50 STATES OF FOLK: How the Mambo Came to Miami
A mural along Little Havana's Calle Ocho in Miami. (Photo courtesy of Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau – MiamiandBeaches.com)
When I say “mambo,” you probably immediately think of “No 5.” Fair enough — it’s catchy as all get out. But where did Lou Bega get his inspiration for “Mambo No. 5”? You may think it was from Monica, Erica, Rita, Tina, Sandra, Mary, and Jessica, but there’s more to the story than just beautiful dancing ladies. “Mambo No. 5” wouldn’t exist without input from both the Cuban bandleader Perez Prado ( whom Bega sampled extensively in his 1999 hit single) and a well-timed family trip to Miami, Florida, where Bega would be introduced to the sounds of Florida’s mambo kings.
The Cuban Diaspora
During the 1950s and 1960s, life in Cuba was tumultuous at best. It all started in 1952, when the reigning president Fulgencio Batista realized that he would not win reelection that year. So instead of gracefully allowing the democratic process to continue and serving the Cuban people until the end of his term, he seized power and canceled the election entirely. This disgusted many citizens, including a young Fidel Castro, who believed in the nation’s democracy despite its flaws.
This disgust and anger turned into multiple insurrection attempts, eventually culminating in the successful removal of Batista on New Year’s Eve in 1958. In the ultimate new year’s resolution, Cuba established a brand new government on January 1, 1959, and installed Fidel Castro as the man who would lead them.
Over time, the 26th of July Movement (Fidel Castro’s political party) would transition away from its original nationalistic stance, eventually becoming the Communist Party in October 1965. This enraged the United States, which had provided key support to the revolutionaries prior to their successful overthrow of Batista. Cuba would go on to become a microcosm of Cold War politics in the 1960s, experiencing Soviet allyship as well as punishing American trade embargos and military incursions.
So it may go without saying that, throughout a military revolution, economic hardship, and outside political interference, many Cubans wanted out. And where did they go? The closest stable place they could: Miami.
Latin Fusion in Miami
Over 500,000 Cuban immigrants would go on to settle in Miami after the revolution. As the Cuban expat community in Miami grew, and the area around Southwest Eighth Street transitioned into the now iconic Calle Ocho, so too did the cultural roots of Little Havana establish themselves. The Cubans brought with them cooking, community, Catholicism, and, most importantly to this particular discussion, music and dance.
This wasn’t the first time that Cuban music had made an impact in the United States, nor was it the first time that American music influenced Cuban rhythms. In the 1930s, the Lecuona Cuban Boys and Desi Arnaz (yes, that Desi Arnaz) popularized the conga in the United States.
The mambo descended from Cuban traditional music forms like son, guaracha, and danzón and blended with early influences of American big band jazz. The dance was introduced to the audience at the nightclub La Tropicana in Havana in 1943. By 1947, the mambo would be a full-blown craze in the US, though its widespread popularity died out after a few years. Later, a charanga called Orquesto América would help to invent the cha-cha-chá, kicking off an international fad in the 1950s.
This exchange between the island and the US was fundamental to establishing Latin music in the States and in bringing American musical influences to Cuba. But when the revolution happened, this interchange became much more challenging. Following the passage of the Berman Amendment in 1988, which allowed Cuban musicians to legally perform in the US for the purposes of “cultural exchange,” tensions between Miami expats and Cuban nationals spiraled out of control. Hosting traveling musicians or featuring traditional Cuban music on Calle Ocho was at times more than unpopular — it led to outright riots.
But even as there were overt attempts to retaliate against Cuba and its citizens among the expat community in Miami, Cuban traditional music still sounded like home. Nostalgia combined with innovation to create new charismatic styles of Latin music in Miami. One key example? Salsa.
Everybody Get Up, It’s Time to Slam Now
Evolving out of the son, rumba, danzón, and cha-cha-chá, salsa music and dancing became hugely popular in Miami, with residents developing their own unique style of the dance during the 1970s and 1980s. This trend would establish Miami not only as the Latin music capital of the United States, but also as its dance capital. Mixing and mingling with the worldwide disco phenomenon, salsa helped to create some of Miami’s biggest stars, such as The Miami Sound Machine and its most famous member, Gloria Estefan.
This helped set the stage for other future dance trends in the city. At around the same time that salsa was beginning to take hold, Miami also began to build the foundation of its electronic dance music (EDM) scene. Starting in the ’70s with disco, the Miami EDM scene distinguished itself by embracing its local Latin and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. This led to a boom in the 1990s as DJs and local producers helped establish Miami as the best place in America to go dancing. In the ’80s and ’90s, Miami also became a pioneer in the hip-hop world, with the bass-heavy, uptempo beats of Miami bass, Latin freestyle, and Southern rap fueling the careers of world-famous artists like Pitbull, Flo Rida, Rick Ross, and more. Miami bass would eventually lead to Florida breaks, establishing Florida as one the leaders of the EDM world in the ’90s, alongside New York and California.
Here’s an example you may recognize straight out of the ’90s pop culture of Miami bass:
Nowadays, almost every major music festival in the world is primarily dedicated to (or at least strongly features) EDM in its lineup. Miami, with its DJs, raves, and wildly popular nightclub scene, was one of its early breeding grounds, helping to create a worldwide phenomenon. And all of it started with immigrants fleeing revolutionary Cuba, bringing their beats and rhythms to the sandy shores of the Florida coast.
Looking to host your own Miami-style dance party at home? Listen to how Miami’s music scene evolved from traditional Cuban conga into the thumping bass of modern-day EDM in this month’s 50 States of Folk Spotify playlist!