The son is one of Cuba's most salient expressive genres, permeating all Cuban music and keenly influencing international salsa and popular Latin dance. It originated in rural eastern Oriente province after French sugar planters arrived with their slaves in the 1790s, fleeing the Haitian revolution. Cane workers fused the décima lyrical form of Spain with their own African percussion traditions to develop the son, which itself grew out of the Afro-Cuban rumbero tradition. The son ensemble includes vocals, tres, claves, bongó, maracas, bass and (in the classic septet) trumpet. Emerging late in the 19th century, the son's two-part structure includes the estribillo, in which the vocalist solos, and the montuno, involving a call-and-response between chorus and lead singer, as the latter improvises lyrically and melodically, sometimes joined by the tres, trumpet and bongó.
This two-volume compilation covers a critical early phase of Cuban music's most seminal 20th-century stylistic innovation, with extensive notes, bilingual lyric transcriptions and photos. Documented are six groups working in Cuba in the late 1920s: Sexteto Boloña, Sexteto Machin, Sexteto Matancero, Sexteto Munamar, Sexteto Nacional and Sexteto Occidente. (Conspicuously absent is the seminal Sexteto Habanero, the only group still making music today. Their early work is available on a separate pair of Arhoolie cassette reissues, and on Tumbao's comprehensive 4-CD box set of Habanero's recordings between 1925-1931.)
These recordings reveal the son as a full-blown genre; much of the repertoire will be familiar to aficionados, testifying to the music's staying power. Just as striking is the array of Cuban musical luminaries represented here, including singer Abelardo Barroso, trumpeter Félix Chappottín, Antonio Machín (Sexteto Machín), Sexteto Matancero founder and tresero Isaac Oviedo, Sexteto Nacional founder Ignacio Piñeiro, and Sexteto Occidente founder María Teresa Vera. Taken together, Sextetos Cubanos richly document the son's emergence as an urban, cosmopolitan genre whose hybrid cultural inspiration remains fundamental to the music of the Americas. - Michael Stone