Famous for exporting sugar, rum, and cigars, perhaps Cuba's most entertaining export must be its music. Among the various music genres born or bred on the island, arguably the most evocative of the Cuban people's history and spirit is the son.
Son is the music of the Spanish colonists, using traditional Spanish instruments like the tres and maracas, fused with the sounds of slavery -- the instruments, rhythms and beats of Africa. It is often compared with American blues music because of its similar origins, deceptive simplicity and because it is the base of so many other genres like rumba, salsa, bolero, mambo and cha-cha-cha.
The son is a music genre especially for dance and originated in the Sierra Maestra mountains of eastern Cuba, during the last century. But son peaked in the pre-revolutionary era and by the mid-1970's it was all but forgotten.
The recent global explosion of interest in salsa benefited all Latin music, including the Cuban son, as is evidenced by the success foreign artists have had recently to introduce the world to Cuban music. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove recorded an album of Latin jazz with Cuban artists, and Ry Cooder's vintage-song project: the Buena Vista Social Club, brought out of retirement singers who were famous before the Castro revolution. And scores of artists, from New York guitarist Marc Ribot to saxophonist Steve Coleman, have explored music from and inspired by Cuba.
Even ex-patriot Cuban artists like Gloria Estefan and more recently, Albita Rodriguez have helped popularize the son genre in the United States and around the world, with songs like Melon Colorao by Albita.
The son genre is defined by three main elements: sensual lyrics and street wisdom; complex, infectious rhythmic structures with various percussion instruments including bongos, maracas, and claves; and lastly, harmony that is achieved by the tres and the guitar. Modern examples frequently augment the guitar with trumpets.
Aficionados of salsa, exemplified by its bursts of staccato horn riffs and complicated, sophisticated polyrhythms, might be underwhelmed simplicity of the son. The son has more in common with the troubadours of the Nueva Canción (New Song) in Puerto Rico than with the contemporary salsa and pop music, due to its soulfulness.