Cuban Music at the crossroads

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One needs to understand contemporary developments in Cuban music in order to appreciate the current debates about popular music. Irrespective of its commercial shortcomings, which might eventually push this Afro-Cuban expression into a ghetto, groups have emerged who, thanks to the quality of their research and their capacity to blend influences, are capable of integrating the subversive force of African culture into Cuba’s fusions.
Since 1997, there has indeed been a fiery debate in Cuba about the future of popular music, which might seem paradoxical in France, where the Cuban fashion is in full swing, and where Cuban record releases risk saturating the market. Since the end of the Eighties, and even more so since the dollar and the mixed economy were legalized in 1993 in liaison with the explosion of tourism, the number of Cuban bands playing abroad has reached a level comparable with that at the end of the Fifties. A sort of struggle has developed, however, between a music which is highly popular outside the island, and which reproduces the musical genres of 1959 (trova, son, etc.), or respects the traditional band formats (conjunto de son, charanga orchestras with flutes and violins), and a music created by young musicians who have trained in the music academies since 1960, and which has traded the ambiguous label, « Cuban salsa », in for that of timba. For this generation, Compay Segundo and the veteran Afro-Cuban-All Stars, who are hugely successful in Europe and the United States, to the extent of winning a Grammy award even, were, until recently, strangers from another era. The contradictory conditions determining how music has developed since 1959, partly explain this situation.
The status of popular music since 1959
Whilst a certain number of famous musicians chose to go into exile, many of the major bands of the Fifties continued to exist. Professionals were often evaluated and classed in two categories. Considered as music workers, they were paid, regrouped in State institutions (empresas) which were responsible for paying them and finding them work, and were obliged to perform a certain number of shows. They were thus no longer subjected to the laws of the market . The competition between them was manifested via the popularity gained from broadcasts and public performances. From then on, due to the economic hardship, which was accentuated by the US embargo, and in the context of the primacy of the ideological struggle, the importance accorded by official cultural policy to one component of artistic life or another became determinant.
The desire to promote the arts emerged clearly early on. The musical education system set up largely explains the extraordinary virtuosity of the musicians and the complexity of their arrangements. In the local and regional music academies, the National Music School, and in the specialist section of the ISA (Higher Institute of the Arts), students received classical training, learnt to play several instruments, and studied harmony, composition, and orchestration. The aim was to give them a complete academic training, irrespective of financial status, that included the best of classical and contemporary music. In the name of excellence, however, instruction in popular music was not considered permissible, at least not until the beginning of the Eighties. Since then, it has constituted an end-of-curriculum specialist option that focuses on playing techniques. Traditional music is thus tacitly seen as part of a practical heritage not suited to being taught, of a know-how that is cut off from its history. According to the musicians themselves, those who chose to devote themselves to it were not encouraged by their teachers. Even today, the percussionist Miguel Angá Díaz considers himself lucky not to have got into the ISA, and to have been absolutely forced to take the less noble branch of the National School of Instructors (Escuela Nacional de Instructores de Arte) which featured popular music. Moreover, leading cultural authorities recognize that they favoured ballet, and what were considered the ‘noble’ forms of music, which were keenly presented as a ‘showcases’ to foreigners, to the detriment of the popular forms. « Safeguarding the most authentic roots and national traditions » was, however, officially one of the axes of cultural policy. It led, amongst other things, to the creation of troupes such as the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional (1962), which were responsible for collecting those traditions and transposing them on an artistic level, « in order to highlight the cultural value of expressions which, in the context of the racial segregation of the past, were devalorized ». Cuba was one of the first countries to begin exploring the transculturation that took place on its territory. In practice, however, Afro-Cuban expressions, such as rumba, the carnival comparsas, or the ritual music, songs, and dances which are at the very heart of the cultural systems recreated in Cuba by the slaves, met with the hostility of the authorities. The officially decreed atheism did not combine well with beliefs judged to be old-fashioned superstition, and with manifestations seen as a « folklore » to be preserved, not as the living expressions of contemporary society. They are, however, full components of daily life which impregnate mentalities well beyond questions of initiation and skin colour. The dream of « the new man » did not take into account the sociological realities of a country where slavery had only been abolished less than eighty years before, where working-class housing remained organized in the old quarters, and where the solares still existed. In the difficult economic context, the onus was on production, education, and health: urban restructuring was not a priority, nor was entertainment. The outcome of the Sixties was severe: a few new rhythms appeared, such as Eduardo Davidson’s pachanga, or Juanito Marqúez’s pa’cá, but both musicians emigrated to the States. Pacho Alonso and Enrique Bonné’s pilón, or the mozambique of Pello el Afrokán, which were very popular with dancers, came up against an objective reality that disrupted the direct communion between musicians and their audiences for a long time: the 1968 year-long closure of all the popular night-clubs and dance halls due to the shortages of power, drinks, cigarettes, etc.
