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date: 20 April 2024

Music and Eastern Cuban Identityfree

Music and Eastern Cuban Identityfree

  • Rebecca BodenheimerRebecca BodenheimerIndependent Scholar


On the one hand, Cubans from Havana tend to paint themselves as the quintessential representation of Cubanidad (Cubanness) and often enjoy all the visibility, especially from a global perspective. This trend has become even more pronounced since the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States in December 2014. On the other hand, eastern Cubans often view their culture and history as absolutely crucial to the development and identity of the nation. The central role of Oriente (eastern Cuba) in both the late 19th-century Wars of Independence and the 1959 Cuban Revolution buttresses this alternative discourse. In terms of Cuba’s musical history, Oriente has contributed in major ways to the development of national genres, particularly with son, but also in terms of the 19th-century social dance contradanza and the Haitian influence in popular and folkloric Cuban music. The most recent contribution has been the introduction of reggaeton into the Cuban context by a Santiago-based rapper.

In this study of the discourse of eastern Cuban musicians, as well as the work of Cuban and foreign scholars, the centrality of regional traditions to the development of national genres is considered. Unlike hegemonic representations of Cuban musical history, these narratives often foreground the links to and influences from other Caribbean islands, particularly Haiti. This discursive emplacement of eastern Cuba at the center of Cuban musical creativity is clearly a reaction to the common marginalization of the region within the national production of knowledge, represented by scholars from the capital and some foreign researchers. Havana-centric perspectives are counterbalanced by foregrounding those of eastern Cuba.


  • History of the Caribbean
  • Afro-Latin History
  • Cultural History

“Soy Cubano y Soy de Oriente”: Music and Eastern Cuban Identity

Para gozar, La Habana

To have fun, Havana

Para disfrutar, La Habana

To enjoy yourself, Havana

Está llena de emigrantes que llegan

It’s full of emigrants who arrive

y no se van

and never leave

Siempre son bien recibidos y

They are always welcomed and

se les brinda amistad

offered friendship

Los encantan las mujeres y

They are captivated by the women

el ambiente popular,

and the down-home atmosphere,

Y es que encuentran en La Habana

And it’s simply that in Havana they

el paraíso terrenal

find heaven on earth

“Para Gozar, La Habana,” Clave y Guaguancó1

Habaneros (people from Havana) tend to paint themselves as the quintessential representation of Cubanidad (Cubanness) and enjoy the bulk of the island’s visibility from a global perspective. This trend has been even more pronounced since the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States in December 2014, and the influx of American media outlets and celebrities into Havana.2 However, orientales, eastern Cubans, often view their culture and history as absolutely crucial to the development and identity of the nation. The central role of Oriente (eastern Cuba) in both the late 19th-century Wars of Independence and the 1959 Cuban Revolution supports this alternative discourse. In terms of Cuba’s musical history, Oriente has contributed in major ways to the development of national genres, particularly son, but also in terms of the 19th-century social dance genre contradanza and the traditional song/ballad genre called trova. The most recent example is the introduction of reggaeton into the Cuban context in the early 2000s by orientales, specifically the Santiago-based rapper Candyman. How are we to reconcile these competing discourses?

The discourse of eastern Cuban musicians, as well as the work of Cuban and foreign scholars, sheds light on the centrality of eastern Cuban traditions to the development of national genres. Unlike hegemonic representations of Cuban musical history, these narratives often foreground the links to and influences from other Caribbean islands, notably Haiti and Jamaica. This discursive emplacement of Oriente at the center of Cuban musical creativity may be seen as a reaction to its common peripheralization within the national production of knowledge, represented by scholars from the capital and some foreign researchers. In this vein, the literature has sometimes aimed to present a revisionist history of certain genres of Cuban music, effectively displacing the narrative of eastern Cuban influence and replacing it with a more Havana-centric perspective. As Cuban reggaeton (and contemporary Cuban popular music more generally) gains greater international visibility, with an almost exclusive focus on groups from Havana, another discursive erasure appears to be on the horizon. Thus, the goal here is to counterbalance Havana-centric perspectives by foregrounding those of Oriente.

Regionalism in Cuba

Regionalism has a long history in Cuba, evidenced by the long-standing rivalry between the island’s two major cities, Havana and Santiago, which are symbols of western and eastern Cuban identity, respectively. Expressions of regionalism are pervasive within everyday social relations, although acknowledgment and examination of this issue are largely absent in both Cuban and U.S. academic scholarship.3 Despite the Revolutionary government’s rhetoric, which stresses national unity and celebrates the population’s ongoing dedication to socialist ideals of egalitarianism, Cubans cling tightly to their regional identities (Fig. 1). This means not only a fierce loyalty to one’s province of birth, but often an explicit antagonism toward other provinces, particularly between habaneros and orientales, which is largely played out on the streets of Havana.

Figure 1: Map of Cuba’s 15 Provinces After the Most Recent Administrative Division in 2011. Havana is located in the western province of La Habana, and Santiago is located in the southeastern province of Santiago de Cuba. Oriente is made up of the following provinces: Las Tunas, Granma, Holguín, Santiago de Cuba, and Guantánamo.

A long and deep history of regionalism undergirds contemporary tensions and dates back to the early colonial period, when Oriente was largely neglected by colonial officials, resulting in differential development between the two regions. In the mid-19th century, while central and western Cuba were enjoying the economic boom produced by high levels of slave-driven sugar production, eastern Cuba suffered from an economic downturn and the effects of harsh taxation by the colonial government. These conditions contributed greatly to what historian Ada Ferrer terms the “geography of insurgency,”4 or the fact that eastern Cuba was the site of the first rebellion in 1868 that began the 30-year struggle for independence. Not surprisingly, Cuban plantation owners in the western and central provinces, which boasted the highest concentrations of slaves, were firmly opposed to abolition and by extension the independence struggles, which were led by an Afro-Cuban native of Oriente, Antonio Maceo.

Oriente’s tradition of rebellion did not end with the Wars of Independence. The Cuban Revolution officially began on July 26, 1953, with a failed attack on the Moncada barracks in the eastern city of Santiago led by Fidel Castro, a native of Holguín Province in northern Oriente. From that point on, guerrilla activity was based in the Sierra Maestra mountain range in the provinces of Santiago and Granma. Thus, like the struggle for independence from Spain, the Cuban Revolution has been unequivocally linked to Oriente, evidenced by the fact that the city of Santiago is known as la cuna de la Revolucíon (the cradle of the Revolution).

