The rhythm in American and Cuban music.

Cuban and American music: what do they have in common from a rhythmic point of view? Do they relate to each other in some way? First of all, American and Cuban music reciprocated melodies, rhythms and harmonies, not to forget that the two countries shared musicians for centuries.

In this regard, it must be noted that cultural and musical exchanges between New Orleans and Havana are centuries old, and that New Orleans early jazz musicians used to be well aware of Cuban music, even if they were developing their own original form of music: jazz.

Quoting Jelly Roll Morton, one of the great pianists of the XX Century, self-proclaimed inventor of jazz, “if you can't manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz” (from his interview with Alan Lomax, recorded for the Library of the Congress).

Obviously, when citing the Spanish tinge, Morton was referring to the Cuban rhythms that could be heard for centuries in New Orleans, well before jazz was “invented”; in other words, our pianist was stating the rhythmic distance of the early jazz from the more developed Cuban rhythms, while maintaining that their employment was in some way an essential part of jazz. 

It sounds controversial, but his words totally make sense. After all, music from all the Americas share, in a very general way, the same African origins, and before exploring the main differences between American and Cuban music, I think that we can find their common trait d’union in the syncopation created by the hemiola. 

Being the hallmark of Sub-Saharan music, hemiola can be seen a cross-rhythm or a cross-beat, and both of them contributed, in different ways, to create new rhythms, and consequentially new music styles. 

As a cross-rhythm, the hemiola is the pattern resulting from playing three beats in a 2/4 bar or vice-versa. Since an odd against an even number disrupts the unit, this irregular pattern creates something called syncopation.

A triplet in 2/4 time signature


Two dotted quarter notes in 3/4 time signature


On the other end, syncopation in the cross-beat hemiola happens at the beat level: straight notes are played as triplets. Notated usually as straight eighth notes (with the indication “shuffle feel”), the swing translates two straight eighth notes into eighth note triplets, as shown below here. 

Shuffle feel 


And this is how it sounds a shuffle, compared to straight eighth notes.

Eighth note straight.mp3

From a general perspective, cross-rhythm syncopation is at the root of Cuban music, while cross-beat ensured the success of US music during the last century. 

But why Cuba and US developed such a different rhythmic perspective in music? Let’s look at some historic data:

  • the ignominious Atlantic Slave Trade brought to the Americas peoples from different regions of Africa, and therefore with a different music heritage. Considering only the big numbers of this forced migration, the slave trade in Cuba involved primarily people from the Congo region (and secondarily the Yoruba population), while in the US the black population traces its origins to the northern region of Sudan, converted to Islam centuries ago.


In this map of the African continent I circled in red the country of Congo, corresponding approximately to the region where Spanish took the working force for the Cuban sugar plantations. The green circle corresponds to the Yoruba region, the coastal western Nigeria of our days.


The blue circle is the Sudanese region, where British enslaved the local population and embarked part of that to their Northern American colonies as new agricultural workforce. 

Picture courtesy of: BobarinoAfrican continent-fr.svg: Eric Gaba (Sting - Sting) - African continent-fr.svg, CC BY-SA 2.5,

  • since Cuba has been one of the latest countries in the Americas to outlaw slavery in 1886 (with the last known slave ship arriving in Cuba as late as 1873), it wasn’t rare at the beginning of the XX Century to find people with a stronger connection with their African homeland, compared to the black community in the US. 

  • As noted by Ned Sublette in “Cuba and its music: from the first drums to the mambo”, the bigger connection of black Cubans with Africa can be found, unfortunately, also in the fields. The cotton plantations in the US, as bad as they could be, didn’t kill many slaves like the sugar ones in Cuba. As a consequence, the black population in the US grew through births, while Cuba needed more slave ships to support its global sugar business.  

  • As a direct consequence of the previous point, more people came from Africa to Cuba than in the entire US, with a significative disproportion in numbers. Considering the entire Atlantic slave trade, it is accounted that 5% came to the US, against a staggering 7% in the relatively small territory of Cuba.

  • Slaves in the US were sold in small numbers and mixed with people from other countries and with different cultural heritage, while cabildos in Cuba helped to keep together people from the same African region for a longer period.


If it’s true that all the previous points contributed to create such a different music tradition in Cuba and US, the first point about the African origin of US and Cuban slaves stands above all the others. 

Citing again Sublette: “So what was that eighteenth-century Senegambian-American music like? It swung. When you listen today to traditional music of Mali, the Senegambia, and Guinea, one of its defining characteristics is its loping 12/8”. Sublette, Ned. Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo (p. 165). Chicago Review Press. Kindle Edition.  

