The Sound of Change: Can Music Save Cuba?
Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2008
The Sound of Change: Can Music Save Cuba?
By Nathan Thornburgh/Havana
If this were a music video, it would start in this living room in
Havana, with a tight shot of the skinny kid in the white tank top at the
keyboard. He counts it off from four, and with a sort of animal ease,
his fingers fly, and a montuno rhythm swells through the dented amp,
surging until the drummer can't help joining in with the five-beat clave
that is the backbone of all music here. And then the camera swings to
the timbalero with a pink star dyed into his fade, cracking into the
rhythm, and here comes the bass player–whose father and grandfather
were famous singers with Orquesta Aragón–now he's thumping the ones and
threes. This thing is really moving now; the horns punch in, and the
camera pans across the room to the three singers by the door, with Oscar
in the middle, improvising over a chorus in that high, almost nasal cant
of the salsero. The camera would follow the cables from the cramped
room–13 Cuban musicians jammed in a room that wouldn't fit five
Americans!–out to the porch, where the roadies and techs are busy
tweaking something on the big mixer because all the gear is a mix of
decent parts and horrible parts, quarter-inch cables held together with
used tape, Roland keyboards wobbling on rusted stands.
Here's where the camera would pan way out, from that house in the Santo
Suárez neighborhood, downhill past the official state recording studio,
past the House of Music on Neptune Street, catching everyone's hips as
it goes, until the whole crumbling metropolis is swaying to this
montuno, all the way down to the Malecón on the sea, where the world's
most humid block party unfolds on the esplanade, the way it does every
evening of the summer, just across the Florida Straits from the big enemigo.
That way, the video could end on one of those sly gibes that made Cuban
salsa the most heroic art form on the island through the 1990s. To pan
the camera toward the Florida Straits is to raise a question that can't
be asked out loud: Is this the year for change? Quizás, they say in
Cuba: maybe. Quizás the new U.S. President will end the blockade. Quizás
Raúl Castro, who just celebrated his first Independence Day as
President, will be a big reformer. He's showing small signs that he
might: some workers now get paid based on performance, those who can
afford cell phones can legally own them, and since October some farmers
can lease their own land. But maybe those reforms are just a feint, and
the big picture will stay pretty much the way it is.
The video could tease at all that, but of course, there is no video.
This is Cuba, 2008. For most people, there's still not much besides
sugar, pork and 1956 Chevrolets. This band practicing in the cramped
living room–Los Reyes '73 (the Kings of '73)–was famous decades ago
but traveled so much abroad that it fell out of the limelight. Now the
band has new members, neither well-off nor famous: just another group of
ridiculously skilled Cubans trying to hit a seam in a tightening music
I've known Oscar Muñoz, the lead singer, for a long time. In 1999, in
the middle of a short and ill-fated career as a saxophone player, I was
one of a wave of American musicians who made the pilgrimage to Havana. I
was a worse player than most, but luck was with me–I quickly fell in
with Oscar and a traditional band called El Septeto Tipico de la Habana.
I played out the summer at their regular gigs in the mansion district
called Vedado, west of the old city.
What I remember from 1999 was the ubiquity of music: everywhere, every
day, in clubs at night and on the Malecón in the mornings–music. At
González Coro hospital in Vedado, where my wife was working for the
summer, surgeons broke out a boom box in between patients and invited
nurses and med students alike for an impromptu salsa session. Dance,
sing, smile, repeat: the cultural cure for whatever ailed the revolution.
This outlet, though, may be in danger. Cuba is restless; increasingly,
just a flick of the hips and a ready melody aren't enough. And under the
surface, Cuba is already changing–it's closer than ever to the U.S. but
also closer than ever to losing its cultural patrimony. President-elect
Barack Obama is hoping that small moves will help open up Cuba from the
inside. During the campaign, he stopped short of calling for an end to
the embargo but pledged to make it easier for Cuban Americans to travel
and send money to Cuba. But one way or the other, change is coming to
Cuba, and if the island is going to preserve its identity, it will need
its music more than ever. But will my friends even be there to set the
drama to song?