Some re-opened, then closed again in the second half of the Seventies. The circulos sociales remained, which were sorts of neighbourhood halls where bands played unpublicized on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings. They too later disappear for the same reasons. The carnivals, which had been moved to the summer since the grand zafra of 1970 so that they would coincide with the national holidays and not upset the sugar cane harvest, were the only contact between the masses and its musicians. In the cabarets and hotels, which were only accessible to a limited group of Cubans, there were shows and traditional guitar trio performances, but these were a mere drop in the ocean in a country where dancing is a important as breathing.
The record industry also suffered from the shortages which meant that the quality of recording material was poor, resulted in a lack of spare parts, and, of course, the impossibility of keeping up with the rapid technical developments of the capitalist world. The media paid relatively little attention to musical programmes in general, and to popular music programmes in particular. Finally, the centralization of all political power in La Havana, made it even more difficult for even the prestigious provincial bands to perform and record. Numerous leaders were thus faced with the choice of vegetating in complete anonymity, or heading to the capital, often at the expense of the cohesion of their bands. The only other option was to tour abroad. In 1960, the Orquesta Aragón, the epitome of the perfected charanga tradition, toured several African countries, and Pello El Afrokán became the ambassador of Cuban percussion, travelling to Paris. When diplomatic relations with the United States and the majority of Latin American countries with the exception of Mexico, were broken off, Cuban music was only able to tour in ‘friendly’ Eastern European countries and several African nations for a decade. The resumption of contact with certain South American countries later eased the strangle hold. The French invited Cuban bands to festivals in the Eighties, but no where near as many as in the following decade. Thanks to these tours, Cuba’s musicians never lost contact with the musical developments abroad and were able to exchange ideas and experiences with the other musicians they met on their travels. These foreign countries were a life buoy for the great names of the old tradition, such as Aragón, Chapottín, Septeto Habanero, Septeto Nacional, Celina González, Maravillas de Florida, Original de Manzanillo, and many others, who continued to incarnate Cuban music even though they were forgotten at home.
Youth disenchantment and ‘modernity’
Another reality also weighed heavily in the balance. After the revolution, young Cubans rejected traditional music, which was seen as « old people’s music », as they dreamt of new sounds in touch with international trends, and identified with rock, which was perceived as new and as a vector of revolt. Many of the musicians discussed here thus started out in rock bands. This vogue was reinforced amongst the young intellectuals by the popularity of the Nueva Trova poetic or engaged songs, which became the spearhead of the ideological struggle at the beginning of the Seventies, meaning that it benefitted from access to the broadcast mediums.
Renewal and modernity were the principal preoccupations of musicians who, under different forms, and in spite of all the limitations, contributed to forging the popular music of today. Thanks to them, a large section of the youth, who rediscovered Cuba’s heritage at the same time as they discovered the new sounds, were reconciled with popular music. In the period up until the Nineties, three main trends emerged incarnated by three bands who, with their different musical conceptions, sounds, and instrumentations, laid the foundations of this renovation: Juan Formell and Los Van Van, Adalberto Alvarez and Son 14, and later his band in Havana, and Irakere.
Elio Revé, Juan Formell and Los Van Van
In 1967-1968, in the midst of the slump, one band developed a new sound: Elio Revé’s charanga, the percussionist from Guantánamo and promoter of Oriental rhythms who began playing son and changüi in an original style, and who could also play ritual percussion, tumba francesa and rumba. On electric guitar – a heresy in traditional music – the almost unheard of Juan Formell, an Elvis Presley look-alike in his teens, and former bass player with Juanito Marquéz, and arranger, soon caught people’s eye. A year later, the Revé band continued without him, evolving towards the original charangón format, mixing flute (which was dropped later), violins, piano, tres, bass, a complete range of Cuban percussion, and a trombone section. Elio Revé (who died in an accident in 1997) had a gift for spotting young talent. His very groovy repertoire was popular, and he was to become one of the fathers of the musical style that mixes traditional styles (mainly guaguancó and son) with contemporary conceptions that did not necessarily privilege a fusion with non-Cuban styles, and a more « African » sound than that of Adalberto Alvarez.