Contemporary Regionalism

The long-standing regionalist tensions between eastern and western Cuba have been exacerbated by the marked increase in migration to Havana by Cubans from the countryside, particularly orientales,5 since the “Special Period.” This term was coined by Fidel Castro to refer to the period of severe rationing and shortages in food, gas, electricity, medicine, and other products in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet bloc, when Cuba’s economy contracted by 35 to 40%. Like the natives of many capitals throughout the world, Havana natives consider every locale beyond the capital, even large cities like Santiago, to be el campo (the countryside). Many habaneros resent orientales, whom they view as having colonized large sections of their city, packing themselves and their numerous relatives into crumbling, colonial apartment buildings and contributing greatly to the deterioration of the capital’s once-great architectural accomplishments. Furthermore, Havana natives tend to paint orientales as the main culprits responsible for petty theft and hustling-oriented crime targeting tourists. Many habaneros assume that orientales’ intentions in migrating to Havana are sinister, whether to try to make a living jineteando (hustling tourists, which can involve a large variety of activities, including the exchange of sex for material goods or money) or to engage in the illicit buying and selling of goods on the black market.

The enduring force of regionalist sentiment is illustrated by the pervasive use in Havana of the term palestinos (Palestinians) to refer to eastern Cubans. This term not only reveals the long-standing unequal power dynamics between Havana and eastern Cuba, but also contains racialized overtones. The term imagines a parallel between the long-standing political conflict in Palestine/Israel and the antagonism between Havana natives and orientales in the Cuban capital. Considering the fact that Israelis occupy significant portions of Palestinian land, use of the term “palestino” to refer to orientales is curious because the orientales are characterized by habaneros not as the occupied (the situation of actual Palestinians) but as the occupiers of Havana. Nonetheless, use of the term seems to be related partly to the perception that eastern Cuban migrants are like refugees from a foreign country who have no real homeland.

As will be evident later, this term also circulates widely within Cuban popular music. In addition, popular discourses invoking regionalism are mirrored by a corresponding marginalization of eastern Cuban culture and the production of knowledge by eastern Cuban scholars. Most national histories of music discuss only one eastern Cuban tradition, tumba francesa, ignoring a range of other popular and folkloric traditions such as conga, a genre associated with Cuban Carnival celebrations (an example can be seen here).6

The Battle over Son’s Origins

The Cuban son has long been considered to be Cuba’s national music and dance genre because of its relatively “equal” incorporation of Spanish and African musical elements—which corresponds to the idealized Cuban citizen within the nationalist hybridity discourse. Son is generally thought to have emerged from rural eastern Cuba in the mid-19th century and to have migrated to Havana around 1910. There is no consensus among Cuban musicologists about the identity of the main agents who brought son to Havana and western Cuba; possible agents of dissemination include eastern Cuban soldiers sent to Havana, eastern Cuban musicians, and eastern Cuban migrant agricultural workers.7 Once son reached Havana, it began evolving in terms of formal structure and instrumentation, in part because it came into contact with other Afro-Cuban music and dance genres that had emerged in western Cuba, namely, the percussion and song genre called rumba. Son reached its apotheosis of popularity in the 1930s and 1940s and was exported to the world as “rumba”8 in 1930 with Don Azpiazu’s performance of “El Manicero” in New York (see the original performance here). It was resurrected in the 1990s with Wim Wender’s Buena Vista Social Club documentary and related recording projects. In contemporary Cuba, while son has not been a popular (i.e., mass-mediated) genre for over 50 years, it is impossible to visit Old Havana without running into a son ensemble catering to tourists’ desires and expectations of what constitutes Cuban music.

Along with the revitalization of son, recently Cuban music scholars have been debating the genre’s provenance. Various scholars have published revisionist histories of son or have highlighted the significance of western Cuban influences on the formation of the genre. These accounts have not necessarily debunked the narrative of how the practice arrived in Havana, although there is still no consensus on exactly how and when son migrated; rather, the trend has been to downplay the influence of rural eastern Cuban traditions that were historically thought to be son’s predecessors. In other words, these scholars argue that the principal features that constitute son as a musical practice were not in place until it arrived in the capital, at which point various elements were added. Two relevant works in this vein are by North American scholars. First, Peter Manuel (2009) argues that very few eastern Cuban musical features of the practice were retained after it migrated to the capital, meaning that son as we know it emerged after arriving in Havana. As Manuel states, “I further call into question the traditional invocation of rural Oriente as the son’s cradle, suggesting that some of the genre’s most basic structural features appear to have been absent in Oriente and probably derived from other sources—especially the creole vernacular song genres and salon dances of Havana of the 1850s–1860s.”9 The second work, by Ivor Miller, focuses on the history of the Nigerian Cross River secret society that was re-created in Cuba and is known as Abakuá (2009). This is another recent source that draws links between a western Cuban tradition (Abakuá) and the development of son. Unlike Manuel, however, Miller does not attempt to rewrite the story of son’s origins, but rather to emphasize how Abakuá music, language, and terminology have infiltrated the ranks of Cuban popular music in general.10

Counterbalancing the attempts to write a revisionist history of son’s origins are accounts that seek to reaffirm the ties between the tradition and eastern Cuba. These arguments have centered on the significance of changüí, a traditional Afro-Cuban dance music genre from the eastern province of Guantánamo that is believed to be one of the main rural antecedents of son (for an example of changüí, see here). When I interviewed Isaias Rojas, director of the folkloric group Ban Rarrá (which specializes in eastern Cuban folklore), he vigorously opposed the notion of a strong Abakuá influence on son, refuting it by way of a discussion of the Franco-Haitian influence on the practice.11 He stressed that traditional son emerged from a variety of eastern Cuban practices that go back to the 19th century but are not well studied, for instance, changüí and its variants such as nengón and kiribá. As Rojas pointed out, all these traditions were heavily influenced by Franco-Haitian sacred and secular practices. In addition, while conceding that son was influenced by rumba when it arrived in the capital, Rojas asserted that the manner of playing the bongó drums in changüí (and, by extension, son) was more reminiscent of the percussion style heard in the tumba francesa12 than in rumba, in that the tumba francesa is more heavily syncopated than the rumba. Isaias opined that the richness of son’s percussion is due to its provenance in Oriente, which nurtured the practice of heavily improvisatory Franco-Haitian practices like tumba francesa (example seen here) and Vodú (the Cuban variant of the Haitian religion Vodou).

