Why are Cubans so Damn Good?!

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December is always an interesting time in Havana – cool in temperature and temperament, but also cruel in many ways. Hurricane season has officially ended, so this is when we breathe easier (if Mother Nature has been benevolent) or tighten our belts one notch further (if she hasn’t). Christmas and New Year’s are bearing down, which means feasts of pork and yucca and the season’s first lettuce; dancing to Van Van in the Protestódromo (see note 1); and having a few days of well-deserved rest.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, certainly, but ‘tis also the season to be on your guard: there are few guarantees in Cuba, but a spike in robberies leading up to Christmas when the desire to provide gifts, food, and drink for the family trumps ethics and the law is one of them (a dramatic increase in water- and food-borne infections during the hot summer months is another).

Nevertheless, the prospect of being jacked is nothing compared to the heartache and nostalgia that afflict family and friends whose most ardent desire is to be in Cuba during fin de año – trust me, I know. The food and mood is superlative, of course, as is the camaraderie, but December in these parts is also Festival Time.

The Havana Film Festival is now well underway, and hot on its heels is the Jazz Festival, which showcases some of the world’s top jazz musicians in intimate (and cheap!) venues. This isn’t Cannes or Hollywood, Montreux or Manhattan: here the stars are in the seats and streets and whole days and nights are consumed hopping from theater to conference to club, followed by stellar after parties and sizzling jam sessions.

The depth and breadth of Cuban artistic output is (dare I say it?) unsurpassed by any other country its size and many much bigger (sorry my Commonwealth friends, but Australia and to a lesser degree, Canada, come to mind). With so many amazingly talented Cubans strutting their stuff these festival-filled days, I’ve begun to think seriously about Cuban culture and talent.

In short, is this surfeit of greatness thanks to Nature or Nurture?

O sea: is it 50 years of free education (including in all the arts) and the abundance of dirt cheap and even free cultural offerings that have nurtured such success? That’s part of it surely, but doesn’t explain all the Cuban cultural phenoms who predate the Revolution (Desi Arnaz notwithstanding) like Bola de Nieve, Ernesto Lecuona, and Benny Moré.

Maybe it’s in the genes then? This nature theory would explain a lot, like the prevalence of both dynastic families and cultural autodidacts, of which Cuba, as a country of only 11 million, has a disproportionate amount.

My first glimpse of this was provided by my friend, singer-songwriter Santiago Felíu. A high school dropout with a well of the maniacal genius bubbling deep within him, Santí taught himself to play guitar (better than any of his contemporaries mind you), as well as piano. If you know anything about Cuban music, the name Felíu will ring a bell: his older brother Vicente was a co-founder of the Nueva Trova musical movement and Vicente’s daughter, Aurora de los Andes, is a formidable singer and actress in her own right.

Not surprisingly, it was the Family Felíu that first aroused my interest in Cuba’s cultural autodidacts and dynasties. Like a spouse who suspects infidelity, once I started paying attention, I saw the connections everywhere – not just in music, but also theater, dance, art and of course, politics.


In honor of the Film Festival, I’ll start with the ‘7th Art.’ If you haven’t yet heard of Habanastation, you will: it’s an Oscar contender and was a blockbuster hit when it opened in Cuba this past July, captivating audiences with its dissection of class divisions in Havana and their effect on values. It was made by filmmaker Ian Padrón, son of Juan Padrón, creator of both Elpidio Valdés and the classic Vampiros en la Habana movies, both of which remain staples in the island’s canon. A young, budding dynasty, perhaps, but an impressive start nonetheless.

The Crematas, meanwhile, are another dynastic artistic family, with brothers Carlos Alberto and Juan Carlos making their marks as director of the Colmenita and director of films respectively.  

In dance, the Carreño tribe leaps to mind: Jose Manuel, Yoel, and Alihaydee, continue to nurture their legacy as some of the most accomplished ballet dancers around, as evidenced by their principal status in top companies. If you can make it in the American Ballet Theater and the Royal Ballet,you can make it anywhere, right? In theater, the Revueltas (Vicente, Raquel) are renowned for their work on stages near and far.

But nowhere is the dynasty dynamic as tangible as it is in music. The Familia Romeu (orchestral director Antonio María, pianist Armando, and Camerata Romeu director, Zenaida) is a good example, as are the López-Nussas – Ernán and Harold on piano, Ruy and son Ruy on drums – and the López-Gavilán Clan (Aldo plays piano, his father Guido is a classical composer and conductor, mother Teresita Junco was also a composer and brother Ilmar is a violinist). I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to the Alfonsos here: father Carlos and mother Eve Valdes founded the group Síntesis over 35 years ago (think the Partridge Family funkified), in which their musical children Eme (M) and Equis (X) cut their teeth, both of whom have healthy solo careers today (see note 2).

Controversial as he is of late, mention must be made of trova great Pablo Milanés, who also heads up a musical dynasty, with three daughters – Lynne, Haydée, and Suylen – nurturing successful singing careers of their own. Even Silvio Rodríguez, world famous and (almost) universally revered, is the head of a dynasty of sort: his son ‘Sivito El Libre’ is part of the highly polemic rap group Los Aldeanos. Salsa is another genre where families shine, as epitomized by Los Van Van founder Juan Formell and his drummer son Samuel.

 Apart from the dynasties, autodidacts also swell the ranks of Cuba’s über talented. In art, Yanluis Bergareche is an exciting emerging artist who is entirely self-taught. Is it not simply astounding that a young man could teach himself to paint canvasses such as these? In addition to the aforementioned Santiago Felíu and inimitable El Benny, self-taught musicians include up-and-coming rapper/chanteuse Danay Suárez and the blind tres player Arsenio Rodríguez – one of my all-time favorites.

