One country more than any other in Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean has had the biggest impact on popular music and dance worldwide, and that country is the island of Cuba! This small nation has produced countless musical styles, rhythms and dances since the first quarter of the twentieth century, including rumba, guaguanco, son, guajira, changuii, danzón, guaracha, conga, charanga, mambo, cha-cha-cha, pilón, pa'ca, mozambique, songo and timba – an endless list that has enriched Latin music globally, particularly through the spread of salsa, the New York Latin music and dance style with Cuban roots.
Two different cultures would influence the development of island's music: Spanish and West African. The Spanish transported thousands of slaves from West Africa to work the Cuban plantations and crop fields. Out of this dark period of history, a new Afro-Cuban culture developed. The Spanish rulers and their African slaves lived side by side, socially and economically worlds apart but interacting culturally, particularly through music and dance. The Spanish brought with them their folk music (including flamenco, with its trademark acoustic guitars), the décima style of poetry (a ten-line form which would become the basis of Cuban guajira), and European classical music and instrumentation (pianos, violins, cellos, double bass, brass, tuned percussion). The slaves retained their drums and hand percussion instruments (gourds, thumb pianos, shakers, etc), alongside intricate rhythms, songs and dances. These African elements were often united together in religious music and dance performed by cults from the Yoruba religion of Nigeria and Congo and dedicated to the gods of their lost homeland.
As more slaves were converted to Catholicism, they gave their African gods Christian saints' names. This parallel religion became known as Santería and, along with slaves being allowed to keep their drums, it played an important part in maintaining cultural ties to the original homeland. At various times in Cuban history drums were banned so slaves quickly mastered the instruments of their rulers – guitars, trumpets, violins, pianos – transferring the rhythmic pulse of the conga drums on to these melodic instruments. This was how the first true Afro-Cuban musical style – the son – would evolve.
Son emerged in the eastern part of Cuba in the province of Oriente at the end of the nineteenth century. It had a 2/4 rhythm and the instrumentation was guitar, tres (the Cuban three-stringed guitar), bongos, marimbula (a bass instrument like the African thumb piano – later replaced by double bass), claves and maracas, plus vocalists. Loved by the working classes, banned for its raunchy lyrics by the ruling classes, son would eventually become the most popular music on the island. Son was and still is the heartbeat of Cuban music and many son musicians from the pre-Revolutionary era would find fame in the mid-1990s, late in life, as the Buena Vista Social Club.