Cuba had been unplugged from American culture for generations. What happens now?
Cuba had been unplugged from American culture for generations. What
CUBA’S ROBERTO GOMEZ HAD a single night free on his first trip to San
Francisco, part of a short performance visit in his role as lead
guitarist for singer-songwriter Carlos Varela, often referred to as “The
Bob Dylan of Cuba,” and “The Poet of Havana.”
Gomez might have chosen to head to any number of clubs, restaurants or
other social gathering places in one of the most vibrant and culturally
rich cities in the U.S.
Instead, foremost on his mind immediately after the Varela concert
performance was his search for a power cord to his laptop computer.
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“I just want to go back to my hotel,” Gomez said, “and watch all the
music videos we cannot see at home.”
It’s a common cry from Cuban musicians in particular, and artists in
general. State-controlled media in the socialist country is heavily
censored, and access to the Internet has only begun, leaving Cubans
often feeling isolated from the cultural conversations going on in their
culture-dominating neighbor to the north.
Indeed, one of the most prized commodities among Cubans is “El Paquete”
— The Package, typically a 500-gigabyte memory stick containing
downloaded American music, movies and television programs secreted into
the country from the U.S. by relatives, friends or cunning entrepreneurs.
Consider it a contemporary expression of the cultural grapevine that has
long kept Cuban musicians apprised of what their peers elsewhere in the
world are doing.
Cuba’s artists and musicians take pride in forging a cultural scene
outside of the direct influence of Hollywood and the kind of hit-making
pull that has led countries such as France to impose quotas on American
movies and music. But there is still a strong desire for artists and
musicians to interact with their counterparts in the U.S. and around the
“I come from a generation of musicians that grew up with no access to
the Internet whatsoever,” said trumpeter Yelfris Valdés, who left Cuba
in 2014 to work in London, where he has played with various world-beat
groups as well as his own Dub Afro Electric Jazz ensemble. “Although
when I started to learn about jazz music at school, I was fully aware of
what was happening with the composers [and] arrangers from around the world.
“Fellow musicians who were already traveling would feed to the rest of
us what was going on in the industry,” Valdés said. “Thanks to that
information I received as a student, I am now producing a more complex
type of music. The more styles of music I can have access to, the richer
my own music becomes.”
Which means, despite the stereotype created by the large number of
pre-Cuban revolution American cars commonly found in Havana and other
cities, Cuban music is hardly stuck in the 1950s.
Along with the traditional son and salsa music that thrives in clubs and
theaters around the country, it’s possible these days to find Cuban
hip-hop and R&B; acts serving up their equivalent to the latest videos
by American trend-setters such as Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé or Rihanna.
But it’s a relatively recent development, and Cubans still don’t have
ready access to the actual videos, much less live music, from Western
pop stars. The Cuban government has a strict filter on media coming into
Easing of some elements of the embargo under President Obama’s
administration has allowed great opportunity for Cuban musicians to
visit the U.S. and perform here. Cuba and its music, for instance, will
be the focal point internationally at the 2017 New Orleans Jazz &
But many musicians and artists who have welcomed improved relations with
the U.S. expressed uncertainty and concern about whether President-elect
Donald Trump is more likely to continue opening travel and commerce
opportunities or return to more restrictive policies.
As the decades have rolled by, musicians, especially the younger
generations, have often struggled to work with their American
counterparts, to perform and promote their music to U.S. audiences and
to be actively engaged with the most lucrative music market in the world.
“Youth is characterized by the desire to explore and know,” said singer,
guitarist, percussionist and educator Jesus Bello. “Most of the young
musicians wish to work abroad not only to obtain better pay for their
work, but for the exchange with other musicians.”
The reverse is equally true: Americans and other musicians outside Cuba
are frequently compelled to visit to learn more about the country’s
music and musicians.
“It’s a great, rich place of music— there are so many styles,” Rolling
Stones lead singer Mick Jagger said following his band’s first
performance in Cuba in March, a free show that drew a massive crowd
estimated at 500,000 to 600,000 people. “I have no pretense of
understanding where it’s all coming from. Music historians must love it,
because there is so much richness in one fairly small place.”
A major step toward bringing Cuban music to the outside world came in
1997, when American roots musicians Ry Cooder and British producer Nick
Gold visited Havana. They spearheaded the Buena Vista Social Club
project, a recording and companion documentary (by German filmmaker Wim
Wenders) that spotlighted a coterie of veteran Cuban musicians
performing the infectious music that’s lived and breathed within the
country, but was previously little exposed in the U.S.
“There’s a world of music down there,” said singer-songwriter Jackson
Browne, who recently led a contingent of international oceanographic
scientists to Cuba to study the relatively pristine ocean around the
island. During that trip, he arranged for them to be exposed to the
music of Varela, for whom Browne has become something of a cheerleader
in the U.S., along with other Varela admirers among the rock music
community including Dave Matthews and Bonnie Raitt.
