College Paper on Timba
Timba - New Styles in Afro-Cuban Popular Music
¿Evolution or Revolution?
by Charles B. Silverman
Cuban music has been a very viable and vital part of the history of music in the twentieth century. Cuban popular music has influenced many styles of Western music, from orchestral works to ragtime, from jazz to top 40 music. In recent years there has emerged from Cuba a new style of music; very aggressive, intensely rhythmic, and extremely danceable. It has caught the worlds attention. And, in catching the attention of the worlds dancers, musicians, and music lovers, it has also captured the attention of the music industry in the industrialized nations. European music industry executives have long been courting Cuban musicians and, due in no small part to the popularity of the new Cuban music styles, this courtship has been on the increase. And now the American music industry wants to join the frenzy. What will this influx of interest, of industry, and, quite possibly of the promise of many dollars, mean to Cuban popular music, and to Cuban society?
The topic of the new styles of Cuban music, most notably that of Timba, has never been written about from a sociological point of view. Likewise, the effects of an industrialized nations music industry on the music and society of a Socialist regime have not been extensively, if ever, studied and written about. This paper hopes to be able to shed some light on Timba and on the possible outcomes of the music industrys effects on Cuban music and society. Many questions remain unanswered and are food for thought and for more research.
History of Timba
There are new styles of Afro-Cuban popular music and an important new style is that of Timba. Juan Formell, leader of the seminal Afro-Cuban group Los Van Van says that Timba lies halfway between the traditional Cuban son and salsa . "Timba is the sound being heard on the island," Formell says, "and it's hard to explain in theory, but the changes we have made are based on the dancers, who for the last five years have been moving differently. Each musical genre, and Cuba has 20 or 30, has a dance. To my mind, the interesting thing are precisely the dancers. They're making it clear that there's something new in our music". (Cantor, Miami New Times) Dance has not been standardized in Cuba, as new musical styles create new dances, and, in cases like Timba, the dances create the need for a new, fresh music.
Girardo "Piloto" Barretto, one of the musicians who was first involved with this new musical style, comments that the favorite dance of the new crowd of dancers, despelote, "produces a phenomenal inspiration in the groove of the montuno, a determined chorus (voices) accompanying the rhythm, or a mambo from the horn section that produces this feeling which is different than the rest of the songs that they have heard". To dance this way, the musicians had to invent, little by little, the new style, which followed the dancers. (telephone interview, 1998) Much of the Cuban public saw the new style of music and dance when Señor Barretto performed with one of the first bands to play the style, NG (Nueva Generación or New Generation) La Banda. The word "despelote", which figuratively means "letting it all out", was used to describe the feeling of the people when they are dancing.
The emergence of the new style, and its continued growth as new variants emerge, is also each Cuban musical groups attempt to put their own "stamp" on the music. Each band, in each successive recording, wants to develop the music further and continue to draw the attention from the dancers (telephone interview with Piloto Barretto).This musical development is very indicative of Cuban musicians and their music. Very rarely does one hear a band, especially the newer bands, remain in one style or remain using one particular "formula". A very important characteristic of Cuban music, especially in the years that this author has been involved with it, is the constant growth and evolution of the music. There is change and effort to change in this new music. Each artist or group works at having some unique qualities which are not found in others music. The cookie cutter, assembly line production mentality, proferred by Adorno as a sameness owing to the Culture Industrys attempts at producing non-offensive singleness of purpose and style, is not overwhelmingly obvious in Cuba (Adorno, 1998). Cubans are offended by the fact that there music is compared to, and called, salsa which has suffered from these very attacks of the industry.
Salsa music, with its roots in Afro-Cuban popular music, was invented in New York in the early 1960s. The Cubans were adamant about never using the word "salsa" to describe their music. It was this authors experience that, when asking for salsa music in a Havana record store, I was told that there was no salsa to be bought. Only Cuban music could be bought there. Sñr. Formell says that due to the international music scene, Cubans were forced to call their music salsa. But he feels that Timba is so strong internationally, Cuban music now has its own identity and no longer relies on the salsa name. (Granma International, May, 1998). There also seems to be different opinions about this new music within the Cuban music community. The soneros in Cuba (those who hold close to the musical traditions of son) are not all in agreement that this is a worthy style.
