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Knowledge is Key - A Brief look at Cuban Dance & Music.

Updated: Mar 6

Knowledge is Key ~ The Bata Drums. (Series 1)

Their names and their role in the music

Bata drums are always played in a set of three drums. The biggest drum with the lowest sound is called IYA, which means mother in Yoruba.

The middle drum is the ITOTELE. This word is build out of different syllables: • I = stands for action • Toto = completely • Tele = to follow, respond

The second drum in some Yoruba drum ensembles (although strangely not bata) is referred to as atele, meaning “the one that follows” or “the successor”.

The second drum in the Nigerian bata ensemble is called omele abo (female accompanying drum). The smallest drum with the highest sound is the OKONKOLO.

The Bata drums stand in familial relation to each other. Iya is, as noted before, the mother.

The Okonkolo is the son of the Iya, concerning the Itotele, some call this drum the father, and some the second son.

Each of the drums plays a special role in the music of Santeria. The master drummer plays the Iya, because this instrument leads the rest of the ensemble and has the longest and most complex rhythms.

The master drummer has the most freedom to play variations and it is this person who makes all the calls (llamadas) to the Itotele.

The Itotele must make the difference between simple variations of the Iya, where it does not need respond, and calls that need to be answered.

So the Itotele player really has to know the language of the Iya to be able to hear the calls.

The Okonkolo is the timekeeper, Its rhythmical patterns, emphasize the main metric pulse, are the least complex of the ensemble, the Okonkolo player is hardly free to do any variations.

Knowledge is key ~ Orishas (Series 2)


ELEGGUA | Orisha of the crossroads | St. Anthony – he carries a child | Red & black.

OGUN | Orisha of metal and the war | St. Peter – He holds a key of metal | Black & light green.

OCHOSI | Hunter | St. Norbert – He is a passionate hunter | Blue & yellow.

BABALU AYE | Orisha of illness | St. Lazarus – He is a poor beggar who is starving | Brown & black.

OBATALA | Orisha of peace and justice | Lady of Mercy – She is like Obatala a very important Saint | White.

CHANGO |Orisha of fire, passion, thunder and drums | St. Barbara – She is wearing a red dress, and linked to thunder | Red & white.

OYA | Orisha of the wind and owner of fire | Lady of Candlemas – Her feast is a feast of candles | Brown, aubergine, dark red.

OCHUN | Orisha of the river and love | Lady of Charity – She is the symbol of hope | Gold & yellow.

YEMAYA | Orisha of the sea, and motherhood | Lady of Regla – She is black and the patron of the Bay of La Habana | Light blue & white.

Knowledge is Key ~ Other Afro-Cuban Dances (Series 3)


Palo traditions come from the Bantú people of Central Africa (particularly from Congo). The Bantú represent the majority of African slaves coming into Cuba during the 17th and early 18th century; later the Yoruba (from Nigeria) became the primary group brought to Cuba as slaves. Drums and hand rattles are used in this music, which is based upon communication with ancestral spirits, the dead, as opposed to the Orishas. The songs and chants, often in a hybrid combination of Spanish and Bantú words, play a central role in the rituals of Palo. Music of this tradition has had a strong influence on popular music forms like Rumba, Son and Mambo.


Yuka is a popular form of secular Congo music that was played during the 19th century and incorporated Yuka drums. Yuka dancing imitates the body language of chickens and roosters, and features the vacunao, a pelvic thrust that is also used in rumba and other dances derived from the Congo.


Abakua comes from the Calabar region of West Africa. Its special songs and drums are derived from all-male secret societies. These traditions retain many of the elements of African mystical ritual practice.


From the Fon people and the Arara kingdom of the Dahomean region, now known as Benin, Arara rhythms, songs and dances were introduced into eastern Cuba through Haiti, where many of those rituals and ceremonies are still practiced.



Makuta is a social dance of Congo origin. The makuta drums are a forebear of the conga drums. In Cuba, makutarefers to a festive gathering or a type of ritual staff, which is used at certain moments in Palo ceremonies to strike the ground in a rhythmic accompaniment to a song or dance.

