Cuba is such a musical country, and it’s hard to find a Havana street that doesn’t have music coming out of a storefront. The rich brew of Cuban music consists of African rhythms, Spanish décima poetry that dates back to the 16th century, American jazz, plus other ingredients that together provide synergy, power, and flavor. The many styles of Cuban music include mambo, timba, bolero, guaracha, rumba, contradanza, trova, classical, danzón, son montuno, charanga, and changüi, among others. And politics complicates it all.
Havana was an alluring tropical paradise during America’s prohibition era (1920-1933). Fun, sun, booze, gambling, prostitution, and floor shows could be had just 90 miles from Miami. Daily flights brought throngs of American hedonists to Havana. The Jewish mafia—think Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky—later ran the hotels and casinos in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Lansky was reportedly washing the dishes at the Riviera Hotel in Havana after the 1958 New Year’s Eve bash, just as Castro was seizing power and Batista was being flown off the island.
After the 1959 Cuban revolution, many of the country’s great musicians left la isla. The clubs and casinos were closed down so musicians had no way of earning a proper living. Martin and Ofélia Fox, who ran the famous Tropicana nightclub in Havana, shut its doors and left for Miami in 1962. Celia Cruz, the most famous Cuban musician of them all, left Cuba after Castro took power, returning only once in her life to touch the ground there. In the early 1950’s, just as Cruz’s star was rising in both Cuba and the U.S., her application for a visa to perform in the U.S. was repeatedly denied due to allegations of communist sympathies. This was at the height of McCarthyism. The irony is that she was a fierce foe of the Castro regime, which took revenge by never playing her music on Cuban radio, as if she simply didn’t exist. Cruz was devastated when Cuba denied her a visa to attend her mother’s funeral in 1962. She was doubly condemned—first by the U.S. during the Red Scare, then by the Castro regime. Cruz nevertheless became the most popular Cuban artist of all time.
Post-revolution life was hard on other musicians, too. Benny Moré, the beloved mambo singer, spent quite a bit of time in Mexico but did return to Cuba, where he died of cirrhosis in 1963 at only 42 years of age. La Lupe, Celia’s only real rival for popularity, burned out early and died in New York in 1992 at just 52 years of age. The doo-wop group Los Zafiros (The Sapphires) was popular but fell apart after the revolution. Most of the group’s members died early of self-destructive behavior, with the exception of guitarist Manual Galbán, who made a wonderful record with Ry Cooder a few years ago called Mambo Sinuendo. Bebo Valdés, patriarch of a family piano dynasty (Bebo, Chucho, Chuchito) settled in Sweden in 1962, playing piano in a hotel bar. This was a far cry from being music director and pianist for the swank pre-Castro nightclub La Tropicana. His career was finally revived in 1994 with the album Bebo Rides Again, and he won acclaim and numerous Grammys for his 2003 album Lagrimas Negras with flamenco singer Diego “El Cigala”.
Contemporary Cuban musicians are caught by the Cuba-U.S. political divide as well. Los Van Van, one of the most popular post-revolution Cuban bands of all time, almost started a riot when they appeared in Miami in the 1980’s. The band introduced a new style called Songo that young Marielitos (125,000 refugees from the Mariel boatlift in 1980) loved, but it turned off the older Cubans who had arrived in 1959. The older Cubans protested the presence in Miami of a Cuban band still living in Cuba. Nueva trova rocker Carlos Varela sings protest songs against current conditions in Cuba, but somehow straddles the fence and has strong followings in both Miami and Havana. A 2009 New York Times profile of Varela describes the sacrifices of remaining in Cuba: “His life has been marked by the highs and lows of the Cuban revolution. The government gave him a world-class education in music and theater, but refuses to broadcast many of his songs, which have veiled critiques of the Communist leadership. Over the years, politics has cost him a band (members defected in Spain in 1997), a brother (he left Cuba 12 years ago) and perhaps a chance for greater international acclaim.”
As great as they are, Cuban musicians are denied access to the internet and have to spend years studying nothing but classical music. American jazz is the forbidden fruit. The amazing flutist Maraca once told me that he spent ten years studying only Bach and other classical composers. Jazz was verboten.
I have been fortunate to see many musicians and groups that still live in Cuba. The great Orquesta Aragón, Orlando “Maraca” Valle, Chucho Valdes, Los Van Van, rumba giant Lazaro Ros all visited Los Angeles at one time or another. With the President-Elect talking tough about Cuba, I, like many of us who love Cuban music and culture, are concerned that the divide will grow again. I’m hoping–optimistically–that Cuban music will continue to thrive both on and off la isla.
A few years ago I was privileged to write the liner notes for a great collection, Celia Cruz: The Absolute Collection, on Sony Music. It tells her life story, along with 2 CD’s, 60 pages of notes, and many never-before-published photographs. If you want to find our more about La Reina de la Salsa, the collection is still available.
Finally, there are two great DVDs I want to recommend. The first is Roots of Rhythm with Harry Belafonte, a fantastic documentary on the history of Cuban music; the other is an outrageous agit-prop film made by the Soviet Union in the early 1960’s romanticizing the Cuban revolution called Soy Cuba, shot with East German infrared film. Both are must-sees.
I’ll be featuring some of my favorite Cuban artists on upcoming Rhythm Planet shows. Stay tuned!