The history of this new style of Cuban popular music reflects similarly the early history of son music in Havana. Son is recognized as the most influential Cuban music style of the 20th century. Originally from the eastern part of Cuba, son found its way to Havana in the early 1900s. Just as Juan Luis Cortés, "El Tosco", leader of the seminal Afro-Cuban groups NG (Nueva Generación) la Banda says, Timba is music of the barrios, it is generally recognized that son came from the blacks in the barrios. Son became commercially acceptable just as Timba is now very commercially acceptable. As son first began to be performed in Havana, there was a general distaste of and public outcries against the music. (Moore, 1997) Musicians and son aficionados were routinely arrested for playing and/or enjoying the son. And in modern day Cuba, as little as a year prior to this writing, Timba musicians have been hassled by police and subsequently not allowed to perform or travel for months. A popular band, La Charanga Habanera, was punished for what may have been a variety of reasons. One of these reasons was these words in one of their songs, : "Hey green mango, now that you're ripe, why have you still not fallen?" The words may have been in reference to Fidel Castro, usually dressed in green fatigues. (Christian Science Monitor) The government acted swiftly in banning the group from traveling overseas or performing in Cuba. Had La Charanga Habanera taken the step into the hidden transcripts of James Scott, and paid the price?
And, as further comparison, Robin Moore states, about son, "Son lyrics refer to a diversity of themes including bawdy sexual innuendo, topical social events, political issues, and regional nationalism". El Tosco states, "...the lyrics have to be simple, with words that motivate people to dance". Furthermore, Tosco states. "our songs are the literature of the people". Much of the lyrics and rap ideas found in this new style reflect a national pride, much as some son lyrics did and still do.
Musical form in the early sones involved European harmonies and the call and response reminiscent of Western African music. An important part of son is the call and response (called inspiraciones). The tempo can accelerate and the music takes on an important, forward motion. This formula has been exhibited in many Afro-Cuban song styles after the son, like mambo and chachachá. Usually during the montuno section, two chords form the backbone of the call and response vocals. The bass would play a relatively typical "and of two" and "four", the piano plays its montuno patterns, and the rhythm section accompanies with its relatively typical patterns. The music is strong and seductive. Timba has added a new part to this form, and in some cases, has altogether changed this part of the Afro-Cuban typical song form. What now occurs much of the time is a very rhythmic and driving section, sometimes featuring rap or a form of rap. Whereas before, the bass played a rhythmic and repetitive line, it now imitates drum parts. (Some say that the bass is now playing the batá parts found in Cuban santeria drumming.)
The call and response has been dropped in many cases, extended in others, and added to this new part is an extended rap section. Cuban producer Juan de Marcos says "The way the young musicians play is totally local, with a local literature and a form of expression thats absolutely from this place. They play an explosive rhythm thats somewhat aggressive. They rap, they shout, and they repeat chorus after chorus. Its a form of expression thats totally from and about the society were living in". (Cantor, Miami New Times) This inclusion of rap is new to Cuban music. Although not as pervasive as found in American culture, this new section is still revolutionary. It is a new and potent form of expression. As mentioned above, chorus after chorus is repeated, with raps thrown in between the chorus. The rhythm is incessant and driving, with drumset and percussion featured. While the lyrics in Timba do not achieve the hyper-critical aspect of some lyrics found in African-American rappers, the appropriation of this style has made something new in Cuban music. Lyrics speak of empowerment, of accepting the Orishas as your helpers, of the peoples entitlement to hope, hope for survival. (Once again, appropriating from the sacred for use in the popular.) As Ice Cube says, "Just living another twenty four is my focus. Making it through the day" ("Looking for the Perfect Beat" Video presentation). This statement can reflect life in Cuba. One steamy morning in La Habana, I sat with a good friend, wondering what the day would bring. I asked my friend what we would be doing that day. He told me, "waiting until tomorrow". Perhaps this new addition of uplifting rap, coupled with the rhythmic and aggressive new music, is one way of giving hope to the Cuban people.
Regarding the appropriation of rapping styles in Cuban music, Manolîn, El Médico de la Salsa (The Salsa Doctor) was one of the first Cuban artists to utilize rap in his songs. (email correspondence with Girardo Barretto, 1998). Interestingly, according to Señor Barretto, the reason for the addition of rap by Manolîn was because he was not a very good singer. The style caught on with the Cuban public other bands noticed the popularity, and the style developed further. (Barretto, 1998) Whereas rap music in the United States has developed as an effective form of social "activism" and criticism, rapping in Cuba has not yet taken on that form of protest. The hidden transcripts of James Scott (cited in Rose, 1994) are not to be found in most, if not all, of Cuban rap lyrics. It may be obvious to the observer that in Cuba social protest is frowned upon by the government. Protesters may (and most probably will) end up incarcerated or worse. Rose (1994) says that "rap music is, in many ways, a hidden transcript". In Cuba, rap is an extension of the new music. The social context of rap may have to wait. Young Cubans feel that the Cuban government is fully against rap music. Some of them know that much of the rap music from the United States is social and political protest and that their government will not allow this type of music in their country. (Vibe Magazine, 1996)
There have been rap festivals in Cuba, specifically in La Habana (Vibe, 1996). The First Annual Festival of Rap took place in 1995, with more than 3,000 attendees.
