One of the first nationally recognized fusions of Hispanic and African music (as opposed to the more purely African rumba), son became generally known by about 1910 and was popularized in the 1920s, chiefly by Ignacio Piñeiro and his orchestra. Mambo and salsa are among its descendants. A vocal music and dance genre native to Oriente, particularly rural areas around Guantanamo, Baracoa, Santiago de Cuba, and Manzanillo, the son arrived in Havana about 1909 and soon rivaled the danzón in popularity. However, it was the “Sexteto Habanero,” founded in 1918, which first interpreted the provincial son for a cosmopolitan audience in the Cuban capital.
The son combines rhythmic and percussion patterns of African (primarily Bantu) origin with string instruments of Spanish origin (e.g., guitar, tres), creating a uniquely Cuban sound within a universally Latin lyrical tradition. Music characterized by its strong syncopation, the clave beat defines the son rhythmically. The beat takes its name from the claves, Afro-Cuban instruments made of hardwood cylinders that produce a resonant, high-pitched sound. Lyrically, the decima and the punto guajiro, Spanish poetic forms sung in Cuban countryside, are salient influences accounting for the improvisational nature of the son. In the son, the sung verses alternate with a refrain in a question-answer arrangement between the singer and the chorus. Themes addressed in the son’s popular poetry range from the amorous to patriotic and socio-political topics in Cuban history.
The genre flourished in its purest form in the 1920s and 1930s. In addition to Ignacio Piñerio (1888-1969) and his “Sexteto (later Septeto) Nacional,” with classic compositions such as Échale salsita (1933), leading interpreters of the son genre included Miguel Matamoros (1894-1971) and his “Trío Matamoros” with their perennial Son de la loma (1928) and Moisés Simons (1889-1945) who composed El Manisero (1930).
Singer-composer Benny Moré (1919-1963) and his band energized the son with renditions in the 1940s and 1950s, both in Cuba and internationally, particularly in Mexico. Many of the so-called “rumbas” popular during the Latin dance craze that swept the United States in the 1930s, resembled the son. Miguelito Valdés (1916-1978), a vocalist-percussionist who rose to fame with the “Casino de la Playa” orchestra, popularized the son in the U.S. with the big Latin band sounds of Xavier Cugat (1900-1990). Valdés was the original Mr. Babalú. However, a second Mr. Babalú eclipsed the first in American pop culture: Desi Arnaz, of I Love Lucy fame, who also began his entertainment career performing in New York with Cugat’s band. Likewise, the mambo and cha-cha-chá of the 1940s and 1950s were up-tempo forms of the son. However, it was Arsenio Rodríguez (1911-1970) who modernized the son by adding one or more trumpets in his conjunto (ensemble or group) and breaking the septet mold. After arriving in New York City in 1949, Rodríguez established a veritable following among local Latin musicians (particularly Puerto Ricans). Indeed, salsa, defined by one music scholar as the “son’s rebellious daughter,” owes much to the innovations introduced by Arsenio Rodríguez.