Music in Cuba: Bridging a Cultural Divide

A young Cuban working on his muscal skills along Habana harbor.

Thursday afternoon as I sat in the Travel Clinic trying to ignore the FOUR immunuzation needles waiting for me on the counter, I initiated a conversation with the nurse to distract myself.  (I assure you, I went to the clinic to appease my mother…I hate shots and sincerely doubt that Typhoid was in the cards for me this year…but anything to help my family rest easier.)  But back to the clinic!  As soon as the nurse learned I was heading to Cuba, her face lit up and she said, “Oh, I love their music!”  Similarly, last night while saying goodbye to the family of one of my very best friends, her father went on and on about Cuban music and how lucky I was to be living there for a whole year.  Two comments on music in 2 days???  This demands a blog post!

Music permeates Cuban life, culture and history.  I will undoubtedly elaborate on the many unique types of music, common instruments and common topics in contemporary Cuban music in upcoming posts.  But for the purpose of this first post on music, suffice it to say that Cuban music is more than Ricky Ricardo singing Babalou.  Depending on your particular tastes or mood, there is something for everyone!

Our first night in la Habana back in June, a group of  teachers from the United States sat at a café in Habana Vieja enjoying mojitos and singing “Dos Gardenias” with the band.  This Buena Vista Social Club hit became the theme song of our delegation, being essentially Cuban and representing the romantic element of our trip.  1600 miles away, my 14-year-old nephew spent a good portion of his summer playing “BonBon” by Pitbull on his smartphone.  While I have no doubt he will one day be an excellent Spanish-speaker, my nephew did not understand the lyrics of the song.  Indeed, the fascination with Reggaeton in today’s US youth culture transcends language barriers.  (As a side note, many Raggaeton artists popular in the US such as Daddy Yankee are Puerto Rican, but for the purposes of this posting my focus is on the blending and sharing of culture among nations.)

My personal introduction to Cuban music occurred during my “Re-Imagining Cuba” course with Dr Frank Guridy at the University of Texas in 2007.  The keyword of this course was “Transnational”, focusing on the concept of culture and ideas that transcend borders and time.  (Homework Assignment for my undergrad and IB readers: Go read Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson!)  Not surprisingly, music was a common theme throughout the course.  Dr Guridy encouraged students to bring in examples of Cuban music for extra credit to be played before class, and we spent several periods discussing Cuban jazz artists like Machito.  (For more, see “Machito: A Latin Jazz Legacy”, a 1987 documentary by Carlo Ortiz)  Dr Guridy also introduced me to one of my favorite groups, Los Orishas.  Check out the video for their song “537 Cuba”, a great tribute to la Habana with beautiful shots of the city.  Music was a very powerful teaching tool throughout this course, one I plan to borrow in the future.

One could certainly follow the history of Cuba, or even the history of our two nations, through music.  It is a powerful, emotional product of life and culture that can in some way have an impact on every individual.  Indeed, la Habana today has its own living soundtrack, one that shares the story of its residents and the rich history of the island nation with all those who listen.

One of the leading ladies of Buena Vista Social Club


Discussion Forum/ Cuba Q&A

As a graduate student, I had the opportunity to TA for several online courses through the NC State Department of History.  One of my favorite aspects of these online courses were the discussion forums, in which students and teachers could simulate discussions and debates that would usually occur in the classroom setting.
On his website, Professor Richard Slatta includes the following list of benefits of such discussions:

  1. It helps students explore a diversity of perspectives.
  2. It increases students’ awareness of and tolerance for ambiguity or complexity.
  3. It helps students recognize and investigate their assumptions.
  4. It encourages attentive, respectful listening.
  5. It develops new appreciation for continuing differences.
  6. It increases intellectual agility.
  7. It helps students become connected to a topic.
  8. It shows respect for students’ voices and experiences.
  9. It helps students learn the processes and habits of democratic discourse.
  10. It affirms students as cocreators of knowledge.
  11. It develops the capacity for the clear communication of ideas and meaning.
  12. It develops habits of collaborative learning.
  13. It increases breadth and makes students more empathic.
  14. It helps students develop skills of synthesis and integration.
  15. It leads to transformation.

Through the “katieincuba Discussion Forum”,  I hope to encourage critical thinking, get people curious, answer questions when I can and speculate elsewhere.  If you are curious about a contemporary or historical issue, this is the place to bring it up.  There are no rules, just please keep it PG and remember that I will kindly refuse to engage in political discussion.

And, go…..

Cuban Music and Dance (With Videos!)