Rap is an oral passing on of knowledge, very similar to passing on drumming tradition in Africa and the African Diaspora. This tradition is very well established in Cuba. The oral tradition has been well established in the United States, through the Church. In Cuba we now have the merging of the two, a very powerful musical medium. By rapping about Orishas, Cubans are linked to their legacy and reminded not only about their past, be it revolutionary or embargoed, but of their future, of the possibilities of hope and destiny, of their strength, their cubanidad. The African heritage of rap and of Afro-Cuban music have met in the new style of timba.
Dance is so important in the Cuban culture. Watching the dancing which accompanies much of the music of the hip hop culture, one cannot help but notice the African roots. In this dancing, one can see the male enthusiasm exhibited in rumba columbia, the sensual dances found in rumba guaguanco (both Cuban dancing styles), and the African martial arts dance form of capoeira from Brasil. As Afrika Bambaata has stated, when dancing, it "felt that G-d was in you and you had to let G-d out of you". This statement and feeling is so reminiscent of the ceremonies of Santeria, where one of the objects of the ceremony may be possession by an orisha. The African legacy continues in Cuba and in the United States.
The legacy of the drum is very important in Cuba. Whenever a change is made in existing musical forms, especially percussive forms, it is to be duly noted. The rhythm section in Cuban poplar music groups, long recognized as a backbone of Afro-Cuban music, has been physically altered. Coming out of the son tradition of clave, bongo and maracas, the Afro-Cuban rhythm section changed over time. Added to the bongo and maracas of the son groups were timbales and tumbadoras ("congas"). In the new style of Afro-Cuban music, the rhythm section has been altered further, now incorporating the American drumset in a very "visible" role. In the "rap" sections the drumset takes a relative center stage, prodding the dancers into a frenzy. As Cantor so aptly states, "The resulting sound, called Timba , is a calculated frenzy rooted in a syncopated rhythm section that combines funk drum patterns and asymmetric keyboard riffs with the blood-stirring beats of Cuban rumba. Aggressive horns rise out of the rhythm, creating a hypnotizing curtain of sound. Call and response choruses and infectious, repetitive melodies accompany the bands extended grooves." Bands have been known to perform, non stop, for hours on end, with songs stretching over half an hour in length. The length of the songs allows the couples to be close together for a longer period of time, driving the band into a heightened musical frenzy. Choruses repeat hundreds of times, each with a different response from the lead singer, with the crowds, having memorized lyrics, choruses, and raps, joining in with the performers. It is as if the virtual space spoken of by Blacking, where anything is possible, is being felt by the crowd and the performing ensemble.
Cuban musicians may be borrowing from what is sacred within their culture and adding it to their popular music. Rapping which utilizes the calling of the Orishas, bass parts emulating the sacred batá drums, and other such characteristics assists Cuban music in connecting Cubans to their spirituality, letting them be full of life and inspired by art. Music helps to develop a sense of community. The virtual time created within the musical experience allows these connections to be made, enriched, and carried onward.
What has caused this major change in Afro-Cuban music where new instruments have been added to musical groups, new styles of vocalizing have become increasingly popular, whole sections of songs have been invented, deleted, moved, and exchanged? El Tosco states "Basically, we were open to the insertion of any international rhythm into Afro-Cuban music." (Cantor, Miami New Times) The opening up of international borders, the ability of Cuban musicians to travel abroad, has had a lot to do with the new styles. To Cuban musicians, their music is serious music, to use a phrase from Adorno (Adorno, 1941 On Popular Music). Standardization is a key to this definition, but the new style of Afro-Cuban music has defied this term, throwing caution to the wind, establishing new and interesting frontiers, challenging the listener to react. The composers and arrangers want to please their audiences and in fact are hoping to produce a "song hit" but the music is anything but rigid and mechanical. New composers and arrangers have stepped forward to challenge the status quo, making strong statements, and moving thousands of people, affecting society in grand ways. The music is not textbook "custom built" music, following rigid guidelines of construction. This really does sound (as Adorno wants it to sound) like automobile production, assembly line sameness. But this type of production does not occur in Cuba, where the economy is still agrarian, much to the dismay of the socialist government. The opportunity to equate the economic system with that of the musical production "system" does not avail itself to musicologists studying Cuban music. Of course, there are certain schemata that are followed: the concept of adhering to the Cuban clave for example. But composers and arrangers are constantly striving for new levels of creativity. The course and compostion of Cuban music is left up to the band leaders and arrangers, not the industry.