Rojas’s assertions regarding the Franco-Haitian musical impact on son via changüí are echoed by ethnomusicologist Benjamin Lapidus, whose research has centered on the history and contemporary performance practice of changüí. On the first page of his book about the practice, he states: “As the Mississippi Delta and the blues are to North American popular music, changüí and Oriente are to salsa.”13 Not mentioned, but implied, is the fact that son is widely considered to be the primary musical antecedent of salsa. Thus, Lapidus firmly places eastern Cuban creativity at the center of national musical tradition, countering the Havana-centric discourses and narratives that tend to keep Oriente on the periphery. Lapidus presents various pieces of evidence of the Franco-Haitian influence on changüí and son, and finds it hardly a coincidence that the most celebrated changüí musicians have been and still are of Haitian descent. Indeed, many of the musicians he discusses throughout the book have French surnames and are active in performing tumba francesa and/or practicing Vodú.14 Lapidus echoes Isaias’s assertion of close similarities between bongó playing in changüí and the drumming in both tumba francesa and Haitian Vodú drumming. In presenting his evidence, Lapidus refers to Ivor Miller’s hypothesis regarding the possibility that the bongó—both its playing style and name—is evidence of early Abakuá influence on son. He refutes Miller’s argument, asserting that the peculiar “howling or moaning sound” made by the glissando on the bongó (a sound also heard in Abakuá drumming) derives from Afro-Haitian sacred and secular percussion music.15

One ideological current that runs throughout Lapidus’s book is the hegemony of Havana-based scholarship and production of knowledge vis-à-vis the country’s musical traditions. One of the principal contributions of his book is the presentation of the perspectives of local, Guantánamo-based music scholars on the history of changüí and son. Lapidus recounts a tense scholarly exchange between Havana-based musicologists Olavo Alén Rodríguez and Ana Casanova on one hand and local scholars on the other during the annual changüí festival in 1998. He states, “In the face of assertions by non-local musicologists, local musicians feel their view of Cuban musical history is neglected. Locals feel that the nonlocal nationalist musical project—as expressed by Alén and Casanova—does not position changüí accurately, because the music does not fit into the established criteria for either black or white music or son. Changüiseros see their music as being both black and música campesina [‘country music,’ associated with rural peasants and usually coded as ‘white’], rural and urban, often even calling their music rumba . . . [T]he racial categorization of folk music in Cuba is essentialist and outmoded, and denies local narratives of history.”16 Thus, local music scholars critique Havana-based musicologists not only for ignoring the specificities of changüí as a musical practice, but also for reifying racially essentialist taxonomies of Cuban music that have been dominant for almost a century.

Next discussed is a particularly strident musical assertion of eastern Cuban pride within popular dance music,17 an intervention that served as a response to discursive marginalization of orientales by Cuba’s most important musical group since the Revolution, Los Van Van.

“Soy Cubano y Soy de Oriente”

Released in the mid-1980s, “Soy Cubano y Soy de Oriente” (I’m Cuban and I’m from Oriente) was conceived as a response to Los Van Van’s hit song “La Habana No Aguanta Más” (Havana Can’t Take Anymore).18 What Havana couldn’t take any more of, according to the legendary dance band, was the overcrowding of the capital produced by internal migration from el campo, the interior provinces (see performance of song here). Los Van Van’s song is framed as a sort of morality tale directed at the narrator’s relatives, in which the lead singer makes an appeal for them to consider the greater social good, and not just their own individual desires to move to the capital. There are references to the construction of housing and schools, and to entertainment and food venues all over the island, which detail the attractive living conditions outside Havana and try to convince people to stay in their own provinces. While the narrator never provides any autobiographical details, the meanings of this message must be inferred in light of the regional identity of lead singer Pedrito Calvo, who is from Santiago. Given the fact that he addresses his family members directly, singing “Take it easy, my family, cuz Havana can’t take anymore,” the audience can only assume that orientales are the main culprits responsible for overcrowding in Havana.19

Speaking back to the defensive posture of “La Habana No Aguanta Más,” the eastern Cuban dance band Orquesta Original de Manzanillo released “Soy Cubano y Soy de Oriente” in 1985 (here is a clip of the band performing the song at the Glorieta in Manzanillo, a monument mentioned in the lyrics). The discursive counterattack was led by singer Cándido Fabré, from the small town of San Luis near Santiago; Fabré was widely considered to be one of the best vocal improvisers in Cuban popular music. “Soy Cubano y Soy de Oriente” contradicts the notion that orientales always travel to Havana with the intention of staying and asserts the significance of Oriente’s musical contributions to Cuban popular music as a whole.

Fabré utilizes different narrative techniques to respond to Los Van Van’s assertions. He affirms the availability of housing and other services all across the island, proclaiming that one need not travel to Havana and that any Cuban city provides the necessary conditions for living well. However, by listing the monuments and attractions unique to the capital and to locales in Oriente, Fabré also makes a broader statement about the diversity that characterizes the island. He asserts that just as the capital building, cathedral, and malecón (seaside promenade) are unique to Havana, Oriente has unparalleled sites of natural beauty and historic importance, such as the colonial city of Bayamo and Santiago’s Moncada Barracks, where the Cuban Revolution was launched in 1953. This counters Los Van Van’s homogenizing rhetoric implying that all places offer more or less the same amenities. Just as Fabré details eastern Cuba’s attractions, the song’s title discursively emplaces eastern Cuban identity at the center of Cubanidad and thus challenges the implication that orientales are not as “native” to Cuba as habaneros are. This notion is more pervasive than ever in Havana, with a range of derogatory terms, such as “palestinos” and “indocumentados” (undocumented people), used to refer to eastern migrants.

