The ‘son’ is the quintessential Afro-Cuban musical form, referring both to a singing and dancing style. Son means ‘sound’, but it’s easiest to think of it as simply the basic, elemental ‘song’. Although there are traces of son as early as the 16th century, modern son first appeared in the eastern part of Cuba in the late 19th century.
Son played the function of telling the news of the countryside, and is the first truly homegrown Afro-Cuban musical style. The early son orchestra was a trio composed of claves, maracas and guitar. By 1925, son orchestras had expanded to included tres and bongos. With a call-and-response pattern based on African tradition, the basic son became two vocalists – one playing claves, the other maracas, a tres, bongo, guiro and bass.
Cuban music goes to Broadway:
One of the most enduring son songs, “El Manicero” (The Peanut Vendor) was written by a young Havana pianist, Moises Simon. In 1931 bandleader Don Azpiazu brought the song to Broadway, rearranged into a “rhumba” to suit American tastes. It was this song that started the global craze for Latin music.
Sierra Maestra and Buena Vista Social Club:
In 1976, a group of Havana students formed a son preservation group called Sierra Maestra, which resulted in a new wave of interest in the old, traditional songs. But it was the 1990's sensation, Buena Vista Social Club, which went on to sell one million albums and relaunch the craze for son, along with the careers of a host of old musicians who thought their musical days were over.
Basis of Salsa:
The sweet / tart sound of the son is still alive today in its various incarnations, from traditional to modern. In fact, son is the basis of today’s salsa, although listening to them side by side, its difficult to recognize the familiar, lyrical Cuban form.