cuban dance than “just” salsa!

Whereas Cuban salsa music is called timba, the Cuban version of salsa dancing is better known as casino. Couples often dance as part of a bigger group (rueda de casino), exchanging partners to the rhythm without losing a beat and throwing in plenty of improvisation and spontaneous moves – you’ve got to be quick to keep up!

Even experienced salsa dancers can find the Cuban style tricky to navigate, but have no fear: Cubans welcome all, novice and maestro alike, and are always delighted to see foreigners getting involved.

Beyond salsa there are the slower-paced, romantic styles such as danzón, cha-cha-chá and son. And finally there’s the lively, even erotic, guaguancó – a form of rumba which found its way to Cuba from Africa via the slave trade.

Cuban art

Cuban art is also incredibly varied, drawing heavily on Afro-Cuban roots blended with strong European influences, and there can be recurring cultural and political themes.

Cuba is well-known for its impressive political murals, with revolutionary slogans scrawled on walls, buildings or even taking up entire city blocks. Virtually all billboards that once advertised commercial products are now given over to political messages, from cartoons demonising the US embargo, to famous phrases uttered by Fidel Castro.

Some of the most celebrated Cuban artists of the 20th century were the exponents of the so-called Vanguardismo (Cuban Avant-garde) movement: Amelia Pelaez, Carlos Enriquez (his El Rapto de las Mulatas is one of the most easily recognised Cuban paintings of all time), Antonio Gattorno, Víctor Manuel and Afro-Chinese-Cuban Wifredro Lam.

Contemporary artists include Flora Fong, Alexis Leiva (better known as K'cho), Tomás Sánchez, Carlos Estévez, Cuban sculptor Yoan Capote and painter and sculptor Roberto Fabelo, whose Viaje Fantástico dominates Plaza Vieja in Old Havana.

If you have time for only one gallery in Havana, make it the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, home to the biggest collection of Cuban artwork. If you want to make a purchase, try the art gallery in Avenida del Puerto.

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