Introduction to “Culture & The Arts in Cuba”

Like so many aspects of life in Cuba, ‘The Arts in Cuba’ are a product of mestizaje, the mixture of Spanish, criollo, African and Chinese cultural influences, which are evident in the island’s makeup, language, and the people themselves.

The articles in the ‘The Arts in Cuba’ section will explore the Cuban preoccupation with beauty in The Arts, an interest that dates to the outset of Cuban independence.

History

In 1902, at the end of the US occupation of Cuba that followed the Cuban War for Independence (known in US history books as the Spanish-American War), the island experienced its first cultural boom.  Builders laid the architectural foundations of modern-day Habana, beginning construction on the Malecón, the Presidential Palace, Paseo de Prado and Universidad Nacional.  Cuba also established itself as a cultural hotspot, creating theaters, operas, films, a circus, intellectual magazines, poetry, fine arts and music.[1]  The arts existed in the decades that followed Cuban independence, but failed to thrive in many ways due to a lack of state support beyond arts linked to the tourist industry.  Following the January 1959 victory of the Cuban Revolution, however, the government took on the expansion of national culture as a part of the revolution in the field of education.  The initial decade of the Cuban Revolution witnessed the formation of the Instituto del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos, Consejo Nacional de Cultura, Escuela Nacional del Arte, Conjunto de Danza Nacional de Cuba, Conjunto Folklórico Nacional, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Orquestra Sinfónica Nacional, Coro Nacional, Unión Nacional de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba, la Brigada ´Hermanos Saís´(for young artists and writers), Instituto Cubano del Libro and Editorial Nacional de Cuba.  In addition, the state founded 29 new museums throughout the country by 1975.[2]

Today, the cultural focus on the arts, nature and history is evident as you walk through any neighborhood in Habana.  Cultural centers are scattered throughout the city.  On certain streets, there are theaters on every block.  Plays, concerts, art fairs, and music are a weekly presence in the capital city, as well as other areas including Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba and Granma.

Blog Topics

In these articles, I hope to share all of this with my readers.  I will include detailed posts on notable events, such as concerts and festivals, including pictures and stories.  I will visit and describe different museums and cultural centers and share photographs and stories about the beautiful architecture.  Finally, through a series of interviews and research, I will describe some of the notable Cuban traditions in the arts including dance, literature and film.

Author’s Objectives

Many of the events and stories shared in these articles are things that “the average tourist” will never see, due to lack of access or knowledge of the events and places.  In certain circumstances, the opposite will prove true…as there are shows and events in Cuba specifically for tourists that “the average Cuban” could never afford.  Since I am neither, I hope to explore every aspect of “The Arts in Cuba”, and how they pertain to the daily reality of life on the island.  Through my research I hope to prove that The Arts in Cuba have contributed to the unity of the people and the formation of a strong national identity in a nation long-plagued by a struggle for sovereignty.

Suggestions

To my readers:  Having read the introduction for this blog category, if you have a relevant topic or event that you would like to learn more about, please mention it in the ‘COMMENTS’ section of this page.  (Even if it is not in Habana, I am happy to travel to the other provinces for a good story!) I will do my best to research and write on all suggested topics.

Notes:

[1] López Civeira, Francisca, Oscar Loyola Vega and Arnaldo Silva León, Cuba

y su historia (la Habana, Editorial Félix Varela, 2004), 160-163.

[2] ibid, 268.

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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

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!!