The problems may arrive, however, when the business of music steps in, and attempts to "cartelize" the process, churning out hits much as is done in the Culture Industry. The vicious circle of stimulation-identification-boredom-stimulation (Adorno, 1941) is a problem which will need to be dealt with if the fresh and vital sounds of Cuban music intend to survive in the commercial music business.
There is much written about musics ability to create a virtual time, where one can escape the confines and limitations of the moment and glimpse new vistas and solutions (Blacking, ) Is this escape or distraction? Or is this a positive view of musics function? It seems that John Blacking (and others) and Theodor Adorno (and others) are at odds on this very important point. Regarding Cuban music and its effects on Cuban people, this writer can speak only from anecdotal and personal experience. It is a powerful force, a force which speaks to the people of survival, of hope, of a new day. The new lyrics of Cuban music, while echoing past lyrics of nationalistic pride and natural events, are now being sung by new voices with additional messages. Accompanying these messages is the new and powerful, energetic and raw, music of timba. As El Tosco says, "I don't impose [lyrics]; they surface from the streets," he says. "I work for the most humble sectors of the population and nourish myself from them, and they're the ones that best understand my music." (Varela, 1997)
As Adorno so aptly states, we must investigate the experience of the music in the "households of the masses". While Adorno writes of music in capitalist societies, and how these societies need to be able to commingle with precapitalist, archaic societies, Cuba has been existing in that precapitalist mode for almost half a century. It may seem simplistic to state, but to this writer it is obvious; this music, to many Cubans, is not just "popular" music, as Adorno writes about. This is "serious" music, music meant to provide food for thought for many Cubans. Of course, it also takes on many other roles. Yes, it is a distraction, but it is also the blood and sweat of the Cuban people. Yes it is a way to make money for Cuban musicians, but it is also the bread and water of Cuban society. This writer has long believed that music is the life blood of Cuba.
A Brief History of Cuba and the United States
in the 20th Century
The history of Cuba vis a vis the United States is an important subject to factor into any comments about the music and business of music in Cuba. In the decade of the 1920s Cubans experienced tremendous duress, due not in a small part to events external to Cuba. World War I had just ended and povery was rampant. The price of sugar, a staple in the Cuban economy, were dramatically deflated. New tariffs were enacted by the United States to protect North American sugar (Moore, 1997). The government at that time was threatened which resulted in a civil war. After the civil war, in 1933, there was much blame aimed at the United States for Cubas economic woes, which led to a surge in nationalistic pride. Moore (1997) quotes from Juan Marinello, in "Vertice del gusto nuevo", "We are experiencing...in instinctive defense of the economic vassalage that the United States is imposing on us, a period of intense affirmation of cubanidad". This reaffirmed nationalism, in turn, led to a focusing, as never before, on Cubas African roots. And this led to the acceptance, in the early 1930s, of Afro-Cuban musical styles such as the son.
The relationship between Cuba and the United States since World War II has not faired much better. Many Cubans feel that in the years before the emergence of Fidel Castro, the Cuban government was but a puppet being played by the United States. Stories, anecdotes, and rumors abound regarding the ties between the Cuban government of Fulgencio Batistsa and the Mafia, headquartered in major cities in the United States. Without an in depth review of this period in Cuban-American history, let it be sufficient to say that that particular period in the relationship has left behind very bitter memories in the minds of many Cubans. After the revolution, these memories have been strengthened by the embargo against Cuba, maintained by the United States government. This mindset, coupled with the already profound and potent national pride, cubanidad (Moore, 1997), and the ability of the Cuban people to survive in the midst of the American embargo, has, to a great degree, emboldened Cuban society.
The intense level of nationalism in Cuba affects musical and other forms of expression. As members of the same group reacting against perceived "vassalage" or tyranny, music contributes to a sense of unity. Music can also act as a bond amongst diverse classes of people. The new music of Timba takes folk rhythms such as conga and rumba and transforms them into music for not only the working class but also for the middle class. Since it is thought that Cuba is a classless society, this statement can be relevant when regarding audiences in the United States, where Timba is becoming more and more popular amongst middle class aficionados of "latin" music.
