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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)

"Whoever is successful in America is successful around the world," says Los Van Van's Pedroso. "It's the maximum."

Not so long ago, Cuban artists eager to prove their talent in America or improve their economic lot had a single choice--leave Cuba and never return. Those who did faced pressure from Cuban-American hardliners to denounce Castro and Cuba--a political price of admission that was difficult to resist.

Some still make this move, including musicians such as the popular chanteuse Albita, and former Irakere members Paquito D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval, who won a Grammy this year for his jazz album Hot House. But the political pressure to denounce Castro has lessened markedly, making it more manifestly obvious that ambition both artistic and economic is the prime motivation for emigration.

"The Cuban artist, when they leave Cuba, they're looking for a future, for opportunity," says Miles Peña, 29, a Cuban-born salsa singer living and recording out of New York City for RMM Records, the Latin music heavyweight that is also pushing Delgado's music. "While they are looking for a future and opportunity to be an artist, they are also making the economic opportunity. No one goes out of Cuba and leaves the family without taking economic reality into account."

The Cuban artist has always felt an acute tension between career advancement and cultural authenticity. Leaving Cuba means risking the loss of cultural cachet, a break in association with a mythic, forbidden place that provides artistic inspiration. Staying in Cuba means struggling in a small, crowded cultural marketplace with a lessened guarantee of making an international mark.

Jorge Caunedo, a young Cuban painter, elects to stay in his homeland.

"The island is a filter that allows you to see the world," says Caunedo, 30, who trained as an architect and has handled two important renovation projects in La Habana Vieja, the architecturally rich colonial-era section of Havana that is being restored as a major tourist attraction. "This is the ground that makes the plant grow, this is the ground that makes the artist grow. You know, the mango, you can't get it to grow in the snow."

But Caunedo is also powerfully aware of the American marketplace and the desirability of showing his work in New York. "New York is the scale," he says. "It's a place where everybody tries to go."

Manuel Mendive, whose work includes soft fabric sculptures and performance art that features painting the bodies of seminude dancers, provides a poetic echo. "I'm modest, but not very shy," he says. "For me, America is always the sun."

On the streets of Havana, you can still sense some disdain for those who have left.

"The musician who goes to the United States, he's not a Cuban musician in the total sense--he's visiting someone else's house," says Fito Laureiro, the manager of AfroCuba.

But the hard attitude of Cold War times has softened, tempered by the freer flow of Cuban artists around the world and by the significant cultural demands of the Marielitos and balseros, the post-1980 second and third wave of Cuban immigrants to the United States, who grew up listening to Los Van Van. They are joining younger Cuban-Americans who want to taste the pure Cuban sound.

"These younger generations, they aren't political--they just want to hear our music," says Pedroso, who says Los Van Van is considering several Miami dates on its summer tour, once an unthinkable notion. "The tension that used to be, it's gone. The people who left, they can come back, they can play. And those guys who left and renounced Cuba, they're the first guys at the airport shaking our hands and saying hello."

You hear music on the streets throughout Havana. It's everywhere. A guaguanco blaring from the second-story window of a house on a Vedado side street as a band practices on a weekday afternoon. Afro-Cuban jazz in the cellar bar, La Zorra y El Cuervo, near the Habana Libre hotel. Souped-up son by unheralded and hat-passing musicians in the Café Paris in La Habana Vieja. Boleros and an a cappella quartet at Gato Tuerto, a club near the Hotel Nacional.

It might be chamber music in the Basilica San Francisco, the restored and richly ornate church in the old section of Havana. Or hot and highly harmonic salsa in a meeting room of the Hotel Riveria with lousy acoustics, served up by a young band from Matanzas, La Caro, fronted by four sisters and backed by various spouses and relatives. It might even be hip-hop and house--American styles served up with Cuban brio.

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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