Types of Cuban Rhythm: Mambo

Many of you will remember or know ‘Mambo No 5’ by Lou Bega. You may find it surprising that it’s origin is actually Cuban.

Mambo as music genre was originated in Cuba. It is the child of Cuban Son and afro-american rythms by immigrants from Haití.

The word “mambo” means a “conversation with the gods” and it refers to a dance of a priestess done back in the day in Congo to the rhythm of the drums. The words that name rhythms or dances and that include sounds like “mb, ng, and nd” are usually from Congo: mambo, tango, milonga, conga, samba, bamba, candombe, etc.

The roots of the Mambo songs date back to 1910, when the famous flautist and orchestra director Antonio Arcaño presents his “New Rhythm Danzón” and names a section as “mambo”.

It grew almost at the same time as Chachachá, but it is faster and sexier. Mambo became really popular in the 50s in New York and the rest of the world. Many films of that period, contain this kind of music.

The dancing was considered so outrageous that many countries banned them. This prohibition, obviously, made the dance and music become even more popular. Mambo is less rigid than the danzón, which allows the dancers express themselves more freely. It is not structured and does not really have basic steps, at least its original version.

Mambo introduced itself in the United States in New York’s Park Plaza Ballroom – a favourite hangout of enthusiastic dancers from Harlem (black community). A modified version of the “Mambo” (the original dance had to be toned down due to the violent acrobatics) was presented to the public at dance studios, resort hotels, and at night-clubs in New York and Miami.

You can find more info about Cuban Salsa and its History here.

Types of Cuban Rhythms: Timba

Timba combines contemporary son with Salsa and hip-hop influences. However, it happened almost exactly at the same time as the período especial (“special period”). During this period Cuba, had been closed off and had a lot going on. When Cuba opened to the world again, the Cuban government invested into tourism and so, Europeans and North Americans started to go to Havana. 

These tourist brought new influences and trends that Cubans had not had the opportunity to hear. Music that you could dance to was suddenly of interest. So, in the early 1990s, the Afro-Cuban composer José Luís Cortés, part of the music group NG La Banda, put together a sort of “dance” music. It combined these new influences, jazz aesthetics and an extremely high performance standard.

His songs carried references to Afro-Cuban musical forms, and used black slang to tell stories about everyday life in the barrios (black neighbourhoods). At a time of dramatic transformations – with the beginning of período especial – this music seemed able to give hope and social change. Not only was the first composer Afro-Cuban, but its music and sound was based on drums and Afro-Cuban percussion.

Also, the musical structure derived from son and rumba; a melodic, narrative part followed by a call-and-response section. The first part was sung by a solo singer and resembled a song or ballad. The second one contained alternations of coros (choral refrains) and guías (semi-improvised responses by a singer). Needless to say, this second section was, and is, the most lively and catchy part of songs.

In terms of the dance, it can be said that Timba is the maximum expression of the dancer. Depending on the specific rhythm of the song they listen (the lyrics, the chorus, percussion…), they will dance in one way or another. When the song turns into a more rhythmic part, the dancers are no longer together. They dance separately and do movements of rumba but also mixed with hip-hop and other music influences.

It is said that timba is the higher state of salsa. It is a mixture of rhythms that has given birth to a very distinct Cuban rhythm.

In the words of Mayito, a member of the band Los Van Van:

“We call “timba” the way to do the download, the way of playing. This comes from the percussion and the complexity of the rumba. When you insert the pianos and all the other instruments, we are integrating in the timba, giving it a Cubanism that makes us different from other latin salseros”

Mayito, Los Van Van

Types of Cuban Rhythms: Cuban Son

The Cuban Son is a singing and dancing Cuban style which started at the end of the 19th Century in Cuba. It is believed that it originated in the Oriental part of the island. There are many theories about its origin but a lot of people think that it was born from “danzón”, an Afro-cuban adaptation of the European ballroom dances.

At the beginning it was three people: Claves (wooden instrument), maracas and a guitar. Slowly, more instruments were added: “tres” (“Three” a 3 cord guitar), two vocalists, a guiro and a bass. In the 1930s, many groups added trumpets too, making it to groups of seven.

The Son started to be known internationally thanks to the “Septeto Nacional”. One the the most famous songs was “El Manicero” (1928). However, the rest of the contemporary Cuban groups have evolved from the traditional Son. The most important group of the 20th Century are “Los Van Van”. They added a trombone, more drums and a synthesiser for the voice, developing the “songo”. There were also groups like Irakere who took a jazz path.

The structure of the Son songs consist on the repetition of a chorus of four times (montuno) sang by a soloist. Next, there is another chorus in answer to the “montuno”. It is similar and probably has the African origin, same as “pregón”. All salsa songs are focused around the Cuban clave, and the song is no less.

It is now a root rhythm of today’s salsa and the base to any salsa song.

Types of Cuban Rhythms: Rumba

I feel like that the word “rumba” is associated with salsa, the Caribbean, dancing, party… but no one really knows what it is. I know I didn’t know it until I started dancing salsa 5 years ago (already…?!).

So, yeah, it is a party, but it is also a type of dance and music within Cuban salsa; one of the most traditional parts of it, actually. It is believed that the rhythm was born of the mix of the African slaves’ rhythms with the Spanish flamenco. It started being a traditional afrocuban dance that was used was a fertility dance. It was also danced by lower class workers to imitate (mock) Spanish conquerors’ dancing style, but with a Cuban “flavour”. There are three types of rumba: guaguancó (Habana), Columbia and yambú (Matanzas).

