Cuban Music

Perhaps no other nation -- certainly no other nation of its size -- is as spectacularly endowed musically as is Cuba. The seductive sounds of richly percussive Cuban music are, in many people's minds, Cuba's greatest export. In the late 1990s, a series of records and a documentary film brought a group of aging Cuban musicians to the world's attention. The unexpected popularity abroad of the Buena Vista Social Club and its individual artists -- Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Rubén González, Eliades Ochoa, and Omara Portuondo -- made traditional Cuban sounds very much in demand throughout Cuba and internationally. Buena Vista and company, though, is only the latest round of Cuban music to circle the globe, echoing the earlier mambo and cha-cha-chá crazes that took the United States and Europe by storm in the 1950s.

Within Cuba, music is a daily presence across the island, from rural areas and dusty provincial towns to the capital. It seeps out of cafes and casas de la trova (music clubs) in the midafternoon and thunders out of dance halls as the sun rises over the Malecón (promenade). The musical diet is a dizzying menu of styles with uncommon appeal, so emphatically tropical that you can almost hear the humidity in the vocals, chords, and percussion.

Cuba's musical heritage, an onomatopoeic stew of salsa, rumba, mambo, son, danzón, and cha-cha-chá, stems from the country's rich mix of African, Spanish, French, and Haitian cultures. The roots of contemporary Cuban popular music lie in the 19th century's combination of African drums and rhythms along with Spanish guitar and melody. Most forms of Cuban music feature Latin stringed instruments, African bongos, congas, and claves (wooden percussion sticks), and auxiliary instruments such as maracas and guiros.

The heartbeat of Cuban music is the clave, which refers to a distinctive rhythm and the instrument used to play it. While the actual instrument is not necessarily played in every song, all Cuban rhythms are built up from the simple concept of the clave. The perennial form of Cuban traditional music is son (literally, "sound"; pronounced sohn), a style of popular dance music that originated in the eastern, poorer half of the country known as El Oriente in the early 1900s.

You can and will hear live music anywhere you go in Cuba, but the best places for authentic traditional son and more modern styles are Havana, Trinidad, Camagüey, Santiago de Cuba, and Baracoa. The last three possess the best casas de la trova (music clubs) in the country, spots thick with sultry air, slowly rotating ceiling fans, and grinning octogenarians plunking away on weathered guitars and stand-up basses. Cubans seem only too happy to share the dance floor with tentative foreigners.

Books on Cuba

There's a wealth of books on Cuba's history and politics. For a good historical overview, try Jaime Suchlicki's Cuba: From Columbus to Castro and Beyond (Brasseys, 2002), or Richard Gott's Cuba: A New History (Yale University Press, 2005). More than 1,800 pages, Hugh Thomas's Cuba, or The Pursuit of Freedom (Da Capo Press, 1998) is far more comprehensive and fascinating, but it takes a while to read.

A unique account of post-revolutionary Cuba comes from a well-known Latin American journalist, Alma Guillermoprieto, who writes of the 6 months she spent in Cuba in the early '70s teaching dance. Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution (Vintage, 2005) is a portrait of the artistic world of Cuba in the '70s and a self-reflective memoir of the author's political awakening.

No reading list for Cuba would be complete without a biography or two of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The best are Leycester Coltman's The Real Fidel Castro (Yale University Press, 2005), Tad Szulc's Fidel: A Critical Portrait (Avon Books, 2000), and Jon Lee Anderson's Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life (Grove, 1997). Another Fidel biography is Fidel Castro: My Life (Penguin, 2007) by journalist Ignacio Ramonet. Also worth a read are Guerilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro (Little, Brown, 2002) by Georgie Anne Geyer, and The Life and Death of Che Guevara (Vintage, 1998) by Jorge Castañeda. There are also several volumes of writings worth looking into by both Fidel and Che. Che's own The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey (Ocean Press, 2003) provides an interesting glimpse into the social and psychological genesis of this great revolutionary figure, although it deals with the period in Che's life prior to meeting Fidel and going to Cuba. The book was made into a very successful film (The Motorcycle Diaries) by director Walter Salles.

Another compelling perspective on the Revolution is offered by Enrique Oltuski, a former Shell Oil engineer and a leader in the 26th of July movement, in Vida Clandestina: My Life in the Cuban Revolution (Jossey-Bass, 2002).

Any exploration into Cuban literature should include the works of poets José Martí and Nicolás Guillén, as well as the novels and prose writings of Alejo Carpentier and José Lezama Lima. Prominent works that exist in English include Guillermo Cabrera Infante's Three Trapped Tigers (Marlow, 1997), and several of Reinaldo Arenas's novels and his best-selling autobiography Before Night Falls (Penguin, 1994), made into a stunning film by Julian Schnabel.

Also worth reading is Cristina García's novel, Dreaming in Cuban (Ballantine, 1993), which chronicles the lives of three Cuban women after the Revolution. If you like García's book, you might also enjoy Ana Menéndez's Loving Che (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003), the story of one woman's quest to uncover the mysteries and romance of her mother's past.

New, interesting reads include the Wildman of Rhythm: the Life and Music of Benny Moré (University Press of Florida, 2009) by John Radanovich, and The Sugar King of Havana: The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba's Last Tycoon (Penguin Press, 2010) by John Paul Rathbone.

Of course, it goes without saying that you've already read Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (Scribner, 1952) and Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana (Heinemann, 1958).

Cuban Films

In addition to the poignant Before Night Falls and the excellent The Motorcycle Diaries, mentioned above, there are a host of wonderful films that can be rented prior to any trip to Cuba or bought while you are there from ARTex stores ( One true classic film available on DVD is Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba) by the great Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov, who shot this Communist-era piece of social-realist propaganda in Cuba shortly after the Revolution. The film features a screenplay by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and the Cuban writer and filmmaker Enrique Piñeda Barnet.

Cuba's own film industry has produced several fine films, including the celebrated Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate), Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment), and Muerte de un Burócrata (Death of a Bureaucrat), all by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. The animated comedy Vampiros de la Habana (Vampires of Havana) by Juan Padrón proved popular. Three of my favorite Cuban films are Guantanamera by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío, Lista de Espera by Juan Carlos Tabío, and El Benny by Jorge Luis Sánchez. Also look out for Suite Habana by Fernando Pérez.

For a good look into the conflict between Cubans in Cuba and their relatives and friends in the United States, check out Azucar Amarga (Bitter Sugar) by Leon Ichaso, or Quién Diablos es Julieta (Who the Hell Is Juliette?) by Carlos Marcovich. The movie Buena Vista Social Club documents the rediscovery and newfound fame of some of Cuba's great traditional musicians. The accompanying Grammy Award-winning CD Buena Vista Social Club is as good a place as any to start listening to Cuban music.

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