With the line “Although I’m from the boondocks, no one can fool me,” Fabré wears his “countryness” and regional identity proudly, thus flipping the traditional denigration of people from el campo on its head and admonishing Calvo for not acting hospitably toward other easterners in Havana. He juxtaposes Calvo’s (and habaneros’) unwelcoming behavior with his own hospitality, stating that, although his home is humble, the doors are always open for all his countrymen, no matter where they’re from.

Fabré issues perhaps his most witty and caustic barb when referencing the origins of Cuba’s national genre, singing, “Why don’t they [habaneros] return the son back here to Oriente?” Here he alludes to the history of son, which originated in Oriente and was brought to the capital in the first decade of the 20th century, where it became a symbol of Cubanidad both on the island and abroad. The implication is that son (and eastern Cuban musical creativity in general) has been appropriated by habaneros and redefined as the island’s quintessential musical practice. Furthermore, Fabré could be interpreted as issuing a veiled critique at the many eastern Cuban musicians, such as Calvo, who have abandoned Oriente for the capital and apparently forgotten their regional roots. In fact, Fabré constitutes a rare case in that he never relocated to Havana like so many other eastern Cuban musicians did, preferring to maintain his home base in Oriente. When asked about this decision by a journalist in 2013, he responded, “Someone has to stay in this region to continue representing Oriente from here, which means to continue representing one single nation named Cuba.”20

In line with this perspective, the last section of the song reveals two very different and conflicting discursive aims. The first appears to be a call for cross-regional unity, as evidenced in Fabré’s invocation of the two most celebrated figures in the struggle for Cuban independence—Antonio Maceo and José Martí—and the fact that both were born and died in “opposite regions” fighting for the same noble cause. This unifying discourse is also displayed in Fabré’s suggestion that the island’s beauty lies in its diversity and in his assertion that all Cubans would be welcome at his home. The last several lines of Fabré’s solo, however, are characterized by a more aggressive, critical tone. He sings: “Let’s see, you, you, where are you from?,” thus challenging Calvo and other musicians from Oriente living in Havana to come out of the regional closet and reveal their true identity. Finally, the last line of the song is loaded with double meaning: “The sun rises here and hides in the west.” Certainly, Fabré could have used other words to refer to the sun’s daily trajectory, like the obvious choice of “sets,” but he chose the word “hides,” perhaps lending the phrase a more sinister tone. Once again, he seems to be implying that musical creativity and brilliance (the shining sun) originate in Oriente and travel to Occidente, never to be heard from again, thus leaving the east bereft of its talent. Discussions with eastern Cuban folkloric musicians and the trajectory of Cuban reggaeton suggest that this is both a common perspective among eastern Cubans and a trend in terms of the dissemination of regional musical practices.

Folklore Oriental and Eastern Cuban Identity

Conversations with a number of Santiago-based musicians regarding the status of folklore oriental, eastern Cuban folklore, revealed that among the diverse traditions that comprise folklore oriental are the tumba francesa and Vodú, and, to a certain extent, changüí.21 Why is it that folklore oriental has received so little scholarly attention as compared with folkloric traditions historically practiced in western Cuba, such as rumba, Abakuá, and Santería, the well-researched Yoruba-derived religion and musical practice? In fact, rumba and Santería are commonly represented as the folklore of Cuba, while the corresponding traditions from Oriente are represented in regional terms. Many of the Santiago-based musicians I spoke with were optimistic, stating that folklore oriental has received more recognition in recent decades. This phenomenon is largely due to widespread internal migration to Havana, including the relocation of various folkloric groups from Oriente to the capital, such as the above-mentioned Ban Rarrá, as well as the fact that many well-known Havana folkloric groups count eastern Cubans among their members. Interestingly, some musicians interviewed tended to privilege eastern Cuban traditions when comparing them with the more widely disseminated western Cuban folklore.

Isaias Rojas, director of Ban Rarrá, noted an increased interest among university students attending the Instituto Superior del Arte in Havana (ISA, Cuba’s primary institution of higher learning for the visual and performing arts), some of whom are conducting research on folklore oriental. Not surprisingly, many of them are from Oriente. Published research in this area is still lagging behind that of western Cuban folkloric practices, although it should be emphasized that publication is difficult for any scholar on the island. In his capacity as a dance instructor at the ISA, Isaias claimed to be the first person to introduce teaching methods for eastern Cuban traditions beyond tumba francesa, which was already established.22

Ramón Márquez, musical director of the prominent Santiago-based folkloric group Cutumba, emphasized the cultural hegemony of Havana vis-à-vis national folkloric traditions. He noted that Cutumba’s significance has been obscured when compared to the prestige enjoyed by the capital’s corresponding group, the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional, partly because Cutumba suffers from a lack of TV and radio promotion.23 Because media attention is geared toward Havana groups, Márquez added, Cutumba’s opportunities for lucrative foreign tours are diminished. He foregrounded the symbolic importance of the name of Havana’s premier folkloric group, the National Folkloric Troupe, suggesting that this was a misnomer. In reality, he said, the group represents the capital city and perhaps the western region, but not the nation as a whole. In other words, folkloric groups located in other provinces are defined in regional terms—the Ballet Folklórico de Oriente or the Ballet Folklórico de Camagüey—while Havana’s troupe is put forth as a national representative, even though it does not often perform other regions’ traditions.

Márquez characterized Santiago’s culture as un archivo (an archive) that has yet to be discovered by folklorists and scholars of culture. On one hand, he spoke of western Cuban culture as almost passé, an already traversed terrain of cultural knowledge: “El Occidente no tiene más nada que brindar” [The West has nothing left to offer.] He saw eastern Cuban culture, on the other hand, as a new frontier, noting that there was still much to be uncovered about Haitian-derived traditions. He also attributed what he felt to be the “richer” folkloric tradition in eastern Cuba to the region’s racial and ethnic diversity, positing that the history of Antillean migration contributed in positive ways to Oriente’s cultural development. Indeed, related to the notion that folklore oriental is “richer,” a common assertion was that eastern Cuban musicians are more completo (or well-rounded) than their western Cuban counterparts. The primary reason given was that they are able to play in all styles, both Eastern and Western.

