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What is Cuban Popular Music

What is Popular Music and Dance?

Demo Triptech

Popular Music and Dance (Música Popular), as used by the Cuban Music Project and Roberto Borrell, refers to secular music and dance that was developed in Cuba as early as 1810. Its roots are a combination of European, Spanish and African music.

This music is of a social, rather than religious, nature. In the late 19th and mid 20th centuries Popular Music was primarily performed in social clubs and at public events, and at that time could constantly be heard on the radio and television.

Much of the Cuban Popular Music has a “bailable” quality (roughly translated as “danceable”). Cubans love to dance and it is part of their everyday life. The most well-known of these musical genres are Danzón, Son and Cha Cha Chá, and more recently, Timba.

Presently Cuban Popular Music can be seen and heard all over the world, although it is difficult to get a historically accurate picture of how it has evolved. Roberto Borrell is one of very few people in the United States who has witnessed and participated in the development of this music since 1950.

Danzón is one of the earlier forms of Cuban Popular Music and Dance. It is derived from the European court dances, specifically the Danza which came from the Contradanza, in the late 1800s. Danzón is always danced as a couple to an orchestra. What makes the Danzón unique is a specific rhythmic pattern that is played throughout the piece. It also has very structured form reminiscent of European classical music. It starts with an Introduction and Paseo, develops into a Theme or Main Melody, can transition into the Estribillo and has very specific cues for the ending, the Coda. The movement of the dance strictly adheres to the rhythm the orchestra is playing. It is also well known for its pauses, at which point the dancers stop dancing for a couple bars; they chat, fan themselves or look around the room for their next dance partner.

As the music became more and more popular during the next 80 years, it developed and added two other rhythms, Son and Cha Cha Cha. By the 1950’s, the dance halls of Cuba were only playing a form of Danzón knows as Danzón-chá, a mixture of Danzón, Son and Cha Cha Cha. The music became popular in Mexico in the 19th Century but the dance movements did not translate across the Atlantic and was not at all similar to the Cuban Danzón. Although Danzón is considered the National Dance of Cuba it is rarely danced socially any more. There are occasional “peñas” (social dances) in Cuba where the style is maintained. Also Roberto Borrell teaches Danzón in California and you can find his students dancing Danzón in their living rooms and at his Son Parties.

The Kubata Dancers, a performance group originally formed in Cuba in the 1970s, at  reunion dancing Danzón with a Big Turn.


Some of the famous composers and orchestras of Danzón were Miguel Faílde, Antonio María Romeo, Israel Lopez Cachao, Orquesta Cheo Belén Puig, Belsario López, Orquesta Ideal and Antonio Arcaña. After 50 years of Danzón a new dance genre developed in Cuba; Son Montuno.

“Chappottineando” with Conjunto Chappottín y Sus Estrellas, 2014 from The Cuban Music Project on Vimeo.

Conjunto Chappottín y Sus Estrellas was one of the most famous Son Montuno Conjuntos (groups) to play dance music in Havana during the 1940’s and 1950’s, often known as the heyday of Cuban music. They were seen weekly in the black Social Clubs and on the radio. Felix Chappottín’s grandson along with Miguelito Cuni’s son have continued the time-honored tradition of a playing Son Montunos, a genre of Cuban music derived from combining Cha Cha Cha with Son.

“Carrying the Torch for Son Montuno: Crudo“, features  Chappottín y Sus Estrellas rehearsing in Havana.


Language is a living and ever changing art and these definitions are those that are used by Roberto Borrell.

Abaquá – a secret society in Cuba originating from Africa

BoleroType of romantic music originated in Cuba late 1880s.

Bongó– Cuban percussion instrument.

Cha Cha Chá– Rhythm developed in Cuba in 1952, a dance step in Son Montuno, & name of a genre of Cuban Music

Charanga– In Cuba, a type of orchestra which includes a violin

Clave– Cuban percussion instrument, name of a Cuban rhythm developed in Havana for Son

Coda the end of the piece of music

Conjunto– a musical group consisting of 3 or 4 trumpets, piano, base, bongo, tumbadora, clave, maracas, guitar & tres

Conga-a Cuban rhythm created from the Abaqua often played in Carnaval

Congo-a country in Africa

Contradanza-Music developed in England which moved to France, Haiti and finally to Cuba

Coro-more than one singer singing together- chorus

Danzón– Music and Dance originated in Cuba in the 1800’s

Danzón Cha– Danzon with the introduction of the a new rhythm, Cha Cha Cha, in the estribillo

DanzoneteMusic played in Cuba in the early 1900’s

Danza Music developed from Contradanza early 1800’s

Estribillo– Section of Cuban music whose form is derived from African music combining a call and response

First Melody-Section of the Danzon which is played for 16 measures, featuring a flute

Flute Solo-In Danzon-Cha, a section where the flute improvises, in Cha Cha Cha it is the high point of the music

Flute Improvisation-In Danzon-Cha and Guaracha; the flute improvises on top of the other instruments

Flute Call A cue or signal, played by the flute, to the orchestra

Guaguanco-A rhythm developed in Cuba played by a group of percussionists and singers

Guajira– In Cuba, a woman from the countryside

Guaracha– One of the oldest forms of Cuban music

Introduction-The first section of a Danzon consisting of two parts, the introduction and the Paseo

Lead Singer-Originally in Son Montuno the lead singer was an indicator for when the Cha Cha Cha rhythm was played

Main Melody In Danzon, a section of music which is somewhere between the Introduction and the estribillo

MamboIn Son Montuno, the highest point of the music, the Cha Cha Cha is played in the Mambo section

OrquestaAn orchestra, a musical group which uses violin, flute, piano and percussion

Pailaa percussion instrument often referred to in the U.S. as timbales

Piano Solo-In Danzon, Son Montuno and Cha Cha Cha a section of music which features the piano

Paseo- In Danzon the second part of the Introduction featuring it’s own rhythm

Rumba– a party where people play Guaguanco and dance to the Guaguanco

Son-A rhythm and a genre of music developed in Oriente, Cuba in the 1800’s and popularized in Havana in the 1920’s

Son Montuno– Music developed from the Son in Cuba in the 1940’s

Septeto-Musical group consisting of Tres, Guitar, Base, Bongo, Maracas, Clave and a Trumpet

Sexteto– Musical group consisiting of Tres, Guitar, Base, Bongo, Maracas and Clave

Se Acabo– Spanish “it’s finished”, used to signal and describe the end of a musical piece

Theme- In Son, the section of music which follows the introduction

Timba A form of contemporary Cuban music developed in the 1990’s

Tres-A Type of guitar developed in Cuba which does not use nylon strings

Tumbadora-A percussion instrument often referred to in this country as a Conga