close up photo of a woman dancing in a short skirt and cropped top with a man's arm around her waist

© iStockphoto.com/Roberto Adrian

The history of music in Havana and Cuba is one of the mingling of Spanish and other European styles with elements having African roots.

The capital of Cuba, Havana, was founded in 1519 and is one of the oldest cities in the Caribbean. For several centuries it was a key staging post for ships sailing from Europe to Spanish colonies on the American mainland. As the Spanish developed sugar plantations on Cuba, Havana became the main centre for the transhipment of the crop to Europe and for the disembarkation of enslaved Africans destined for the plantations and other manual labour. Africans brought with them their own drum music and dancing, which they were occasionally permitted to perform.

The 19th century saw the invention of the 'habanera', a dance style that owed much to the music of French-speaking refugees from Haiti and even English country dance introduced by the British, who ruled Havana briefly in the 1720s. The habanera contributed to the development of the 'danzon', Cuba's most popular 20th century dance (which gave rise in the 1950s to the 'cha-cha'). Carried by sea to Buenos Aires in Argentina, the 'danzon' influenced the 'tango', the first Latin American dance to sweep the world.

aerial view of a large classical style building with a high dome

El Capitolio, Havana © iStockphoto.com/Eric Hood

Around the time of Cuba's independence (1902) three major new musical forms emerged: 'rumba', 'trova' and 'son'. Rumba's insistent rhythms were first beaten out on crates by Afro-Cuban workers in the Havana docks. These crates evolved into the conga drums that are part of every kind of Latin music band today. The rumba became Havana's most widespread musical export, found in ballroom dancing contests around the world and in much of African popular music.

Originally sung by wandering musicians in the late 19th century, trova became centred in Havana in the 1920s. Today there are various types, including 'nueva trova' and 'bolero', a style of romantic song that is popular throughout much of the Latin American continent.

Son took on its professional form in Havana in the 1920s. Originally regarded by Havana's middle classes as an immoral entertainment, son was gradually adopted by the city's 'charangas' (dance bands) and is now regarded as Cuba's national popular music. Classic son is performed by the Buena Vista Social Club, the band of veteran musicians recorded by the US guitarist Ry Cooder and film director Wim Wenders in 1997.

detail shot of musicians playing an accordion and double bass

Cuban musicians © iStockphoto.com/Charles Taylor

After independence Cuba developed strong links with the US and a new nightclub scene grew up in Havana catering to American tourists. The popularity of the clubs' musicians led to an exodus of Havana players and bands to Florida and New York, where artists such as Tito Puente and Machito had a great influence on jazz musicians from Duke Ellington to Dizzy Gillespie.

Havana's thriving nightlife came to an end after 1959 when Fidel Castro and Che Guevara led their revolutionary guerrillas into Havana and took power. The new regime was strongly anti-American and many nightclub musicians left Cuba along with their American employers. The Castro regime introduced a system of music training schools and state-controlled venues and made all musicians state employees with a guaranteed wage in return for performing a minimum number of gigs per month. All recordings were made by the Havana-based state-owned company EGREM.

When its ally the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, the Cuban government had to look elsewhere for foreign economic support, and it encouraged tourism from Europe and Latin America. The rise of world music and the success of the Buena Vista Social Club albums has made music tourism an important part of the city's economy. The old EGREM studios where Buena Vista recorded, is now a national heritage monument and there are numerous hotels, bars and restaurants where live music can be heard including newer music and dance styles such as timba and reggaeton.