  • Guaguancó

Originally from La Habana and the most known outside Cuba, with a faster rhythm than most. It is a dance about seduction and “conquest”. Generally the man is the one who has to conquest the woman. However, the woman’s dance is sensual, flirty and has to seduce the man without letting him get too close.In guaguancó, the man tries to “captivate” the woman with hip movements, called “vacunao”. It can be danced with a handkerchief or with hands movements. The woman rejects the man’s advancements by putting the handkerchief (or the hand) at front. If the man is faster, though, it is said that “he has got her pregnant”.

  • Columbia

This type of rumba is originally from Matanzas and generally only danced by men. It is a rural rhythm and one of its characteristics is the “llorao”. This consists on exclamations or laments in between singing. In terms of the dance, the dancer first greets the percussion people and after he tends to maintain a straight position of legs and shoulders, since they often carry a glass or a bottle on top of their head.

  • Yambú:

It is also from Matanzas and it is one of the oldest and urban forms of rumba. Just like the guaguancó, it is danced by men and women, but “vacunao” is not a thing in this one and the rhythm is more paused. In this dance, the woman is the protagonist and she does flirty and sensual movements to captivate the man.

Even though rumba has a specific rhythm and specific songs with guaguancó, Columbia or iamb rhythms, it doesn’t mean that it is only danced with these rhythms or songs. What I love most about Cuban salsa is that is free, there are no choreographies. It is a conversation between dancers.

What do you mean a conversation? Wasn’t this a dance?!

Yep, but if you suddenly hear rumba’s rhythm in between a song, you can dance to it. If your partner understands, he will answer the same way. 

Now, if by any chance, you go out dancing and someone does “vacunao” to you, at least you know what it is. You’re welcome 🙂

Cuban Salsa History

Salsa music is born from a mixture of music from the Spanish conquerors, the African slaves and the American jazz.

One of the musical is the contradanse, danced in Versailles, France and then passed on to the Spanish Court. From there it went to the Caribbean during colonisation. Another big influence for Cuban salsa is the African rhythm. African slaves kept their religious rituals (santería), many of which included dances. North America also influenced salsa in the Batista dictatorship, bringing American artists and the influence of jazz into Cuba and into salsa music. 

However, the salsa that we know nowadays, was born in the 70s. We find other Cuban rhythms within salsa, such as danzón, son, chachachá, mambo, conga… With this incorporations, other musical instruments are introduced too, like the piano, trumpet or saxophone.

Cuban and Puerto Rican expats in New York as well as the commercialisation of salsa, made this genre quickly develop in the 70s. First across America and then all over the world. The excess of commercialisation at the end of the 70s, turned salsa into a repetitive formula and people were not interested in music without any novelty. The 80s also brought merengue and disco music, which did not help the expansion of salsa music.

During this period, salsa left behind strong sounds and fast unloads (hard salsa) and started using a more melodic sound, allowing to dance at a slower pace (romantic salsa). Nowadays both types co-exist and are danceable. 

It is also worth mentioning that salsa in Miami grew notably with voices like Celia Cruz. Carnival and the promotion of salsa in Miami comes from those Cubans who exiled because of the political regimen of the Castro brothers. In Miami, salsa is a symbol of Cuba without the Castros.

Salsa music has a set structure: introduction, melodic phase, rhythm or percussion phase, melodic phase and final phase. Normally, one of the musicians play a specific rhythm (la clave – the key) and the rest joins in, forming a polyrhythm. The most common claves are those of rumba, son, samba, all descendants of the African clave.

In terms of the dance, the Cuban style has more freedom in steps and figures. It is a free and spontaneous way of understanding dancing and it is typical from Cuba. There is also Linear Salsa, more usual in academies or dance schools.

Linear Salsa is also known as LA style due to its origins. It is danced in an imaginary straight line in forward and backward movements where him and her interchange positions, doing more complex figures than in Casino Salsa. It can look more elegant and it is considered as ballroom dance.

Cuban Style, also known as “casino”, has its origin in La Habana’s Casino Deportivo, thus the name. Originally Cuban salsa was just called “casino dance”. At the end of the 60s, it recovered popularity and so far, it has not stopped gaining popularity.

It is danced in a circle where changing places or turning are very frequent. Except very few specific figures, almost all “rueda” (wheel) figures can be done in pairs. The basic Cuban steps consists on one step backwards, stepping in the floor with the other one and back to the original position. After a short pause, it is repeated with the other feet. The step backwards should not be exaggerated, it is only done to facilitate the hip’s movement.

The Cuban style has more rhythm and it is not oriented towards competitions, unlike other ballroom dances. It is, in its own way a ballroom dance, but with rolled-up sleeves and it is still evolving.

I feel like Linear salsa, due to its tradition as a ballroom dance, made higher class people see it as something elegant and of their same class. However, Cuban Salsa is danced with anyone, anywhere and it doesn’t have as much structure or choreography as Linear Salsa does. Therefore, traditionally, it is seen as a lower class dance.

Both salsa styles are hypnotic to see and fun to dance. Each has its own difficulty. Some people may prefer improvisation and others might need a choreography. The beautiful thing is to share the music, and if you dare, the dance.