The « modernization » envisaged by Juan Formell entailed a fusion, but was not inspired by jazz in any way. Its objective was to offer a tight formation, without virtuoso soloists, and which was efficient in terms of making people want to dance. Too restricted in Elio Revé’s band, he set up his own band, Los Van Van, in 1969, and has not stopped experimenting since, both in terms of the instrumentation based on the basic charanga (electric bass guitar, electric violin, flute duo, trombones, keyboards, saxophone, etc.), and in terms of combining rhythmic elements borrowed from different styles and countries, with the collaboration of the percussionist Changuito (José Luis Quintana) who adapted the traditional paila to the drums, and who is also one of the masters of sacred drums. Transposing certain rhythmic patterns and notes, he elaborated the songo, a form of son whose ingredients could vary, but whose innovative character resided, according to Formell himself, in the way in which the music was written in terms of the orchestration. Their beginnings were not easy, and the competition with another ‘modern’ charanga band of the time, the Ritmo Oriental, fierce. But Van Van imposed itself by not varying its choices, bringing back to the fore what had always been the backbone of music in the Caribbean: the communication with the dancers and audience through the contagiousness of the rhythm and the content of the lyrics. These veritable island chronicles that both positively and negatively highlight small and major current affairs with humor and with a great sense of style that is inspired by the streets, have at times been censored on the radio, but have stayed on everybody’s lips, and certain refrains have even become sayings.
A multi-directional fusion: Irakere
In 1973, a band emerged on the scene which eclipsed Van Van for a while, and whose creativity and virtuosity left the international public flabbergasted: Irakere. Its founding members came from the Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music, founded in 1967, which regrouped a selection of the best instrumentalists of the time. At the same time, the pianist Jesús « Chucho » Valdés, the guitarist Carlos Emilio Morales, the drummer Enrique Pla, the percussionist Oscar Valdés, the double bass player Carlos del Puerto, the saxophonist and clarinetist Paquito de Rivera, were working together in a Cuban jazz formation. Out of that, Irakere was born, which decided to play its own compositions and to cover all musical terrains. They could go from a Debussy suite to a jazz instrumental or an explosive guaguancó mixed with unbridled rock without batting an eyelid. They mixed in the batá drum and shekeré, instruments which until then were only used in ritual ceremonies and certain symphonic orchestras, thereby blending traditional Cuban styles with the rhythmic figures of the Afro-Cuban cults, classical music, rock, funk, and jazz. The band also integrated a brass section comprising two trumpets and two saxophones, and were one of the first band to use synthesizers.
At the end of the Seventies, their Cuban jazz-rock was the « in-thing » amongst young people, a symbol of renewal, of opening. Their huge concerts practically ended in riots. They also became the ambassadors of Cuba abroad. The powerful CBS got them a visa in 1978 so they could record an album in the States, which won a Grammy Award in 1979. Paquito de Rivera and the trumpeter Arturo Sandoval emigrated to America. They were immediately replaced by new members who played as well as them, but the authorities became suspicious of the band for a while.
Irakere was the unquestionable reference for the experimental trend that emerged amongst the young musicians from the academies who wanted to create a popular music of as high a quality as concert music. Afro Cuba in 1977, and Opus 13 in 1979, dreamt of a completely free jazz that would blend contemporary music and Africa, and get the crowds dancing, but their project was not understood by the programmers and media. Dance or concert: they were asked to choose. Their recordings remained confidential, and one had to go and watch their rehearsals outside the institutional circuit habitually reserved to this effect to listen to their creations at the time. Afro-Cuba evolved towards the concert circuit, and also accompanied Silvio Rodriguez on his tours. Opus 13 split up in 1991. In the same spirit, Síntesis was audacious enough to blend rock with rhythm and songs in the ritual languages of the Regla de Ocha.