It’s no surprise, therefore, that the hallmark of African music in the US, from a rhythmic point of view, can be found in the swing, an original feature found in every American music style. Differently from the Cuban cross-rhythm, where the contrast between odd and even involves time signatures, in the swing this contrast has something to do with the single beat. In fact, the single notes are played in such a way that the same part can be written either in 4/4 or 12/8. 

To understand better this concept, we can use a 4/4 bar of octave notes: when played straight, every note has the exact same duration, but the “swing feel” introduces a new duration: the first octave note is twice as longer than the second. The examples below show better than words this concept.


 To notate the swing feel in a 4/4 bar, we use triplets and link the first two notes, with a ratio of 2:1 between the first two linked octave notes and the last one. 


When playing swing octave notes, the same ratio of 2:1 can be obtained with a 12/8 time signature, by alternating quarter and octave notes. 

One piece of advice: while the previous theory is useful to understand the uneven duration of notes in American music, the best way to internalize that beat is to listen! Even if employed in different ways, there’s swing in jazz, blues, Rock&Roll, R&B and all other music genres born in the US. 

Following a different path, the hemiola has been employed in a totally different way in Cuba. I will start saying that in no way the clave can be considered as a Cuban form of blues music, like someone argued: it’s a completely different thing, and the parallelism is totally deceiving. When musicians talk about or play Cuban music, most of the times they refer to the clave as its main feature. But what is a clave and what is its music role?


Let’s say that, before being a rhythmic pattern, a clave is a wooden instrument that happened to be used in music, even if its original intended use was far from that of a music instrument. In fact, the clave is made of two wooden sticks, or pegs originally used to hold together the new ships built in Havana. The Cuban capital, in fact, replaced the Spanish city of Sevilla as a mayor hub for shipbuilding in the early XVII Century (the Spanish Crown authorized the cutting of trees for shipbuilding in 1620).  


From a musical standpoint, instead, we can define the clave as a rhythmic pattern, able to keep the time in a Cuban ensemble. Considering that the wooden pegs have been used in Havana’s shipyards since the early XVII Century, no one can safely say when exactly the clave became the staple of Cuban music, even if it seems that it took a while before being commonly used as the rhythmic pattern that we know today. 

So, the question now is: how was the African cross-rhythm tradition employed in Cuban music before the clave gained popularity among Cuban musicians? The answer is: with the tresillo, a basic rhythmic cell, not originally found in American music. As a clear example of hemiola, the tresillo is a three notes pattern played in an even time signature that developed from older rhythms like danzòn and Habanera. 

Cuban danzòn: a three notes straight pattern, used a half note followed by two quarter notes. 


From the danzòn to Habanera: the first half note is replaced by a quarter dotted note, followed by a syncopated octave note at the “end of 2”.    


As a tied over version of the Habanera, tresillo keeps the end of 2 syncopation.


Considered an evolution of the tresillo, in the basic son bassline the last quarter of the first measure is linked to the first beat of the second one.


The chord of the second measure is therefore anticipated on the last beat of the first bar (anticipated bass). It is believed that such a movement from the bass was possible when the clave became the time-keeper of the band, leaving therefore more rhythmic freedom to the bass.


As we mentioned above, since when Cuban music became increasingly popular in the US, so did the clave. An important contribution to unlock the clave came in the past decades from the American theory of 3-2, 2-3 clave. 

Let’s start by saying that the clave pattern, created by simply hitting the sticks, is usually notated in cut time as a two bars rhythm, and can be of son or rumba. The first one originated from Havana, while the second one was born in the eastern region of Matanzas. Depending on the number of strikes occurring on the first and second bar, this rhythmic pattern is further subdivided in 3-2 or 2-3. Check the examples below.

3-2 son clave, sometimes referred as forward son clave. As you can see, three strikes on the first bar and two on the second. 


2-3 son clave, also called reverse son clave, two strikes on the first bar and three on the second.


The rumba clave is essentially the same as the son, with the only exception of the octave note on the end of beat 4, instead of a quarter note.    

3-2 rumba clave


2-3 rumba clave


The previous clave theory of 3-2 and 2-3 explains in a relatively easy and convenient way how to play in a Cuban ensemble without being “lost in the rhythm”, following the pattern dictated by the two wooden sticks. 

All this being said, we come back to the original question: what do Cuban and American music share? Syncopation, employed in two very different ways, but having in mind the same goal: dance, the main reason of African music. 

In the music from US, syncopation can be defined as an uneven single beat, creating that waving, danceable effect known as swing. On the Cuban side, the syncopation is the result of a cross rhythm that evolved through the centuries into a multitude of different rhythms, with one common characteristic: an odd number of beats into even time signatures.    

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