The following interview, initially published in New America Media and reproduced in Repeating Islands, presents some insights into the popular music culture of Cuba.
From charanga to son to timba, Cuba has long been a country world-renowned for its distinct musical styles and traditions. Nevertheless, people inside the United States – even the most ardent music lovers — aren’t likely to become aware of the newest Cuban artists or to hear the latest musical trends, short of paying an actual visit to the island. Greg Landau is a producer, musician and educator from the Bay Area who’s traveled to Cuba more than 30 times. New America Media editor Jacob Simas sat down with Landau in his Alameda recording studio, where they spoke about Cuban music — where it’s been, where it is now, and what it can tell us about the psychology of the people and the state of affairs on the island today. To hear an audio version of this interview with music excerpts, click here.
Jacob Simas: You recently came back from Cuba with a stack of CD’s — new music by Cuban artists that are unavailable commercially here in the United States. What struck you about the music that is perhaps different from where Cuban music has been in the past?
Greg Landau: Well, Cuba has a long history of music and a really rich tradition that combines a lot of different elements, and what I’ve seen in every trip is how the music evolves, and how each generation takes elements that they’ve inherited and makes them into a new blend. So the process continues, and a lot of [today’s] groups are innovating, using [traditional] elements, but also the things they hear from outside the country. So you hear reggaeton, hip-hop, cumbia, roots reggae and heavy metal — all these things that are popular outside of Cuba, being interpreted by Cubans in their own way.
But what’s amazing is the level of virtuosity. Because people are able to study and gain that virtuosity because they’re playing all the time, they have time to rehearse, and they’re getting schooled in music schools.
JS: Are young people and elders today in Cuba listening to completely different types of music, or is there a shared appreciation?
GL: The music really crosses generations more than it does here, because first, dancing is common to everybody. Everybody dances [to] music that comes out on the radio, and there’s a mix of old and new. Young people are forced to learn the traditional dance styles, and they know them. They know how to do the danzon; they know the rumba. They’re taught this in school. There’s education. So it does cross generations a lot. Even most of the popular groups — a lot of them have been around for a long time — are constantly evolving. Still probably the number one group in Cuba is Los Van Van, which would translate into English as “The Go Go’s.” They’re still the number one group. They’ve changed singers and new generations of musicians have come through, but the essence of it is that they take Cuban music and combine it with contemporary elements, especially American funk, which is what’s kind of popular right now.
JS: People in the U.S. really have no easy way to hear these tunes. Do you see that changing? Do you see the music industry opening up a little bit or new avenues being created for Cuban music to be heard by people over here?
GL: Well first of all, Cuban musical artists are popular all over the world, and especially all over Latin America. But here in the U.S. not really, because the embargo has been very efficient in stopping that flow of information, that flow of music. And also, the commercial music industry here is not really open to this music. Some of the elements of the music are a little too sophisticated for the pop music that we hear on the radio. The popular Cuban music style timba – which is kind of a modern evolution of salsa — is too fast and too complicated for many of the dancers. And a lot of the [Cuban] groups also have sophisticated messages that are very local, very much about Cuba; about the religious elements; [about] the existential crisis of a Cuban, which is very different than here (in the U.S.)
JS: Can you give an example?
GL: Well, a lot of the songs are making reference to the Afro-Cuban religions, and the fall of the Soviet Union that has caused a vacuum in Cuba, where the ideological foundation, the spiritual foundation of the society based on these communist principles, is gone. People have to fill in the void and figure out or find a way to explain why they’re here. What are we doing while we’re here on this planet? What’s our goal? What are we supposed to accomplish? How do we treat each other? Kind of the whole basis is gone.
So we can see that much of the Afro-Cuban religions come in to fill in this gap; that people start reaching back in their history and their tradition to find that social glue. A lot of the music talks about this. There are many young people making references to the Afro-Cuban religions, to this spirituality, and to this explanation that it provides. And people [ask], how did Cuba survive this long? People thought that with the fall of the Berlin wall it would be over, but it wasn’t. So people have found ways to kind of pull it together, and this is a message in a lot of the music… this new spiritual foundation that’s kind of holding things together.
JS: Music is also often a platform for political messaging. Is there a similar platform for musicians in Cuba to speak about politics, or not?
GL: Well yeah. A lot of political debate and a lot of political discussion in Cuba goes on through the arts. People look at Cuban film. It’s very critical of government policies, many of the popular Cuban films, and it sort of opens up a gap to allow people to discuss these things that maybe can’t be discussed in other forums. Music, too. Starting with the Nueva Trova movement of the early ‘60s — it really begins in 1967 – that opens up this musical poetry, a musical poetry that kind of examines and gives people tools for understanding what’s going on around them.
There’ve been maybe eight generations since the Nueva Trova movement, of musicians that have taken this up — not necessarily playing dance music, but playing music for people to listen to, to make critiques of society, to open up dialogues. So we see, going back to Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes, who are still active; Noel Nicola, Sara Gonzalez, and then the next generation that incorporates elements of rock, and then we see elements of jazz; and so they’re experimenting with not just the content but the form, and pushing the envelopes of pop music.
JS: How does the music industry work in Cuba?
GL: Well first off, I wouldn’t really describe it as an “industry.” In Cuba, many of the groups are on salary, which really creates a new dynamic. First, in a capitalist society, groups rise and fall based on their popularity and their money making capacity, where in Cuba, this is very different. Some of the groups are sustained because they’re on salary, they survive maybe even when they’re not so popular but they’re still going… because these are traditions that are preserved.
So for instance, La Orquesta Revé… Elio Revé was popular in the 1960?s, and he had a big band that played changui (a traditional Afro-Cuban musical style) from Guantanamo, and made all these different variations on it. There was changui with violins and heavy drumming, and they went through phases of being popular and not popular. And now his son has taken over the group and continued it, and they’ve incorporated new elements.
So the groups are kind of like institutions that are maintained, like a preservation hall. These forms of popular music are seen as important, and these elements in Cuban culture are maintained way past when they probably would be in a capitalist society.
JS: So, the Cuban state is subsidizing its artists. How does that impact everyday Cubans?
GL: [Cuban musicians] can go play for free in the town squares all over Cuba. Every weekend, all over Cuba, there are huge concerts in every town. So what do you do on a Saturday night? Do you go to a club? No, you go to the town square, with thousands of other people, for free, and listen to music and dance and party. This goes on very frequently. There are frequent festivals and these groups tour all over Cuba, mainly playing for free in town squares, in schools, in hospitals, army bases, farms… wherever. The idea [behind government subsidized musicians] was that one of the rights of being a citizen is the right to culture.
This youtube video shows La Orquesta Revé in performance and the joyous response of the audience as they sing and dance to the infectious music.
For the original report go to http://newamericamedia.org/2012/04/cuban-music-still-thriving-still-unheard-in-us.php