“We’re isolated from Cuba, rather than Cuba being isolated from the
world,” Browne told The Times recently. “We are the ones that have
isolated ourselves from this incredibly rich musical culture. For all of
the attempts at isolation, Cuban music has still had an incredible
influence in the U.S. It’s influenced jazz, it’s influenced a lot of our
music over the years. But we don’t know the most contemporary stuff”
because of the embargo.
Bello agrees that the embargo has resulted in misconceptions and
ignorance among Americans about the deep well of Cuban music.
“Silence and isolation between our ways of life have made many
[American] people imagine Cuba in a very different way than it is,”
Bello said, a situation that increased travel opportunities has begun to
change. “I think it is very good for people to see the different ways
and musical programs we have in Cuba, from the academies and the
theaters to the most authentic manifestations that have been transmitted
orally from generation to generation, such as peasant music, rumba and
the tunes of African saints, changüí , nengón , parrandas , etc.”
One of the more dramatic results of the recent easing of relations is
the April release of “Papa Hemingway in Cuba,” the first major Hollywood
film to be shot in Cuba since before the revolution.
Cuban music purveyors as well as rank-and-file fans also point to the
watershed moment in March when the Stones performed, although non-Cubans
who attended that show noted that most in the audience seemed familiar
with the group only in the most general way, and sang along en masse
only with one song: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
“Just 3½ years ago things were totally different,” said Nancy Covey, who
booked concerts at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica in the late
1970s and early 1980s, and now runs a music-focused tour company. “The
first time I went, I didn’t have any communication with the outside
world; they didn’t either and they were desperate to know what was going
on in the States.
“It used to be that all they had [in terms of American recordings] was
really old, battered vinyl you’d find at flea markets,” she said. “It
reminded me a lot of the old Soviet Union. Even in the last year it has
changed so much — they’re starting to get iPhones and have access to the
“I can’t imagine that the influx of American music and culture is not
going to be a huge game changer,” she said. “They’re hungry for it, and
here it comes — but they don’t get that they might lose a whole lot of
what they have.”
That crystallizes a fear expressed often in Cuba: that a full lifting of
the embargo, should it occur, may unleash what Cuban architectural
historian Miguel Coyula called “a tsunami” of cultural and economic
changes that could overwhelm his country.
“The government here is reactive, not proactive,” Coyula told an
American visitor in November. “They will wait until it happens and then
try to figure out how to respond.”
Cuban musicians say their motives for coming to the U.S. are closely
scrutinized by both governments because of fears on both sides that once
here, they would try to remain.
Bello, who lives in Santa Clara, about 170 miles east of Havana, is
planning a U.S. visit in the spring to work with a group of musicians in
New Jersey interested in learning more about the traditional Cuban music
styles in which he is fluent.
But he faces challenges, not only in receiving travel visas for himself
and others he wants to bring along, but also in arranging funding for
the trip and securing venues for stateside performances that could help
offset the prohibitive costs of travel and accommodations in the U.S.
“In general, few people come to Cuba wanting to know about our work,”
Bello said recently. “It is important for us and for those who don’t
know Cuba. I am looking forward to the possibility to share my work [in
the U.S.]. Even after the roads that were opened by the Buena Vista
Social Club, it is still not anything easy.”
Bello faces the double-edged struggle of passing on Cuban music
traditions to younger players, many of whom would rather leave Cuba and
try to pursue careers in the U.S., Europe or elsewhere.
Cuban universities still focus on training musicians in European-rooted
classical traditions, and Bello is pushing to get Cuban academics to
acknowledge and accept traditional Cuban music performance as part of
the curriculum at the university level.
His son, Jose Manuel Bello, has been brought up with the traditional son
and has formed a band consisting of other players in their early 20s,
helping fulfill his father’s wish to keep the traditions strong with
“I always stress to the young people with whom I work that the path
within the music Is infinite,” Bello said. “Each one must find the
course that best suits him and exploit his talent as much as the
opportunities and his talent will allow it.”
Along that line, Varela band guitarist Gomez noted that he’d been
well-trained in classical guitar techniques in his years at Cuban
universities. But he had to seek out and study with a private teacher to
learn the nuances of the rock guitarists he wanted to emulate, players
including British musician Richard Thompson, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour
and Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler — a different vocabulary he brings to
bear in working with Varela.
American drummer Michael Jerome, a member of Thompson’s band, visited
Cuba in 2013 and soaked up what he could of the distinctive rhythms of
Cuban music, even arranging for individual lessons with Cuban
percussionists while he was there. He takes a largely positive outlook
at the prospect of cultural walls coming down between the U.S. and Cuba.
“I do think Cubans will appreciate more access to American music and
we’ll see a lot more evidence of that influence reflected in the coming
years,” he said. “I don’t think Cubans will lose any uniqueness or
identity. If anything it will be strengthen by the fear of losing it,
and/or the love and uniqueness of sharing it. It’s like nothing else and
is desired because of it.”
Source: Cuba had been unplugged from American culture for generations.
What happens now? – LA Times – Cuba had been unplugged from American
culture for generations. What happens now?