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Habanera (music)

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Habanera (music)

Music of Cuba
General topics
Related articles
Media and performance
Music awards Beny Moré Award
Nationalistic and patriotic songs
National anthem La Bayamesa
Regional music

The habanera is the name used outside of Cuba for the Cuban contradanza, a genre of popular dance music of the 19th century.[1] It is a creolized form which developed from the French contradanza. It has a characteristic "habanera rhythm", and is performed with sung lyrics. It was the first written music to be rhythmically based on an African motif, and the first dance music from Cuba to be exported all over the world.

In Cuba itself, the term "habanera" . . . was only adopted subsequent to its international popularization, coming in the latter 1800s—Manuel (2009: 97).[2]

Carpentier states that the Cuban contradanza was never called the habanera by the people who created it.[3] The first documented Cuban contradanza, and the first known piece of written music to feature the habanera rhythm was "San pascual bailón" (1803).[4]

Basic habanera rhythm.   


The habanera rhythm is an embellishment of tresillo, and one of the most basic rhythmic cells in Afro-Latin music, and sub-Saharan African music traditions. In sub-Saharan rhythmic structure, every triple-pulse pattern has its duple-pulse correlative; the two pulse structures are two sides of the same coin. The habanera rhythm is the duple-pulse correlative of the most basic triple-pulse cell—the three-against-two cross-rhythm (3:2), or vertical hemiola.[6]

Top: habanera rhythm—tresillo-over-two. Bottom: vertical hemiola—three-over-two.

The habanera rhythm is known by several names, such as the congo,[7] tango-congo,[8] and tango.[9] Thompson identifies the rhythm as the Kongo mbilu a makinu, or 'call to the dance.'[10][11] The pattern is in fact, heard throughout Africa, and in many Diaspora musics.[12] It is constructed from multiples of a basic durational unit, and grouped unequally so that the accents fall irregularly in a one or two bar pattern.[13] Put another way, the pattern is generated through cross-rhythm.[14]

Some vocalizations of the habanera include "",[10] and "da, ka ka kan."[11] When sounded with the Ghanaian beaded gourd instrument axatse, the pattern is vocalized as: "pa ti pa pa." The "pa's" sound tresillo by striking the gourd against the knee, and the "ti" sounds main beat two by raising the gourd in an upward motion and striking it with the free hand.[15] As is common with many African rhythms, the axatse part begins (first "pa") on the second stroke of the habanera (one-ah), and the last "pa" coincides with beat one. By ending on the beginning of the cycle, the axatse part contributes to the cyclic nature of the overall rhythm.

African axatse (beaded gourd instrument).
A variant of the habanera rhythm.[16]
Habanera rhythm and two variants.[17]



In the mid-19th century, the habanera developed from the French contradanza,[18] which had arrived in Cuba from fleeing Haitian refugees from the Haitian revolution in 1791.[19] The earliest identified "contradanza habanera" is La Pimienta, an anonymous song published in an 1836 collection. The main innovation from the French contradanza was rhythmic, as the habanera incorporated the tresillo into its structure.[20]

Another novelty was that, unlike the older contradanza, the habanera was sung as well as danced.[21] The habanera is also slower and, as a dance, more graceful in style than the older contradanza. The music, written in 2/4 time, features an introduction followed by two parts of 8 to 16 bars each.[22] The upbeat on two-and [or one-ah in 2/4] in the middle of the bar is the power of the habanera rhythm, especially when it is in the bass.[10] The earliest known piece to use the habanera rhythm in the left hand of the piano was "La pimienta," written in 1836.[23]

The New Orleans born pianist/composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) wrote several pieces with the habanera rhythm, gleaned in part from his travels thru Cuba and the West Indies: "Danza" (1857), "La Gallina, Danse Cubaine" (1859), "Ojos Criollos" (1859), and "Souvenir de Porto Rico" (1857), among others.