A renewed taste for tradition: Adalberto Alvarez
A final trend emerged, developing an approach that had nothing to do with fusion, as it conserved and elaborated the conjunto instrumental format, and respected the foundations of traditional son whilst modernizing its arrangements. In 1970, Rumbavana, and its leader and pianist Joseito Gonzáles, who has died since, imposed a rapid tempo, original trumpet arrangements, and came across the compositions of a young musician, Adalberto Alvarez.
Adalberto had gained experience with the popular orchestra led by his father Néné Alvarez in Camagüey, then entered the regional music academy. He was then selected for the National Arts School, where he moved from the double bass to the enormous bassoon wind instrument, and from the popular universe to harmonic treatises for symphonic ensembles. Once he had graduated, he preferred the provinces to Havana, choosing to found a traditional conjunto de son in Santiago de Cuba, the second major town on the island. The group kept the tres, but with a contemporary sound, combining trombones and trumpets in order to give greater expressiveness to the brass instruments in the deep register, and to vary the arrangements.
The first album recorded in 1979 was a triumph. A Bayamo en coche, a homage to the barouche tradition that still existed in this town, was inspired by an anecdote when the musicians’ tour bus broke down in Bayamo. Whilst awaiting the hypothetical repair job, the musicians dreamt of a night promenade through the town in a barouche, and in a few hours, had come up with the song.
In the festivals that dot national music life, and on television, the band went from strength to strength. The final consecration was to come from Venezuela, however. Son 14 played its first overseas tour there with Oscar D’Leon, a salsa star, who popularized the form by adapting a large part of the Cuban repertoire of the Forties and Fifties to overseas forms. His arrival in Cuba marked a turning point in the musical history of the island. Attracted by the prestige of a grand sonero everybody had heard of without ever seeing, the younger populations rediscovered the « old people’s music », and a perfume they had forgotten. Musicians analyzed the ingredients that made the shows a success in direct: the stage choreography, the charisma and showmanship, the reasonable tempo, which broke with the rapidity of the tempos commonly found in Cuba.
For Adalberto Alvarez, it was also a new depart. Oscar D’Leon invited him to his show and recorded one of his compositions, El Son de Adalberto. This consecration reaffirmed his decision to come to La Havana in order to finally impose himself at the heart of the island’s unique nerve centre. Only half of his orchestra came with him, and he had to say farewell to his charismatic singer « Tiburon » Morales. It was not until February 1984, however, that he presented his new formation, Adalberto y su Son. Adalberto’s avowed musical filiation is that of Arsenio Rodríguz, the master of the tres, one of the musicians who made the conjunto de son evolve by progressively integrating several trumpets, the piano, and the tumbadora at the end of the Thirties. Adalberto kept the tres, as an essential counter-point to the piano, and particularly worked on the voices. Alongside the son montuno, figured pieces in a more romantic salsa vein, and others which recalled the work of the traditional trova. Caballero del son, the gentleman of son, was the name given to him in Cuba.
Van Van, Irakere, and Adalberto, each in their own way, laid down the foundations of a new national and international Cuban dance music boom, which was made possible, it is true, by two extra-musical factors. Firstly, the Cuban institutions and media saw the new music as a way of counteracting overseas salsa, affirming that authenticity and legitimacy were to be found on the « island of music », the rest being no more than a vague commercial plagiarism. With the policy to develop tourism, the same people realized that this music represented a significant source of currency. New clubs and dance halls were thus opened, overseas tours organized, and records were produced at a steady rate on overseas, national or part private, part public labels.
Timba cubana
José Luis Cortés, the saxophonist, flutist, and very talented composer who worked with Los Van Van, before making a name for himself with Irakere, was the precursor. He affirmed the autonomy of the New Generation, leaving Irakere in 1988, and taking with him most of the brass section, before setting up NG La Banda, whose slogan was: La banda que manda, the band that lays down the law. Its exceptional musical quality, which pulled off the challenge of getting people dancing, was based on elements characteristic of early timba: a prodigious brass section, highly elaborate, but precise arrangements, essentially rumbaguaguancó rhythmic patterns, and ritual Yoruba music which affirm the Afro-Cuban identity, and a resurrection of the song element in which the alternation between solos and chorus was dominated by the introduction of texts performed in a rap style.
