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Son Cubano - A brief look through the eye of a Dancer

Updated: Mar 6

Son ~ Brief History

Son known as the ‘The Father of Salsa’ is derived from Cuba’s African and Spanish roots, Son means ‘sound’, but it’s easiest to think of it as simply the basic, elemental ‘song’. Son played the function of telling the news of the countryside, and is the first truly homegrown Afro-Cuban musical style.

The Son originated in the Eastern region of Cuba, known as the Oriente Provence, among the country folk. This was probably due to the influence of the freed African slaves that arrived shortly after their emancipation from the French in "Hispañola" (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic.) It was around this time that several other instruments also appeared.

Around 1917 when the "Danzon" was the most popular national dance in Cuba, a new musical style known as the Cuban Son appeared in Havana. The Son was accepted with such enthusiasm that soon it became very popular without taking anything away from the "Danzon".

The "Danzon", which had been the national dance of Cuba since 1879, could be found everywhere from the popular dance halls to upper class social clubs. The Son had the same elements as the "Danzon" but was different in its form. It is due to the Son that the African instruments came to light to animate the orchestras that were prevalent and typical at the time in Havana.

Son ~ The Dance

Son the dance starts with the formal, closed embrace of the man and woman. The couple maintain 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.

Son ~ The Instruments

The early son orchestra was a trio composed of claves, a percussive set of wood sticks; maracas, a percussive set of shakers, and a guitar.

By 1925, son orchestras had expanded to include a tres, which is a type of six-string guitar modelled from a Spanish acoustic guitar, and bongo drums. The basic son evolved to become two vocalists, one playing claves, the other playing maracas, a tres, bongos, a guiro and a bass (botija and marimbula).

By the 1930s, many bands had incorporated a trumpet, becoming septetos, and in the 1940s a larger type of ensemble featuring congas and piano became the norm, then known as a conjunto.

Son ~ The Rhythm

Son – The Father of Salsa beats per minutes (BPM) is usually between 75-95 bpm, this rhythm forms the basis of most salsa songs.

In Son timing “ contratiempo”, means that no step is taken on the first and fifth beats in each clave pattern and the fourth and eighth beat are emphasised. In this way, rather than following a beat, the dancers themselves contribute in their movement, to the polyrythmic pattern of the music.

The early son orchestra was a trio composed of claves, maracas and guitar. By 1925, son orchestras had expanded to include tres and bongos. With a call-and-response pattern based on African tradition, the basic son became two vocalists – one playing claves, the other maracas, a tres, bongo, guiro and bass.

Son ~ The Movement

Son comes from Santiago, in the east of Cuba and was brought to Havana in around 1917, where it rapidly caught on as a popular music and dance style. Important son bands of this era were Sexteto Habanero and Septeto Nacional.

Cuban music goes to Broadway: One of the most enduring son songs, “El Manicero” (The Peanut Vendor) was written by a young Havana pianist, Moises Simon. In 1931 bandleader Don Azpiazu brought the song to Broadway, rearranged into a “rhumba” to suit American tastes. It was this song that started the global craze for Latin music.

In the 1940′s, there was a rise in the popularity of son music, spearheaded by the Cuban tres player Arsenio Rodriguez. He expanded line-up of musicians from single trumpet, tres Cuban guitar, bass, bongo, maracas to include extra trumpets, congas and piano. This laid the foundation for the salsa explosion that was to come.

Son ~ The Musicians


In 1917, the Cuarteto Oriental recorded the first son documented on the catalog of Columbia Records which was entered as "Pare motorista-son santiaguero". Unexpectedly, a fifth member of the quartet is mentioned, Carlos Godínez, who was a soldier in the standing army (Ejército Permanente). Subsequently, the RCA Victor contracted Godínez in 1918 to organise a group and record several songs. For that recording, the new group was called "Sexteto Habanero Godínez", which included: Carlos Godínez (conductor and tresero), María Teresa Vera (first voice and clave), Manuel Corona (second voice and guitar), Sinsonte (third voice and maracas), Alfredo Boloña (bongo), and another unknown performer who was not included in the list.

