This May 8 Cuba will celebrate its first national Day of Cuban Son. This special day, in homage to this music-dance form and the musical legacy of its great exponents, Miguel Matamoros and Miguelito Cuní, was announced by the Cuban Institute of Music in October 2020, and preparations were announced in March 2021.
Son, invented in Cuba, has been recognized by the Cuban government as part of Cuban intangible Heritage since 2012. This declaration of a national day adds to their case for its candidacy as Intangible World Cultural Heritage to be recognised by UNESCO.
The main promoter of this national day has been musical maestro Adalberto Álvarez. He said May 8 was chosen as it is the birthday of both legendary soneros Miguelito Cuní (born 1917)) and Miguel Matamoros (born 1894). Alvarez is himself is known as the ‘Caballero’ (‘Gentleman’ or ‘knight’) of Son.
The Cuban son is a danceable vocal and instrumental genre that constitutes one of the basic forms within Cuban music that fuses African musical elements with Spanish musical elements.
It was born in the easternmost region of Cuba, in places like Guantánamo, Baracoa, Manzanillo and Santiago de Cuba at the end of the 19th century, although there is some evidence of earlier exponents in Cuba.
The campaign aims to highlight the presence of the son in the fabric of the nation, part of ‘Cubanidad’ (Cubanness), and not only as an expression of great figures in music, but also as part of the roots of the people from the rural interior of the country.
There will be activities across social networks, digital platforms and on radio and television. Led by the Cuban Music Institute and with the input from Adalberto Álvarez, the initiative has the support of many other institutions and companies such as Artex, EGREM and the National Council of Casas de Cultura.
The campaign will look at how the genre has been updated by contemporary musicians, including its migration to other media such as what Digna Guerra has done taking the son to choir music, or the work of Frank Fernández inspired by the sonero piano of Lilí Martínez.
The prominent soundtrack of the campaign will be from the new album, Voces de Hoy, performed by Emilio “El Niño” Frías, with arrangements by Manolito Simonet, with special collaborators, Adalberto Álvarez and Pancho Amat.
The organisers stress this is not a day designed from the capital Havana and imposed on the interior of the country, but it is open to participation of all across the country, with total autonomy for regions to organize their own programming, and even with their own local talented son artists, under the same banner.
The records of the activities throughout the country, whether video footage, or the ideas and reflections on the vitality of the son, will boost the case for the son’s declaration as Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
What is Cuban Son?
Son cubano is a genre of music and dance that originated in the highlands of eastern Cuba during the late 19th century. It is a syncretic genre that blends elements of Spanish and African origin. Among its fundamental Hispanic components are the vocal style, lyrical metre and the primacy of the tres, derived from the Spanish guitar. On the other hand, its characteristic clave rhythm, call and response structure and percussion section (bongo, maracas, etc.) are all rooted in traditions of Bantu origin.
Around 1909 the son reached Havana, 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. While early groups had between three and five members, during the 1920s the sexteto (sextet) became the genre’s primary format. 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: the conjunto. Besides, the son became one of the main ingredients in the jam sessions known as descargas that flourished during the 1950s.
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 rumba. Similarly, radio broadcasts of son became popular in West Africa and the Congos, leading to the development of hybrid genres such as Congolese rumba. In the 1960s, New York’s music scene prompted the rapid success of salsa, a combination of son and other Latin American styles primarily recorded by Puerto Ricans. While salsa achieved international popularity during the second half of the 20th century, in Cuba son evolved into other styles such as songo and timba, the latter of which is sometimes known as “Cuban salsa”.