At the entrance of the Afro-Cuban cultural exhibit, la habana

During a recent delegation to la habana, I learned why people so often associate Cubans and Cuba with dance and music!  Spontaneous dance parties erupted all around us, in courtyards and buses, restaurants and walkways.  I have always been a fan of Cuban music, but was unprepared for the dancing.  Cubans can dance!!!  So skillfully and effortlessly it puts me to shame (not that I would ever pretend to be a dancer….I have VERY limited moves.) However, it seems the Cubans are born with an innate rhythm and when they dance it is a powerful demonstration of culture and history and passion and sensuality unlike anything I have ever seen.  I fear the best I can ever hope for is to not embarrass myself entirely while on the dance floor with a Cuban….I am not optimistic.

My apologies for dismal lighting conditions and poor “videography” skills evident in these videos…..I am not an artist!!! (I cook and I doodle, that is about it…)  However, here are a few examples of music and dance culture around Havana as seen during a June 2010 delegation to the island.

I have posted two videos on YouTube from an afternoon at an Afro-Cuban cultural exhibit/courtyard in la habana.  One of these videos emphasizes the music heard at the exhibit, and the other showcases the traditional dance we had the opportunity to see.  I hope to gain more background information on this location during my time in Cuba and will have a future post on the artwork and artists themselves.

The other set of videos is from a show our delegation attended at a Havana theater on traditional Cuban/Afro-Cuban dance and music, including a demonstration of Cuban salsa dancing and musical performances with incredible percussion and group vocals.  I apologize for the poor lighting in the theater, I took the video (as well as all the photographs used in my blog) with my little pink Canon Elf…so this is not professional equipment!!

Visit Cuba! (*some restrictions apply*)

Cuban Flag draped in the courtyard of the former Presidential Palace

Conveniently, I write this post on the same day the Chicago Tribune posted a blurb on the loosening of travel restrictions for US citizens to Cuba. (Chicago Tribune, Travel, Section 5, p. 4, 21 August 2011)  The tribune has followed multiple similar developments in previous weeks following simultaneous actions in DC that may make this progress short-lived, the outcome of which is of yet undetermined…

Today’s post is for those readers from the United States who are interested in seeing the island, but are hesitant, unable or unwilling to take the risk of “sneaking” on as so many thousands do each year.  (If that is the route you choose, I strongly suggest checking out Cuban travel forums like Lonely Planet to thoroughly research and consider your options.)  Recent changes made by the Obama administration allow for legal travel by the average citizen through licensed organizations visiting the island for purposes covered by the US Department of Treasury “General Visa” requirements for travel to Cuba.  In addition, charter flights through companies such as Marazul Charters have been approved through New York, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Tampa, Ft Lauderdale, Baltimore and LA, in addition to the daily flights already flying from Miami to Havana.

For many who have been curious about the beautiful island 90 miles from our shores, these changes mean that travel to Cuba can now be a reality.  However, do not pack your beach towels, bikinis and boogie boards quite yet.  These trips through licensed organizations such as Witness for Peace follow a specific itinerary in accordance with license requirements.  Such itineraries may focus on environmental issues, educational, religious, or any number of humanitarian purposes.

While daily activity during such delegations is pre-determined, leaving little opportunity for leisure/lounging typically associated with a tropical getaway, traveling with these groups allows for access to locations and individuals you would likely not have met if on the island as a mere “beach tourist”.  The price of the trip will likely include airfare to the island, the Cuban tourist visa, travelers medical insurance, lodging, the services of a very qualified English-Spanish translator and most of your transportation and meals for the stay.  Quite a deal for the opportunity to experience such an incredible culture and country!  If this is something that peaks your interest, I highly recommend researching upcoming delegations/trips…you never know when the window of opportunity may close again.  (And if you happen to end up in Havana, look me up!)

Mural at special needs school in la habana

The Travel Narrative As Source

Arrival at Jose Marti International Airport

First and foremost, I intend for this blog to serve as a type of extended travel narrative on my time in Cuba.  In my case, this is a complicated mission.  Travel narratives are often written with the intended audience being potential or future travelers to the same location…yet, as my audience is primarily US Americans, * some restrictions apply * on our end.  But again, lets avoid politics and get on with the post:

The inspiration for this subject and my personal interest in the travel narrative comes from a course I took with Dr Louis A Perez at the University of North Carolina during my MA program. (For more on Dr Perez, see previous post “Things My Teachers Taught Me“)  The name of the course, it just so happens, was The Travel Narrative as Source.  Throughout the semester our class of 3, which included myself as well as fellow Cuba enthusiast the beautiful & brilliant Miss Bonnie Lucero, read through a selection of narratives dating from the colonial period to present.  The narratives offered a variety of perspectives on life and politics on the island as recalled by authors of diverse backgrounds.  The course readings certainly strengthened my depth of understanding pertaining to many aspects of the islands history, yet what I recall most from the class were our lengthy discussions and debates not on what the book was about, but why the book came to be.

