African Heritage


African heritage

Origins of Cuba’s African groups

Clearly, the origin of African groups in Cuba is due to the island’s long history of slavery. Compared to the USA, slavery started in Cuba much earlier and continued for decades afterwards. Cuba was the last country in the Americas to abolish the importation of slaves, and the second last to free the slaves. In 1807 the British Parliament outlawed slavery, and from then on the British Navy acted to intercept Portuguese and Spanish slave ships. By 1860 the trade with Cuba was almost extinguished; the last slave ship to Cuba was in 1873. The abolition of slavery was announced by the Spanish Crown in 1880, and put into effect in 1886. Two years later, Brazil abolished slavery.

Although the exact number of slaves from each African culture will never be known, most came from one of these groups, which are listed in rough order of their cultural impact in Cuba:

1. The Congolese from the Congo basin and SW Africa. Many tribes were involved, all called Congos in Cuba. Their religion is called Palo. Probably the most numerous group, with a huge influence on Cuban music.

2. The Oyó or Yoruba from modern Nigeria, known in Cuba as Lucumí. Their religion is known as Regla de Ocha (roughly, ‘the way of the spirits’) and its syncretic version known as Santería. Culturally of great significance.

3. The Kalabars from part of Nigeria and Cameroon. These semi-Bantú groups are known in Cuba as Carabali, and their religious organization as Abakuá. The street name for them in Cuba was Ñáñigos.

4. The Dahomey, from Benin. They were the Fon, known as arará in Cuba. The Dahomeys were a powerful and terrible people who practised human sacrifice and slavery long before Europeans got involved, and even more so during the Atlantic slave trade.

5. Haitian immigrants to Cuba arrived at various times up to the present day. Leaving aside the French, who also came, the Africans from Haiti were a mixture of groups who usually spoke creolized French: and religion was known as vodú.

6. From part of modern Liberia and the Ivory Coast came the Gangá.

7. Senegambian people (Senegal, Gambia), but including many brought from Sudan by the Arab slavers, were known by a catch-all word: Mandinga. The famous musical phrase Kikiribu Mandinga! refers to them.


Subsequent organization

The roots of most Afro-Cuban musical forms lie in the cabildos, self-organized social clubs for the African slaves, separate cabildos for separate cultures. The cabildos were formed mainly from four groups: the Yoruba (the Lucumi in Cuba); the Congolese (Palo in Cuba); Dahomey (the Fon or Arará). Other cultures were undoubtedly present, more even than listed above, but in smaller numbers, and they did not leave such a distinctive presence.

Cabildos preserved African cultural traditions, even after the abolition of slavery in 1886. At the same time, African religions were transmitted from generation to generation throughout Cuba, Haiti, other islands and Brazil. These religions, which had a similar but not identical structure, were known as Lucumi or Regla de Ocha if they derived from the Yoruba, Palo from Central Africa, Vodú from Haiti, and so on. The term Santería was first introduced to account for the way African spirits were joined to Catholic saints, especially by people who were both baptized and initiated, and so were genuinely members of both groups. Outsiders picked up the word and have tended to use it somewhat indiscriminately. It has become a kind of catch-all word, rather like salsa in music.

The ñáñigos in Cuba or Carabaliin their secret Abakuá societies, were one of the most terrifying groups; even other blacks were afraid of them:

“Girl, don’t tell me about the ñáñigos! They were bad. The carabali was evil down to his guts. And the ñáñigos from back in the day when I was a chick, weren’t like the ones today… they kept their secret, like in Africa.”

African sacred music in Cuba

All these African cultures had musical traditions, which survive erratically to the present day, not always in detail, but in general style. The best preserved are the African polytheistic religions, where, in Cuba at least, the instruments, the language, the chants, the dances and their interpretations are quite well preserved. In what other American countries are the religious ceremonies conducted in the old language(s) of Africa? They certainly are in Lucumí ceremonies, though of course, back in Africa the language has moved on. What unifies all genuine forms of African music is the unity of polyrhythmic percussion, voice (call-and-response) and dance in well-defined social settings, and the absence of melodic instruments of an Arabic or European kind.

Not until after the Second World War do we find detailed printed descriptions or recordings of African sacred music in Cuba. Inside the cults, music, song, dance and ceremony were (and still are) learnt by heart by means of demonstration, including such ceremonial procedures conducted in an African language. The experiences were private to the initiated, until the work of the ethnologist Fernándo Ortíz, who devoted a large part of his life to investigating the influence of African culture in Cuba. The first detailed transcription of percussion, song and chants are to be found in his great works.