In 1920, the Cuarteto Oriental became a sextet and was renamed as Sexteto Habanero. This group established the "classical" configuration of the son sextet composed of guitar, tres, bongos, claves, maracas and double bass. The sextet members were: Guillermo Castillo (conductor, guitar and second voice), Gerardo Martínez (first voice), Felipe Neri Cabrera (maracas and backing vocals), Ricardo Martínez (tres), Joaquín Velazco (bongos), and Antonio Bacallao (botija). Abelardo Barroso, one of the most famous soneros, joined the group in 1925.


Popularisation began in earnest with the arrival of radio broadcasting in 1922, which came at the same time as Havana's reputation as an attraction for Americans evading Prohibition laws. The city became a haven for the Mafia, gambling and prostitution in Cuba, and also became a second home for trendy and influential bands from New York City. The son experienced a period of transformation from 1925 to 1928, when it evolved from a marginal genre of music to perhaps the most popular type of music in Cuba.

A turning point that made this transformation possible occurred when then-president Machado publicly asked La Sonora Matancera to perform at his birthday party. In addition, the acceptance of son as a popular music genre in other countries contributed to more acceptance of son in mainstream Cuba. At that time many sextets were founded such as Boloña, Agabama, Botón de Rosa and the famous Sexteto Occidente conducted by María Teresa Vera.


A few years later, in the late 1920s, son sextets became septets and son's popularity continued to grow with artists like Septeto Nacional and its leader Ignacio Piñeiro ("Echale salsita", "Donde estabas anoche"). In 1928, Rita Montaner's "El Manicero" became the first Cuban song to be a major hit in Paris and elsewhere in Europe. In 1930, Don Azpiazu's Havana Casino Orchestra took the song to the United States, where it also became a big hit.

The instrumentation was expanded to include cornets or trumpets, forming the sextets and the septets of the 1920s. Later these conjuntos added piano, other percussion instruments, more trumpets, and even dance orchestra instruments in the style of jazz big bands.


Arsenio Rodriguez – godfather of Son Montuno, root of salsa

Cuban musician, composer and bandleader, Arsenio Rodriguez was born in Güira de Macurijes, Matanzas 30 August 1911, died 30 December 1970.

He played tres (type of guitar) and specialised in son, rumba and AfroCuban music styles. Blind from the age of 7 he became one of Cuba’s top tres players. In the 1940s and 1950s he developed performing son in the conjunto (big band) format (he formed the first conjunto in 1940) and contributed to the development of the son montuno which is the basis for modern salsa.

Almost all scholars and fans highlight Arsenio’s impact on the big band as the ideal format in playing son, in the hatching of mambo or in the birth of salsa. However, there are few who remember that in the last concert offered by Ignacio de Loyola Rodríguez Scull, – Arsenio’s true name – in New York’s Central Park, he released a new rhythm that he called quindembo, in which he used, in addition to the instruments of his old ensemble, the yuka drums, and the texts of the pieces performed were in the Congo language.

Quindembo according to Fernando Ortiz was an “Afro-Cuban dance brought by the Congolese. It is danced to the sound of three drums called: yucca, mule and box.”

Among the songs written as Quindembo pieces by the “Ciego Maravilloso”, as Rodriguez was known, are ‘Alabanciosa’, ‘Baila simbalé’, ‘Canto abakuá’, ‘Compay cimarrón’, ‘Youth dance changüí’, ‘Mona, ‘Oración lucumí’, ‘Hot Quindembo’, ‘Torongombe already fell’ and ‘Yimbila’. The composer often took his themes from Afro-Cuban liturgies or prayers.

The grandson of Congo slaves, Arsenio was particularly exposed as a child to musical traditions of African descent, such as the rumba or the rhythms of Santeria and Palo Monte (both syncretic religions). These two elements – the African and the Cuban – coexisted in his identity in a differentiated way.

David F. García, professor of music at the University of North Carolina, in ‘Arsenio Rodríguez and the Transnational Flows of Latin Popular Music’, affirms that the racial and national identity of Arsenio appeared “… marked by a double commitment towards his African heritage, on the one hand, and towards his Cuban heritage, on the other”.

