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Cuban Country

by Judy Cantor-Navas

Cuban Country

About this playlist

"Country music" usually serves as the name for a distinctly U.S. sound. But far from Nashville, music from the fields and farmhouses of Latin America tells its own story of roots, romance and everyday rural life. We start our series on the rich traditions of country music from places where Spanish or Portuguese are spoken with a focus on the acoustic Cuban son, known around the world from the Buena Vista Social Club recordings.

In Santiago, in Eastern Cuba, the signature mix of African and Spanish rhythms was born. There and around Cuba, with the sea, the mountains and neighbors' gossip for inspiration, musicians keep the tradition alive at the Casas de la Trova. At the no-frills community centers, the public is welcome to join, marking the beat on clave rhythm sticks while singers challenge each other, making up lyrics in the poetic form called décimas.

The "son is very simple," the great singer and guitarist Eliades Ochoa explained to me one Sunday at Santiago's Casa de la Trova, in the days just before Buena Vista made him an international star. "It's a tres, some bongos, a pair of claves, some maracas. The music shouldn't be written down, and the musicians playing it don't have to know each other. We just get together and I grab a tres, another guy grabs the bongos, another the maracas, and there's the son. That's all you need."

Press play to hear music by Ochoa with his band Cuarteto Patria and his beloved collaborator Compay Segundo, and meet Cuba's country queen, Celina González. We've included classics by Santiago-born legend Miguel Matamoros and early 20th-century star Guillermo Portabales, along with current performers like Septeto Santiaguero and Albita Rodriguez, and, of course, the best known Cuban song about a guajira -- a country girl -- from Guantanamera.

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