Cuba has always been an island with a rich musical output. Music plays a big role in Cuban culture, and the country has produced countless talented musicians. Whilst a list of Cuban musicians worth listening to could go on for miles and miles, I have limited it to ten to provide a starting point that (in my subjective opinion) give a flavour of different Cuban music.
María Theresa Vera (1895-1965)
María Theresa Vera was a guitarist, singer and songwriter and a key figure in a Cuban genre known as trova, which centred around putting poetic and sensitive lyrics to guitar melodies. These were performed live by travelling musicians, which helped spread the popularity of these songs across the island and beyond. María performed in various duos and groups throughout her career, and recorded over two hundred songs, though was thought to have several thousand songs in her repertoire.
Song recommendation: Veinte Años
Veinte Años means twenty years, and María sings mournfully how she wishes her partner would love her like he did twenty years ago, but she fears it is too late. Despite having been written nearly a century ago with Guillermina Aramburú (María wrote the music, Guillermina wrote the lyrics), it is still a song that can frequently be heard today in Cuban bars, and is often covered by contemporary musicians adding their own twist to the song.
Bola de Nieve (1911-1971)
Bola de Nieve was the stage name of Ignacio Jacinto Villa Fernández, and translates as ‘Snowball’. As well as being a celebrated pianist and songwriter, he had a tender voice and could sing in multiple languages, including Catalan, English, French, Italian, Portuguese, and of course his native Spanish. His style included combining classical piano techniques with Cuban styles such as bolero, habanera and son cubano.
Song Recommendation: Si me pudieras querer
As with many of Bola de Nieve’s recordings, this is just him with a piano and a voice. It is written as a bolero that goes through several different rhythms, switching between the profound and the playful perhaps to match his feelings towards the person to whom he is singing the love song. Whilst Bola de Nieve was a master at taking songs and interpreting them to give them his own spin, this is one of his original songs.
Benny Moré (1919-1963)
Benny Moré was a singer and songwriter of multiple genres, including boleros, son cubano, guarachas, cha cha cha, mambo and son montuno. He was also a great improvisor on stage, and achieved great success in both Cuba and abroad. Today you can find buildings and clubs that are named after him and statues made in his honour. In 2006 an acclaimed biopic called El Benny was released, based on his life in the 1950s.
Song Recommendation: Donde Estabas Tu
This song has an incredibly catchy tune. The cheekiness of the melody chimes well with the subject of the song - suspicion of infidelity or dodgy dealings. The title means ‘Where Were You?’, and it is sung from the perspective of someone interrogating a man called José Ines who keeps going missing and making excuses.
Compay Segundo (1907-2003)
Compay Segundo was a guitarist, singer and songwriter that lived to the ripe old age of 95, and was a feature of the Cuban musical landscape from the 1920s right up to the late 1990s and early 2000s when he was touring with the Buena Vista Social Club. He was the inventor of a 7-string guitar called an ‘armónico’, which he designed as a crossbreed of a standard acoustic guitar and a Cuban ‘tres’ guitar. The house where he lived in his later years in Havana is now a museum dedicated to his life and works.
Song Recommendation: Chan Chan
Chan Chan is Compay Segundo’s most well known song. He wrote this when he was 70s. It gained another lease of life when he re-recorded it as part of the Buena Vista Social Club project, something which led to him touring the world and even performing Chan Chan in Vatican City to the Pope.
Omara Portuondo (1930-)
Omara Portuondo is one of Cuba’s most well known singers and dancers. Her long career includes being a founding member of the close-harmony singing group Cuarteto d’Aida, before going on to have a successful solo career and also appearing in films and having her own TV series. In the 1990s she joined the Buena Vista Social Club, and is now the only surviving vocalist left from the project. In 2009 she won a Latin Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Tropical Album, and in 2019 she won a Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She still sings regularly in small clubs in Havana.
Song recomendation: Sábanas Blancas
This recent single of Omara Portuondo show the 89 year-old singing, dancing and producing evocative music that sounds fresher than ever. The video has some great shots of different parts of Havana.
Silvio Rodriguez (1946-)
Silvio Rodriguez is sometimes compared with being a Bob Dylan of the Spanish-speaking world. This is for the combination of poetic and sometimes cryptic lyrics and creeping acoustic melodies. Due to his popularity he is often touring abroad, but for the past few years he has been performing regular ‘barrio concerts’ in random neighbourhoods of Havana for free. If you are lucky enough to be in the city for one, it’s well worth seeing.
Song Recommendation: Quien Fuera
This song has a melody that is somehow tender and haunting at the same time. As with many of his lyrics they are poetic, direct yet indirect, touching yet befuddling. The verses explore him searching (buscando) for various things whilst also trying to comprehend various famous figures from history, past and present. In the chorus he cries out about a dark, wounded, hidden and walled heart.
Pablo Milanés (1943-)
Alongside Silvio Rodriguez, Pablo Milanés was an important figure in the Cuban ‘nueva trova’ movement that emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s. Milanés is blessed with a one in a million voice that could seemingly sing anything and make it sound powerful. Like Silvio Rodriguez, he has had a lot of success in the Spanish speaking world, and the two are offered compared to each other, though their sound is quite distinct. Pablo’s daughters Haydée, Lynn and Suylén are also respected musicians, and sometimes perform live with their father.
Song Recommendation: Yolanda
A simple love song that hits the spot, if someone in Cuba can play guitar, chances are this is one of the songs in their repertoire. This live version is from 2019 and shows how Pablo Milanés can still belt them out, and the adoration that this song has with the crowd.
X-Alfonzo has been a key figure in fusing Cuban hip-hop, afro-rock, rumba, funk and jazz. He has won numerous awards for his film scores and albums, and continues to try and break through musical boundaries with each record and combine disparate genres. He was also the driving force between turning a disused olive oil factory into what is today one of Havana’s leading art, music and theatre venues, know as Fábrica del Arte (often abbreviated to FAC).
Song Recommendation: Habana Blues
X-Alfonzo won Spain’s Goya Award for best original music for scoring the film Habana Blues, for which this song was composed. In this video he is joined by the Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca, performing live in FAC.
Havana born and bred, Athanai is a songwriter, singer, producer and rapper who has combined a range of musical genres including rock, pop, rap, heavy metal, grunge, funk and Cuban elements such as guaguancó and timba. He rose to prominence in the 1990s and since then has recorded four solo albums. In 2018 he released his latest studio album, ‘Regresar’, which won various awards. He is known for his energetic live performances with a full band, but also regular appears playing acoustic versions of his songs too.
Song Recommendation: Todo (featuring Frank Delgado)
This recent performance by Athanai, with Cuban nueva trova artist Frank Delgado, shows the mixture of influences in his work. It includes a solo on a Cuban ‘tres’ guitar, and cheeky, flirtatious lyrics.
A medical student whose musical talent overruled his medical ambitions, Cimafunk, the artistic name of Erik Iglesias Rodríguez, became an overnight sensation in 2018 with his hit single Me Voy. He’s much more than a one-hit wonder, with a growing catalogue of songs that combine Afro-Cuban dance with funk and soul, as well as ‘soneos’ - vocal improvisations.
Song Recommendation: Cocinarte
Whilst Me Voy was the earworm that has propelled his success, lesser known tracks show the full extent of his musical talent. In this recent NPR recording, taken during a US tour, the second track Cocinarte shows how he cleverly mixes Cuban rhythms with funk bass lines and beats.
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