“Once it’s out there, in the air, you can’t pin it down. You can’t catch it.” My Cuban guitar teacher, Andreas, spoke to me often about the vaporous nature of music, its ability to drift through the streets and in and out of your ears. Until recently, in Santiago de Cuba, the volume and form of this music was limited to the sounds that an acoustic guitar or a set of bongo drums can produce; or perhaps more prevalent the “click click click, click click” of the traditional Cuban clave. Lately, however, the more dominant sounds come from electric speakers and pre-recorded records. The most popular modern music is, unsurprisingly, Reggaetone, which has over the past few decades taken its seat as one of the most popular forms of music in Latin America.
In comparison in the rest of Latin America, this phenomenon is relatively new to Cuba. This is hardly surprising when you consider how difficult it is for your average Cuban to access the internet. Internet in Cuba is entirely government controlled: only recently has Wi-Fi become available, and the only way to get hold of it is to pay 1CUC (around £1) for a Wi-Fi card and use designated Wi-Fi zones which only really exist in city centres. Furthermore, in 2012 Reggaetone was actually banned by the Cuban government, who were put off by its sexual and sometimes violent lyrics. This stance has relaxed in recent years, but it’s still surprising that Reggaetone has gained grip on the island.
Over the past few decades, across the Atlantic, the way in which we listen to music has evolved dramatically. Since the first iPod came out in 2001 (which, freakishly, is 17 years ago), there has been an exponential increase in the use of MP3s, and then more recently music streaming. The fundamental difference between this kind of listening and previous use of physical CDs and vinyl is that it is so much easier to share, and to share across borders and across oceans. We have become hugely exposed to music that previously we might never have heard, and more often than not we can listen for free. The nature of recorded music has also changed as a result, with influences and collaborations crossing borders more than ever before.
While we have enjoyed this internet-fuelled musical revolution, Cubans have essentially remained blissfully unaware. A combination of trade embargos and the aforementioned government-controlled internet has significantly reduced the ability of the average Cuban to access music beyond their tight borders. For the past century, the main influences of Cuban music have remained Spanish, due to their existence as a Spanish colony, and African, as a result of the slave trade. The Spanish influence is heard more in the melodies of what we understand as traditional Cuban music, while rhythms such as the Rumba and Guaguancó are more inherently Afro-Cuban. Perhaps the most famous Cuban rhythm, the Son, is a quintessential example of the stitching together of Cuba’s diverse heritage, combining that Spanish element with the inescapable African rhythmical influence.
Of course, over the 20th century, other outside influences have slipped in from musicians who travelled to Mexico, or caught wind of the iconic jazz music of Ella Fitzgerald or Nat King Cole (on one of his frequent visits to Cuba). Furthermore, Cubans have unsurprisingly found ways of circumventing these barriers. A fascinating (and technically illegal) music-sharing system known as “el paquete” has taken over as the most popular method of music distribution on the island. “El paquete” is an underground data sharing system whereby, every week, a terabyte of media (music, films, TV etc.) is put onto a hard-drive which is shipped over to Havana, from where it is delivered around the island on memory sticks. When I asked one of my friends in Santiago if he used Wi-Fi to download his music, he laughed out loud and asked why on earth he would even bother. Having attempted to navigate the patchy, unreliable Wi-Fi in the city parks, I can see exactly what he means. Instead, people have one of these memory sticks containing a tailor-made media package dropped off at their house, keep it for a day and download everything they want, and then hand it back before repeating the process the next week.
Yet, despite all of the above, there is still something undoubtedly different about the evolution of music is Cuba. There is a purity, and an inherent appreciation of the old, of the traditional, that is noticeably present in the hearts of every musician I met. Every traditional Cuban music band will have a similar repertoire of songs, and yet these are not greeted with boredom, but rather with warmth and an adorned sense of familiarity. When, after a fair few lessons, I was able to sing traditional Cuban songs to the family I stayed with, they knew every word, and the atmosphere in the room was one of shared appreciation, and of family.
The resounding question in this new age of music-sharing and of electronic music systems is, of course, whether the pull of this traditional music can possibly survive. Throughout our conversations on the topic, Andreas took a seemingly forced balanced approach. “I like reggaetone”, he insists, “it’s exciting and it gets young people into music”. He also enjoys the fact that Reggaetone has given traditional Cuban music and rhythms a new life; they are certainly preserved and exalted in these songs. However, he freely notes the aspects of this music that he finds more concerning. He talks about how traditional Cuban music is “cleaner” in the sense that its influences are historic and meaningful to Cubans. What’s more, the nature of these songs is inherently poetic, with lyrics depicting various forms of love in a floating, romantic sense. An example would be one of the more famous Cuban traditional love songs ‘Dos Gardenias’, which discusses a man planting two gardens for his love to remind her of him while he is away - “the flowers will live and talk to you, just as when you are with me”. This contrasts greatly with Reggaetone lyrics, which are far more direct, and in many songs overtly sexual and often dirty. You only have to listen to the most famous Reggaetone anthem of all, 'Despacito', which is essentially about wanting to have sex with someone “slowly, and then savagely” (a rough translation of one of the verses), to get a flavour for how shocking this music might be found by some.
For Andreas, the effects of these lyrics are not just upon the ears, but upon the culture in general. He considers that this kind of music serves to alter people’s perceptions of love; it's about what you want to do to someone physically, rather than the courting kind of love that used to be expressed on the streets. We laughed as he considered how a woman would respond to him now if he wrote her a poem about how beautiful her eyes are. Instead, he argues that men have to be much more forward with women, and anything mildly romantic would most likely make them run a mile. I found this point fascinating: usually, we consider how cultures and historic events shape music, but Andreas was instead implying that in this case it is music that is shaping culture.
What does this mean, then, for Cuban traditional music? Is it doomed to be lost in the frenzy of Reggaetone and the ever-developing, ever-captivating influences of technology? Of course, it’s very difficult to say. As an outsider looking in, it’s impossible not to become enraptured in Cuba’s music and recognise how unique and how fantastic it is to have this musical artery running through a whole nation. As a person who has grown up surrounded by the internet and huge numbers of sharing platforms, I would be pressed to deny the inherent beauty in a musical style that is so comparatively pure and untouched. And yet, it’s difficult to say whether Cubans themselves can truly appreciate this fact. Andreas emphasised how it’s very hard for Cubans to travel and leave Cuba for long enough to actually gain perspective on their home, or to miss it. He worries it might take missing something from afar to appreciate its true value.
Looking back on this trip now, one night sticks out in my mind. In a small bar in the centre of Santa Clara in mid-March, a band played which consisted of three brothers and their friends, with their sister front-of-stage taking it in turns to dance with various people around the bar (myself included). When I was eventually paired up with one of the brothers (taking a brief respite from playing the maracas) for a spot of salsa dancing, I asked him whether they play together often - he said that they played almost every night. And don’t they get bored of playing those same songs? – “why would we get bored?” Looking around the room, you can see what he means. People are laughing, dancing, or just sitting meditatively in the corner, watching the kaleidoscope of dancers spinning round the room. Cuban traditional music has provided both the soundtrack and the salvation for a people who have had their fair share of difficult times. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that it is held so very deeply in the hearts of Cuban people. One would suspect it would take quite a lot for them to forget this.
"Estás en mi alegria, y en mi sufrir" - "You are with me in my happiness, and in my suffering"
Tú mi Delirio - Jose Antonio Mendez
Photograph by Emerald HD