Knowledge is Key  ~ Traditional Popular Cuban Dances (Series 4)


Created by Miguel Failde Pérez in 1879, Danzón is the national dance of Cuba and evolved from Danza. The music structure – A B A B A - consists of an introduction, A, just used for dancers to make acquaintance, flirt or stroll the dance floor. Then a dance section starts (B), to go back to the introduction and repeat the sequence again. The dance style is elegant yet extremely sensual and flavourful; it is danced off the beat and includes square figures.


Son known as "The Father of Salsa" is derived from Cuba's African and Spanish roots, and is the predecessor of what is now called salsa.

Originally rural music that developed as an accompaniment to dancing, it became a popular in Cuba's urban areas in the 20th century.

Eventually, it was adapted to modern instrumentation and larger bands. Traditional Son instrumentation could include the tres (a type of guitar with three sets of closely spaced strings), standard guitars and various hand drums and other percussion instruments.

Many sons also include parts for trumpets and other brass instruments, due to the influence of American jazz.

Son, the dance, starts with the formal, closed embrace of the man and woman. The couple maintains a very upright frame, with quick flirtatious and sensual side-to-side movements of the shoulders, torso and hips accenting the underlying six count rhythm of the feet.

Son is danced off the beat, so the couple moves on the half beat before one.

Cha Cha Cha

Cha Cha Cha arose in the early '50s as an offshoot of Danzon and Mambo, and was created by Enrique Jorrin – the original rhythm is onomatopoeia of the sound of the percussion and the one created by the dancer’s feet dragging on the ground.

Cha-cha-cha is danced off beat (the dance starts on three quick changes of weight -- thus the name cha-cha-cha -- preceded by two slow and a pause).

It was later adopted and commercialized by ballroom dancers who for teaching purposes (for those unable to identify the beat). A cha was dropped and it became only Cha-cha.

In Cha Cha Cha, like mambo and rumba, the dancers' hips are relaxed, allowing free movement in the pelvic section.


In the late 1940s, many North Americans -- especially those from the East Coast -- flocked to Havana, Cuba for their vacations, and the most famous U.S. and Cuban dance bands performed in Havana's casinos.

Orestes Lopez and Israel “Cachao” Lopez created modifications over Afro-Cuban rhythms and particularly the Danzon, creating a new rhythm called mambo infused with American jazz band format.

Mambo was danced in the same upbeat and sassy manner as American swing.

The word "Mambo" comes from the warriors’ song of the Congo (one of the most important African groups brought to Cuba as slaves during the colonial times).

There are two forms of dancing Mambo: single and double tempo.

Knowledge is Key  ~ Rumba (Series 5)


There are various styles of Afro-Cuban rumba music and dance, but all have strong influences from African drumming and dance and Spanish/Gitano poetry, singing and dance.

And in all rumba, the clave beat (2-3 or 3-2) plays a very important role. Afro-Cuban rumba is entirely different than ballroom rumba or the African style of pop music called rumba.

Rumba developed in rural Cuba, and is still danced in Havana, Mantanzas and other Cuban cities as well as rural areas, although now it is infused with influences from jazz and hip hop.

The three basic types of rumba include:


This is the oldest known style of rumba, sometimes called the old people's rumba because of its slower beat.

It can be danced alone (especially by women) or by men and women together.

Although male dancers may flirt with female dancers during the dance, they do not use the vacunao -- the symbolic, sexual "vaccination" -- used in rumba guaguanco.


Guaguanco is faster than yambu, with more complex rhythms, and involves flirtatious movements between a man and a woman.

The woman may both entice and "protect herself" from the man, who tries to catch the woman off-guard with a vacunao -- tagging her with the flip of a handkerchief or by throwing his arm, leg or pelvis in the direction of the woman, in a symbolic attempt at touching or sexually contacting her.

When a man attempts to give a woman a vacunao, she uses her skirt to protect her pelvis and then whip the sexual energy away from her body.



In this fast and energetic style of rumba, with a 6/8 feel, solo male dancers provoke the drummers to play complex rhythms that they imitate through their creative and sometimes acrobatic movements.

Men may also compete with other men to display their agility, strength, confidence and even sense of humour.

Columbia incorporates many movements derived from Congo dances as well as Spanish flamenco, and more recently dancers have incorporated breakdancing and hip hop moves, women are also beginning to dance Columbia, too.

Compiled by Carlton Thomas


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