Several musicians stated that the capital has historically been nourished by the culture of other provinces on the island, including not only Oriente but also western provinces such as Matanzas and Pinar del Río. As an example, a singer with the folkloric group Cutumba stated: “En el Oriente hay religiosos de verdad. Es el campo. Todo eso nace aquí en el campo y se populariza en las ciudades” [In Oriente there are true religious believers. It’s the countryside. All of that [religion] is born here in the countryside and then popularized in the cities].24 Although he conceded that not all religions emerged from the eastern half of the island, his statements were clearly designed to authenticate el campo and the cultural and religious traditions associated with it. In Cuba, the term el campo has both a general meaning, “the countryside,” and a more specific connotation of provinciality and backwardness. Nevertheless, this musician’s statement suggests that people from el campo, including large cities like Santiago, have appropriated this designation to speak about themselves and their traditions in a positive manner—as more authentic, sincere, and down to earth than habaneros.

Another common theme emerging from interviews with eastern Cuban folkloric musicians concerned the origin of national cultural practices, an issue inevitably entangled with tropes of authenticity. In addition to the comments stressing the eastern origins of much of the island’s religious culture and the ways in which the culture of the capital was nourished by eastern Cuban practices, Márquez was insistent that Oriente gave birth to traditions that have defined Cuba’s artistic identity; he mentioned both antecedents of son—changüí and nengón—and a more recent innovation in Cuban dance music, a rhythm called pilón, which emerged in the 1960s. These assertions echo both the critique made by Cándido Fabré in his song “Soy Cubano y Soy de Oriente” regarding the appropriation of eastern Cuban creativity and his attempts to emplace eastern Cuban identity at the center of Cubanidad.

Reggaeton: International Visibility, Regional Erasure

Twenty-first-century Cuba has been largely characterized by the musical soundtrack of reggaeton. The hybrid Latin American genre has become the favored music of Cuban youth, displacing the Cuban dance genre called timba (contemporary Cuban dance music) and redefining the latter as music for tembas, middle-aged people. Reggaeton is a controversial musical practice that is much maligned by revolutionary cultural officials and defenders of socialist morality for its “vulgarity,” overt references to sex, and unabashed celebration of materialist consumption. On a recent trip to Cuba, in a public square in Santiago, one of the many ways in which the genre clashes with revolutionary ideals and policies was witnessed. One of the sound engineers working in Santiago’s Plaza de Marte, where a large open-air sound system had been set up, was playing a variety of Latin dance music genres. He stated that he had been instructed not to play any reggaeton on the sound system. Given the ubiquity of reggaeton in 21st-century Cuba, this directive was most curious, as one is bound to hear the genre everywhere, whether or not it’s played by the state. Nonetheless, reggaeton is still marginalized within official cultural discourse, particularly as it has increased in popularity among Cuban youth, with some officials arguing that it should be banned. Nora Gámez Torres states, “The intolerance against reggaeton is not only a moral question or a fear of a threat coming from a global sound . . . what is at stake is not just music; it is the configuration of a new type of social/political subject—the underclass subject—and its evident political disconnection from socialist values.”25 Notwithstanding the incendiary cultural politics of reggaeton in contemporary Cuba, no one can deny its mass appeal and impact in the past two decades. The relevance of reggaeton to this article lies in the roots of its introduction into Cuba: its national adoption began in Santiago, which provides an interesting parallel to the regionally inflected debate about the origins of son.

Geoffrey Baker (2011) argues that Cuban scholars view reggaeton as unworthy of research for myriad reasons. The primary reasons are that it is a foreign genre whose Cuban proponents have shown little interest in musical “indigenization,” and that it celebrates a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach that flouts the necessity for musical training that is so revered within the Cuban cultural apparatus. Gámez Torres (2012) finds that reggaetoneros (reggaeton musicians) have taken steps to fuse the genre with Cuban popular music, perhaps as a way of countering the critique of foreign influence. Buttressing this point is the fact that there have been many reggaeton–timba collaborations in the past decade and that a local term, Cubatón, has arisen to refer to the practice. A 2008 paper presented by the Center for the Research and Development of Cuban Music (CIDMUC) researchers Neris González Bello, Liliana Casanella Cué, and Grizel Hernández Baguer traces the history and features of reggaeton in Cuba, pinpointing its origins in the early years of the 21st century and identifying Santiago rapper Candyman as the first proponent of the practice on the island. The fact that reggaeton initially enjoyed more popularity in Oriente makes sense, as it is a Caribbean-identified genre that draws heavily on the Jamaican dancehall (as well as American hip-hop) and whose most popular artists have been Puerto Rican. González Bello, Casanella Cué, and Hernández Baguer (2008) note that Candyman’s recordings never reached the level of success attained by later Cuban reggaeton artists, and that he has always been associated more with live shows, where his lyrics are not subjected to censorship. In fact, Candyman himself has stated that he was censored for eight years following the release of a song explicitly critical of police harassment of Cuban citizens, called “Señor Oficial” (Mr. Official); the video for the song shows stark images of police violence.26 Candyman stated of the ban, “They never tell you but you come to realize it because you are no longer hired to perform; you get vetoed . . . The censorship was lifted after eight years but I continue dragging that chain.”27

Interestingly, Candyman echoed what the sound engineer in Santiago had said, that state cultural officials issue stringent limits on the amount of reggaeton that can be played at public events (only 2%).28 He also noted that rules are enforced in uneven ways across the island and are much more relaxed in Havana than in the “cradle of the Revolution,” that is, Santiago; this forces many artists to leave Santiago and move to the capital. Folkloric drummer Ramón Márquez also mentioned this trend in our interview, stating that Candyman was forced to move to Havana to advance his musical career because he faced marginalization by local cultural officials in Santiago.

Márquez saw this as a common problem not only for reggaeton musicians but even for folkloric groups, who flee to the capital because they don’t get institutional support from the local cultural infrastructure. These migrations then feed into and reinforce the hegemony of Havana as the only place on the island where musical creativity can truly flourish. Correspondingly, Havana-based artists like Gente de Zona, Cubanitos 20.02, and Los 4 have enjoyed much more popularity and financial success than their counterparts from Santiago; the only group from Oriente that enjoys a similar degree of recognition is Santiago’s Kola Loca.

