In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cuba

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals

Music Cuba
Rebecca Bodenheimer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0184


This article treats folkloric and popular musics in Cuba; literature on classical music will be included in the article entitled “Classical Music in Cuba.” Music has long been a primary signifier of Cuban identity, both on and off the island. Among small nations, Cuba is almost unparalleled in its global musical reach, an influence that dates back to the international dissemination of the contradanza and habanera in the 19th century. The 1930s constituted a crucial decade of Cuban musical influence, as the world was introduced to the genre son (mislabeled internationally as “rumba”/”rhumba”) with the hit song “El Manicero.” In the 1990s Cuban music underwent yet another international renaissance, due to both the emergence of a neotraditional style of son related to the success of the Buena Vista Social Club project, and the crystallization of a new style of Cuban dance music called timba. Moreover, Afro-Cuban folkloric music has enjoyed increased visibility and attention, and has become a focal point of the tourism industry that the Castro regime began to expand as a response to the devastating economic crisis precipitated by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Research on Cuban music has a long and distinguished history that began in earnest in the late 1920s and 1930s with the publications of Cuba’s most celebrated scholar, Fernando Ortiz. Many of Ortiz’s students, such as musicologist Argeliers León and folklorist Miguel Barnet, went on to form the backbone of Cuban folklore research after the Revolution in 1959. Musicological research has been characterized primarily by ethnographic description, musical analysis, and the construction of taxonomies that separate genres into racialized categories that mirror the nationalist discourse, which recognizes two primary influences, the “African” and the “Spanish.” In addition, León divided Cuban popular music into five “generic complexes”—rumba, son, danzón, canción, and punto guajiro—a methodology that still holds much weight on the island. However, there have been recent critiques, such as Acosta 2004 (cited under Music after the Cuban Revolution) and Esquenazi Pérez 2001 (cited under Folkloric Traditions), of these oversimplified taxonomies, arguing that they rely too heavily on notions of racial difference and rigid categories that cannot account for cross-genre influence. In general, the influence of postmodern theory on music research has been limited because of the Marxist orientation of government-funded research and the relative isolation of Cuban scholars. Nonetheless, critical theory has had more of an impact since the 1990s because of the greater ease of travel for both foreign researchers to Cuba and Cuban researchers abroad. Foreign scholars, particularly from the United States, have published extensively on Cuban music, and correspondingly there is a large body of literature in English.

General Overviews

There is a relatively large body of literature providing general overviews of Cuban music, although some of these works are more narrowly defined, such as the anthology of essays on popular music found in Giro 1998. Grenet 1939 is an early overview of Cuban popular and folkloric music, translated into English. León 1984 is still considered to be a cornerstone of Cuban musicology with its division of traditions into folkloric and popular styles, as is Carpentier 2001, which takes a descriptive and chronological approach. Two works are written in English: Sublette 2004 is an extensive treatment of Cuban music from the beginning of the colonial period through the 1950s, and Manuel 1991 is an anthology of essays by North American and Cuban musicologists, with the writings of the latter translated into English. Two of the works, Díaz Ayala 2003 and Evora 1997, are written by Cuban exiles whose political opposition to the Revolution is apparent in their discussions of music after 1959.

  • Carpentier, Alejo. Music in Cuba. Edited and with an introduction by Timothy Brennan. Translated by Alan West-Durán. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

    Originally published in 1946 as La música en Cuba (Mexico, Fondo de Cultura Económica), this is arguably the first survey of Cuban music to be written, although it cannot be considered comprehensive, because of its focus on European-derived traditions. It is organized in chronological fashion and draws on both primary and secondary sources. The book’s main focus is on the music of the late-18th through the early-20th centuries, and there is relatively little treatment of popular traditions.

  • Díaz Ayala, Cristóbal. Música cubana: Del areyto al rap cubano. 4th ed. San Juan, PR: Fundación Musicalia, 2003.

    Comprehensive overview of Cuban music from the beginning of the colonial period to the present, with an emphasis on the development and evolution of popular and folkloric music, rather than classical music. Contains a wealth of information on the Cuban music industry and, as the scholar is a Cuban exile, also on Cuban musicians who defected after the Revolution.

  • Evora, Tony. Origenes de la música cubana: Los amores de las cuerdas y el tambor. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1997.

    Follows in the vein of Grenet 1939 and other sources in organizing and classifying popular and folkloric traditions in terms of racial spheres of influence. Draws heavily on previously published scholarship in Cuba, and the discourse is somewhat colored by an anti-Castro political orientation.

  • Giro, Radamés, ed. Panorama de la música popular cubana. 2d ed. Havana, Cuba: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1998.

    A very significant anthology of essays on both traditional and mass-mediated popular musics, most of which were published previously in Cuban journals and magazines. Includes works by many major Cuban musicologists, including Argeliers León, Emilio Grenet, Giro himself, and Leonardo Acosta.

  • Grenet, Emilio. Popular Cuban Music: 80 Revised and Corrected Compositions, Together with an Essay on the Evolution of Music in Cuba. Translated by R. Phillips. Havana, Cuba: Southern Music, 1939.

    One of the earliest surveys of the evolution of Cuban music, followed by transcriptions of songs from a variety of popular and folkloric genres. This work is the best example of a racial taxonomy of Cuban music, as Grenet categorizes all popular genres into three groups: “genres bordering on the Spanish, genres of equitable black and white influence, and genres bordering on the African” (p. 23, 30, 42).

  • León, Argeliers. Del canto y el tiempo. 2d ed. Havana, Cuba: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1984.

    A major work of Cuban musicology; provides a framework for the categorization of national popular genres into five “generic complexes”—rumba, son, danzón, canción, and punto guajiro—a methodology that is still hegemonic today. The book also offers a definition of folklore that is still in use, distinguishing between rural and urban traditions. A Marxist orientation is evident in the discussion of the relationship of music to class inequality.

  • Manuel, Peter, ed. Essays on Cuban Music: North American and Cuban Perspectives. Lanhan, MD: University Press of America, 1991.

    An anthology of essays on various aspects of Cuban music, written by North American and Cuban musicologists. Includes essays by Argeliers León, Martínez Furé, Leonardo Acosta, and Olavo Alén Rodríguez, all translated into English by Manuel and displaying the influence of Marxist analyses. One of the book’s major goals is to make post-Revolutionary Cuban music scholarship accessible to an English-reading audience.

  • Sublette, Ned. Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. Chicago: Chicago Review, 2004.

    Comprehensive overview of Cuban music, drawing on a large variety of sources, including periodicals, interviews, and secondary scholarly sources. The book is written in a vernacular, journalistic style that is meant to be accessible to the general public, and includes amusing and personal anecdotes about Cuban musicians. Weaves historical narratives into a discussion of the evolution of Cuban music.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.