Tag Archives: Music

THE “STONES” IN HAVANA: IS ROCK ’N’ ROLL STILL THE MUSIC OF REBELLION IN CUBA?

IAN BURUMA

The Globe and Mail, Friday, Apr. 08, 2016

Original Article: “Rolling Stones in Havana”

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After U.S. President Barack Obama’s trailblazing visit to Cuba, a free concert by the Rolling Stones in Havana might seem like a relatively minor event. Mr. Obama revived relations with Cuba after more than a half-century of deep hostility. The septuagenarian Stones just played some very loud music.

Yet, symbolically, the concert was not minor at all. To grasp the importance of the Stones’ performance before hundreds of thousands of adoring Cubans, you have to understand what rock ’n’ roll meant to people living under Communist dictatorships.

In the 1970s, for example, Czechoslovakia, like other Communist states, was a dreary, oppressive, joyless place, where mediocre party hacks set the tone, and creativity was stifled under a blanket of enforced conformism. Rock ’n’ roll was considered a noxious form of capitalist decadence. A local rock band named Plastic People of the Universe, performing in English, was arrested in the late 1970s for “organized disturbance of the peace.” Recordings by the Rolling Stones and other Western groups were banned.

And yet records were smuggled into Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries, where they were treasured by young rock fans, including dissident playwright Vaclav Havel, who would become the country’s president. The forbidden sounds – loud, anarchic, sexy – offered an escape from the drabness of a tightly policed normality. Rock ’n’ roll allowed people to imagine what it would be like to be free, if only for fleeting moments. For that reason, the authorities viewed it as profoundly subversive.

Rock fans in Western democracies listened to groups such as the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, or Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, for pleasure. There was a certain amount of political bluster among rock stars, to be sure, but this was widely regarded as frivolous posturing. Not in countries such as Czechoslovakia, where the music – more than the posturing – was an expression of serious rebellion. The defence of the Plastic People of the Universe became a public cause for dissidents such as Mr. Havel, ultimately giving rise to Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 movement.

When Mr. Havel offered Mr. Zappa an official role in his democratic government after the Communist regime had fallen, the musician was as astonished as everyone else. But it showed how much his music had meant to people such as Mr. Havel, when they had to listen to it secretly, risking arrest.

The role of rock music in countries behind the Iron Curtain was beautifully dramatized in Tom Stoppard’s 2006 play Rock ’n’ Roll, in which a Havel-like character, named Ferdinand (after characters of the same name in Mr. Havel’s own plays), extols the music as a supreme form of political resistance. Other characters in the play scoff at this notion, treating musical subversion as trivial. Mr. Stoppard, like Mr. Havel, clearly doesn’t agree. The play ends with the Rolling Stones’ historic concert in Prague in 1990.

Rock is ecstatic music. Ecstasy allows people to let go of themselves. This is not always benign. Mass hysteria at Nazi rallies was a form of ecstasy, too. So is the behaviour of soccer crowds, which can sometimes turn violent.

I once witnessed a group of highly respectable Singaporeans letting go of themselves in an evangelical church service. Urged on by an excited Japanese preacher, men in grey suits started writhing on the floor, foaming at the mouth and jabbering nonsense. It was not an edifying spectacle. In fact, it was frightening. But the Japanese preacher was not wrong to say that people – especially, as he put it to his congregation, buttoned-up Japanese and Singaporeans – sometimes need a relief from everyday conformity.

Music-induced ecstasy is not the same as speaking in tongues in a religious frenzy. But the experiences are related. That is why official guardians of social order are so often eager to ban such practices.

As far back as 380 BC, Plato warned against departing from traditional forms of music. Musical innovation, he wrote in The Republic, and especially exciting new sounds, were a danger to the polis. He believed that lawlessness began with unorthodox kinds of musical entertainment and advised the authorities to put a stop to such things.

Last month, Mick Jagger told his Cuban fans, in Spanish, that “finally the times are changing.” Perhaps they are. President Obama struck a similar note in his farewell speech in Havana. He spoke about a new era, “a future of hope.” He told Raul Castro, the stiff-legged Cuban strongman (who is more than a decade older than the Stones frontman and almost three decades older than Mr. Obama) that he should not fear freedom of speech.