In these discussions we considered some of the following issues:  Who are these travelers?  Why did they choose to write about their experiences?  Who were they writing for?  Who published the travel narrative?  Where on the island did they visit?  How long did they stay?  How did they gain access to the individuals and locations of which they wrote?  What do they choose to include from their experiences?  What do they leave out?  What is the author’s personal and political background?  What country are they from?  How does the time period contribute to their understanding of events?

My first experience with a travel narrative was my junior year at UT Austin.  Dr Frank Guridy assigned C. Peter Ripley’s “Conversations With Cuba” for his Re-Imagining Cuba course.  For the purpose of the course, the book was used as a first-hand account of the changes that took place on the island throughout the Special Period. (Please appreciate that I am not going off on a 4-page rant on the background and significance of the “Special” Period right now…..maybe later.)  I recall reading through the book with great interest and recommending it to several friends and relatives over the following years.  Several years later, I was glad to see it included on the syllabus for the course with Dr Perez.  Of course, for the graduate-level course we were not reading Mr Ripley to hear what he had to say about Cuba so much as to tear it to shreds, perform a thorough background check on the author, and “Question Everything.”

So, how does all this apply to me and this blog/running travel narrative?  That is what I need to ask myself EVERY TIME I post, or journal, or observe, or share a story or thought with family, friends and colleagues.  As a young woman from the US who has spent most of her life in academia, was born in Chicago but educated in the South, has divorced parents and a Christian background, Irish and Italian roots, comes from a family of Chicago cops, a White Sox fan who hates applesauce and loves running and cooking and old music….how does all of this shape the way I see the world in which I am now living?  Who am I interacting with on a daily basis and how did that come about?  What am I choosing to see and what am I leaving out (collectors bias!!)? How much of an all-encompassing understanding can I expect to get while only in one city?  Will my observations ever be truly credible, as I can never change the fact that I am a foreigner?

I must question everything but not be discouraged by my own inherent flaws as “the traveler.”  One can acknowledge the existence of so-called “biases” without being discouraged by them.  What I share here is one first-hand perspective, and though I am determined to include as much as possible, keeping always in mind the mistakes or omissions of past travelers, I recognize that I will only make my own mistakes, omissions and false interpretations.  I ask that all of my readers keep this in mind and consider my words as opinion and perspective rather than FACT.  As a historian, I am of the opinion that there is not one single undisputable “truth” concerning any story or event, but rather a combination of stories and perspectives that, when considered together, give the student the ability to critically determine the most complete story or picture for his or her self.  My stories, therefore, are simply part of a whole.  I encourage everyone to go read what other people have to say!!!

Forget mojitos, fresh Mango juice is OUT OF THIS WORLD!!!!!!!!!

Things my teachers taught me…..

visit to an elementary school in la habana

I am going to take advantage of these final days in the States to provide some more foundational information on myself, my academic background and my interest and experiences in Cuba.  I am compelled to start this process with a post on my most memorable teachers, as I anticipate I will refer to them often throughout this blog.  In no particular hierarchical order, here I go:

“Be passionate about what you do”
Linda Janus, William Fremd High School

I think it is a safe assumption that most adults in general, but certainly most academics, have one specific teacher from their childhood they remember fondly, who made a lasting impression in some way.  Linda Janus, my junior year US History teacher, was mine.  I was in her classroom when our principal came on the PA to announce the 9/11 attacks, and the only time I ever saw a room full of teenagers actually INTERESTED in history.  Mrs Janus certainly had a gift as a teacher, her spirit was contagious and she was widely liked, but none could doubt her true passion for the subject as she referred to President Lincoln as “Abey Baby” and prattled on and on with stories and facts about our nation’s history.  Back then, I was set on my life path to become a lawyer and take on the world, but I remember thinking how lucky she was to be doing something she so clearly loved! Four years later as I stayed up nights debating whether I should be filling out applications for Law School or graduate school for history, my mind drifted often to the days in her classroom.