There are now many recordings offering a selection of pieces in praise of, or prayers to, the orishas. Much of the ceremonial procedures are still hidden from the eyes of outsiders, though some descriptions in words exist.

Yoruban and Congolese rituals

Religious traditions of African origin have survived in Cuba, and are the basis of ritual music, song and dance quite distinct from the secular music and dance. The religion of Yoruban origin is known as Lucumí or Regla de Ocha; the religion of Congolese origin is known as Palo, as in palos del monte. There are also, in the Oriente region, forms of Haitian ritual together with its own instruments, music &c.

In Lucumi ceremonies, consecrated batá drums are played at ceremonies, and gourd ensembles called abwe. In the 1950s, a collection of Havana-area batá drummers called Santero helped bring Lucumí styles into mainstream Cuban music, while artists like Mezcla, with the lucumí singer Lázaro Ros, melded the style with other forms, including zouk.

The Congo cabildo uses yuka drums, as well as gallos (a form of song contest), makuta and mani dances. The latter is related to the Brazilian martial dance capoeira.


The clave rhythmic pattern is used as a tool for temporal organization in Afro-Cuban music, such as rumba, conga de comparsa, son, mambo (music), salsa, Latin jazz, songo and timba. The five-stroke clave pattern represents the structural core of many Afro-Cuban rhythm. Just as a keystone holds an arch in place, the clave pattern holds the rhythm together in Afro-Cuban music.The clave pattern originated in sub-Saharan African music traditions, where it serves essentially the same function as it does in Cuba. The pattern is also found in the African diaspora musics of Haitian vodou drumming and Afro-Brazilian music. The clave pattern is used in North American popular music as a rhythmic motif or ostinato, or simply a form of rhythmic decoration.


Rumba is a music of Cuban origin, but entirely African in style, using only voice, percussion and dance.[71] It is a secular musical style from the docks and the less prosperous areas of Havana and Matanzas. Rumba musicians use a trio of drums, similar in appearance to conga drums (they are called tumba, llamador and quinto) or, alternatively, wooden boxes (cajones) may be used. Also used are claves and, sometimes, spoons. There is always a vocal element, African in style, but sung in Spanish: call and response vocals. There were three basic rumba forms in the last century: columbia, guaguancó and yambú. The Columbia, played in 6/8 time, was danced only by men, often as a solo dance, and was swift, with aggressive and acrobatic moves. The guagancó was danced with one man and one woman. The dance simulates the man’s pursuit of the woman. The yambú, now a relic, featured a burlesque of an old man walking with a stick. All forms of rumba are accompanied by song or chants.

Note also two other uses of the word, both technically incorrect:

Rumba as a cover-all term for faster Cuban music. This usage started in the early 1930s with The Peanut Vendor. In this sense it has been replaced by salsa, which is also a cover-all term for marketing the music to non-Cubans.

Rumba in the international Latin-American dance syllabus is a misnomer for the slow Cuban rhythm more accurately called the bolero-son.

Rumba is usually seen in Cuba in the performances of professional groups on set occasions. There are also amateur groups based on casas de cultura, and on work groups. Like all aspects of life in Cuba, dance and music are organised by the state through Ministries and their various committees.


In Cuba, the word comparsa refers to the neighbourhood groups that take part in carnival. Conga is of African origin, and derives from street celebrations of the African spirits. The distinction is blurred today, but in the past the congas have been prohibited from time to time. Carnival as a whole was banned by the revolutionary government for many years, and still does not take place with the regularity of old. Conga drums are played (along with other typical instruments) in comparsas of all kinds. Santiago de Cuba and Havana were the two main centers for street carnivals. Two types of dance music (at least) owe their origin to comparsa music:

Conga: an adaptation of comparsa music and dance for social dances. Eliseo Grenet may be the person who first created this music, but it was the Lecuona Cuban Boys who took it round the world. The conga became, and perhaps still is, the best-known Cuban music and dance style for non-latins.

Mozambique: a comparsa-type dance music developed by Pello el Afrokan (Pedro Izquierdo) in 1963. It had a brief period of high popularity, peaked in 1965, and was soon forgotten. Apparently, to make it work properly, it needed 16 drums plus other percussion, dancers…

Other forms

Black immigrants from Haiti have settled in Oriente and established their own style of music, called the tumba francesa, which uses its own type of drum, dance and song. This survives to the present day in Santiago de Cuba.