I arrived in Havana on the morning of December 31st, to a city celebrating both the New Year, and the anniversary of the Revolution. The Cuban Revolution had culminated exactly 59 years earlier, on the night between December 31st 1958 and January 1st 1959, when the movement led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara succeeded in ousting the right-wing, authoritarian and US-sponsored president Fulgencia Batista. The airport itself felt like stepping back in time; while the signs were lettered brown on yellow, in a mid-century socialist font, all the taxis at the curb outside were ‘50’s Chevrolets, Buicks, and other high end American cars from before the Revolution. We were picked up by our host, who drove a Lada, a Soviet state-manufactured car, which he had just purchased three days earlier. On the way into the city, we passed crumbling industrial compounds freshly painted with primary colors, people bringing live
birds to the market on horse-drawn carts, and huge signs and flags bearing revolutionary slogans.
Because the two most immediately striking features of Cuban culture, to me anyway, were its music and its politics, that is the way I’ve chosen to split this article.
Beyond the Afro-Cuban All-Stars
The first music we heard was on the evening of our arrival, New Year’s eve, in the Plaza Vieja, the touristic center of Old Havana. The music was a mix of Buena Vista Social Club hits, and more contemporary synthy music. Walking around the same neighborhood the next day, we found a somewhat fresher scene: musicians in cafes still played to tourists, but the livelier groups had collected a crowd of locals dancing salsa in the street. At the biggest of these, the musicians played their own takes on the Buena Vista Social Club’s “Candela,” or “fire,” drawing a laugh as a fire truck (bought secondhand from China) wailed past to a nearby electrical fire, briefly dispersing the dancers.
The most local music scene we experienced was at was a club in the Centro neighborhood. The Centro neighborhood is one of the older neighborhoods in Havana, right next to Havana Viella. Its main distinction is that it is by far the poorest: the brightly colored buildings are reminiscent of pictures of Berlin after the bombing, and doors swinging open on one hinge often show staircases with no bottom half, or ceilings that have collapsed to the floor. Driving through it at noon, we saw groups of men leaning against the side of a broken down ’50’s Chevy, betting on a chess game being played on a checkered shred of cardboard. Walking back at dusk, through windy dirt roads between leaning buildings, we saw pairs of eyes peering out through slits in doors and windows, which we later learned from street postings belonged to informants of the CDR, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, tasked with reporting any counterrevolutionary behavior.
The club itself is affiliated with Egrem, one of the largest Cuban record labels, so most of the big names in Cuban music, such as Eliades Ochoa, Buena Vista Social Club, Rubin Gonzales, have played there at one point. That night was a very loud Salsa/timba group in a very small room, with the keyboard amplified to get above the trumpets, and the voices amplified to get above the trumpet and the keyboard. We were the only tourists there. My family and I were all forcefully invited to dance by well-meaning locals; as much as they tried to teach us the moves, we were all hopeless.
The music in Trinidad was different. Trinidad is much more touristy than Havana, a destination for Cubans as well as foreigners. The first place we heard any music at all was on the terrace of a state restaurant, with a group whose pianist we saw at all the other clubs. They were playing a mix of funk, jazz, Cuban and Brazilian. The next venue we tried was the largest one in the city. Called Casa de la Musica, it’s in reality a large open-air square, mainly aimed at tourists. That night, the music was hard to hear of over the over-amplified bass, but it was a sort of pop-ified salsa. We finally ended up at the Casa de la Trova. Trova is the troubadour style of music, usually one or two men singing accompanied by guitars. The Casa de la Trova specialized mainly in that, but also had some more traditional “Son” (the Afro-Caribbean equivalent of folk, popularized by the Buena Vista Social Club) groups (featuring the same pianist as before). There was, of course, Chan Chan (this and other Buena Vista hits came up more often in Trinidad than in Havana – one poor busker was playing it every single time we walked by.) The most remarkable was perhaps one Trovador’s interpretation of “Piano Man” by Billy Joel. It was very disorienting, but also thought-provoking to hear a top-10 hit from one of the most commercial American singers of the 1970’s being played in a dusty Cuban Trova club, back to back with almost equally popular hits of the Buena Vista Social club.
In addition to listening to live music, my sister Madeleine and I both had opportunities to learn to play Cuban music. First, we visited the Havana music school, where in the lobby we met a woman who was in Havana for six weeks taking flute lessons, before she went back to Michigan. The piano lesson itself was eye-opening: I’d always loved Cuban music, but hadn’t really understood the meshing rhythms that give it its distinctive sound. In about 45 minutes I was able to (with great pain) just about approximate the “montuno,” or piano rhythm, which the teacher gave me to play. As soon as she started playing the drum along with me, however, I completely broke down. On my way out, she gave me a thumb drive full of music by Cuban pianists whose discs have not yet been published in the US. The second music lesson we had was with a percussionist in Trinidad. Percussion in Cuban music takes on an entirely different role than in Western music, because of the importance of meshing rhythms. Thus, there are countless percussion instruments, and innumerable rhythms to be learned on them. In addition to learning the basic “bolero” rhythm on conga drums, we also learned how to play more exotic instruments: a gourd with a carved ridged surface to be scraped, called a “guiro,” and even a painted donkey jaw, whose teeth rattled when it was struck on the cheek.