In Arsenio’s son compositions the reference is broad: “Dame un cachito pa’huelé”, “Ñañaseré”, “I remember lucumí”, “Tumba palo cucuyé”, “Vacuno”, “Yo soy kangá” and “Yo soy Makuá”.

One of the most hermetic songs due to its language, but at the same time the one Arsenio is best known for composing is ‘Bruca Manigua’ (1937). In the lyrics of this son, a highly Spanish style is combined with whole phrases in the Congo language.

Although the first line declares: “I am Carabalí, black flower”, the theme is not Abakuá, but Congo.

The song consists of the lament and the denunciation by a slave directed against the mundele (the white masters) that “… it fits with my heart / both matratá, cueppo va fuirí”. The words accompanying numerous Congolese rites are then chanted: “…abre kutawirindinga” (open your ears and listen to what I say). There is a verse in it that reads: “E’tánkangando a lo mundele / bruca manigua …”

In 1969, Rodriguez was invited as a Latino representative to the prestigious “Festival Of American Folklife” in Washington. The idea of the organizers was “… to celebrate black music, through the languages of the New World”, bringing together groups that sang in English, French and Spanish. But, Arsenio surprised Bernice Johnson Reagon, the organizer, indicating that his music was sung in African dialects and not in Spanish.

Towards the ending of his musical career, he created a style he called ‘swing son’. His last album was released in 1968.

Arsenio passed away in 1970 in Los Angeles. As a musician, composer, performer and musical experimenter, Arsenio is regarded as one of the giants of Cuban music. He went on to influence many Cuban musicians that came after him, while also influencing American musicians.


She started her career as a singer in 1911 in a theater where she sang the criolla Mercedes of Manuel Corona. Her first guitar teacher was the cigar-roller José Díaz. Manuel Corona continued her musical education by explaining such things as the different methods for first and second guitar, and eventually taught her his compositions.

She formed a duo with Rafael Zequeira from 1916 until 1924 when he fell ill and died. They made over a hundred recordings together in New York, most of which have not survived. Then she met Carlos Godinez, a composer, who taught her more about the guitar; the friendship lasted until his death in 1950.

She then formed the Sexteto Occidente in 1925 with Miguel García as first voice, clavé and Director (because he knew most about music), Ignacio Piñeiro on double bass, Julio Torres Biart on tres, Manuel Reinoso on bongo and Francisco Sánchez on maracas. They were a group of talented musicians who would have sparkling careers.

She joined Lorenzo Hierrezuelo as a duet in 1935, and this duet lasted for 27 years. For much of this time Hierrezuelo ran his duo with Vera alongside his partnership with Company Segundo (Francisco Repilado), as the duo Los Compadres.

One of her best compositions, the habanera Veinte años, has been performed by a number of Cuban artists; Sólo pienso en ti, a boleroson, is also well-known. In 1945 she was contracted to Circuito CMQ for the radio program Cosas de Ayer. In the 1950s, she appeared in the TV program El Casino de la Alegría and in the 1960s she received public tributes on her retirement in 1962.


Ignacio Piñeiro Martínez (May 21, 1888 – March 12, 1969) was a Cuban musician, bandleader and composer whose career started in rumba and flowered in the rise of the son.

He was one of the most important composers of son music; in total he wrote about 327 numbers, mostly sones. Piñeiro was a brilliant rumbero who worked with musical groups from 1903 onwards. In 1906, was a member of the Timbre de Oro coro de clave y guaguancó (a vocal group precursor of contemporary guaguancó), and later directed Los Roncos, another famous coro de guaguancó.

He was taught the double bass by María Teresa Vera, and in 1926 he was a member of her band, Sexteto Occidente, which recorded in New York City. In 1927 he founded the Sexteto Nacional de Ignacio Piñeiro, later simply known as Sexteto Nacional, in which he was the director and songwriter. With the addition of a trumpet the band became the Septeto Nacional.

For financial reasons, Piñeiro quit the group in 1935; it was then led by trumpet player Lázaro Herrera until the group disbanded in 1937. Piñeiro became for some years the leader and principal songwriter of Los Roncos. The Septeto Nacional was recreated several times from 1954 onwards, initially under Piñeiro's direction, and it continues to perform.