The Cuban economy was dominated by the United States in the early twentieth century. Along with the influence of the American economy was that of American culture. In the early 1920s, one of the first major influences of music from the United States was felt in Cuba with the emergence of the style of "jazz band" in La Habana. The social elite in Cuba had sent their sons and daughters to study in the United States and the Cuban youth were being taught this new music. These trained musicians brought to Cuba different instruments such as the newly develop "trap" drumset, and new musical styles like the fox-trot and the Charleston. But after the revolution, in 1933, anti-U.S. sentiment was beginning to be felt in the cultural realm as well. The growing Anti- Yankee sentiment led to years of enmity culminating in the revolution in 1959. Because of the political impasse, Cubans could no longer travel to and from the United States.
After the success of the Cuban revolution, musical life in Cuba began to expand and grow. Some Cuban writers feel that this new growth was in a way in response to the business dealings of the Yankee "entertainment industry" (Acosta, 1977). Following the revolution, many new rhythms such as mozambique, pilón, and pacá began to appear. It is as if the musical soul of the people had been liberated and allowed to flower. Before 1959, Cuban music production was controlled, in a very league part, by American companies. The revolution effectively put an end to those practices.
The revolution halted the sharing of culture between the United States and Cuba. But Cubans musicians have always wanted to travel to the United States, not primarily, as many Americans think, to defect. There is a great need to for Cubans to expand their musical experiences. The new ease of travel to the United States allows the Cuban musicians to do just that. This travel has allowed many Cuban musicians to share their musical knowledge and pride of being Cuban with their North American musical counterparts.
National Pride in Cuba
This sense of cubanidad exists at a very high level in todays Cuba. The sense of national pride at the ability of the Cuban nation to withstand the American economic blockade has been expressed to this author many times, in many different ways, by Cubans living in Cuba. Lyrics of many of the new songs in Cuba tell stories that cannot be told in the press. Todays Cuban music continues that tradition and also adds a sense of nationalism and pride. An important comment was made to me by a Cuban musician held in very high regards amongst his peers. He feared for the "MacDonaldsization" of Cuba. He did not want to become the fifty-first state. "Why cant Cuba be treated as a sovereign country, like all other countries in the world", I was asked. The fear of this commercialization of Cuba and Cuban music was voiced by a citizen name "Robert" in a radio interview. "My advice would be definitely come, try not to be an ugly American and try not to pollute the people with materialism. For selfish reasons, I wish the embargo would never end because if this place ever gets open to Americans, it'll be ruined within two years. But of course that's not what I really feel because I feel the Cuban people deserve more than that " . (Common Ground radio broadcast, September 23, 1997).
"Cubans live on music the way others live on bread and water" (Girardo "Piloto" Barretto in the Christian Science Monitor, Oct. 2, 1997). Mr. Barretto is at the forefront of the new popular music styles in Cuba. He was the drummer with NG la Banda when it became a leader in the emergence of the new style and continues to forge new styles as leader/arranger/composer of his own group, Klimax. His attitude reflects the high regard given to the arts in Cuba. The forward-looking musicality and virtuosity of many Cuban musicians, the cubanidad evidenced everywhere in La Habana, the true necessity for music in the lives of Cubans, have all come together to form this new aggressive style of music, Timba . The strained relationship between Cuba and the United States and the realization that U.S. dollars can help their families may also be driving the new style. At the very least, it is driving the Cuban music business to seek to redress problems it has encountered over the years; problems of piracy of its music, advantages taken by foreign recording companies working in Cuba, and the general disregard for the Cuban musicians and people when it comes to monetary matters.
Cuban Reality and the New Styles of Music
Is the new music in Cuba the natural evolution of Cuban popular music, a reaction to internal social pressures, the need for dollars or combinations of all of these factors? How will this new music be disseminated internationally and will it succeed in the Western music market? Girardo Piloto says, about music, "....its the form to be (forma de ser" in Cuba, its a questions of rhythm, a question of temperment...." (telephone interview, 6 December, 1997). He feels that social change had little to do with the growth of the new style of Cuban popular music. Juan Formell, a Cuban musical force to be reckoned with, has suggested that the recent success of CDs featuring more traditional styles of Cuban Music is evidence that there is "an American plot to keep contemporary read: revolutionary music isolated". (Cantor, 1998) The feelings of anti-Imperialism die hard in Cuba. How will the fledgling music industry deal with these difficult barriers and grow to meet national and international interests?
