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


3 thoughts on “Music in Cuba: Bridging a Cultural Divide

  1. Music is indeed the “International language”. One does not have to understand the lyrics to get a feel for the rhythm and passion that all genres of music convey. My one and only Cuban album is Mi Sueno by Ibrahim Ferrer. While I can only understand a little of what he sings about I can completely feel the strong sense of romance that this music brings to my soul.

  2. While you are in Cuba, I would love to hear what you find out about Opera in Cuba. We hear very little about musical performances in and around Havana these days, and I expect the operatic scene is vibrant although not star studded. But I could be very wrong. If you read about (or attend) any operatic performances, I’d love to know which operas / composers seem to be popular, as well as some of the casts. Cuba has a rich tradition of performers, and has also drawn heavily on European and Latin American performers. Would love to know what is going on. Travel safe Katie.

    • Drew,
      I will definitely look into this! I have not yet heard of any Operas upcoming, but I did attend the Cuban National Ballet Sunday evening (post to follow on the event). So far all I can comment on as far as Opera in Cuba is that Cubans are certainly very familiar with Opera. Bocelli is on Cuban television every few days, as he has done several songs in Spanish with well-known Spanish-speaking singers. There also appears to be an interesting cultural interest in The Phantom of the Opera…it is mentioned in theater performances and often on television. I also had a conversation with a few Cubans the other day about Pavarotti, mentioning that I cried the day he died, and they went on and on about his powerful and beautiful voice. Therefore, I am going to guess that, since there is definitely an interest, there must exist “Cuban Opera”. I will get back to you on that 🙂

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