I’m not a dancer—I never have been, as anyone who’s seen me try knows. About a year ago, though, I stumbled into the tail end of a salsa party in the Great Hall of Memorial Union. The guy I was with (long story) was much more of a dancer than I, and proceeded to the front of the hall where he broke out some dance moves I knew I had no hope of matching. Another attendee, a veteran dancer clearly unfazed by the hours he had just spent on the floor, approached me and tried to teach me a thing or two. I was awkward (no surprise here), but after awhile, I began to feel the music’s rhythm, and began to catch on to the beat and my partner’s moves.
Little did I know that the music I was dancing to (or trying to dance to) had a rich history, a history bound up in the traditional musical form of Cuban son. The history of Cuban son is a complex one, and it could be said to have its own history woven into the history of Cuba itself.
Cuban son, a type of music redolent with African rhythms, is played on the bongos, marimbula, timbales criollos, and cowbell. It originated in Cuba after the Salve revolution and later emancipation of La Hispañola, when many rich French Caribbean families and their house slaves emigrated to the Oriente province in Cuba from what is now Haiti. Many of the slaves that came with them had been educated in both European music and African secular music, and they brought this particular blend of sensibilities to their new home.
By the 1920s, what had begun as slave songs had morphed into traditional son, and it was the most popular kind of music in Cuba. Popularized by radio, son formed the soundtrack to the lives of many Americans who escaped to Havana in the 20s in an attempt to avoid prohibition. Yet in the 30s and 40s, as son began to gain acceptance even among the most conservative Cubans, its popularity began to fade. With the Cuban Revolution’s triumph in 1959, many son artists and recorders also fled to the United States, and son suffered a further decline. In the 1970s, Cuban youth were also finding new ways to listen to American rock and jazz, technically outlawed but available on the radio from Miami.
But in 1976, Sierra Maestra, under the direction of JuanMarcos Gonzalez, attempted to reestablish son’s popularity in the Cuban mainstream. Sierra Maestra first performed in 1976 at the University of Havana where the group members were students. Their goal from the beginning has been to revive and reexamine this popular Cuban music style from the 1920s.
And in this respect, the band has been succesful. They’ve garnered national and even world-wide acclaim, and in 1978, they were asked to represent Cuba at the "Festival Mundial de la Juventud y los Estudiantes" in Havana. Their reinvigorated style of son has been a sensation among the new generation of Cubans, and now they’re bringing the rhythm abroad. On Friday, March 23 at 8 pm, they’re coming to the Wisconsin Union Theater—and, better yet, they’re playing in the Memorial Union's Great Hall. This means (you guessed it) dancing—after all, what son-flavored salsa beat would complete without some serious moves to go along? This also means I’ll get a second chance to improve my salsa moves—I don’t know about you, but I plan on taking it.