Cuba is not free. Censors attend recording sessions and monitor both lyrics and music for offensive material. The music of timba maintains its aesthetic autonomy but does not live up to the fait social of other musics. It is simply not allowed to take on any other types of meanings other than its aesthetic meaning. There really is no choice. When rappers talk about not understanding the words of American rap music, just enjoying the beat, it is obvious that the aesthetic qualities overshadow any vain attempt, on the Cuban rappers part, at adding a social critique or hidden transcript to the music. Due to the extreme censorship of the regime, this music would never be recorded, much less heard, and the musicians would risk their life and "freedom" in attempting to record it. Musics autonomy is not replaced whole cloth, as Adorno suggests , by a socio-psychological function. (Adorno, 1941). Absolutely, there is a social function to the music, and quite possibly a psychological function as well. But the beauty of the music shines through. It is this authors experiences with the music that say that this is so. And perhaps it is fortunate that socially conscious lyrics do not exist in most Cuban popular music. (In the not too distant past, many Cuban groups had to have at least one pro-revolutionary song on the albums.) If popular music turns into commonplace and banal occurrences, then the messages may also get lost in the music. OF course, this last statement draws heavily on Adornos thoughts about popular music. Can this be true of Cuban music as well?
Cuban culture is a valuable commodity in Cuba. The word "commodity" is used in its actual meaning. Material goods are scarce and very necessary in Cuba. The music, as a very integral part of Cuban culture, is being packaged as a commodity. During the years of the Soviet Unions support of Cuba, basic items for living were not of the greatest importance. Being subsidized by the Soviet Union, Cuban artists could concentrate on their art for the sake of the art. Even though the typical Cuban was "poor" according to Western standards, there was enough to go around. Now, without the Soviet Union as the major trading partner (at a loss of five billion dollars annually), the production and marketing of Cuban culture has taken on great importance. It is very much a way of bringing in much need American dollars. (M. Spiro, telephone interview, 1998) How can the Cubans capitalize on the international success of timba without extremely comodifying their culture ?
The Emerging Cuban Music Industry
How will the emergence of a music industry in Cuba effect Cuban society? Because of the evolution of Afro-Cuban popular music, the music industry in Cuba has to make substantial changes in order to reap the benefits. Cubans no longer want to be taken advantage of in the area of the business of music. In pre-Castro Cuba, the American music industry took full advantage of Cuban music and musicians. Stories of Cuban musicians, immediately before the revolution, being paid one American dollar for the rights for their songs. Cubans in the industry do not want this unfair advantage to occur again. (Acosta, 1977)
There is a small but growing music industry in Cuba, centered in La Habana. In recent years the industry has grown as Cuban music has become more and more popular globally. The Berman amendment, enacted in 1987, allowed for the free flow of music between the United States and Cuba (Cantor, 1998). Since the beginning of President William Clintons second term as U.S. president, many Cuban musicians have toured the U.S. Pablo Menendez, an American musician living in Cuba for the past thirty years, has some interesting comments about this. Mr. Menendez feels that this change is not altogether altruistic. He feels, in part, that it is part of an attempt to undermine the Cuban government. Menendez says that there are two tracks to the plan. Track one threatens retaliation against foreign interests in Cuba. "Track two on the other hand is, has the idea of ideologically undermining the Cuban government by allowing, what they call--it's sort of funny--a free flow of ideas, meaning a free flow of their ideas towards Cuba but not of Cuban ideas towards the United States. The idea is that these artists are supposed to go to the United States and see quote-unquote "how great it is and then come back and be dissidents in Cuba. And it's, you know, it's a particularly ethnocentric idea". (1997, Common Ground Radio Broadcast).