NG became both a musical, and social phenomenon. The group became the voice of a section of the youth, and others, by choosing to evoke what, in official spheres, are completely taboo questions, and by using a street language that comes specifically from the black neighborhoods, and is often peppered with terms taken from the African languages and conserved in the religious rituals. Although music has always been a means of communicating, offering a humoristic or tender chronicle of the experiences that each and everyone might experience from day to day, here it brought together and united those who shared a same cultural code, which differed from the official one. Asere became the password, and a world that up until then was constrained within strict parameters, began to speak out freely. NG said out loud what many were thinking under their breaths, directly denouncing the hypocrisies and shortcomings of Cuban society in a far more aggressive manner than anybody else, as it attacked the divide between official discourse and reality, corruption, and the residues of racism. It valorized the neighborhoods and their traditions, and posited the Afro-Cuban religious cults as bearers of an ethic, and as an integral part of Cuban identity. It affirmed young people’s desire to live their lives as they chose. The cultural civil servants began to frown on their stunning success, particularly as NG La Banda set a precedent. In 1990, new bands began to emerge, notably David Calzado’s Charanga Habanera, which has since given rise to two new bands, Paulito FG (y su Elite), Manolín El Médico de la Salsa, a former doctor who turned to music, Bamboleo, and many more. The metronomic precision of the musicians, the aggressivity of the percussion and brass sections, and of the dance and the lyrics, reflect today’s Cuba, which is heading in a direction whose outcome cannot be predicted, where life is hard for all those – and there are many of them – who do not have access to the dollar, the magic pass for the trendy dance halls and consumer goods, and where the social consequences of tourism and the two-tiered society generate contradictions that are hard to control other than through repression. Prostitution, and more recently, violence and drugs, have become the central themes of the lyrics, the jinetera being promoted to the rank of the symbol of the individual struggle for survival.
In the current debates which denounce these texts as « vulgar, violent, and macho », which is often true, one needs to distinguish between the rote criticisms of the official censors, for whom the themes dealt with are in themselves inadmissible, and that of the musicians or music critics who appreciate the expression of a real social unease, but who denounce the tendency to take provocation as an easy recipe for success. The reappropriated Afro-Cuban identity risks becoming trapped in a new ghetto, as is the case with the sadly infamous gangsta-rap in the United States. As they see certain popular musicians driving about in flashy luxury cars today, the gossips claim that they bought them instead of paying their musicians, or by pocketing under the counter payments from foreign labels.
And now?
The overt desire to reconcile excellence and the market has come up against both objective and subjective limits. A certain repetitiveness can be sensed. It is becoming difficult to distinguish one band from another, and some take the easy option. Above all, nearly all young Cuban musicians have been trained in the same schools, and find it difficult to break away from the orchestration and harmony theories that have been drummed into them. Timba is also faced with another contradiction: can it integrate an overseas market thirsty for « Cubaness », even though their music is a far cry from both traditional Cuban music and the commercial salsa sold in the States and the Latin American countries, whilst at the same time being successful at home? They have become trapped within the image and sounds that they themselves have created. Suddenly changing style would mean shooting themselves in the foot by cutting themselves off from what is part of their force and inspiration: the Cuban public. José Luis Cortés has begun making changes in his latest creations. Klimax, with Geraldo Piloto, are continuing their explorations without worrying too much about the critics who accuse them of being too complex to the detriment of their dance aspect. To gain international recognition, others are moving towards « romantic » salsa, as is the case with Issac Delgado, one of the first NG La Banda singers.
Along with timba, many well-known groups are working to adapt traditions to the modernity of their elders: Juan Carlos Alfonso, former pianist of the band Revé, with Danden, Pachito Alonso y sus Kini Kini, Yumurí y sus Hermanos, have constituted an efficient dance music that avoids being flashy. More recently, the pianist and composer Manolito Simonet, ex-band leader of the charanga orchestra Maravillas de Florida, has managed, with an original formation that has kept the cello of the typical bands, adding keyboards, drums and kettledrums, two trumpets and two trombones, to win over both Cuban and international audiences. Cándido Fabré, former singer in l’Original de Manzanillo, is still battling to defend the son tradition of his birthplace with his unrivalled improvisational talent, whilst many young people are trying to make a break by faithfully reproducing the son of the Thirties to Fifties which is so popular abroad. If one adds the « elders » to this panorama of young talent, who have found their way back onto the stage and into the studios with unhidden joy, we may conclude that with or without timba, Cuba is not about to stop impressing us yet.

///Article N° : 5345

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