Strengthening the Musical Bridge Between Cuba and the U.S.

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Music in Trinidad, Cuba. Photo by Bud Ellison (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Cuba has been in the news a lot, and the latest article by Randy Lewis in the Los Angeles Times is a terrific read. Titled “Cuba had been unplugged from American culture for generations. What happens now?” Lewis discusses the beginnings of the inter-mixing of Cuban and American music under the Obama administration — which may be jeopardized by the incoming administration if Trump’s tweets and threats are to be taken seriously — as well as the potential “tsunami” of changes to Cuban music and culture should the embargo be lifted entirely.

As I recently wrote in another blog post about Cuban music and politics, the cultural divide between Cuba and the U.S. is more about the Cold War than music or art. On the American side, the embargo remains; on the Cuban side, there is repression, lack of opportunity, and a communications lockdown that keeps Cuba shut off from the rest of the world. In Cuba, access to the internet is restricted. Young Cubans only hear of American pop or jazz musicians via underground sources or from tourists visiting the island. As Lewis notes in his article, when tens of thousands of Cubans turned out for the big Rolling Stones show in March 2016, the only song the audience seemed to really know and sang along with was “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”

After 60 years of isolation, a total lifting of the embargo would likely lead to some culture shock and information overload for Cubans. But rather than overwhelm Cuban music and culture, as some fear, I think an open cultural exchange between Cuba and America will liberate Cuban musicians to fulfill their talents–by giving them access to instruments and exposing them to different musical styles as well as by giving them access to a worldwide market. I feel strongly that American pop music will never wipe out the deep, rich tradition of Cuban music like son and rumba. From my reading of Ned Sublette’s masterful study, Cuba and its Music: From the First Drum to the Mambo, I would tend to believe that Cuban music has such strong spiritual roots in Afro-Cuban identity that it’s doubtful that Rihanna, Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, or any other American megastar could derail it. IMHO, hip-hop will never replace the clavé, the flavorful and ubiquitous 3/2 and 3/2 beat that is the Afro-Cuban a priori, the flesh, bone, and blood of tropical Cuban music. The DNA of Cuban music is resilient and strong.

Young singer and guitarist in Havana, Cuba. Photo by Bud Ellison (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr
Young singer and guitarist in Havana, Cuba. Photo by Bud Ellison (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Let’s also not forget that Cuban and American music have actually shared a common DNA for a long time. Cuban music arrived in New Orleans when the city was under Spanish rule. In fact, New Orleans was a musical milkshake made up of Cuban, Haitian, and of course African ingredients. In New Orleans, as was in Cuba, African slaves were permitted to keep their drums; in Africa, rhythms are sacred and tools of memory, spiritual identity and preservation as well. If you listen to New Orleans zydeco music, the ubiquitous Afro-Cuban clavé rhythm is there; you can also find the rhythm in early R&B, in songs like Bo Diddley’s “Mona.” Millions of Americans heard Cuban music on the I Love Lucy shows because of Desi Arnaz.

I hope the President-elect doesn’t propel things backwards, after years of hard work and rapprochement from the Obama administration, including the re-opening of the American embassy in Havana and Obama’s visit in March 2016, the first sitting U.S. president to visit La Isla since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.  The U.S. has so many historical ties with Cuba, and Cuba’s music, like its cigars and its rum, is a gift and a blessing for all of us here. I hope the next administration will continue Obama’s legacy and promote closer ties. I’m not convinced that will happen, but I know that music is always a great way to do that.
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