At a recent music trade show in La Habana, record executives from Los Angeles, New York, and Miami has come to trade in what is the new Cuban cash crop. These executives were there, marketing and promoting CDs recorded by Cuban bands. Music business representatives have been some of the first American business people in Cuba (Cantor, 1997). There is a great concern among American record executives that the European companies are in positions to take full advantage of the burgeoning popularity in Cuban music. Now, the American music industry is finding ways to market and distribute Cuban music in the United States. Companies are signing distribution deals with companies in Europe which have offices in Cuba. One record executive was not blunt in his comments that "its going to be an absolute feeding frenzy down there. Its like discovering a treasure thats been buried all these years. There are about a hundred people in the industry wondering what to do next." (Cantor, 1997)
The Cuban government needs capital and one way to acquire this capital is to send the Cuban musicians out on tours. This touring has heightened awareness, globally, of Afro-Cuban music, and has driven the growth of the Cuban music industry even more. The government reaps benefits as the musicians must pay a percentage of their wages back to the government, in the form of income tax. The touring Cuban musicians make more money on the road than if they would stay in their own country. As of not very long ago, wages for a musician in Cuba are approximately US $10 per month. Things have changed a little for the better for the Cuban musician. Musicians used to be governed by a central body which adversely affected the development of Cuban popular music (Acosta, 1977). Cuban musicians are now "free agents" . In years past, Egrem, a very large government-controlled recording company, "hired" musicians without contracts. Cuban musicians can now enter into record contracts (Cantor, 1997). Since 1993, Cuban musicians can enter into contracts with foreign labels as long as taxes are paid. Cuban musicians can belong to a group controlled by the state, as part of a group that had established itself as a quasi-independent company or as a free-lance musician for hire with groups or by impresarios from the outside. (Orlando Fiol, email correspondence). Musicians who go out on tour can now keep some of their salaries whereas in years past, this money went directly to the government. The social status of some musicians is changing, which may be influencing society. But, is it? Is music influencing society? Will the average Cuban citizen, for a long time kept down by the government, see the change in social status and want that themselves? And what will they do to achieve the change?
There seems to be a double standard set forward by the Cuban revolutionary government, concerning the music industry and its entrepreneurial status. The socialist government wants to hold on to its musicians, which is why it has granted them the freedom and opportunities. But it has also created a new class of citizenry, one which can be seen and perhaps emulated by others much like sports starts are emulated by some of the citizenry here in the United States. Part of that emulation is the need for an accumulation of goods. This is counter-revolutionary.
There are many differences between the music industry in Cuba as compared with Western music industries. One major difference is that there is very little opportunity for Cubans to buy CDs let alone CD players. A great percentage of the CDs are sold outside of Cuba. Cassette tapes are sold in Cuba, for 15 Cuban pesos, less than one dollar (Cantor, 1997). American dollars have to be used to buy CDs or CD players, and there is not enough American dollars in very many of the typical Cuban households. The income of individual Cubans is so meager that purchasing music on CD is very uncommon if not impossible. However, Caribe Productions, the label which produces Los Van Van, has recently announced that the new musical productions will be available on cassette. "The natural market for Cuban music is the Cuban people, but with an
economic repression that because of the U.S. embargo is keeping most Cubans down, that chance for financial success at home is a long way away". (San Francisco Bay Guardian, 1997)
There is an authors rights organization in Cuba, operating with no computer and with representatives scattered throughout the island. This organization is there to protect the authors and to make sure that they are paid for their work. With a serious lack of technology, (for example, there are a very small amount of computers in Cuba, Cubans cannot access the World Wide Web although some have email access) can money be tracked and correctly distributed? There is a great sense that these organizations do not exist at all! Cubadisco president Ciro Benemelis asserts that Cubans have to learn how to do business and to be more connected internationally. "Socialism is not good at making money" (Alicia Perera, director of the governmental Institute of Cuban Music, from Varela, 1997).
The music industry is there for profit, profit generated from sales outside of Cuba. There are not many (if any at all) mass media campaigns for the latest musical "star". Is the Cuban music industry driving the musical taste of the Cuban people as much as it is driving international musical tastes? And what of Cubans doing business in Cuba? How can Cubans best "capitalize" on their musical wealth while avoiding selling out?
Music and Society in Cuba
What is the function of this new music in Cuba? One can argue for the function of music in many arenas. There most certainly is a function of distraction in this music. In Cuba there is great need to forget about the problems of the day, to lose ones self in the music. Adorno equates the type of people who enjoy this type of music, the popular music which causes distraction, to those who live in fear and are anxious about unemployment, amongst other typologies. The mode of production of the popular music of which Adorno writes is equated to the societys modes of production. Thus the two are inextricably intertwined. Adorno writes of the Culture Industry in the West where capitalism rules. But he has not taken into account the very different ways that Cuban people feel about what they call popular music. Perhaps most Western popular music is produced and packaged in such a way that distraction due to the relationship between material production and worker is built in. Not so in Cuba. Although the Cuban government has longed for an industrialized economy since the days of the revolution, Cuba has always had an agrarian economy, relying most heavily on sugar as its main export. The revolution has had to struggle with the need to build an industrial base by diversifying the economy while maintaining a high output of sugar in order to accumulate capital. (Madrid, 1987) The Cuban economy is still as highly dependent on sugar as it was thirty years ago. Remaining in this relatively pre-capitalist mode of existence, there is a case to be made regarding the differences in consumptive habits between the Cuban worker and those of the Western industrialized countries. Is there room for the "cult of the machine" (Adorno, 1941) even if there is little or no industrialization? To this author there seems to be a somewhat high level of disillusionment in Cuba. The cause of this disillusion may be the dire straits of Cuban existence. There is boredom in Cuban life.
