History and Customs
The customs of the Cuban people stem from African and Spanish roots, but there are visible influences from American, Asian, and other European cultures. A long history of Spanish colonialism, the persistence of the slave trade into the late 1800s, and the political and social revolution of 1959, set the stage for this complex mixture of different, often contradicting factors that make up modern Cuban culture.
When the Spanish invaded Cuba in the late 1400s, aboriginal groups—the Guanahatabey, Ciboney, and Taíno—inhabited the island, but were quickly eliminated or died as a result of disease and trauma. Thus, the impact of indigenous groups on Cuban society was limited. Colonial society grew slowly, but Spanish culture, institutions, language, and religion prevailed on the island for hundreds of years. For more than 3 centuries after the conquest, Cuba remained an unimportant stopping point for Spanish ships in route between Spain and the New World. But the intensive cultivation of sugar that began at the turn of the nineteenth century changed Cuba into a plantation society, and their demand for African slaves increased dramatically.
The strong influence of Africa in Cuban culture can be traced back to the 19th Century Catholic church supported “cabildos” (self-organized clubs of Africans of a single ethnicity). Ironically it was in these social clubs that Afro-Cuban religions and identities coalesced. The cabildos were mainly separated into 4 groups: the Yoruba – from Nigeria (Santeria, Lucumi or Regla de Ocha in Cuba), the Congolese (Bantú/Palo in Cuba), Dahomey (Fon or Arará), and the Abakua (from the Camaroons). Each group maintaining its connection to their language, music, family, and traditions helped preserve specific African practices in Cuba that were otherwise lost in many other parts of the Americas.
In the late 1800’s, America’s economic influence and power threatened to diminish this Afro-Cuban national identity, but in some ways served to further solidify the nationalist sentiment. Many people sought to make their connection with their Afro-Cubanness even stronger. And through music, dance and adherence to their own cultural identity, the people showed that they wanted to be free of foreign cultural and ideological influence.
After the revolution in 1959, Afro-Cubanism started to fill a new role in society as an art form, with the founding of government supported Afro-Cuban dance companies like the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba. This change from Afro-Cuban culture mainly being expressed at in-home religious parties, to the traditions moving into a theatrical setting for entertainment, kept these rich African-based practices in the forefront of the Cuban society.
Music, Dance, and Art
Support for the Arts
Cuban culture has been in a state of constant transformation since the revolution in 1959, and the government has played an important role in creating an atmosphere rich for creativity. The state supports promising artists and schools, and can be credited with founding the Cuban Film Institute, the National Cultural Council, and the Ministry of Culture in 1976, which directs public arts education through the National School for the Arts in music, dance, visual arts, ballet, and theater.
Cuba is known for producing some some of the best music in the world, mainly in Jazz and Salsa, but you can also find everything from Rock to Hip Hop and Classical. A combination of great music education, raw talent and passion for the arts, form the foundation for this “music on every corner” culture. Today, famous Cuban musicians travel the globe representing the small, but strong musical force from the island.
Dancing comes as naturally as breathing to most Cubans. It is part of daily life and is also well supported in the arts education system. Many dance genres can be found on the island including Modern, Afro-Cuban, Popular dance, Flamenco and Ballet. You can see the beautiful fusion of Spanish and African movements, and modern and traditional influences unfold in the dance styles. The Cuban National Ballet School in Havana is the largest ballet school in the world, with approximately 3,000 students.
In the past, art was ideologically constrained by state censors. But now that Cuban art has become popular in the United States and Europe and is a potential source of external revenue from tourists and art dealers, the government has become more permissive. The international art world has taken great interest in Cuban artistic production, creating more space for freedom of expression and even protest art.
Havana hosts the internationally renowned New Latin American Film Festival every year. Filmmaking holds a special a revered place in Cuban culture and there are several recognized filmmakers from the island. Cubans love going to the cinema; it is a favored and inexpensive form of recreation, with entry being only around 15¢.
Writers enjoy the privileged position of visionary thinkers, partly a result of the fact that the hero of Cuban nationalism was a poet, José Martí. In the early years of the Revolution, there was considerable censorship in writing. It was not allowed to criticize the government in anyway, but the state started to relax censorship in 1987, and now allows some critical ideas to be debated, as long as debate does not incite rebellion.
It’s safe and legal to travel to Cuba. Find out more about Our Cuba Tours.