In Cuba, the habanera was supplanted by the danzón from the 1870s onwards. Musically, the danzón has a different but related rhythm, the baqueteo, and as a dance it is quite different. Also, the danzón was not sung for over forty years after its invention. In the twentieth century the habanera gradually became a relic form in Cuba, especially after success of the danzón and later the son. However, some of its compositions were transcribed and reappeared in other formats later on. Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes' habanera is still a much-loved composition, showing that the charm of the habanera is not dead yet.[24]

In 1995 a modern Cuban artist recorded a complete disc in the habanera genre, when singer/songwriter Liuba Maria Hevia recorded some songs researched by musicologist Maria Teresa Linares. The artist, unhappy with the technical conditions at the time (Cuba was in the middle of the so-called Periodo Especial), re-recorded most of the songs on the 2005 CD Angel y su habanera. The original CD Habaneras en el tiempo (1995) sold poorly in Cuba, which underlines the fading interest in this kind of music there, contrasting with the vigorous popularity of the habanera in the Mediterranean coast of Spain.

Spain and other countries

It is thought that the habanera was brought back to Spain by sailors, where it became popular for a while before the turn of the twentieth century. The Basque composer Sebastian Yradier was known for his habanera La Paloma (The dove), which achieved great fame in Spain and America.

"La Paloma" by Sebastian Yradier (1863).
Georges Bizet (1838–1875)

The habanera was danced by all classes of society, and had its moment of glory in English and French salons. It was so well established as a Spanish dance that Jules Massenet included one in the ballet music to his opera Le Cid (1885), to lend atmospheric color. The Habanera from Bizet's Carmen (1875) is a definitive example, though the piece is directly derived from one of Yradier's compositions (the habanera El Arreglito). Maurice Ravel wrote a Vocalise-Étude en forme de Habanera, as well as a habanera for Rapsodie espagnole (movement III, originally a piano piece written in 1895), Camille Saint-Saëns' Havanaise for violin and orchestra is still played and recorded today, as is Emmanuel Chabrier's Habanera for orchestra (originally for piano). Bernard Herrmann's score for Vertigo (1958) makes prominent use of the habanera rhythm as a clue to the film's mystery.

In the south of Spain: Andalusia (especially Cadiz), Valencia, and Alicante, and in Catalonia, the habanera is still popular, especially in the ports. The habaneras La Paloma, La bella Lola or El meu avi (My grandfather) are well known.[25] From Spain, the habanera arrived in the Philippines, where it still exists as a minor art-form.[26]

Habanera Carmen (the structure of the pieces always follow the same rhythm)

The Argentine milonga and tango makes use of the habanera rhythm of a dotted quarter note followed by three eighth notes, with an accent on the first and third notes.[27]

In 1883 Ventura Lynch, a student of the dances and folklore of Buenos Aires Province, Argentina, noted the popularity of the milonga: "The milonga is so universal in the environs of the city that it is an obligatory piece at all the lower-class dances (bailecitos de medio pelo), and it is now heard on guitars, on paper-combs, and from the itinerant musicians with their flutes, harps and violins. It has also been taken up by the organ-grinders, who have arranged it so as to sound like the habanera dance. It is danced in the low life clubs around...[main] markets, and also at the dances and wakes of cart-drivers, soldiery, compadres and compadritos''.[28]

To some extent, the habanera rhythm is retained in early tangos, notably El Choclo[27] and including "La morocha" (1904).[29] As the consistent rhythmic foundation of the bass line in Argentine Tango, the habanera lasted for a relatively short time. Gradually the variation noted by Roberts (see above) began to predominate.[30]p124 Ornamented and distributed throughout the texture, it remains an essential part of the music.[30]p2 Anibal Troilo's "La trampera" (Cheating Woman), written in 1962, uses the same habanera seen in Bizet's Carmen.[11][31]

African American music

Scott Joplin (c. 1867-1917)
WC Handy (1873-1958), age 19, 1892.

