Tag Archives: music

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.

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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!

  Notes

 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.”

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

Lost in Translation II: Gringa Says What?!

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Liza may think life is a Cabaret, but for the rest of us, it’s rather a paradox. Take me for instance: I can turn a quick, clever phrase in English without trouble and indeed, have cobbled together a career of it. But ironically (sometimes I think cruelly), I’ve little facility with foreign languages. Nearly 10 years living full time here and I still struggle. Cuban Spanish? Let’s just say it’s as particular and odd as the island itself. To be honest, sometimes my cup of foreign language frustration runneth over…

For all its myriad benefits, living in a foreign culture is also a burden. I figure most expats would agree, whether they’ve thrown down roots in Beirut or Rabat, Paris or Istanbul. And while 20 or 30 years living in a foreign land may put you in tune, teach you a thing or three, and imprint that culture on your heart, you’ll never be of that culture. This isn’t culture shock – blatant and determinate – but rather a more subtle, low frequency current that pulses beneath every waking moment, reminding us that we are somehow “other.” Facing an unknown word or discordant concept? That’s when this outsider feeling hits particularly square and fast.

But live long enough in a foreign country and eventually this cultural disconnect will get flipped on its head. In my case, every once in a while I have to try and explain to Cubans certain US tendencies, words or quirks that just don’t compute. The pillow talk and technical sex terms alone could fill several pages, for example.

It’s frustrating, receiving that blank stare when I’m explaining something important or impassioned about my life ‘up there.’ Along with the frustration, a string of nostalgia gets plucked and motes of homesickness settle on my psyche. To swipe that dusty corner clean and set those notes of nostalgia free, I offer this list of terms and concepts which just don’t translate into Cuban.

“I don’t drink” – Before I moved to Cuba, I was a liquid dinner kind of gal, forsesaking food for whatever would get me off – martinis, whisky, and wine mostly. I come from a long line of accomplished drinkers, so I could handle it. And I tended to handle it in one of two ways: I was the life of the party when the good head was on, a scattershot bitch when that head turned bad – an unsustainable and pitiable state of affairs. Thankfully, an ultimatum by my ex-lover/partner/husband (see note 1) made me lay down the liquor for good. This doesn’t compute in Cuba. Here’s a typical exchange at parties:

“Conner, do you want a trago? A mojito or Cuba libre?”

“No, thanks. I don’t drink.”

“OK. How about a beer?”

“No, I don’t drink.”

“A glass of wine, then.”

“I’m married” Fidelity and marriage step to the beat of a completely different here. Men maintaining secret families or boy toys (see Gaydar, below); women faking adoration for material gain or immigration papers; and everyone sneaking off with weekend loves – frankly, I’m not down with any of it. So I know I shouldn’t be surprised when Cuban men hit on me and the ‘I’m married’ parry doesn’t have the desired, deterring effect. ‘And?’ is the standard response, followed by the perennial popular: ‘Don’t worry. He won’t find out.’

“Gaydar” – It has taken too long, but after nearly a decade, I’ve finally started to tap into the gay community which was such an important part of my other life. Why it took so long and the LGBT differences between here and there are best saved for another post, but after thinking long and hard about it, I’m still stumped by the absence of Cuban gaydar.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, gaydar is a play on radar and means what you might guess: it’s a beeping signal or blip that goes off when you sense someone is gay. For those with the finest tuned gaydar, it doesn’t matter if the person is out or not – the alarm will sound regardless. As you may imagine, there’s a lot of ‘passing’ in macho Cuba (pretending to be heterosexual, keeping a wife and kids for example, while grooving with guys on the side), and my gaydar goes off pretty often. So I started asking my gay friends here if there was a comparable expression in Cuban for queer folks flying low, below the radar so to speak. My query received the telltale blank expressions. Only after going round and round, trying to explain the concept, did my friends offer a loose equivalent: ‘aquello tiene plumas’ (that one has feathers), like a pajarito (little bird), a slang term for a gay man.

“Blue-eyed soul” – Cubans, it goes without saying, are phenomenal musicians – no matter if it’s rock, salsa, son or chamber music in question. But the island has been blockaded by the USA for over 50 years, which means it has been cut off from certain musical paradigms I just can’t live without. Soul, R&B, and funk especially, enter only episodically into the Cuban musical vernacular. Sure, they know Aretha and Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and a handful of other luminaries. But when I mention Bill Withers, the Bar Kays, George Clinton or Curtis Mayfield, I’m getting the 1,000-mile stare again. The likes of Hall & Oates and other blue-eyed soulsters? Fugget about it (see note 2). The same holds true for straight up blues – a genre you’d think Cubans would easily adopt and adapt, given all their trouble and woe.

“Self-Storage” – Having so much stuff – valuable stuff, not the termite-eaten and rusty shit that every Cuban has stashed somewhere in their house – that you require off-site storage: this is a foreign concept for Cubans (and most other folks from the Global South, I imagine). But mark my words: within a decade or two, Havana will have its U-Store-It or Guardando Tareco or similar.

“Marketing” – In case you haven’t heard, we’re undergoing an ‘economic opening,’ a ‘relaxation,’ a ‘new way forward.’ Whatever you call it, what it amounts to is the revolution’s most aggressive experiment with capitalism to date. More than 180 activities and services previously the sole domain of the state and attendant black market are now open for private business. Havana is a hive of entrepreneurial activity – private gyms overflow with hard body wannabes, ice sellers do a brisk business, and street food (some toothsome, some inedible) is sold from Centro to Santo Suárez. There’s even a Cuban Kinko’s now.

But not all entrepreneurs are created alike, which becomes glaringly obvious with the banal marketing behind all these new businesses. Rainbow umbrellas are the universal signs for cafeterias and all the same horror DVDs, with all the same faded covers, displayed on cookie cutter racks are sold in every neighborhood. Meanwhile second-hand clothes hang limply from iron gates, advertising themselves. Indeed, sophisticated marketing here is a string of blinking Christmas lights and a garish LCD ticker advertising batidos and comida criolla.

This, however, will change. Already websites and social media are being exploited by the savviest restaurateurs and a new English-language weekly for tourists called The Havana Reporter will soon be chock-a-block full of local ads if my predictions are correct. This is just the beginning and I can’t wait for the day when my favorite eateries advertise their no Styrofoam policy or proclaim they’re a regguetón- or TV-free zone (two plagues in Cuban bars and restaurants). Better yet, I look forward to gorgeous guys joining the hot mulattas who now dominate ad campaigns and efforts. I only hope it happens before I’m too old and grey to enjoy ogling the talent!

Notes
1. Live in: another hard-to-translate concept. Not legally spouses, but more than lovers, we eventually settled on partners, a term I never liked. It sounds weird in any language and implies business dealings or sexual orientation.

2. I should point out that many Cubans have a sap-sap-sappy streak and get all dewy-eyed for love songs and ballads and other music that I generally associate with elevators and the dentist chair (to wit: last week I got into a collective taxi blasting Air Supply). So while the lighter side of soul and R&B may be known by some, the funky side ain’t.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Expat life, Living Abroad