Folk Songs and Rhythms from the Isle of Pines

The Isle of Pines is the largest of the islands surrounding Cuba, and the second largest of the Cuban archipelago. Early chroniclers and travellers priased it for its natural resources – its forests, health-giving waters, beaches and mountains – and for its geological and archeological treasures. In virtue of these rich resources, the island became a pirates' den, before gradually becoming populated with migrants from the Cayman Islands, Jamaica and Cuba. In the 19th century, the island started receiving visitors coming to admire its natural landscapes and benefit from the healing properties of its hot springs. Its mainly peasant population were farmers, Cubans and immigrants from the Caribbean working together on the farms.

In the 1960s, large-scale agricultural and industrial development plans attracted many young people to the island from all over Cuba, and the Isle of Pines came to be known as la Isla de la Juventud (the Isle of Youth). Today, there is still constant communication and exchange between the two islands.

In the wake of these developments, research has been carried out into the local customs and lives of the Cubans and Caribbean descendants living on the Isle of Pines. Recordings have been made of their music, and the sucu-sucu has begun to be analysed as an expression of Cuban musical folklore. Studies have also been carried out in old Cuban, Cayman and Jamaican families with strong links to the island's musical past. From interviews, it appears that danzón, zapateo, waltz, polka, caringa and cotunto were danced on the island at the beginning of the 20th century, cotunto being considered by many inhabitants as a primitive form of sucu-sucu 1.

The sucu-sucu style of music and dance is found only on the Isle of Pines, but it is related to certain other styles, such as changüí and son montuno. It is uncertain when suco-suco emerged, but it was practised at the beginning of the 20th century, at the same time as son and changüí. These three styles have a similar structure in that passages of solo song alternate with passages sung in reply by a choir, and similar types of instruments are used: the line-up for these styles includes a marímbula or a bass guitar; a guitar, on which a constant harmonic bass is strummed using the rasgueo technique; and a lute or a tres carrying the melody. A scraper, or güiro – which may take the form of a scythe scraped with a knife – is also used. The musical theme is repeated over and over in accompaniment to the dance, which is performed by couples. The dancers mark the beat with sweeping steps (escobillados) while making turns to one side and the other.

Sucu-sucu is practiced in many families on the Isle of Pines, many of which are linked through the Rives name. Boy Rives, father of Mongo Rives, who inherited his ensemble, was the main mentor of the tradition. In the González Rives family the grand-mother, the mother and several children practice decimas and sucu-sucu today. Sucu-sucu is also practiced by the descendants of Jamaican and Cayman Island immigrants. Among these, Arnold Dixon, a.k.a. “Sony Boy”, is the most famous. From a very young age, he learned creole sucu-sucus as well as various Caribbean styles from the founding Caribbean musicians of the island.

The structure of call and response between solo and group voices, syllabic melodies and musical phrases built on octosyllabic lines of verse, all elements present in sucu-sucu, are also to be found in son oriental and changüí, but also in plena pertorriqueña, porro colombiano, merengue and carabiné dominicanos. These elements indicate that the style is very old.

A sucu-sucu piece starts with an instrumental introduction. The tres begins to play, the other instruments joining in one by one. This introduction is generally eight bars long. It is followed by the refrain, which consists of repeated calls and responses sung by the soloist and the choir. After this comes an instrumental section with the tres playing improvised variations on the soloist's part. Then there is a sung passage, accompanied by the tres and the guitar playing rasgueados on the tonic, dominant and sub-dominant, or else strumming downwards to the tonic. The maracas play a steady rhythm of sixteenth notes, the tumbadora or the bongó plays free rhythmical patterns, the scraper plays a constant rhythm of eighth and sixteenth notes, and the clave marks time on the beat.

The formal structure of sucu-sucu and son is a simple pattern of phrases and half-phrases related to the lyrics, each half-phrase corresponding to an octosyllabic line of verse and being made up of eight sounds. Each phrase is made up of sixteen sounds and corresponds to a complete idea expressed in two lines of verse. The constant repetition of a musical motif on variable, improvised lyrics is common in son and its derivatives.

Sucu-sucu and cotunto are local styles of son oriental that spread during the first decades of the 20th century. With the appearance of the phonograph, and then radio and television, sucu-sucu gradually disappeared from public dances. But in the privacy of the home and with friends from the neighbourhood, the custom of singing Cuban tonadas and puntos and of playing and dancing sucu-sucus and sones, and even perhaps the odd cotunto they still remembered, was kept alive in the more traditional families. Sucu-sucu remains a vigorous tradition today and enjoys popular appreciation, as the performances of the two young groups on this CD show.

María Teresa Linares Savio


  1. Maria Teresa Linares Savio. El sucu-sucu de Isla de Pinos, Serie Isla de Pinos, Academia de Ciencias de Cuba, La Habana, 1970.