”Never underestimate the power of storytelling”
Professor Jonathan Brown, University of Texas at Austin

I hope not to offend Professor Brown that this is the lesson I chose to include for him.  After all, he and Dr Frank Guridy are the men responsible for my Cuba obsession and the subsequent destruction of all my life plans involving law school.  I kid, of course, as I could not be happier with my career choice and LOVE what I do!!  But I digress…

Besides his fantastic wit and dynamic teaching style, my fondest memories of the courses I took with Dr Brown while at UT were the stories he told, particularly in his Cuban Revolution course.  Nearly 5 years later I still vividly remember most, and “borrow” them often in my own lectures.  I have noticed how quickly you can regain the attention of an audience by simply shifting from “lecture” to anecdote. It has been a highly effective tool for teaching, and I am personally grateful for the wealth of details I learned from these stories.

”Keep an open mind”
Dr Chris Bell, University of Texas at Austin

I would honestly be surprised if Chris even remembers me… but I also doubt any of his students could so easily forget him.  I took one Geology course with Dr Bell my junior year of undergrad.  While I had a difficult time masquerading as a scientist, I found Geology incredibly fascinating.  Yet many things I learned from Chris were not particularly science-based.  (As I side note, I find it difficult to this day to refer to professors by their first names, yet Dr Bell insisted on the first day of class that we call him Chris.)  As extra credit questions on our Geology exams, he would include US geography map quizzes, remarking on how limited the geographic knowledge of most US students is, a theory strengthened at mid-term when one UT student correctly identified the state in which he attended school but labeled it “Texis”.  It was clear, however, that Chris did not feel confined by his discipline, and allowed any variety of topics to be discussed and debated throughout the course.  I particularly remember a lecture in which he discussed “collectors bias”, a geological idea referring to the fact that samples analyzed are inherently biased as they are samples from one geographic location as opposed to another, depending on where the specific geologist took his or her sample that day.  In the spirit of cross-disciplinary cooperation, I frequently use the term in referring to gathering evidence or researching in my own field.

”Question everything”
Professor Louis A Pérez, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

After finishing my graduate program, I think that the old adage “Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear,” should be abolished.  It is my philosophy, as I shared just yesterday with my godsister as she sat reading her AP Colonial US History textbook, that you must question EVERYTHING.

In addition to Professors Brown and Guridy at UT, Dr Pérez at UNC is responsible for my fascination with Cuban history and all things Cuban.  In all likelihood, there is not a Cuba scholar in the country who is not familiar with his work.  I consider myself very fortunate to have studied under him while in North Carolina.  These courses had the most intense/aggressive/intimidating syllabi I have seen to this day, and I lost many nights of sleep attempting to complete the reading assignments and papers, only to go to class and leave thinking I had done everything wrong!  I would develop clever approaches to the material and try to come up with critical theories and angles only to have him immediately pose a hypothetical question that knocked it right down.  This was even more true when reading sources that seemed clear and straightforward to me, as Dr Pérez insisted that if you are reading something and believe it is an unbiased author, that only means that you and the author share the same biases and therefore you need to question it more and force yourself to recognize your own personal biases.  While incredibly frustrating at first, I also find it refreshing as a historian to be able to say that no matter how many times you have examined a source, an idea, a time period, there is always something you have not considered.  There is always a way to look at what you thought was right and tear it to shreds.  (Quite possibly I am making this into a positive to avoid breaking down in tears every time I take on a new project and realize it is futile to try to cross every t, dot every i, because I will always miss something…and I pray Dr Pérez never reviews one of my books…..)

”Always strive to improve your writing”
Professor Nancy Mitchell, North Carolina State University

There were several times throughout my MA Thesis draft process that I wondered what I was thinking when I asked Dr Mitchell to be on my committee.  After 2 years and as many US Foreign Policy seminars with her at NCSU I knew her greatest academic passions- besides Vance and Brzezinski- were Cold War policy and PERFECT writing.  I will reluctantly share my experience from a Halloween party two years ago where I spent half the evening on the verge of tears or borderline hysteria over a paper re-write: I wrote what I believed was a good draft of an article on President Carter and the exile community in Miami and sent it to Dr Mitchell for review.  The track changes that came back in the Word document overwhelmed the body of the paper itself.  I felt so defeated I began to question whether I even belonged in academia, as I was clearly a poor excuse for a writer (an integral element in the life of a historian).  Yet, once I calmed down and really looked over her comments I was able to make the appropriate changes and submitted a great paper! (if I do say so myself…)  It later became my first published article and my writing sample for PhD applications.  This learning process did not exempt me from similar instances as I submitted draft after draft of thesis chapters the following year, but again, the end result was worth the sleepless nights.

There are times I feel the world would be better-suited if we had more high school English teachers… as the basic writing skills of the average undergrad are abysmal, to put it mildly.  One of the first lectures I ever prepared was a 1-hour workshop on proper historical writing and the benefits of being able to formulate a coherent sentence.  Thanks to Dr Mitchell, I will always be conscious of my writing and strive for perfection.

