HAVANA IN THE 1950S was Las Vegas with beaches. Affluent North Americans escaped to Cuba to indulge in cigars, sex, rum, and affordable luxury. Leading hotels and casinos boasted of dance halls and large orchestras. Modeled after popular New York orchestral combos, these tourism-generated bands infused popular music from the United States with the instruments and rhythms of Cuba, Africa, and the Caribbean.
The result was explosive. The mambo quickly busted out of the glitzy cabarets and into the buzzing streets of Havana. Small, private social clubs, of the type immortalized in the 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club, began springing up on every street corner. Organized by neighborhood, by occupation, and by social status, these clubs helped nurture a strong community-based sense of the new Cuban music.
Like so much Cuban-American
culture before the two countries became bitter adversaries, Havana's mambo craze leapt back across the Florida Straits to a willing United States. New York Jazz musicians began incorporating Cuban elements into their music. Pop singers such as Nat "King" Cole began recording with musicians in Cuba and singing in Spanish. Cuban artists such as Beny More and Celia Cruz found themselves at the fore of a new, syncretic movement in pan-American popular music.
And decades before cultural observers would enthuse over the "crossover" appeal of Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, Yankee audiences threw their arms around Cuban percussionist Desi Arnaz, whose mambo band-leader character Ricky Ricardo co-anchored the most popular show on American television, I Love Lucy.
At the height of' 50s mambo fever, you would have been laughed out of the room had you predicted that comparatively tiny and impoverished Jamaica would soon become a dominant force in global music, while the Caribbean's longstanding cultural capital of Havana fell into irrelevance and decay. But the rise of communism and its attendant cultural protectionism soon choked off mambo and Cuban creativity at the source, while Jamaica's economic boom and unfettered recording industry uncorked a revolutionary new music called reggae.
The glossy exterior of Havana's nightlife concealed something much darker. Dictator Fulgencio Batista demonstrated little regard for the constitution he had created more than a decade earlier. Racial and social divides ran deep, free speech and assembly were severely curtailed, and the wealth brought in by the booming tourist trade was seen as benefitting only the well connected.
On July 23,1953, a group of revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro attacked the Moncada Barracks in Havana. While easily thwarted, the attack marked the beginning of what would be the Cuban Revolution. After a brief prison stint, the bearded revolutionary fled to Mexico, then returned in December of 1956 with Argentinean physician and military strategist Che Guevara and 80 men. Taking to the Sierra Maestra Mountains, and shoring up support from rural workers and farmers, Castro and company began what would be a two-year war against the Batista regime. On New Year's Day 1959, Batista fled to the Dominican Republic, and Fidel Castro began his long victory march to Havana.
Initially, many musicians were optimistic about the new Cuba. At last they would be able to explore their craft free from the constraints of the market. Class and race would no longer divide people, and artists would now be able to freely connect with all Cubans instead of merely catering to visiting Americans. Most non-headlining musicians saw an initial increase in income, and composers were afforded the security of a regular salary. Cultural education programs strove to valorize domestic music and raise the musical literacy of all Cubans.
But this new musical economy was unsustainable. The casinos were looted and shuttered …