What is Son Cubano?

Maria Teresa, Ignacio Pineiro and Sexteto Habanero in 1920s

Son is a vocal and instrumental dance genre, which constitutes one of the basic forms within Cuban music. In September 2012 it was officially declared intangible cultural heritage of Cuba. Cuba introduced a national day of son on 8 May from 2021. It is hoped to be declared world intangible cultural heritage in 2023.

The oldest known sones date from the 16th century such as the Son de la Má Teodora, possibly from 1562 performed by two Dominican sisters, Micaela and Teodora Ginés.

It features elements of Bantu music (central and southern Africa) and Spanish music. The structure of son arose in the eastern towns Guantánamo, Baracoa, Manzanillo and Santiago de Cuba at the end of the 19th century. In 1892, the tres player of Haitian origin Nené Manfugás took it from the mountains to the carnivals of Santiago de Cuba.

Bantu languages region

With the establishment in the 1920s of commercial broadcasting, the rise and popularization of son began, and the Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñeiro was one of the main representatives of this era. Ignacio Piñeiro is the creator of the song Échale salsita, probably the first time the word salsa was used to describe Caribbean music.

Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Pineiro

The Cuban bourgeoisie detested the new genre that found followers in the solares where working people lived. The government even went so far as to ban it, accusing it of being immoral, but it soon gained space in even the most refined dance halls, while recording studios gave it unlimited diffusion.

Those first sones were played by groups that used guitar, tres, bongo, botija (box) or marímbula (later double bass), claves and maracas. In search of greater sonority, they later added at least one trumpet.

Issac Oviedo tuning his Tres guitar in 1930s

Many variants have swelled the history of the genre. The Son Montuno, the changüí of Guantanamo, the Sucu-suco from the Isle of Pines, the ñongo, the regina, the  bachata oriental, the son habanero, the guajira-son, the guaracha-son, the bolero-son, the Pregon-son, the Afro-son, the son guaguancó, mambo, Cha-cha-chá, are all variants.

In the 1940s Arsenio Rodriguez developed the son montuno with his bigger band sound. Son evolved giving rise to other genres (the most famous being salsa), however it is still performed by traditional groups in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

The sonero groups were originally made up of: Guitar, Tres cubano, Bongó, Bass, claves, Maracas and Trumpet.


A son begins with lyrical verses for solo voice which quickly develops into the call-and-response montuno section, which is sung in chorus, of no more than 4 bars, with an improvised solo response.

Some of the best known son singers/composers in Cuba were: Ignacio Piñeiro, Arsenio Rodríguez, Benny Moré, and Dúo Los Compadres (one of the original singer/composers was Compay Segundo – later made world famous touring as part of the Buena Vista Social Club).

Based on Ecured.cu in Spanish

In September 2012 the Cuban government declared the son to be national cultural heritage. The declaration confirmed the artistic values of the son by considering it an expression that “transcends in time and space as an outstanding element of the intangible cultural heritage of the nation”.

From Juventud Rebelde

A campaign in Cuba was led by top son musician Adalberto Alvarez supported by many other musicians for a national day of son to be declared for 8 May, to celebrate the importance of the genre in the cultural roots of the island. He said May 8 was chosen as it is the birthday of both legendary soneros (singers of son) Miguelito Cuní (born 1917)) and Miguel Matamoros (born 1894). Alvarez was known as the ‘Caballero’ (‘Gentleman’ or ‘knight’) of Son. The first Day of the Son was celebrated in 2021 but Alvarez sadly died in September 2021.

Adalberto Alvarez

The campaign aimed 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.

Many Cuban salsa/timba artists recognise and venerate their roots in son such as “modern day sonero” Maykel Blanco, Cesar ‘Pupy’ Pedroso, José Luis Cortés “El Tosco”, Mayito Rivera and “El Niño” Emilio Frías.

The campaign also looks at how the genre has been updated by contemporary musicians, including its migration to other media for example Digna Guerra taking the son to choir music, or Frank Fernández inspired by the sonero piano of Lilí Martínez, Arsenio Rodriguez’s pianist.

In July 2022 the Cuban government announced the candidacy of the Son with view to UNESCO declaring it as intangible cultural heritage of the world. With the result to be announced in March 2023.

Watch a great recording of Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Pineiro singing their most famous song Echale Salsita

Listen to many son artists here

Read reviews and buy CDs – Adalberto Alvarez y su son, Pupy y los que son son, 25th Edition Buena Vista Social Club

Read more about son music and its origins in these books

Cuba and its music by Ned Sublette – read review and buy here

Cuban music A-Z by Helio Orovio – read review and buy here