Related to Candyman’s discussion of the uneven dissemination and support of reggaeton in different parts of the island, many of his songs have regionalist implications and reference his identity as an oriental. In “Señor Oficial” he explicitly asserts that he represents Santiago and Oriente, and one of his most well-known songs, “El Pru,” takes its title from a homemade fermented drink common in Oriente. Like Cándido Fabré, Candyman has a heightened awareness of regionalist sentiment in Cuba and takes pains to demonstrate pride in his eastern Cuban roots. Another Candyman song discussed by González Bello et al. (2008) issues a critique of a phenomenon termed “regional profiling,” that is, the criminalization of eastern Cuban migrants in Havana. They are often taken in by the police if they are stopped on the street, and they do not possess legal residence in the capital, as identified on their ID card. In this song, Candyman relates going to Havana and being harassed by a policeman who does not initially recognize him. When his friend tells the policeman that he is Candyman, the cop smiles and reveals that he’s also from Oriente.29

Gámez Torres correlates the official rejection of reggaeton with its close association with an “underclass,” much of which in Havana is composed of “illegal rural migrants,”30 who are racialized as black. This analysis is very much in line with other work on the marginalization of eastern Cuban migrants (Bodenheimer, 2015), although Gámez Torres does not touch upon the regionalist dynamics of this reception of reggaeton. She discusses a hit song by the Havana-based reggaeton group Gente de Zona, from their first album in 2008, called “La Palestina” (The Palestinian Girl), which, as was discussed earlier, is a derogatory term referring to eastern Cubans. Her analysis of the song relates to the politics of gender/sexuality in post-Special Period Cuba. She notes that its target of critique is a woman from Oriente who moved to Havana and became romantically involved with the singer, but subsequently “exchanged [him] for money and a visa.”31 Both the money and the visa are assumed to have been bestowed on the “palestina” by a foreign lover. In post-Soviet Cuba there is a whole subset of popular music songs on this controversial topic—such as La Charanga Habanera’s “El Temba” and NG La Banda’s “La Bruja,” recorded in the 1990s—and thus, Gámez Torres justifiably frames her analysis in these terms. Nonetheless, there is something more to be said for a song that singles out “la palestina” as a target for scorn.

First, use of this term is meant to stress that before she came to Havana she was a nobody (as palestinos are considered to be “refugees”), but once she obtained a visa, she felt superior to the Havana native (the singer), and dumped him. Moreover, this song draws on a widespread stereotype in Havana about the regional provenance of jineteras, female “hustlers,” or women who seek out romantic relationships and/or sex with foreign men with the expectation of receiving gifts or money in exchange, or the possibility of securing a marriage or fiancé visa to leave the island. Jineteras are not only racialized as black/dark-skinned, but are often assumed to be eastern Cuban migrants who have come to Havana specifically to engage in sex work.32 Thus, in addition to all of the infrastructure problems and petty crime in contemporary Havana, orientales are often made to bear the brunt of the responsibility for hustling tourists. Furthermore, while the negative social connotations of reggaeton—as music by and for a racialized underclass that flouts revolutionary ideology—are attributed to eastern Cuban migrants, the positive aspects of Cuban reggaeton’s international success and visibility are enjoyed primarily by Havana-based artists like Gente de Zona.

Cuba’s hottest reggaeton group, Gente de Zona, has gained international visibility and fame in the past few years. In 2014, the group recorded a collaboration with Latin pop star Enrique Iglesias, “Bailando,” which went on to win three Latin Grammy awards, including Song of the Year. The following year, Gente de Zona recorded the reggaeton–salsa hybrid, “La Gozadera,” with Marc Anthony, a song that has also become a huge hit. At the 2016 Latin Grammys, the group’s third album, Visualízate, won Best Tropical Fusion Album, cementing Gente de Zona’s status among the most popular reggaeton groups throughout the Americas. The group has brought Cuban reggaeton international visibility, at a moment of historically warm relations between the island and the United States and a massive increase in American tourists traveling to Cuba. Nonetheless, the large majority of American and foreign tourists never travel beyond Havana and/or western Cuba, and the video for “La Gozadera” (shot with Gente de Zona in Havana and Marc Anthony in Santo Domingo), features the streets of the capital. Thus, the most visible representations of Cuban reggaeton center on Havana, which undoubtedly contributes to erasing the genre’s origins in Santiago.

Geoffrey Baker discusses the reggaeton phenomenon in Havana with some mention of its regionalist dynamics, noting that in the early 2000s “reggaeton had been the music of bicycle-taxi drivers and poor immigrants from eastern Cuba.”33 His concern is primarily with the tense and difficult relationship between Cuban hip-hop and reggaeton: “reggaeton’s rise in Havana at the expense of hip hop . . . is sometimes characterized as the triumph of Caribbean music (filtered through Santiago) over African American music (filtered through Havana).”34 While his book is strictly about the Havana reggaeton and hip-hop scenes (and not those of Santiago or other parts of the island), he astutely interprets the rivalry between the two genres in terms of long-standing regionalist antagonisms, stating that “the musical innovation of eastern Cuba is viewed as both powerful yet potentially corrupting, hence the linguistic turns of Havana-based journalists, who described reggaeton as an invasion, avalanche, or epidemic.”35 Baker does not link this “invasion” to the more generalized hostilities of habaneros toward orientales, but he clearly implies that these journalists are making that connection. Like Márquez, he notes the dwarfing of Santiago reggaeton artists like Candyman by those from the capital once it became popular in Havana, positing that the reggaeton artists have enjoyed much less media attention and financial success because the institutions created to support hip-hop and reggaeton artists are located in Havana.

Finally, Baker asserts that a “stylistic lightening” of reggaeton took place once it took hold in Havana, where the blacker, more Jamaican aesthetic of Santiago reggaeton gave way to a more racially mixed Puerto Rican influence in Havana. Indeed, the influence of Jamaican dancehall is immediately apparent in Candyman’s early songs, such as “El Pru,” which employs the riddim36 made famous by Chaka Demus and Pliers’s dancehall classic “Murder She Wrote.” Conversely, Gente de Zona has gained international fame by recording successful collaborations with pop stars Enrique Iglesias and Marc Anthony, a fact that buttresses the notion that a less “black” aesthetic is more commercially viable.