This writer does not believe, as Adorno infers, that, through their popular music, the Cuban people only want relief from boredom and effort. (Adorno, 1941) Perhaps it is the idea that the Cuban worker is so very different from the typical worker in an industrialized economy, used to the "cookie cutter" mentality of the hit making machine. Timba is not music to be listened to like so much pap for the masses. It is not, as yet, mass produced, and over commercialized. This music is not boring, as Adorno seems to suggest of all (or at least most) of popular music.
These musings about Adorno, his ideas about the Culture Industry and industrialized societies beg to be addressed. The marketing of popular music in the industrialized countries has a way of forcing new styles, new groups, new songs, down the collective throats of the all to willing public. What will happen with this new, viable musical style if the mass-producing, similarly packaging, industrialized nations music industry take it under its wing? Will there be a leveling of the music and a subsequent "dumbing down" of the populace as the music becomes more popular and, perhaps, more commercial? With societies ruled by the exchange principle, popular musics lack of function becomes a function unto itself. But there is a hope that the work which does not sell out truly can become art and, as Adorno states, "nature. (Adorno, 1989) Is the true nature of man becoming more evident in the new, intense music of Cuba? And can this nature exist and grow as Cuba becomes more reliant on outside economies to aid it in its existence? Can the "revolution from below" (Hobshawn) maintain its integrity without falling prey to profit?
This new musical style from Cuba is clearly an evolution of Cuban popular music. As stated beforehand, this type of evolution is alomost a foregone conclusion in Cuba. With the influx of dollars into Cuba, will this music mean so much more, leading to changes in Cuban society?
Can one expect Cuban composers to acquiesce to the pressure of the industry? Will the promise of American dollars, international travel, with all of its rewards for families in Cuba, and other benefits, change the way music is created in Cuba? Will the more industrialized societies have their influence, both positive and negative, on the musical and social life in Cuba. These questions beg to be answered and can only be clarified with a full, longitudinal and "on the ground" study of Cuban music and society. Only in this way can these very understudied and extremely important questions be properly addressed.
Acosta, Leonardo "The Problem of Music and its Dissemination in Cuba" from (1992). Essays on Cuban music: North American and Cuban perspectives, Manuel, P., Ed.
Adorno, Theodor 1989 Introduction to the Sociology of Music pps. 39-54
Adorno, Theodor 1989 Introduction to the Sociology of Music pps. 1-38
Adorno, Theodor "On Popular Music" from On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word
Adorno, Theodor Dialectic of Enlightenment, pps. 120-128
Blacking, John Music and Society in Culture" from How Musical is Man
Cantor, Judy "Poets of the Pueblo" from the Miami New Times, Dec. 3-9, 1998
Cantor, Judy "Isla de la Música" from the Miami New Times, May 28-June 3, 1998
Castañeda, Mireya "From practice to theory" Granma International 1998. Havana, Cuba
Hobsbawm, Eric 1972 "Some Reflections on Nationalism." Essays in memory of Peter Nettl: Imagination and Precision in the Social Sciences, ed. T.J. Nossiter et.
LaFranchi, Howard "The World Dances To a Cuban Beat" from The Christian Science Monitor
Madrid-Aris, Manuel Growth and Technological Change in Cuba from Growth and Technological Change in Cuba Conference, 1997
Manuel, Peter "Salsa and the Music Industry" Corporate Control or Drassroots Expression" from (1992). Essays on Cuban music: North American and Cuban perspectives, Manuel, P., Ed.
Rose, Tricia "Prophets of Rage. Rap Music and the Politics of Black Cultural Expression" from Black Noise: Rap and Black Culture in Contemporary America
Common Ground Radio Broadcast, 1997; interview with Cuban economist Omar Everleny Perez
Telephone Interview with Michael Spiro, noted Afro-Cuban specialist, 10 December 1998
Telephone Interviews with Girardo "Piloto" Barretto, noted Afro-Cuban musician/composer, 10,11 December 1998
Varela, Chuy "Cuba's Free-Market Salsa" from the San Francisco Bay Guardian, April 2,
Vibe magazine (March 1996) Vol.4 (2) Hip Hop Havana