These are fine words. But real political freedom in Cuba may be slow to come. And the example of China shows that individual hedonism can be successfully combined with political authoritarianism. (The Stones have already played in Shanghai, even though the Chinese authorities insisted on vetting their songs.)

But it is a start. Rock ’n’ roll has officially come to Cuba. Mick Jagger paid proper respect to Cuba’s own ecstatic musical traditions. Cubans already know how to dance. The next, much bigger step is for the autocrats to get off the floor.

Ian Buruma is professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College, and author of Year Zero: A History of 1945.

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THE BUENA VISTA ECONOMIC EFFECT

A genre of music once sidelined as “A decadent relic of the past” that came back to “Rescue” *   the Revolution.

 By Anthony Smith, December 14, 2015

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Buena Vista Social Club, the musical phenomenon that initially captured the world’s attention around 1997, is in the midst of its final world tour. Although several of the stalwarts of the group have since passed away, the remaining members, along with an injection of new blood are giving fans a good show. The unlikely rise of these musicians came at the height of the special period, giving Cuban cultural tourism an unexpected boost when it was limping along following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although Cuba has always punched above its weight in the area of music, this was the most improbable of scenarios at a time of utter desperation.

The success of Buena Vista on multiple fronts (CD, concerts and a documentary), led a lot of individuals across the world to visit Cuba. On the island, Cubans themselves knew little about Buena Vista, and the younger generations were largely indifferent to the music. Cuban musicians were initially surprised by foreign tourists requesting songs that they did not know, but they quickly caught on, learning songs like “Chan Chan.” There was also a boom in new groups forming to play exclusively for tourists, though it soon became obvious that they had a repertoire that was largely limited to the ones made popular by Buena Vista Social Club. They could play hits from the past like “Quizas, quizas,” but not “Me voy pa’l pueblo” or “La runidera” because they were not among those that the members of Buena Vista had included in their various albums.

Now largely unknown by many and overlooked by a few, is the reasoning that led these musicians into obscurity. Throughout history, revolutions have upended societies and sought to reshape them, and Cuba was no different. There is little doubt that Cuba needed a revolution in 1959. The existence of a mafia state, gambling, rampant corruption, abject poverty, drugs and prostitution created conditions ripe for sweeping change. As relations with the US deteriorated, Cuba entered a degree of isolation, defections and a looming cold war that changed everything internally. Music, art and culture were soon expected to toe the party line. The worst times were in the so called “El quinquenio gris,” a five year gray period (1968-73) where there was severe repression in the arts and culture. The air of uncertainty led writers, poets, artists and musicians to play it safe in their work, for fear of running afoul of rules and regulations that were deliberately ill-defined to create an atmosphere of indecision and self- censorship.

Looking back, there is little doubt that the arts were unfair victims of this purge. State resources were directed towards other, newer forms of music. The individuals that had burgeoning careers in pre- Castro Cuban and remained in Cuba were sidelined as the revolution sought to create new sounds. Ruben Gonzalez said that he had not played a piano in well over a decade at the time he was invited to play for Buena Vista Social Club. Ibrahim Ferrer was for all intents and purposes retired, shining shoes to make some extra money. Compay Segundo had composed the song “Chan Chan” as early as 1987, but did not get the chance to record it in studio until 1995. This is not to say that Cubans were devoid of musical choices. A lot of new artists like Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes did emerge, as did forms of music like Nueva Trova and Timba, but their emergence came at the expense of the older musicians that had established careers in 1959.

A lot of criticism has been directed at the lack of authenticity of Buena Vista Social Club, and it’s over reliance on marketing and neo-colonial nostalgia for the past. However valid that criticism may be, when it comes down to the dollars and cents, Buena Vista beat Timba, Nueva Trova, Latin Jazz, Reggaeton and all others as a selling point. If anything, Cuba failed to fully capitalize on the Buena Vista craze at its peak over a decade ago. Commemorative and limited edition T-shirts, cups, rum, coffee and even cigars would have brought in additional millions in revenue from foreign tourists.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that Buena Vista Social Club happened in spite of, and not because of the Cuban revolution.