Defending the Music
Oscar sees his current band's mission as simple: defending the Cuban
sound. In 10 to 15 years, adds the bandleader Jesús, there won't be any
Cuban music left on the island. It will all be in foreign countries,
stagnant nostalgia acts like the kind that spun off from the Buena Vista
Social Club album. That seems a dire prediction, but a Thursday night in
Havana makes you wonder how Cuban music will survive. On Avenue G, the
roqueros gather to get high and watch rock videos on makeshift outdoor
screens. On the Malecón in front of a gas station, a band called Aria
thrashes out garage rock for a small crowd outside while upstairs at the
Jazz Café a saxophone player named César López heats up the stage with
squealing Ornette Coleman riffs. More ominous to the salseros is the
Riviera, Meyer Lansky's citadel to Vegas chic in Havana. The Cuban-music
venue inside is shuttered, but in the front bar, there's house music
mmph-ing loudly, and there's a line of wealthy young Cubans waiting to
get inside–girls in high heels and pert dresses, guys with Kanye West
shades and perfectly pressed wide collars. These smart-set Habaneros are
called Mickeys because, people like to say, they live in a cartoon world.
The Mickeys may be a minority, but more and more clubs are turning to
house or techno instead of live music. And radio and TV stations–all
government-run–are playing less timba, the Cuban version of salsa.
These are the multiple threats: rock, electronica and, the biggest
danger of them all, reggaeton–the Latinized hip-hop that has
infiltrated from Puerto Rico, New York City and the Dominican Republic.
"I have nothing against reggaeton," one of my friends told me in a
typical refrain. "It's just not Cuban. And it's not music." Those are
strong words, and Cuban hip-hop artists would argue that their music is
edgier and more political. But for indigenous, righteous, complex and
complete music, there is nothing like Cuba's timba. It has been a vital
outlet for taking on taboos, like Los Van Van's early critique of
rampant prostitution in a 1996 song about papayas: go ahead, they sang,
touch it; it's a national product. During the economic crisis following
the Soviet collapse, music was the one thing that held the island
together, a common passion for both revolutionaries and reactionaries.
The government understood its power; that's why supergroup La Charanga
Habanera was banned for months in the '90s after using a military
helicopter to drop the group onstage for a stripteasing, innuendo-filled
concert on national TV. It was, someone clearly decided, too decadent,
The U.S. embargo, like all grand schemes that seek to upend geography
and history, is a porous affair. Rural U.S. lawmakers looking for new
agricultural markets have made America the No. 1 exporter of food to
Cuba. Grey's Anatomy and House were among the most popular shows in
Havana this summer. Those who have money (often from family in the
States) are scrambling to get converters to prepare for next February's
conversion to all-digital TV signals.
And Cuba is cracking up from the inside. I came here to find the band,
but not only did it split up (Oscar joined Los Reyes long after leaving
El Septeto), but most of its members don't even live in Cuba anymore.
Jorge and Piri, who played bass and drums, live near Cancún. They've got
a regular gig at a Cuban-themed bar; Jorge married the bleached-blond
singer who fronts the band, which now calls itself La Barbie de la
Salsa. George works in Mexico City as a producer and guitarist with
Margarita Vargas Gaviria, known throughout Mexico as the Goddess of the
I tracked Eddy, the flute player, to an apartment in Guadalajara,
Mexico's second largest city. He hasn't seen his family in two years.
Every Tuesday he goes to the immigration office to try to get temporary
visas to bring them to Mexico. But the Mexican bureaucrats keep asking
for bribes. And he's not sure how his wife would even adjust–she's too
communist, he says, laughing. She would miss her friends and co-workers
in Cuba too much. For her part, she told me when I visited her in Santa
Clara that she always knew it would be this way: marrying a Cuban
musician is like marrying a soldier or a doctor, she said. They're
always on call; they're always overseas.
Wary of the World
Damaris was one of the dancers who used to perform with our band–more
than 40 years after the Mafia quit Havana, some Cubans still like their
music accompanied by girls in slinky sequined outfits with tail
feathers. Damaris and the drummer, Piri, wound up having a daughter
together but eventually divorced. He moved to Mexico, found a new wife
and had another child. So Damaris is raising their child alone in a
small apartment in the shadow of the capitol.
An afternoon with her is a long walk through the schizophrenia of the
Cuban economy, still caught in the maw of the U.S. blockade and hampered
by its own gross inefficiency. At an open-air market behind the capitol,
mangoes, okra, guavas and limes are everywhere–and cheap. Good thing
too because most Cubans earn from $15 to $25 a month and survive off the
ration books that offer them sugar, rice, beans and (only for the
elderly) cigars. But to get past subsistence, you need to shop at the
air-conditioned hard-currency stores. That's where Damaris goes to find
a specialized nail clipper she needs for the manicurist test she's
taking the following week. But it costs nearly $20, three times what it
would in the U.S. A knockoff 26-in. (65 cm) "PanaBlack" TV–one of those
outdated crt behemoths–is listed at over $750. It's the result of a
supply chain gone insane. Chinese influence is everywhere here–from the
ubiquitous Yutong buses to the new renovations financed by the Chinese
at Lenin Park on the outskirts of town and the three channels of Chinese
state-run television that play in Havana hotel rooms. But unlike in the
U.S., China hasn't flooded the island with cheap consumer goods–at
least not cheap enough.