Piñeiro's composition "Échale salsita", written on a train to Chicago in 1930, influenced George Gershwin's Cuban Overture. The two met when Gershwin visited Cuba in February 1932. Many of Piñeiro's songs have been performed by other artists like Ray Barretto ("Don Lengua") and René Álvarez ("A la lae la la"). In 1999, Piñeiro was posthumously inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame


Rita Aurelia Fulcida Montaner y Facenda (20 August 1900 – 17 April 1958), known as Rita Montaner, was a Cuban singer, pianist and actress.

In Cuban parlance, she was a vedette (a star), and was well known in Mexico City, Paris, Miami and New York, where she performed, filmed and recorded on numerous occasions. She was one of Cuba's most popular artists between the late 1920s and 1950s, renowned as Rita de Cuba.

Though classically trained as a soprano for zarzuelas, her mark was made as a singer of Afro-Cuban salon songs including "The Peanut Vendor" and "Siboney".

The score and lyrics of "El manisero" were by Moises Simons (1889–1945), the Cuban son of a Spanish musician. It sold over a million copies of sheet music for E.B. Marks Inc., and this netted $100,000 in royalties for Simons by 1943. Its success led to a 'rumba craze' in the US and Europe which lasted through the 1940s. The consequences of the Peanut Vendor's success were quite far-reaching.

The number was first sung and recorded by the vedette Rita Montaner in 1927 or 1928 for Columbia Records. The biggest record sales for "El manisero" came from the recording made by Don Azpiazú and his Havana Casino Orchestra in New York in 1930 for RCA Victor. The band included a number of star musicians such as Julio Cueva (trumpet) and Mario Bauza (saxophone); Antonio Machín was the singer.

There seems to be no authoritative account of the number of 78 rpm records of this recording sold by Victor; but it seems likely that the number would have exceeded the sheet music sales, making it the first million-selling record of Cuban (or even Latin) music.

The Peanut Vendor song Link:

The Peanut Vendor song Link:


Bartolomé Maximiliano Moré (24 August 1919 – 19 February 1963), better known as Benny Moré (also spelled Beny Moré). Beny Moré is the greatest singer of popular music Cuba has ever produced, think Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole and you'll get an idea of how he's perceived in Cuba, and how he should be regarded elsewhere. In the nearly half century since his death, no Cuban vocalist has emerged to fill his shoes, and he remains as close as ever to the hearts of the Cuban people.

Few singers in this hemisphere have consistently matched his interpretive gifts, vocal virtuosity, and comfort with a range of styles.

Moré's genius lay in his synthesis of two of the major currents of Cuban song -- Afro-Cuban son and the Spanish-derived guajiro music of the Cuban countryside. He owed at least some of his singing style to a series of soneros who preceded him: Antonio Machin, Miguelito Valdes, and Orlando "Cascarita" Guerra.

Moré's intimacy with both the African and European elements in Cuban music allowed him to be comfortable in all different styles. He was equally successful with boleros as with mambos and rhumbas. Most important is what he conveyed with his singing: a tenderness and direct emotional appeal in his boleros, a hip-shaking exuberance in his mambos.

Though he could not read music, Moré composed two of his smash hits, "Bonito y Sabroso" and "Que Bueno Baila Usted." He also doubled as a bandleader and assembled a powerful big band comprised of talented musicians like trumpeters Alejandro "El Negro" Vivar and Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros, and trombonist and arranger Generoso "El Tojo" Jimenez.

His was the quintessential Afro-Cuban big-band sound of the 1950s: brash, multi-textured, dynamic. But unlike New York bands like Machito & His Afro-Cubans, Moré was not pushing the boundaries of Latin jazz. His music was more "pop" than Machito's, but it was anything but formulaic.

Born Bartolome Maximiliano Moré in 1919 in the village of Santa Isabel de Las Lajas in Las Villas Province, Cuba, Moré left for Havana as a teenager and for several years worked a variety of odd jobs while performing as a street singer in the city's port area.

His big break came in 1945, when he accompanied the Miguel Matamoros conjunto to Mexico. In the late '40s, Mexico City was a magnet for Cuban entertainers seeking to make it big in the Mexican film industry.