*The word “Rescue” is frequently used to describe attempts to resuscitate and rebuild various parts of Cuban society in the economic decline that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Anthony Smith is an amateur Cuban historian and lover of all things Cuba. He has made his living as a consumer rights advocate, a professional fundraiser, a political activist and in the food service industry

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Chucho Valdés: ‘Fue frustrante que la música de Bebo se prohibiese en Cuba’

VÍCTOR USÓN; EFE Publicado el viernes, 11.08.13 Madrid

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El pianista de jazz Cucho Valdés califica de “inolvidables” los últimos años que pasó junto a su padre. Un recuerdo que contrasta con la “frustración” que sintió cuando la música de Bebo se prohibió en su Cuba natal y que ahora trata de reconfortar con un disco en el que le rinde homenaje. “Border-Free (Sin Fronteras)” es el título de este álbum en el que Valdés “rompe barreras, abre camino y elimina las fronteras” entre géneros musicales tan diversos como el jazz, el flamenco, los ritmos gnawaw de Marruecos, los rituales orishas o la música de Bach, haciendo en él una declaración de principios y una búsqueda en sus orígenes. Con una enorme carga de “sentimiento”, sus temas esconden historias personales y en uno de ellos, titulado “Bebo”, homenajea a su padre, acercando su estilo “de componer y tocar” e incluyendo un solo de saxofón que Bebo pudo escuchar y que calificó de “hermoso”. “Luché mucho para que la música de mi padre no estuviese prohibida. El mes que viene le van a hacer un tributo en el Festival de Jazz de La Habana”, comenta a Efe Valdés, tras asegurar que él no va a asistir al evento. Este cambio en la política cubana que se produce, según comenta el pianista, debido a las transformaciones que está viviendo la isla, permitirá recuperar la figura de un Bebo Valdés que vivió sus últimos años en Benalmádena (Málaga) junto a su hijo. Valdés le lleva realizando un continuo homenaje a su padre desde su muerte, el pasado 22 de marzo y de hecho, mañana le rendirá tributo en el festival de Jazz de Cartagena, como ya hizo en Barcelona el 29 de octubre en un concierto “muy emotivo” que se convirtió en una fiesta de homenaje “casera”. “Todos los que participaron se brindaron a ayudar, hubo un amor increíble. Nunca había tocado en un concierto así, era mucho más que un concierto, era una fiesta. La gente estaba tan emocionada…”, argumenta Valdés. “Border-Free” guarda un carácter “muy familiar”, ya que en él, además de homenajear a su padre, le dedica un tema a su abuela y otro a su madre, “Pilar”, en el que mezcla al Bach que “tanto le gustaba” con “Blue in Green” de Miles David, consiguiendo “una coherencia de carajo”, asegura. Rebusca Valdés en los orígenes étnicos de su Cuba natal, acercando así las raíces musicales de la España colonial que introdujo su cultura en la isla, los ritmos africanos que trajeron los esclavos y el sonido propio de esa América que reclamaba libertad. “Mi padre quiso que conociera los máximos elementos musicales posibles, también estudié desde pequeño en el conservatorio música clásica, mientras miraba los ritos religiosos africanos que se hacían en mi barrio. Todo aquello se convirtió en un solo elemento musical, que ahora reproduzco en el disco”, argumenta Valdés. Acerca esta música junto a la banda The Afro-Cuban Messengers, “el mejor grupo con el que he actuado nunca”, asegura, compuesto por músicos “jóvenes y talentosos” capaces de trasladar al presente la música cubana. El jazz es, según Valdés un género musical “que nunca morirá” porque su público es “especial, inteligente, sabe escuchar y es consciente de lo que busca”. “No está hecho para un público de masas, no se llenarán grandes estadios”, argumenta. Y precisamente ese estilo musical cargado de sentimiento que acerca Valdés en “Border-Free” seguirá estando presente en los trabajos de este músico, “eso lo van a ver durante un buen rato, ya no lo puedo dejar, voy a dar más pasos con esta música”, argumenta Valdés. chucho-valdes

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