Magazine article The World and I

Cuba's 'Music City' - Wellspring of an Island's Culture

Magazine article The World and I

Cuba's 'Music City' - Wellspring of an Island's Culture

Article excerpt

There is a long-held presumption that adversity is an essential factor in the evolution of profound and lasting art. The belief finds a compelling example in the island nation of Cuba. There hardship and creativity seem to go hand in hand.

Although economically disadvantaged--and politically repressed-- throughout much of its history, this small Caribbean country emerged early in the past century as an extraordinary cultural influence, particularly as exemplified by its influential popular music. Indeed, throughout much of the twentieth century, it was difficult to find a region of the world that had not become infatuated with Cuban song.

In the 1930s, ensembles of Cuban musicians performing such period classics as "El Manicero" (The Peanut Vendor) became the toast of the Continent and the Americas. By the late 1940s, just when the swing era/big-band movement went into serious decline in the United States, venerable Afro-Cuban rhythms fused with the emerging, highly improvisational bebop style of modern jazz to create a dynamic new international music idiom dubbed Cu-bop, or Latin jazz.

At the same time, the phenomenal success of the Cuban bolero--melodic love ballads noted for their especially poetic lyrics--helped spread the fame of the country's composers and interpreters to the Orient and beyond. A decade later, such Cuban rhythms as the mambo, rumba, and Cuban variants of cha-cha gained a fanatic worldwide following among ballroom dancers and Latin music aficionados.

In the closing years of the century, time-tested Cuban forms were embraced by U.S. salsa (popular music of Latin-American origins) and Latin rock groups, including such popular performers as guitarist Carlos Santana and singer Gloria Estefan. Thus updated, a style that at its core remained essentially folkloric in character spurred the birth of yet another generation of Cuban music devotees.

Well-known idioms such as the rumba, mambo, and cha-cha succeeded over the decades in winning the attention of a mass audience. The popular culture of this little Caribbean nation became known around the world. However, such triumphs were often made at the expense of preserving the original character of authentic, long-ingrained root styles. A focus on elemental--and often superficial--rhythmic components of the music was often the overriding factor in attracting the attention of a broad audience. Subtle stylistic nuances and an array of rhythmic, orchestral, and lyric influences that represent almost five centuries of evolution tended to be trivialized or outright ignored.

Only in recent years has an audience once satisfied with overly simplified forms of Cuban popular music become interested in the more unvarnished, tradition-observing variants of the country's musical expression. The unprecedented interest in the recordings and live performances of a number of aging practitioners of several core Cuban styles is a prime example. Their work is marketed as a virtual brand name under the banner of the Buena Vista Social Club collective. The artistic and popular success of those artists and other leading exponents of the idiom signals a yearning among sophisticated listeners for a purer manifestation of Cuban music. Increasingly astute popular music fans have discovered that looking beyond the glitzy facade of Cuba's most polished sounds to the country's more rudimentary styles opens the door to a universe of complex, uncommonly rewarding cultural revelations.

Crossroads of the New World

Bred-in-Havana sounds have come to define Cuban music to much of the world, but the wellspring of the country's oldest and most revered styles is not the capital city of three million. Rather, it is a provincial outpost of traditional cultural sensibilities found five hundred miles away, at the other end of the island. Santiago de Cuba, the colony's first capital, was founded in 1514 by explorer Diego de Velazquez. …

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