Back at Damaris' apartment, we sit at the table and pick stones out of
the red beans she bought: the vendors put pebbles in to drive up their
margins. The mix today is about one part rocks, four parts beans.
Damaris shrugs. "You wake up thinking about where to get breakfast, you
eat breakfast thinking about where to get lunch, and on it goes," she
says. "To be Cuban is to be tired."
She says that earlier this year, 19 teenagers went missing from her
neighborhood. They had made a pact to leave Cuba by raft. Months later,
not one of them had called to say they had arrived in the States. The
mothers in the neighborhood knew their children had drowned.
However Cuba changes, there will be difficult times with its neighbor to
the north. Even before the murderous enticement of Washington's
wet-foot, dry-foot policy that rewards Cubans who survive the trip
across the waters with citizenship (while denying many visa requests
made through proper channels in Havana)–even before Fidel
Castro–relationships have been uneasy between Cuba and the U.S., which
essentially colonized the island after Spain left in 1898. There was the
U.S. administrator who in the early 1900s announced plans to "whiten"
the population. And the 1901 Platt Amendment, which helped carve the
U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo out of Cuban territory. But Cuban outrage
never extinguished the lure of the north for ordinary Cubans. And given
the state of Cuba's economy, bedazzlement with the outside world is as
strong as ever. A common joke: A little boy is asked in Havana what he
wants to be when he grows up. He thinks for a moment before answering, I
want to be a foreigner!
Hanry (not a misspelling–just typically improvisational Cuban
nomenclature) played the tres, a sort of Cuban mash-up between a lute
and a guitar, in our band. He had his chance at being a foreigner, at
least temporarily. It was the end of the band's last international tour,
and he was offered a rich, steady gig in Munich. He says that only
loyalty to the group brought him back home. But as soon as they got
back, the band absconded to Mexico. Some say Hanry started drinking
after that; he says he was just disgusted with the betrayals. Whatever
the backstory, Hanry, a powerful and precise player in his prime, left
music altogether for a few years.
He's getting back into it now, despite the constant anxiety over money.
He plays for tourists in Old Havana but earns just a few dollars a
night. The strings for his instrument are made out of recycled telephone
wire; he cuts his guitar picks from shampoo bottles. He is still
restless, eager for an upgrade in life.
The whole island feels on a similar knife's edge. Should Raúl Castro
weaken, there are still a dozen aging Ahmed Chalabis waiting in Miami to
return from exile and divide the spoils among themselves. Should there
be rebellion in the streets in Havana, there's still a state militancy
that could bring blood to the Malecón. But the new generation of Cubans
both here and abroad are of a milder bent, with gentler aspirations. A
cabdriver I met launched into a familiar refrain: most of his family
fled to Tampa when Fidel Castro stole their lands. So was he–or his
family in Florida–waiting to take the land back, to evict those who
live there now? "No," he said, "we're all tired of thinking about
fighting." His younger relatives in Florida have forgotten to be angry.
More and more Cubans are looking for common ground.
Late in my travels, I was on a rural highway on the way to Santa Clara,
crammed in the backseat with Oscar, his wife Yusimi and their radiant
daughter Zenia, 5. We'd been out late dancing a few nights earlier, and
Yusimi was giving me a postmortem on my performance. (Her bemused
verdict: "You have Caribbean feet, but I have no idea what your butt is
doing.") Just then, "La Jinetera" by the staunchly anti-Castro Miami
singer Willy Chirino came through the speakers. It must have been the
driver's CD–the song would never have been allowed on state-run radio.
Chirino, a Cuban-born exile, has always been a little too naked in his
politics for my tastes, and this song is no different, a lament about a
teenage hooker who's dismal in "a land where the future jumped the wall
and swam away." But Zenia was worried about none of that. There's a
particularly sweet chorus at the end of the song: "Oh Habana, oh
Habana." Zenia started singing along, in the same pure voice her father
has. Let the adults sweat their fevers; for her, this was a simple love
letter to her city. She doesn't need a music video; her Havana already
has a sound track.