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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 5)

What makes Cuban music so forcefully unique is its blend of Spanish and African influences, particularly its emphasis on the richly layered complexity of African drum beats. There are more than 30 genres of Cuban music, from the bedrock son--a lyrically simple, yet rhythmically sophisticated ballad that is a synthesis of African chants and guitar-laced Spanish folk music--to timba, a superpercussive form of dance music that Pedroso says has a purer, more driving sound than salsa and is more readily danceable music.

While the unlearned would dub Los Van Van a salsa band, in truth, the group plays a style called songo, a blend of blue-collar street music and a more formal musical form known as charanga. This stylistic label reminds Pedroso that the pulse of Cuba runs strongest through a variety of rhythms and styles with short, punchy names--rumba, mambo, timba, conga, songo.

There's another distinguishing factor affecting music and other art forms. Thanks to the revolution, many Cuban artists have a history of intense formal training, with an emphasis on classical music and art. This gives a pronounced discipline and structure to Cuban music and art, even Mendive's folk-inspired painting and sculpture.

But there is also whimsy, vibrancy, chaos and color. Regard the paintings of Alfredo Sosabravo, 69, who cites the influence of everything from the Prince Valiant and Tarzan comic books to Andy Warhol, modern design and the long line of Cuban painters that came before him, such as Wilfredo Lam. For Sosabravo, though, the most important influence is Cuba itself.

"Every country has an artistic personality, some stronger than others," he says. "In the case of Cuba, I give a lot of importance to living all these years here. Because it is an island, the influence of the outside world is indirect. I read, I travel to Europe to learn and see things, but I always come back to Cuba."

Jim Nesbitt is a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service in Washington, D.C., who loves writing about Cuba.


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