To conclude, like Cándido Fabré in his song “Soy Cubano y Soy de Oriente,” many eastern Cuban popular and folkloric musicians believe that Oriente gave birth to traditions that have eventually come to define Cuba’s artistic identity, such as son, and currently, reggaeton. These assertions function as an attempt to combat prejudice against orientales—whether within popular music discourse or on the streets of Havana—by foregrounding the centrality of eastern Cuban traditions to national culture. In other words, what is at stake is much more than proving the origins of Cuban music. More importantly, orientales are staking a claim to national identity, weaving a counternarrative to the popular discourse and written histories that leave them out. The increased visibility of Cuban reggaeton in a new era of Cuba–U.S. relations, and the fact that Havana-based artists are currently enjoying the large bulk of the spotlight and economic success, represents another example of the discursive erasure of eastern Cuban culture. Perhaps, as Cándido Fabré advocated for son, this situation will provoke a reclamation of reggaeton by eastern musicians, providing a nudge to “send it back home.” In the meantime, it is crucial for historians and scholars, both on and off the island, to counter the Havana-centric narratives and production of knowledge by exploring identity formation and cultural expression in other sites of the island.

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

  • Alén Rodríguez, Olavo. “Cuba.” In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Volume 2: South America, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Edited by Dale Olsen and Daniel Sheehy, 822–839. New York: Garland Publishing, 1998.
  • Baker, Geoffrey. Buena Vista in the Club: Rap, Reggaetón, and Revolution in Havana. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
  • Bodenheimer, Rebecca. Geographies of Cubanidad: Place, Race, and Musical Performance in Contemporary Cuba. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015.
  • Casey, Matthew “Haitians’ Labor and Leisure on Cuban Sugar Plantations: The Limits of Company Control.” New West Indian Guide 85.1–2 (2011): 5–30.
  • Clave y Guaguancó. La Rumba Que No Termina. Cuba Chévere Musikproduktionen, compact disc, 2006.
  • De la Fuente, Alejandro. A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
  • De Sousa e Santos, Dina Sebastiana. “Jineterismo in Havana: Narrating the Daily Struggles of Afro-Cuban Jineteras.” PhD diss., University of Southampton, 2009.
  • Ferrer, Ada. Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868–1898. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
  • Gaínza Moreno, Eglis. “Cándido Fabré: ‘Soy un hombre que anda al ritmo de la vida con mis temas.’” Cubadebate, August 13, 2013. Available at Accessed October 2014.
  • Gámez Torres, Nora. “Hearing the change: Reggaeton and Emergent Values in contemporary Cuba.” Latin American Music Review 33.2 (2012): 227–260.
  • Gámez Torres, Nora. “Candyman reggaeton star isn’t sweet on Cuban government.” Miami Herald, August 17, 2016. Available at
  • Giro, Radamés. “Los motivos del son. Hitos en su sendero caribeño y universal.” In Panorama de la música popular cubana. Edited by Radamés Giro, 198–209. Havana, Cuba: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1998.
  • Gómez Cairo, Jesús. “Acerca de la interacción de géneros en la música popular cubana.” In Panorama de la música popular cubana. Edited by Radamés Giro, 111–124. Havana, Cuba: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1998.
  • González Bello, Neris, Liliana Casanella Cué, and Grizel Hernández Baguer. “El reguetón en Cuba: un análisis de sus particularidades.” Paper presented at the 5th International Colloquium of Musicology at La Casa de las Américas, Havana, Cuba, April 2008.
  • Lapidus, Benjamin L. Origins of Cuban Music and Dance: Changüí. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008.
  • León, Argeliers. Del canto y el tiempo. Havana, Cuba: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1984.
  • Los Van Van. The legendary Los Van Van: 30 years of Cuba’s greatest dance band. Ashé, compact disc, 1999.
  • Manuel, Peter. “From Contradanza to Son: New Perspectives on the Prehistory of Cuban Popular Music.” Latin American Music Review 30.2 (2009): 184–212.
  • Miller, Ivor L. Voice of the Leopard: African Secret Societies and Cuba. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.
  • Moore, Robin. “The Commercial Rumba: Afrocuban Arts as International Popular Culture.” Latin American Music Review 16.2 (1995): 165–198.
  • Orovio, Helio.Diccionario de la música cubana: biográfico y técnico. Havana, Cuba: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1981.
  • Sublette, Ned. Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. Chicago: Chicago Press Review, 2004.
  • Various artists. Cuban gold: Que se sepa, ¡Yo soy de La Habana! Qbadisc, compact disc, 1993.


  • 1. Excerpts adapted from Bodenheimer, 2015; This song can be found on rumba group Clave y Guaguancó’s 2006 album La Rumba Que No Termine (Cuba Chévere).

  • 2. Among the many examples of magazines that have traveled to Havana since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations are Vanity Fair for a Rihanna photo shoot (November 2015), GQ for a photo shoot with actor Bobby Cannavale (May 2015), and Marie Claire (September 2015). Chanel’s head designer Karl Lagerfeld held a high-profile fashion shoot in June 2016, employing the long Prado promenade in Old Havana as a catwalk. Finally, several television shows have filmed in Havana, including a Conan O’Brien special that aired in May 2015 and the series finale of Showtime’s “House of Lies,” which aired on June 12, 2016.

  • 3. Rebecca Bodenheimer, Geographies of Cubanidad: Place, Race, and Musical Performance in Contemporary Cuba (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015) was an attempt to remedy this lacuna.

  • 4. Ada Ferrer, Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868–1898 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 17.

  • 5. Alejandro de la Fuente reports that an estimated 50,000 Cubans migrated to Havana in 1996 and that 92,000 people attempted to legalize their residential status in the city in early 1997, thus prompting the government to ban migration to the capital in spring 1997 (Alejandro de la Fuente, A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 328.

  • 6. For example, see Argeliers León, Del canto y el tiempo (Havana, Cuba: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1984) and Olavo Alén Rodríguez, “Cuba,” in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Vol. 2: South America, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, ed. Dale Olsen and Daniel Sheehy (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 822–839.

