Cuban Son Complex – Roots of Cuban Music

Cuban music is a vast Diaspora but can basically be broken down into 5 generic styles. These are son, rumba, Cuban song, danzon, and punto. This article will discuss the first, and arguably most well known style of Cuban music, son.

The first Son music in Cuba — Nengon

Nengon could be considered the father of both changui and Cuban son music as we know it today. Nengon changed into changui in Guantanamo, and son (the sub style, not the generic style) in Santiago de Cuba. Kiriba, which we talk about later, also had a role in becoming changui when it fused with nengon. Nengon is also identifiable by its constant alternation of the singer and a chorus.

Nengon was traditionally played with a tingotalango or tumbandera. Basically the tingotalango is made from a tree which has a rope tied to it and pulled down. The other end is then tied to a rock in a hole functioning as a contra-bass. Of course, the marimbula took over after its invention and eventually the bass was used.

Modern nengon is played with a changui ensemble, so from a practical point of view, a group is playing nengon when the parts are much simpler and with very little or no syncopation. Clave, as it is now know, hadn’t been invented yet so the time is just straight quarter notes.

Kiriba — Music From Baracoa Cuba

Kiriba comes from the Baracoa region of Cuba, which is coincidentally where changui was created. Changui was invented where kiriba and nengon join together in a fusion of the 2 styles. Son was the result of nengon evolving without the influnce of kiriba.

Like nengon, the kiriba’s identifying feature is the constant alternation of improvisational verses sung by a soloist and a chorus. Generally kiriba is played with tres, bongos, maracas, guiro, and marímbula, (this ensemble is similar to the changui). Nengon and Kiriba are practiced in the mountain regions of Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo.

Changui — Traditional Music From Guantanamo Cuba

Changui was born in Guantanamo Province, Cuba (specifically the Baracoa area) from a fusion of nengon and kiriba. We discussed nengon and kiriba above, but many people still ask when is a song changüi or nengon or kiriba? You will likely get some conflicting answers depending on who you ask. It is fairly easy to answer from an academic point of view, but you will likely have some questions. Let’s try to answer them.

So when can we say that we are playing changui and not nengon? Most musicologists will answer that it is the instrumentation. If the ensemble consists of bongo, Cuban tres, guayo, marimbula, and a singer, you are playing changüi. It is also important to recognize that changüi (as well as kiriba and nengon) do not have what is today thought of as son clave. All of these styles had the pulse on the downbeats, usually played by the guayo in changüi.

A Musicians View of Changui

Musicians who play these styles will often consider a song a changui anytime the bongo player and the tres player are playing very syncopated lines which start on the 16th note ahead of the beat. Just remember though that the real difference between changui and the earlier style is instrumentation and the repetitive chorus and singing in nengon and kiriba.

Another problem is that someone from Guantanamo who plays “Cuban” music is often times considered a changuicerro. A good example of this is Elio Reve, who does play Son with some changui elements, but this style of Cuban music is really Son Moderno.


You may wonder why there is so much emphasis on the eastern parts of Cuba. It is not that there is no music in the western and central areas, it just evolved differently. There are definite sub-styles of son from these regions, especially sucu-sucu, but most musicologists agree that son was born in the mountains of Oriente (Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba).

For more information about these Cuban son styles and to find recorded examples:

Salsa Blanca Cuban Music

Look for these CD’s:

Con Sabor Al Guaso

Retrospective Of Cuban Music

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