Politics, Some Views from Cuba
American relations with Cuba have been changeable and turbulent. While it was an American-sponsored authoritarian dictatorship, under Batista, Havana was a sort of Vice City, a playground for rich American tourists and gangsters. Following the 1956 Communist revolution led by Fidel Castro, Americans fled, leaving behind only their cars and some night clubs, which can still be seen today. Cold War era America cut off all official diplomatic ties with Cuba, and imposed a trade embargo that persisted until Obama lightened it in 2014, easing restrictions on remittances, travel, and banking. Trump, on the other hand, has been talking of reversing Obama’s policies. Some propaganda billboards set up along Cuban highways call this embargo “the greatest genocide in history,” possibly referring to the poverty and limited access to medicine it creates. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the relationship between the US and Cuba has been marred by various events. In 1961, the CIA sponsored a failed invasion known as the Bay of Pigs invasion, training and paying counter revolutionary Cuban refugees. In 1962, the Soviet Union moved a ballistic missile base to Cuba. The geopolitical chaos this created was called the Cuban Missile Crisis (although Cubans simply call it the October crisis. These events were compounded by other, comparatively minor ones, such as numerous CIA assassination attempts on Fidel Castro, or Castro emptying Cuban prisons and asylums onto boats for Miami. Fidel’s brother Raúl Castro, the new leader of the country, has shown himself to be somewhat more open to capitalism and tourism. This attitude has manifested itself in a service industry capitalist micro-economy. There is an alternative currency, the CUC, which is used only in the tourist industry, and adjusted to exactly one US dollar. With it, you can buy the services of a private taxi (which operates like an American taxi, while Cuban taxis operate on routes, like buses), or skip the line at the ice cream shop, or buy designated tourist ballet tickets.
It was interesting to learn about Cuba’s current political culture through the people we encountered. The director of the music school we visited receives an illegal “cultural package” – a monthly thumb drive full of current magazines from the US and England, including the New Yorker, the Economist, and others (as long as it’s not pornography, he said, the government doesn’t pay much attention). He emphasized the ongoing achievements of the Cuban Revolution: good, universal public education and healthcare systems, but he also had some grievances. He is a professor of history at the University of Havana, a job for which he earns the equivalent of 20$ a month (a pair of shoes, he told us, costs about twice his monthly salary.) He complained that his older colleagues cleave to the Communist Party version of events, rather than writing and teaching a more factual history. He is trying to gradually incorporate a history of Cuban-American relations into his class, but at the same time worries about the risks of doing so. We also started to get a sense of the degree of police presence in Cuba. The music school director told us about harsh sentences for crimes that Americans would regard as trivial – twenty years for possession of “one cigar with marijuana” for instance. We also saw prostitutes and pickpockets being rounded up in a police van in central Havana, twice as we passed by the Havana Club rum factory in a taxi, police pulled us over to check for smuggled liquor. The driver was clearly nervous, but at the same time, it was striking to see that the policeman who had pulled him over began by clapping him on the shoulder, shaking his hand and cracking a few jokes with him, and they made some small talk before our (apparently innocent!) driver opened the trunk.
The Cubans we met also had an interesting relationship with America. While a giant mural with grotesque caricatures of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush stood in the official museum of the revolution, the people we interacted with seemed to bear us no grudge for or nationality. On the contrary, most people we met had at least one uncle or cousin who had gone to America. Yusvel, a guide who showed us around the countryside around the South-Eastern edge of the island, had a degree in mechanical engineering that he was unable to use because of the lack of jobs in Cuba. For this reason, he was planning on catching an illegal ride to Miami to go work with his cousin, currently working two jobs as an auto mechanic there. This kind of emigration was made easy by the US’s “wet-foot dry-foot” policy: while anyone caught in the ocean would be deported, once a Cuban set foot on American soil, they would be allowed to stay. This policy was put in place 1995 under George H. W. Bush, as a revision to the 1966 policy designed to encourage dissidence in Cuba. Two days after we arrived home, on January 12th, then-president Barack Obama revised this interpretation, in an attempt to continue normalizing American-Cuban relations. Now, under president Trump, American policy with respect to Cuba is once again in the air: Press Secretary Sean Spicer announced in January that the administration was “in the midst of a full review of all US policies towards Cuba.” CNN speculates that this could go either in the direction of encouraging Cuban capitalism, or of “getting tough” on Cuba, as President Trump promised during his campaign.