  • 7. See, respectively, Helio Orovio, Diccionario de la música cubana: biográfico y técnico (Havana, Cuba: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1981); Radamés Giro, “Los motivos del son. Hitos en su sendero caribeño y universal,” in Panorama de la música popular cubana (Havana, Cuba: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1998), 198–209; Jesús Gómez Cairo, “Acerca de la interacción de géneros en la música popular cubana.” In Panorama de la música popular cubana, ed. Radamés Giro (Havana, Cuba: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1998), 111–124.

  • 8. Ned Sublette (Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. Chicago: Chicago Press Review, 2004) states of this mislabeling that “rumba” was simply a sexier marketing term than son, a word that could be potentially confusing to the American public because its spelling is identical to the English word “son.” Moreover, Robin Moore (“The Commercial Rumba: Afrocuban Arts as International Popular Culture,” Latin American Music Review 16.2 (1995): 165–198) asserts that white Cuban bandleader Don Azpiazu and Spanish bandleader Xavier Cugat, who were at the forefront of exporting son as “rumba,” purposefully misrepresented the latter genre and were well aware that their music in no way resembled the original Afro-Cuban genre, which sounds much more “African” than son owing to the absence of European instruments.

  • 9. Peter Manuel, “From Contradanza to Son: New Perspectives on the Prehistory of Cuban Popular Music.” Latin American Music Review 30.2 (2009): 185.

  • 10. For a more detailed discussion of these scholars’ arguments and my critiques of them, see Chapter 6 of Bodenheimer, Geographies of Cubanidad.

  • 11. Personal communication with author, 2011. The Franco-Haitian influence comes via various migratory waves from what is now Haiti (but was St. Domingue during the first wave) to eastern Cuba. The first wave began in the 1790s after the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution, when roughly 30,000 French planters fled with their most valuable and/or domestic slaves to Cuba. The second major wave took place in the early decades of the 20th century, when hundreds of thousands of Antilleans—largely from Haiti, and secondarily from Jamaica—came to Cuba to fill the demand for cheap labor in the American-dominated sugar industry in eastern Cuba. See Matthew Casey, “Haitians’ Labor and Leisure on Cuban Sugar Plantations: The Limits of Company Control,” New West Indian Guide 85.1–2 (2011): 5–30.

  • 12. Tumba francesa is an Africanized form of the 18th-century European social dance genre contredanse that was performed by slaves brought to eastern Cuba by French planters fleeing the Haitian Revolution. It was performed mainly among slaves working on coffee plantations in rural eastern Cuba in the 19th century.

  • 13. Benjamin L. Lapidus, Origins of Cuban Music and Dance: Changüí (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008), xv.

  • 14. Lapidus, 124. Notwithstanding Lapidus’s assertion, Cuba scholar Grete Viddal specifies that descendants of Franco-Haitian migrants who have carried on the tradition of tumba francesa do not tend to practice Vodú, which was brought to Cuba in the early decades of the 20th century with the second wave of migrants from what is now Haiti (personal communication, 2017). Indeed, it is important to emphasize that the two waves of migrants self-identified in very different ways: the first wave (a mix of French planters and slaves) identified as “French,” while the second wave—coming more than a century after the founding of Haiti—was decidedly Haitian, culturally and in other aspects.

  • 15. Lapidus, 138.

  • 16. Lapidus, 157–158.

  • 17. As is customary within much of Cuban music scholarship, I refer to what some people might term “Cuban salsa” as “Cuban dance music.” The reason for this relates to the controversy surrounding the term “salsa,” which was originally used to refer to the movement that emerged from 1960s Latin New York, but which some view as a marketing term that obscured the Cuban origins of the genre.

  • 18. “Soy Cubano y Soy de Oriente” can be found on the 1993 Qbadisc compilation, Cuban Gold: Que se Sepa, ¡Yo Soy de La Habana! “La Habana No Aguanta Más” can be found on The Legendary Los Van Van: 30 Years of Cuba’s Greatest Dance Band (Ashé, 1999)

  • 19. See Chapter 2 of Bodenheimer, 2015, for a more in-depth analysis of “La Habana No Aguanta Más.”

  • 20. Eglis Gaínza Moreno, “Cándido Fabré: ‘Soy un hombre que anda al ritmo de la vida con mis temas.’” Cubadebate, August 13, 2013.

  • 21. Generally, a distinction is made in Cuban musicology and cultural parlance between “folkloric” groups, which focus on repertoire dominated by percussion and song ensembles, and “traditional” or “traditional popular” groups, which employ a son-like ensemble featuring European-derived melodic instruments (such as tres [Cuban guitar with three sets of double strings], guitar, and trumpet) in addition to percussion and song. Changüí belongs to the latter category, although there may be reasons to include it among the genres defined as folklore oriental in that folkloric groups like Ban Rarrá include it in their performances.

  • 22. Personal communication with author, 2011.

  • 23. Personal communication with author, 2011

  • 24. Personal communication with author, 2011.

  • 25. Gámez Torres, 234–235.

  • 26. The video appears to have been filmed more recently than when the song was first released, although it was not possible to determine the exact dates for the release of either the song or the video. The song was probably first released in the mid-2000s.

  • 27. As quoted in Gámez Torres, 2016.

  • 28. Gámez Torres, 2016.

  • 29. Neris González Bello, Liliana Casanella Cué, and Grizel Hernández Baguer, “El reguetón en Cuba: un análisis de sus particularidades,” paper presented at the 5th International Colloquium of Musicology at La Casa de las Américas, Havana, Cuba, April 2008.

  • 30. Gámez Torres, 237.

  • 31. Gámez Torres, 244. As has been discussed by many scholars, the “visa” in post-Soviet Cuba has become a major symbol of upward mobility and economic/cultural capital, as it signifies the ability to travel and perhaps even settle abroad.

  • 32. de Sousa e Santos, 2009.

  • 33. Geoffrey Baker, Buena Vista in the Club: Rap, Reggaetón, and Revolution in Havana (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 141.

  • 34. Baker, 171.

  • 35. Baker, 172.

  • 36. The Jamaican term “riddim” refers to an electronically generated instrumental track. In dancehall, one riddim can be used by many different singers, who record their vocals on top of the instrumental.