After touring Mexico, Matamoros returned to Cuba, but Moré decided to stay behind. Before leaving, Matamoros counseled Moré to change his name since "bartolo" meant donkey in Mexican slang. Rechristened Beny Moré, in a year or two he was discovered by Mario Rivera Conde, the director of RCA Victor Mexico, who paired him with a series of high-caliber orchestras, including those of Perez Prado and Mexican composer Raphael De Paz.

Moré's early recordings in Mexico include a balance of uptempo tunes and ballads; this proportion changed in favor of ballads when he finally fronted his own band. What's striking about the early sessions is the consistent quality and tastefulness of the orchestral accompaniment.

Moré sings with five different orchestras on these sessions, yet there are few jarring contrasts. The Perez Prado orchestra is an exception to this rule; Prado's flailing piano style and trademark grunts jar in a marvelous, amphetamine-driven way.

Rivera Conde's pairing of Prado and Moré was a masterstroke and produced some of the most high-energy recordings of Moré's career. Moré sang some of his most memorable songs while on his Mexican sojourn -- "Bonito y Sabroso," "San Fernando," "Donde Estabas Tu" -- with the Raphael De Paz Orchestra.

But perhaps Moré's best-known song, the bolero "Como Fue," was recorded with neither Prado nor De Paz, but with the orchestra of Ernesto Duarte. "Como Fue" was included in the soundtrack of the film Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, where it added authenticity to an otherwise watery collection of Latin music.

Moré returned to Cuba in 1953 and assembled his own big band, with whom he crisscrossed Cuba until his death. Moré was intensely loyal to his musicians, referring to them as his tribu (tribe). Because he always insisted on having a large band, he was known to have gone out of pocket on his RCA recordings to pay his men. They responded by embellishing his songs with subtle, ornate orchestral playing.

While Moré continued to record uptempo smash hits such as "Francisco Guayabal" and "Que Bueno Baila Usted," he focused on boleros, a natural showcase for his vocal and interpretive gifts. Moré had a signature vocal technique, a sort of glissando, that he used everywhere in varying forms.

Typically, he would hold a note, then slide up the scale to a higher note and hold it there for a few seconds. It's an impressive, exciting device, and he uses it to build drama on boleros like "Tu Me Sabes Comprender" and "No Puedo Callar." A less frequently used but equally distinctive technique was Moré's seagull squawk, which he includes at the finale of the uptempo "Soy Campesino."

It is unfortunate that Moré never brought his outstanding band to record or perform in the United States, even though he was active during one of the rare moments in U.S. pop music history when authentic Cuban music was in demand. Moré decided to stay in Cuba after the Revolution, but he didn't live long, a victim of his love for rum.

All rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, Beny Moré finally succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver on February 19, 1963, in Havana. Moré's recorded output was relatively small, cut short as it was by his premature death. In 1992, BMG Music released the majority of Moré's 1948-1958 recordings for RCA Victor on five CDs for its Tropical Series.

Moré never recorded for anyone other than RCA, so all his hits are here. Nevertheless, his earliest recordings with the Miguel Matamoros conjunto are missing, and only some of his songs with the Perez Prado orchestra are included.

From a technical standpoint, the discs are terrific (they sound as if they were made yesterday), but three of the five albums have no liner notes to speak of and information about session dates and personnel is either very sketchy or nonexistent, which is shabby treatment indeed for an artist of Beny Moré's stature.

Moré's great legacy, though, is clear on the recordings themselves: a voice that can evoke memories of lost romance, or make you dance with joyous abandon.

Artist Biography by Spencer Harrington.


Carlos Embale (Havana, August 3, 1923 - Havana, March 12, 1997) was a popular Cuban singer. With an acute voice and a broad record, he dominated the performance of various dance genres of West Indian music such as bolero, son, guaracha and, above all, rumba. He is considered one of the greatest performers of this rhythm.



Embale was born in Havana, in the populous neighborhood of Jesús María. In the late 1930s, he debuted in the world of entertainment with his performance in The Supreme Court of Art, popular amateur radio program. The acceptance gained in the supreme court, immediately placed it like a quoted interpreter of the orchestras and groups of fashion at the time.

