Cuban music, then and now


This video says about itself:

The town of Trinidad, in central Cuba, has a vibrant music scene. If you are looking for Son Music, the group to see is Semillas Del Son. If you like what you hear, you can find their music at www.bismusic.com or see them live. Here they are at Casa De Musica but you’ll often find them at La Casa Trova. Enjoy!

By Eliane Correa:

Maybe it’s time to move on from the Social Club

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Had enough of Buena Vista-style nostalgia? The dynamic new music scene in Cuba might be the answer

Close your eyes and imagine yourself in Havana – the air is warm and humid, there’s a faint breeze coming in from the sea and the sun is burning your skin.

What do you see? Maybe beaches and palm trees or sumptuous 1950s Chevrolets and Buicks panting away in the tropical heat. Maybe there’s the odour of the world’s finest cigars or a taste of the woody sweetness of anejo rum on your lips.

That image might have people in it. As you walk down Old Havana‘s narrow, colourful streets, there they are, the Cubans, beautiful people of all shapes, colours and sizes.

There are children still in their pionero school uniforms playing baseball with a broom stick and a rolled up sock. There are groups of retired men sitting around, brandless cigar firmly attached to the corner of the mouth, sharing a bottle over a game of dominoes.

There are middle-aged housewives in hair rollers exchanging the latest gossip at the local fruit and vegetable booth.

Whatever your images of “Cubanity,” Buena Vista Social Club will probably be playing in the background of your reverie.

In 1997, US guitarist Ry Cooder chased up some of Cuba’s pre-revolution music stars and organised them into a band to record an album for British label World Circuit Records. They decided to name this project Buena Vista Social Club and the album landed Cuba an instant prime spot on the world music map thanks to its unexpected success as well as a Grammy Award in 1998 for Best Tropical Latin Performance.

Two years later, film-maker Wim Wenders brought out the Buena Vista Social Club film which followed Ry Cooder around Cuba as he formed the group and took it all the way to sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall in New York and was a box office hit internationally.

In Wenders’ film, Cubans get around in Chevrolets or on bicycles.

Everybody knows how to dance to the son music that the Buena Vista musicians perform so gracefully.

There are cigars, rum and charismatic old men and women who have long since celebrated their 60th birthday – it’s all a string of friendly smiles, displays of solidarity and modest clothes.

Many people have been so touched by this unthreatening and exotic image that they have emptied the piggy bank and packed their suitcases, family in tow, with Cuba as their destination.

They’ve been hoping to discover this fabulously folkloric, slightly backward-thinking yet courageous population who have brought such a gem of a musical genre for everybody’s listening pleasure back to life.

Surprise.

There are plenty of Cubans who can’t dance, who don’t smoke or drink and who are more similar to you and I than the people Wenders chose to film.

Most importantly, there was no such thing as a son revival in the 1990s. Those times were marked by economic uncertainty and material shortages worsened by the tightening US blockade.

The brand new tourism industry was shaking the moral pillars of urban society as young people were shaking their hips to the new upbeat and provocative timba music.

Son wasn’t on anybody’s mind in the 1990s until Wenders and Cooder came along and sold over eight million records on a British label.

Subsequently Cuba was hit by a tsunami of tourists chasing this mirage of a son revival.

Demand has to be met and in the ensuing scramble for foreign currency which ensued every restaurant, bar and hotel in Old Havana had its resident band looping the Buena Vista classics on demand by the end of the millennium.

Today we are still more or less stuck in the Buena Vista time warp and that’s great for the economy.

But what about Cuban musicians? Thanks to the priority given by the government to education and culture, the incredible amount of musical talent to be found on the island is no secret to anyone.

Havana’s young music scene is more than ever stretching its limits and its identity. It’s less and less diluted by the old cliches of what “Cuban” should sound like and finding its way forward.

There’s a fiercely original young jazz scene, full of virtuosity and innovation. There are DJs mixing Cuban trumpets into screeching dubstep tracks and a lively reggae and funk scene, among others.

You probably haven’t heard much of it because the Buena Vista classics, fresh 50 years ago, resound up and down Old Havana’s streets like a factory production line. Innovative musicianship wastes away and foreign ears stay locked in a dusty romantic stereotype.

So how can you help the rising new wave? All you need to do is show interest. There is nothing more encouraging for a young and talented musician than an open-minded audience.

No disrespect to the son tradition but next time you see a young Cuban band playing Buena Vista with the expression of a kid doing their maths homework, request an original song – something new, something not Buena Vista.

Most artists stuck on that particular production line have true musical talent and fresh ideas but they have to stick to what sells.

We outside Cuba are the market and we decide what sells. If we are able to freshen up our ideas about “Cuban music” we will pave the way for today’s musicians to truly shine.

Who knows, a teenager strumming Chan Chan in a cafe could be the nightmare of a Royal Academy graduate.

If we all show interest in what Cuba sounds like today, there will not only be more space for new bands to invest their time and effort in bringing us their music.

Established bands such as Interactivo and Los Aldeanos will generate more international interest and receive recognition for what they really are – standard bearers of Cuba’s modern identity.

7 thoughts on “Cuban music, then and now

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