Cuba: The cradle of Latin-American music

By Kevin Lizarazo

Cuban society, with its free healthcare and education, has something else to boast about as well, although it is something that has been around since before the Revolution: the Son Cubano style of music.

In fact, some artists in Havana claim that son (pronounced sohn), which began sometime at the end of the 19th century, is also the genre that spawned what is now known as Latin-American music.

“Son is first – it’s Cuban,” said Dagoberto Lopez Rodriguez, a vocalist who performs with Los Cinco del Son. The band is one of many that are paid by the state to perform throughout the city.

Lopez Rodriguez said that even salsa music has its roots in son

“Salsa is the result of son music elements being diluted and mixed over time with other son derivatives like cha-cha-cha,” he said.

These derivations – cha-cha-cha, guaracha, or rumba, for example – are all touched upon by salsa music.

Other artists feel differently. Jose Pablo, who performs with Carrasco y su Cubanilla, for example, says that they are one and the same.

“Salsa is the modern name for son,” Pablo said. “People keep making the same music with variety but the basic elements of son are still the same.”

Pablo emphasized that son lived on through the generations as the backbone of Latin-American music.

“Salsa and son is the same thing. Famous salsa artists are actually just soneros,” he said.

The soneros, easily found within bars and eateries in Old Havana, are salaried employees of the state.

“We have to go through an entire auditioning process and we must have a musical repertoire,” Pablo said of the hiring process. “If we are approved, we are then contracted to work at various locations throughout the country,” he said – “or we are given salaries.” Their salary varies depending on which category they are rated into during auditioning.

According to Lopez Rodriguez, his entire band shares 280 Cuban pesos per month, often depending on disc sales and tips to increase profit.

Pablo makes anywhere between 300 and 400 pesos per month, depending on his contract and sales.

For amateur musicians, the pay is even worse.

“Sometimes I make 6 Convertible pesos, sometimes I make 10,” said Rodovaldo Suarez, referring to the alternate Cuban unit of currency. “I have bad days, and I have good days,” he said.

Suarez, who plays and sings by himself just outside of La Bodeguita Del Medio – the famous bar that Ernest Hemingway frequented — does not play solely for money.

“Music is everything to me. It is like the air that we breathe,” he said.

Suarez has been singing since he was first able to talk, and his influences include traditional Mexican music as well as music from “el campo” – or the countryside – of Cuba.

Suarez, only 34 years old, learned the art by himself. Pablo and Lopez Rodriguez went to school for singing, and both consider the profession as a form of family heritage.

Some artists have taken their music overseas, as well.

“I’ve played at the Polynesian in Dubai,” Pablo said with pride. He has also performed in Turkey, Canada, and Italy.

Suarez has also played in Italy, and once traveled to France to play in concert halls, spreading the Cuban sound.

It is a sound that like most music from Latin-American country-sides, contain political and societal messages.

Luis Rodriguez, an amateur musician found roaming the streets of Old Havana, said that old traditional Cuban songs were mainly about liberation, and they had an effect during the Revolution.

Rodriguez strongly emphasized his belief in music as a cultural driver in Cuba.

“You have the traditional Cuban music, and artists like Compay Segundo, Los Trio Matamoros, Polo Montanez – all that performed across different generations – and with these artists still being emulated each and every day, the traditional cultural will continue to be created,” he said.

Still, whether professional or amateur, for profit or for art, the artists have one thing in common: they seek fame.

“I have two objectives,” Suarez said. “One, to make a living, as I can only sing and play. Two, that someone takes an interest in me and wants to collaborate with me or give me a contract,” he added.

As a tourist walked by and dropped a convertible peso into his basket, Suarez thanked the passerby and repeated himself:

“I’m just here waiting for something better.”