(As a side note, I am clearly not submitting polished works of academic mastery in this blog, I will save my energy for the book….)

”Teachers can be our friends!”
Professor Richard Slatta, North Carolina State University

As a student, the things I learned from Dr Slatta are innumerable.  However, for the sake of this post I will mention that this Professor not only chaired my thesis committee, served as my academic advisor and consistently offered constructive criticisms and advice pertaining to life as a graduate student as well as my later career as a professor, but also became a valued mentor and good friend.  I am afraid I will never be able to sufficiently express my gratitude to Rich for his help over the years.  However, as a professor I will strive to follow his example with my own students, always keeping an open door and an open ear.


Of course, there are dozens more whose names I will never forget, who have made a lasting impression on my throughout my academic career, who have helped me learn to form opinions, challenge ideas, and never be afraid to think outside the box.  To all of you I am “eternally” grateful.

Message of the Day: Thank your teachers!!!

What are the chances of me finding a Longhorns fan in Centro Habana?

Countdown: 2 Weeks!!!!

Universidad de la Habana

After a fantastic gathering yesterday with family and friends, I am now officially at my 2 week mark before my departure to Cuba.  This means taking care of those last pesky tasks on my “To Do” list and setting up my blog page 🙂

This Blog started as an idea as a means to keep my family updated on my adventures in la habana while I am out of the country and, as so many of my ideas do, has rapidly gotten away from me.  While I recognize my focus will evolve often throughout my time on the island, here are my basics thoughts so far:

-As an academic-

Being fully aware of the silences that plague Cuban history, or more accurately all historic accounts, I hope to use this background to paint a detailed picture of my themes free from common omissions.  I will attempt to examine my surroundings from all angles, and, when I feel as if I have exhausted all possible approaches I will stand on my head or walk backwards if need be, in an effort not to miss any significant, insignificant, boring, fascinating, life-changing detail of Cuban life.

-As a “US American”-

I fully recognize that my fascination with and passion for Cuba are not shared by the majority of my fellow Americans or even my fellow academics…just as I have little interest in US Colonial, Medieval or French History (my apologies to some of my friends back home in academia!). However, it is a rare occasion that I mention that I am a Cuban Historian to friends, colleagues and strangers in the US and am not immediately bombarded with questions, unsolicited theories and opinions or personal stories about memories of the Bay of Pigs, parents honeymooning in Havana before the travel restrictions began, great-grandfathers who fought in the “Spanish-American War” (again, as I promised to avoid politics in this blog I will refrain from attacking the absence of Cuba in reference to this war in American textbooks!), or family members who were born on the island and for a myriad of personal and political reasons are now living in the United States.  Yet with all of the dialogue that has resulted from my career choice, I recognize that an overwhelming majority of the people I engage with have never and will never traveled to Cuba, for obvious reasons….*some restrictions apply*.  Indeed, barring dramatic changes on many fronts, most of my family, friends and colleagues will never witness the lush green topography of Pinar del Rio, experience the energy of Carnival in Santiago de Cuba, or feel the weight of history crashing upon them while walking the streets of Habana Vieja.  Yet I hope the words and images I share here will add dimension to the typical US understanding of the island and people I have grown to love.

-As a teacher-

Anyone who knows me well, or has talked to me for more than 10 minutes, will tell you that I will find any opportunity to begin talking your ear off about all things Cuban: how the history of the island shaped modern US foreign policy, backgrounds of the Miami community, the history behind revolutionary reforms, and the rich and romantic stories of Cuban historical actors and heroes, both past and present.  I am happy to inform, debate, speculate, anything to get people thinking about one of our closest neighbors that is so often forgotten in the American mindset.  Since for the foreseeable future I do not anticipate being able to give one of my “Cuba Lectures” via phone or Skype or over a Single Malt at a local Blues Bar (….tear 😦  ), consider this blog your “Question and Answer” Forum.  Please ask questions, comment, speculate, whatever you feel compelled to do!  Again, keep in mind this is a social/cultural-based blog, NOT political, so avoid any obvious political tangents if possible.  Also please keep all this PG, as there are children in my reader audience!!!

-As a daughter, sister, cousin, niece, aunt, godsister and friend-

I always feel like at some point all this “Cuba stuff” will just *click* for each of you, and you will maybe have some understanding of why I abandoned my Law School path and moved across the country to pursue a career in Cuban history.  If my enthusiasm has not yet convinced you, maybe the stories and images I share here will….

A Day in Marianao