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The Sound of Change: Can Music Save Cuba?

14 minute read
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 market.

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, too American.

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 Cumbia.

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!

Common Ground

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.

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