He was vocalist of Sexteto Bologna and the Orchestra "Melodies of the 40", set that also accompanies the picturesque Trespatines. He was an integral part of the Matamoros Ensemble of Miguel Matamoros and in the 70s he joined the legendary Septeto Nacional by Ignacio Piñeiro. He collaborated with Beny Moré, Mongo Santamaría, Compay Segundo and with the set of rumbas of Alberto Zayas "the melodious".

An element to highlight in his career as a singer is his interpretations of sacred music with black roots (Yoruba and Abakuá) as well as his unique ability to interpret rumba.


Francisco Repilado Muñoz Telles (18 November 1907 – 13 July 2003), known professionally as "Compay Segundo", was a Cuban trova guitarist, singer and composer.

Compay (meaning compadre) Segundo, so called because he was always second voice in his musical partnerships, was born in Siboney, Cuba, and moved to Santiago de Cuba at the age of nine. His first engagement was in the Municipal Band of Santiago de Cuba, directed by his teacher, Enrique Bueno.

In 1934, after a spell in a quintet, he moved to Havana, where he also played the clarinet in the Municipal Band. He also learned to play the guitar and the tres, which became his usual instruments. Compay Segundo also invented the armónico, a seven-stringed guitar-like instrument, to fill the harmonic jump between the Spanish guitar and the tres.

In the 1950s he became well known as the second voice and tres player in Los Compadres, a duo he formed with Lorenzo Hierrezuelo in 1947. Los Compadres were one of the most successful Cuban duos of their time. Greater international fame came later, in 1997, with the release of the Buena Vista Social Club album, a hugely successful recording which won several Grammy awards. Compay Segundo appeared in the Wim Wenders film of the same title.

Segundo's most famous composition is "Chan Chan", the opening track on the Buena Vista Social Club album, a four-chord son cubano song. "Chan Chan" was recorded by Segundo himself various times as well as by countless other Latin artists. Other compositions are "Sarandonga", "La calabaza", "Hey caramba", "Macusa", "Saludo Compay".

These are all sones, and this differentiates him from the more usual trova musicians, with their devotion to the bolero. However, it seems his interests went much further:

I have danzones, waltzes, sones. I have some beautiful danzones. Why? Because I've learned from those who know how to preserve the tradition of the music. I play music the way it was played in yesteryear. I started out playing the son corto (short son). As Miguel Matamoros used to say, "The son is short and sweet."... Back in the day, they'd start out playing son at seven in the evening, and they'd greet the dawn with it.

At a fiesta he sang to President Fidel Castro, who took his pulse and joked about his vitality despite his 90-plus years. "Who could have imagined that?" he asked when he found himself at the Vatican City, performing "Chan Chan" before Pope John Paul II. He explained his longevity simply: mutton consommé and a drink of rum.

He predicted that he would live to be 115, but died of kidney failure in Havana, 20 years short of his ambition. The tomb of Compay Segundo at the Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia in Santiago de Cuba. March 2014

In 2007, the 100th anniversary of Segundo's birth was celebrated with a concert of his compositions performed by a symphony orchestra in Havana with some of his musicians and sons.

Son ~ The Final Thoughts

Perhaps the most significant contribution of Son Cubano is its influence on present-day Latin music. Son is specifically considered to be the foundation on which salsa was created.

The sound of the son is alive today in its various incarnations, from traditional to modern. Son may be the basis of today’s salsa, although listening to them side by side, it may be difficult to recognise the familiar, lyrical Cuban form.

Where the first recordings were made in 1917, this marked the start of its expansion throughout the island, becoming Cuba's most popular and influential genre.

The international presence of the son can be traced back to the 1930s when many bands toured Europe and North America, leading to Ballroom adaptations of the genre such as the American rhumba.

The son sound is at the heart of Cuban music and culture; it is a quintessential Afro-Cuban musical form, referring both to a singing and dancing style, Son music is a great attraction to consider when visiting the island of Cuba. It is an asset that translates to economic progress. 

Complied by Carlton Thomas


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