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More than Mambo

With the Easing of Some U.S. Restrictions, Top Cuban Musicians and Artists are Bringing Their Talents North
Jim Nesbitt
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

(continued from page 1)

The result: a steady northbound stream of Cuban artists, actors, musicians, academicians and writers, fueling an American appetite for unblended and undiluted Cuban talent, be it the classic skills of Jose Manuel Carreño, who is dancing with the American Ballet Theater, or the traditional sounds of the veteran musicians showcased on the Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club album.

A recently announced initiative by the Clinton administration promises further cultural exchange, raising hopes for an even bigger flow of artists between the two countries. In March, there was a southward counterflow: about 35 American musicians, including Jimmy Buffett, Joan Osborne and the Indigo Girls, traveled to Havana for a week of collaboration with Cuban musicians such as legendary jazz pianist Jesus "Cucko" Valdes and a concert at the Karl Marx, a cultural engagement arranged by the Cuban Music Institute and a California nonprofit group called Music Bridges.

While the unsophisticated tend to toss off this growing American lust for Cuban culture to mere faddishness or the demographic inevitability of the country's burgeoning Latin population, several larger truths are at work here. Cuban culture, with music at the forefront, has been a traditional font of creative influence for all of Latin America, the Caribbean and the entire rim of the Gulf of Mexico.

"The mother of the salsa movement is Cuban," says Cesar Pedroso, pianist and co-founder of Los Van Van, Cuba's most popular dance band. "At its roots, salsa is Cuban music."

When Americans groove to Cuban music, they are rediscovering an important influence on their own musical heritage, according to John Storm Roberts's seminal work, The Latin Tinge. Cuban musicians populated the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans, as that oh-so-American art form hit the cradle; jazz and ragtime legends such as Jelly Roll Morton, W. C. Handy and Louis Armstrong either traveled to Cuba or jammed with Cuban musicians and gave credit to the importance of what Morton called "the Latin tinge" to jazz, meaning Cuban rhythms like the habanera.

While most Americans can easily point to The Mambo King, Perez Prado, fewer are familiar with the contributions of such Cuban musicians as Alberto Socarras, credited with cutting the first flute solo on a jazz recording in 1928, or congolero Chano Pozo, who helped Dizzy Gillespie fuse bop and the Afro-Cuban beat. The Cuban musical pulse can also be detected in rock, Western swing and standards from the American songbook.

Before the revolution, Cuba was America's closest Latin American trading partner--hard evidence of traditional ties on almost every level, a connection tainted by a history of American dominance of Cuban economic and political affairs.

"We have a lot more in common with the United States than we do, say, South America or the Eastern Europeans," says Mirta Yanez, a writer and editor of Cubana, a collection of short stories by contemporary female Cuban writers.

Some say America has run up a cultural deficit to Cuba.

"We gave you great music so you could have jazz; you gave us baseball, Coca-Cola and hamburgers--but, hey, you do what you can," says Ana Radelat, a noted Cuban-born journalist who writes extensively about the island. "Take rum-and-Coke--that drink is a symbol of the cultural exchange."

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