Music has always been an integral part of Cuban culture. Long before Columbus stepped foot on the island in 1492, the local Tainos, Siboneyes, and Guanajatabeyes people, whose ancestors had inhabited Cuba for millennia, used music in rituals and gatherings. By the mid-16th century, Spanish colonizers heavily regulated indigenous music on the island as a form of Catholic conversion and control. And of course, no discussion on music in Cuba would be complete without the recognition of the West African influence that arrived with the Spanish slave trade.
It’s a painful history but one that led to a unique ecosystem of sounds and the creation of an abundance of genres: mambo, bolero, rumba, and changüí to name a handful. There’s also another factor that’s contributed to Cuba’s music scene—its isolation from the United States. The two countries cut diplomatic ties in 1961, and only just last year historically restored them. But in the interim years, Cuban music uniquely developed without American influence, allowing artists the space to hone styles that honor the island's multicultural roots. By layering modern production on top of merengue, son, guaracha, and cumbia inspired tracks, new Cuban sounds and subcultures have emerged.
While the internet has been crucial to the way American music has developed over the past couple of decades, it's been the opposite for Cuba. The way the internet has been controlled on the island—a system of censorship, limited bandwidth, and high cost—inhibits locals’ access to music from the outside world. What’s more, U.S. consumption of Cuban music is often delayed by months, sometimes years, after it is produced. In Cuba, music is often shared through the country-wide digital USB network known as el paquete. It’s an underground distribution system: vendors hand-deliver USBs with everything from music to the latest telenovelas to magazines in PDF form. But as it’s a purely domestic system, musicians rarely have access to distribute internationally. This is poised to change as the Cuban-American relationship improves, with mutual curiosity giving Cuban artists newfound exposure to American audiences and beyond.
Here are nine Cuban artists, new and established, that you’ll be hearing more of now that the Cuban-American friendship is back on.
1. Daymé Arocena
2. DJ Jigue
4. Danay Suárez
5. Gente de Zona
6. Etián Brebaje Man
7. Pedrito Martinez Group
8. Wichy de Vedado
9. TnT Rezistencia