African American music began incorporating Cuban musical motifs in the 1800s with the popularity of the habanera. Musicians from Havana and New Orleans would take the twice-daily ferry between both cities to perform and not surprisingly, the habanera quickly took root in the musically fertile Crescent City. Whether the habanera rhythm and variants such as tresillo were directly transplanted from Cuba, or if the habanera merely reinforced habanera-like "rhythmic tendencies" already present in New Orleans music is probably impossible to determine. There are examples of habanera-like rhythms in a few African American folk musics such as the foot stomping patterns in ring shout and the post-Civil War drum and fife music.[32] The habanera rhythm is also heard prominently in New Orleans second line music.

The habanera rhythm can be thought of as a combination of tresillo and the backbeat.

The habanera rhythm shown as tresillo (lower notes) with the backbeat (upper note).

John Storm Roberts states that the musical genre habanera, "reached the U.S. 20 years before the first rag was published."[33] Scott Joplin's "Solace" (1909) is considered a habanera (though it's labeled a "Mexican serenade").

Excerpt from "Solace" by Scott Joplin (1909).

For the more than quarter-century in which the cakewalk, ragtime, and proto-jazz were forming and developing, the habanera was a consistent part of African American popular music.[34] Early New Orleans jazz bands had habaneras in their repertoire and the tresillo/habanera figure was a rhythmic staple of jazz at the turn of the 20th century. "St. Louis Blues" (1914) by W.C. Handy has a habanera/tresillo bass line. Handy noted a reaction to the habanera rhythm included in Will H. Tyler's "Maori": "I observed that there was a sudden, proud and graceful reaction to the rhythm...White dancers, as I had observed them, took the number in stride. I began to suspect that there was something Negroid in that beat." After noting a similar reaction to the same rhythm in "La Paloma", Handy included this rhythm in his "St. Louis Blues," the instrumental copy of "Memphis Blues," the chorus of "Beale Street Blues," and other compositions."[35]

Excerpt from "St. Louis Blues" by W.C. Handy (1914). The left hand plays the habanera rhythm.

Jelly Roll Morton considered the tresillo/habanera (which he called the Spanish tinge) to be an essential ingredient of jazz.[36] The habanera rhythm can be heard in his left hand on songs like "The Crave" (1910, recorded 1938).

Now in one of my earliest tunes, “New Orleans Blues,” you can notice the Spanish tinge. In fact, 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—Morton (1938: Library of Congress Recording).[37]
Jelly Roll Morton (1885-1941)

Although the exact origins of jazz syncopation may never be known, there’s evidence that the habanera/tresillo was there at its conception. Buddy Bolden, the first known jazz musician, is credited with creating the big four, a habanera-based pattern. The big four (below) was the first syncopated bass drum pattern to deviate from the standard on-the-beat march.[38] As the example below shows, the second half of the big four pattern is the habanera rhythm.

Buddy Bolden's "big four" pattern.   

A habanera was written and published in Butte, Montanta in 1908. The song was titled "Solita" and was written by Jack Hangauer.[40]

Sound files

  • Problems playing this file? See .
  • Legran Orchestra Mp3·La Comisión de San Roque Habanera ISWC: T-042192386-5 2007. Published with the permission of the owner of rights

