Music of African heritage in Cuba

  (Redirected from Afro-Cuban music)

Music of African heritage in Cuba derives from the musical traditions of the many ethnic groups from different parts of West Africa that were brought to Cuba as slaves between the 16th and 19th centuries. Members of some of these groups formed their own ethnic associations or cabildos, in which cultural traditions were conserved, including musical ones.

Much of this music is associated with traditional African religion – Lucumi, Palo, and others – and preserves the languages formerly used in the African homelands. The music is passed on by oral tradition and is often performed in private gatherings difficult for outsiders to access. Lacking melodic instruments, the music instead features polyrhythmic percussion, voice (call-and-response), and dance. African styles have been brought into some mainstream Cuban music.

Origins of Cuban African groupsEdit

Rumba drummers

Clearly, the origin of African groups in Cuba is due to the island's long history of slavery. Compared to the USA, slavery started in Cuba much earlier and continued for decades afterwards. Cuba was the last country in the Americas to abolish the importation of slaves, and the second last to free the slaves. In 1807 the British Parliament outlawed slavery, and from then on the British Navy acted to intercept Portuguese and Spanish slave ships. By 1860 the trade with Cuba was almost extinguished; the last slave ship to Cuba was in 1873. The abolition of slavery was announced by the Spanish Crown in 1880, and put into effect in 1886. Two years later, Brazil abolished slavery.[1]

Although the exact number of slaves from each African culture will never be known, most came from one of these groups, which are listed in rough order of their cultural impact in Cuba:

  1. The Congolese from the Congo basin and SW Africa. Many ethnic groups were involved, all called Congos in Cuba. Their religion is called Palo. Probably the most numerous group, with a huge influence on Cuban music.
  2. The Oyó or Yoruba from modern Nigeria, known in Cuba as Lucumí. Their religion is known as Regla de Ocha (roughly, 'the way of the spirits') and its syncretic version known as Santería. Culturally of great significance.
  3. The Kalabars from the South eastern part of Nigeria and also in some part of Cameroon, whom were taken from the Bight of Biafra. These sub Igbo and Ijaw groups are known in Cuba as Carabali,[2] and their religious organization as Abakuá. The street name for them in Cuba was Ñáñigos.
  4. The Dahomey, from Benin. They were the Fon, known as Arará in Cuba. The Dahomeys were a powerful group who practised human sacrifice and slavery long before Europeans arrived, and allegedly even more so during the Atlantic slave trade.[3]p100 [4][5]
  5. Haitian immigrants to Cuba arrived at various times up to the present day. Leaving aside the French, who also came, the Africans from Haiti were a mixture of groups who usually spoke creolized French: and religion was known as vodú.
  6. From part of modern Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire came the Gangá.
  7. Senegambian people (Senegal, the Gambia), but including many brought from Sudan by the Arab slavers, were known by a catch-all word: Mandinga. The famous musical phrase Kikiribu Mandinga! refers to them.

Subsequent organizationEdit

The roots of most Afro-Cuban musical forms lie in the cabildos, self-organized social clubs for the African slaves, separate cabildos for separate cultures. The cabildos were formed mainly from four groups: the Yoruba (the Lucumi in Cuba); the Congolese (Palo in Cuba); Dahomey (the Fon or Arará). Other cultures were undoubtedly present, more even than listed above, but in smaller numbers, and they did not leave such a distinctive presence.

Cabildos preserved African cultural traditions, even after the abolition of slavery in 1886. At the same time, African religions were transmitted from generation to generation throughout Cuba, Haiti, other islands and Brazil. These religions, which had a similar but not identical structure, were known as Lucumi or Regla de Ocha if they derived from the Yoruba, Palo from Central Africa, Vodú from Haiti, and so on. The term Santería was first introduced to account for the way African spirits were joined to Catholic saints, especially by people who were both baptized and initiated, and so were genuinely members of both groups. Outsiders picked up the word and have tended to use it somewhat indiscriminately. It has become a kind of catch-all word, rather like salsa in music.[6]

The ñáñigos in Cuba or Carabali[2] in their secret Abakuá societies, were one of the most terrifying groups; even other blacks were afraid of them:

Girl, don't tell me about the ñáñigos! They were bad. The carabali was evil down to his guts. And the ñáñigos from back in the day when I was a chick, weren't like the ones today... they kept their secret, like in Africa.[7][8]

African sacred music in CubaEdit

All these African cultures had musical traditions, which survive erratically to the present day, not always in detail, but in general style. The best preserved are the African polytheistic religions, where, in Cuba at least, the instruments, the language, the chants, the dances and their interpretations are quite well preserved. In few or no other American countries are the religious ceremonies conducted in the old language(s) of Africa, as they are at least in Lucumí ceremonies, though of course, back in Africa the language has moved on. What unifies all genuine forms of African music is the unity of polyrhythmic percussion, voice (call-and-response) and dance in well-defined social settings, and the absence of melodic instruments of an Arabic or European kind.

Not until after the Second World War do we find detailed printed descriptions or recordings of African sacred music in Cuba. Inside the cults, music, song, dance and ceremony were (and still are) learnt by heart by means of demonstration, including such ceremonial procedures conducted in an African language. The experiences were private to the initiated, until the work of the ethnologist Fernando Ortíz, who devoted a large part of his life to investigating the influence of African culture in Cuba. The first detailed transcription of percussion, song and chants are to be found in his great works.[9][10]

There are now many recordings offering a selection of pieces in praise of, or prayers to, the orishas. Much of the ceremonial procedures are still hidden from the eyes of outsiders, though some descriptions in words exist.

Yoruba and Congolese ritualsEdit

Religious traditions of African origin have survived in Cuba, and are the basis of ritual music, song and dance quite distinct from the secular music and dance. The religion of Yoruban origin is known as Lucumí or Regla de Ocha; the religion of Congolese origin is known as Palo, as in palos del monte.[11] There are also, in the Oriente region, forms of Haitian ritual together with its own instruments and music.

In Lucumi ceremonies, consecrated batá drums are played at ceremonies, and gourd ensembles called abwe. In the 1950s, a collection of Havana-area batá drummers called Santero helped bring Lucumí styles into mainstream Cuban music, while artists like Mezcla, with the lucumí singer Lázaro Ros, melded the style with other forms, including zouk.

The Congo cabildo uses yuka drums, as well as gallos (a form of song contest), makuta and mani dances. The latter is related to the Brazilian martial dance capoeira.


  1. ^ Detailed references in Thomas, Hugh 1971. Cuba, or the pursuit of freedom. Eyre & Spottiswoode, London; Thomas, Hugh 1997. The slave trade: the history of the Atlantic slave trade 1440-1870. Picador, London; Sublette, Ned 2004. Cuba and its music: from the first drums to the mambo Chicago. part III AfroCuba, p157 et seq.
  2. ^ a b A corruption[further explanation needed] of the correct term: the Kalabari
  3. ^ Sublette, Ned 2004. Cuba and its music: from the first drums to the mambo. Chicago.
  4. ^ Law, Robin 1985. Human sacrifice in pre-colonial West Africa. African Affairs 84, 334.
  5. ^ Law, Robin 1991. The slave coast of West Africa 1550–1750: the impact of the Atlantic slave trade on an African society. Oxford.
  6. ^ Sublette, Ned 2004. Cuba and its music: from the first drums to the mambo. Chicago.
  7. ^ as told by an 80-year-old black woman to Lydia Cabrera, 1958. La sociedád secreta Abakuá. Colección del Chicerekú, La Habana. p42
  8. ^ For an extended account in English see Sublette, Ned 2004. Cuba and its music: from the first drums to the mambo. Chicago. Chapter 14 A secret language, for men only, p190 et seq.
  9. ^ Ortiz, Fernando 1950. La Africania de la musica folklorica de Cuba. La Habana, revised ed 1965.
  10. ^ Ortiz, Fernando 1951. Los bailes y el teatro de los negros en el folklore de Cuba. Letras Cubanas, La Habana. Continuation of the previous book.
  11. ^ Palo is a word derived from the Ki-Kongo mpali, meaning witchcraft. Orovio, Helio 2004. Cuban music from A to Z. p159