The rhythms of Africa came to Cuba via the slave trade. When Spain annexed Cuba in 1539, millions of Africans from Zaire and Niger were sent to Cuba to work in gold mines and to harvest sugar and tobacco crops (7). These African slaves retained their cultural identity by bringing with them the Yoruba religion and traditions. Central to the Yoruba religion is the belief in the various Orishas or deities.
When the Catholic Church baptized Yoruba tribes, instead of making them conform to Catholic beliefs the Yoruba people were able to maintain their cultural identity by using the Catholic saints as a basis for their Orishas. In Cuba, Yoruba is still practiced through the religion of Santería.
The Yoruba people used drumming and vocals in their religious practices and rituals (1). Specific drumming patterns were associated with specific Orishas. Each drummer in a battery would perform an individual rhythm and the rhythms together would form a polyrhythm. The polyrhythm is kept together by a "key", a master rhythm or pattern, and each drummer's rhythm fits with the key. The large volume of Orisha required many polyrhythms associated with each of these deities. Polyrhythms follow a "clave", Spainsh for key or code, for example a son clave, rumba clave and samba clave. These polyrhythms are essential to salsa.