 With artistic giants such as these, the ascendancy of regguetón – defined by simplistic rhythms and misogynistic vulgarity (see note 3) – is doubly shameful. Moreover, it obviously disproves the powers of both Nature and Nurture.

 Do you have a favorite Cuban autodidact or dynasty? Let me know!


 1. Each New Year’s, the ‘Rolling Stones of Cuba’ play a free concert in the parade grounds directly in front of the US Interests Section (the pseudo embassy here). Inaugurated to protest the sequestration of Elián González in Miami, this space is officially named the Tribuna Anti-Imperialista, but is known as the Protestódromo in local lingo.

 2. X Alfonso is one of the most innovative musicians in Cuba today and works with artists and musicians in many diverse genres; try to catch a concert when you’re here.

 3. In one recent regguetón-related fracas, Osmany Garcia’s “song” Chupi Chupi was taken to task in the national media for its disgusting, degrading lyrics telling a woman to “come suck my cock, you know you’ll like it; open your little mouth and swallow it sweetheart.”



Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, dream destinations, Living Abroad

14 responses to “Why are Cubans so Damn Good?!

  1. Ole

    Don’t know if I could go so far as to compare los Van Van with the Stones,but if you are speaking strictly of longevity then it is so- not my style, but Hey. I miss Cubanito, and Pesadilla.

    I did get a chance to see Kings of Salsa dance troupe up here last week, and they were spectacular!

    Plenty of talent in Cuba sin duda, Conner! much more than we should hope for for its size.

    Felicidades. And i might be there to throw some water out the window on New Years.


  2. johnabbotsford

    “The depth and breadth of Cuban artistic output is (dare I say it?) unsurpassed by any other country its size and many much bigger (sorry my Commonwealth friends, but Australia and to a lesser degree, Canada, come to mind). ”
    No argument from this Colonial!
    Not sure there is a totaly credible explanation for this phenomenon.
    BTW really enjoyed Habanastation.

  3. hoy JA – surely you’re not forgetting ..,,,ummm……well, Kylie, for example?
    A recent program on ABC dealt with the issue of funding for the Arts here in Oz and while I was watching it I was thinking about watching TV in Stgo and the amount of TV time devoted to the arts there, public prime-time TV…..
    A combination of nature/nurture I think, and I will be pondering it further in Stgo as my Spanish improves. What strikes me, from the limited experience I’ve had there, is the normalcy of artistic knowledge; arts are a part of the landscape rather than a cringe factor (think Sunday afternoon bbq in the suburbs). And also the wide reach; we tend more to stick to one facet whereas Cuban people I’ve met range far and wide in their knowledge, from salsa to classical ballet to visual arts to – well – futbol for heaven’s sake. Totally disarming.

  4. viajera

    I’d say that among Cuban musicos, dynasties are actually the rule rather than the exception. Maybe because once you’ve become accustomed to the lifestyle, any more ‘normal’ existence becomes impossible… anyway, other dynasties are of course the both clans of Valdes-es ( three generations of pianists in the Bebo + Chucho + Chuchito line, two that I know of in the case of timbalero Amadito and chanteuse daughter Idania).

    PS Arsenio, not Aresenio, Rodriguez…

    And about the “obscenity” issue: this is almost always a slippery slope to saying something stupid, as when US politicians try to talk about rap or when UK policemen try to blame riots on grime. “Filth” of various kinds has always been part of Cuban music (some of Arsenio’s compositions contain hair-raising double entendres and that’s from the 1920s; Los Van Van’s temas are full of sex – and it’s not always even all that well-veiled or metaphorical). So for me the real issues here are sexism, and appropriateness for children in public performance, rather than explicit lyrics per se (just because it’s explicit doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “degrading and disgusting”.)

    While I think that the song ‘Chupi Chupi” is a musical turd (it’s coarse, it’s uninventive, yes it’s sexist, and worst of all it’s BORING) I think the spectacle of the Cuban ‘cultural authorities’ – of all people! – lining up to say how shocked – SHOCKED! – they are by its content is an absolutely hilariously hypocritical show.

    • hola viajera – thanks for pointing out the typo and the fact that lewd lyrics are nothing new – something that has been bandied about the dinner table here quite a lot as of late. as you know, its this song’s lack of subtlety (the double entendres and metaphors you mention), combined with the ‘women are our playthings, we’ll do what we will’ attitude that is sickening.

      Hypocrisy is also sickening (in my book anyway) and after asking around w music people, radio and TV people, it seems this issue was very poorly addressed indeed (ie another cuban case of “barn door open, horse already fled”) and points up a major disconnect between Havana’s different, but parallel realities. OJO: this will be the letra de ano 2012. How we manage this disconnect moving forward: therein lies the rub.

  5. I would love to visit Cuba for NYE! Sounds sooo festive!!!

  6. CHECK IT PEOPLE! This Friday, Dec 9, X Alfonso (from this post) gives a free concert at Calle G & Calzada. Hosted by UNICEF, the concert will be preceded by two video debuts: X’s new one + Calle 13. A tent behind the stage will be transferring the music and videos to anyone and everyone who shows up with a flash drive.

  7. The more I read about Cuba on your blog, the more I wish I lived there. There is no doubt I’ll be visiting very very soon and now I’m even more convinced it has to be around New Year’s time. 😉

    • pamela simon

      There was a great documentary on PBS the other night called Havana, Havana. Here is the tag line:
      Tap your toes to the beat of this music documentary, which vibrates with the soul and energy of African-Cuban drummers, guajira guitarists and the pulsing melodies of celebrated Cuban musician Raul Paz, who brings together fellow musical stars Descemer Bueno, Kelvis Ochoa and David Torrens for a concert in Havana.

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