Popular adaptations

See also


  1. ^ Manuel, Peter (2009: 97). Creolizing Contradance in the Caribbean. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  2. ^ Manuel, Peter (2009: 97).
  3. ^ Alejo Carpentier cited by John Storm Roberts (1979: 6). The Latin tinge: the impact of Latin American music on the United States. Oxford.
  4. ^ Manuel, Peter (2009: 67). Creolizing Contradance in the Caribbean. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  5. ^ Orovio, Helio. 1981. Diccionario de la Música Cubana, p.237. La Habana, Editorial Letras Cubanas. ISBN 959-10-0048-0.
  6. ^ Peñalosa, David (2009: 41). The Clave Matrix; Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins. Redway, CA: Bembe Inc. ISBN 1-886502-80-3.
  7. ^ Manuel, Peter (2009: 69). Creolizing Contradance in the Caribbean. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  8. ^ Acosta, Leonardo (2003: 5). Cubano Be Cubano Bop; One Hundred Years of Jazz in Cuba. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Books.
  9. ^ Mauleón (1999: 4) Salsa Guidebook for Piano and Ensemble. Petaluma, California: Sher Music. ISBN 0-9614701-9-4.
  10. ^ a b c Listen again. Experience Music Project. Duke University Press, 2007. p75 ISBN 978-0-8223-4041-6
  11. ^ a b c Thompson, Robert Farris. 2006. Tango: the art history of love. Vintage, p117 ISBN 978-1-4000-9579-7
  12. ^ Peñalosa, David (2009: 41-42). The Clave Matrix; Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins. Redway, CA: Bembe Inc. ISBN 1-886502-80-3.
  13. ^ The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 978-1-56159-284-5
  14. ^ Peñalosa, David (2009: 41).
  15. ^ Peñalosa (2009: 42).
  16. ^ Roberts (1998:50).
  17. ^ Blatter, Alfred 2007. Revisiting music theory: a guide to the practice. p28 ISBN 0-415-97440-2.
  18. ^ derived from the English "country dance"
  19. ^ "History of Cuban Music". Retrieved 19 January 2014. 
  20. ^ Sublette, Ned 2004. Cuba and its music: from the first drums to the mambo. Chicago. p134
  21. ^ The guaracha was an earlier type of Cuban music which was also sung.
  22. ^ Grenet, Emilio 1939. Música popular cubana. La Habana.
  23. ^ Roberts, John Storm (1979: 6). The Latin tinge: the impact of Latin American music on the United States. Oxford University Press.
  24. ^ Carpentier, Alejo 2001 (1945). Music in Cuba. Minneapolis MN.
  25. ^ Berenguer González, Ramón T. "La Comisión de San Roque" Habanera Mp3· ISWC: T-042192386-5 2007
  26. ^ Spanish Influence Dances.
  27. ^ a b "El Choclo" sheet music at TodoTango.
  28. ^ Collier, Cooper, Azzi and Martin. 1995. Tango! The dance, the song, the story. Thames & Hudson, London. p45 (ISBN 0-500-01671-2) citing Ventura Lynch: La provinciade Buenos Aires hasta la definicion de la cuestion Capital de la Republica. p.16.
  29. ^ La morocha sheet music at TodoTango.
  30. ^ a b Baim, Jo 2007. Tango: creation of a cultural icon. Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-34885-2.
  31. ^ "La trampera" sheet music at TodoTango.
  32. ^ Kubik, Gerhard (1999: 52). Africa and the Blues. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi.
  33. ^ Roberts, John Storm (1999: 12) Latin Jazz. New York: Schirmer Books.
  34. ^ Roberts, John Storm (1999: 16) Latin Jazz. New York: Schirmer Books.
  35. ^ Father of the Blues: An Autobiography. by W.C. Handy, edited by Arna Bontemps: foreword by Abbe Niles. Macmillan Company, New York; (1941) pages 99,100. no ISBN in this first printing
  36. ^ Roberts, John Storm 1979. The Latin tinge: the impact of Latin American music on the United States. Oxford.
  37. ^ Morton, “Jelly Roll” (1938: Library of Congress Recording) The Complete Recordings By Alan Lomax.
  38. ^ Marsalis, Wynton (2000: DVD n.1). Jazz. PBS
  39. ^ "Jazz and Math: Rhythmic Innovations", The WorldHeritage example shown in half time compared to the source.
  40. ^

External links

  • Habanera's blog from Tony Foixench.
  • Habanera's website.
  • "3-Habanera and danzón" (Cuban Music Website).
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