Reggae in Cuba and the Hispanic Caribbean: Fluctuations and Representations of Identities

By Davis, Samuel Fure | Black Music Research Journal, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview
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Reggae in Cuba and the Hispanic Caribbean: Fluctuations and Representations of Identities


Davis, Samuel Fure, Black Music Research Journal


I vividly recall when, in 1993, I was introduced to a small group of Rastafarians in a suburban and apparently poor and marginalized neighborhood southeast of Havana. (1) That moment was the beginning of my very frequent contacts with that group. Around the block from the house of one of those Rastas, there was a small so-called amphitheater, which would later become an important center of community cultural activities; this group of Rastas would play a prominent role in the organization of such activities. One of these events took place on October 31, 1999; a major reggae and rap concert was organized in that small place, which was jam-packed with a heterogeneous and primarily young audience of approximately 200 people. It was one of a series of cultural events in that community structured around reggae music and the Rastas' social contribution to the cultural life in the vicinity, combined with the frequent participation, lifestyle, and expressive needs of the tappers. However, none of these events was free from a number of organizational restrictions and regulations imposed by the local authorities regarding when, how long, and why the activities were organized, as well as conditioned on the usually excellent public discipline and order.

Unlike the rest of the Hispanic Caribbean countries, during this period (mid- to late 1990s) socialist Cuba was undergoing a serious economic crisis--known as the special period--resulting from national and international political circumstances that reflected the long-lasting economic dependence of the nation on the Eastern European socialist bloc. The consequences of this crisis went far beyond economic boundaries; its long-run effects were more visible in society and culture. This period shook the grounds of Cubanness (cubania or cubanidad). Some intrinsic values such as egalitarianism and collectivism took on new meanings and adapted to the new circumstances. The individual had to face new and different personal problems. Individual and collective identities, reshaped mainly around religion, race, and the reemerging notion of class, became more diversified. Many small and medium-sized private businesses were legally owned by Cubans for the first time in the revolutionary years. National agri-food market reforms created unexpected negative impacts. New markets and foreign investments were urgently sought as a solution to bring the country out of the crisis. The "smokeless" international tourist industry replaced the sugar industry as the primary source of hard currency in the country. The noxious effects of the mass introduction of international tourism into Cuba (class differences, prostitution, dual currency, and others) created class and social divides seen at unprecedented levels by the predominantly young population born after 1959.

Works by Jose A. Moreno (1998), Robin D. Moore (2006), and Sujatha Fernandes (2006) are a few examples of the extensive and critical studies of this period both a yard and abroad; the last two illustrate the ensuing cultural changes, mainly in the music industry. Moore (2006, 225) makes a drastic point: Cuba before the nineties "bears little resemblance to that of the present"; the special period left a mark on the musical changes and the cultural politics. Moreover, Fernandes's objective and critical understanding of the consolidation of the hegemonic socialist ideology in Cuban society during the postrevolutionary period leads to an analysis of how "new cultures" are emerging that embody cultural diversity, contestation, and protest as new forms of revolutionary attitudes (2006). In a nutshell, this period was one more "critical event" in the historical development of revolutionary Cuba, which "altered relations among specified sets of elements" (Sawyer 2006, 3).

The state's exercise of control and hegemony to save the nation from the ideological attacks of the powerful enemy is evident in the nationalist discourse intended to counteract the effects of the emerging class inequalities.

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