Cuban Musicians Vanish from U.S. Venues

What’s happened? Where are they?

Since the doors began to open in 1996, U.S. listeners have grown accustomed to seeing Cubans perform regularly, especially in Portland, where many of the best Cuban musicians have appeared before enthusiastic audiences. For a while, after the Buena Vista Social Club album and film, it seemed that a cultural bridge to the embargoed island could be built. In 1999, when the gates were wide open, 140 musicians traveled from the U.S. to spend a week in Havana collaborating with their Cuban counterparts. In small groups, they composed and then performed the tunes that are captured in the film “Bridge to Havana,” scheduled to air Monday on OPB.

“It might be time for a reconciliation,” says the film’s opening voice-over — a line that rings bittersweet today, now that almost a year has passed since the last Cuban musician played in Portland. Dating from November, 2003, in fact, when Cuban nominees for the Latin Grammy awards were refused entry, no Cuban musician has been allowed into the country, including the popular band Los Van Van and septuagenarian singer Ibrahim Ferrer. Of course performers from other countries have suffered delays, searches and have even been refused entry since 2001, but Cubans are the only group being kept out entirely.

The absence of Cuban performers is nothing new. Since the embargo was put in place 42 years ago, the powerful impact of Cuba’s music on the U.S. has been obscured. Most Americans who grew up with it don’t know that the famous three-chord lick from “Louie, Louie,” for instance, was borrowed from a Cuban cha-cha-cha. We have to remind ourselves that 50 million people a week heard Cuban expatriate Desi Arnaz play the santeria invocation, “Babalu,” on the “I Love Lucy Show” in the ’50s. And “Manteca” was Dizzy Gillespie’s best-selling record.

Cuban music began to influence U.S. artists in the 19th century, and it has touched ragtime, jazz, R&B, funk and rock and roll. That’s part of the story that writer, drummer and producer Ned Sublette tells in his new book, Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. His book, along with Bridge to Havana and other films of Cuban musicians available on DVD, in addition to dozens of new CD releases each year, form part of an infrastructure that has grown up to promote and support Cuban music.

With the latest ban on entry, though, that support system finds itself all dressed up with no Cubans to show. Sublette, who co-produced the public radio program Afropop Worldwide in the ’90s, would like to remedy that, and his June, 2004 report for the Cuba Research and Analysis Group, “The Missing Cuban Musicians,” makes explicit policy recommendations. His book, however, aims to help readers understand the development of Cuban music in its larger historical framework, beginning with the conquest of Spain by the Visigoths.

That far back? Yes, in order to understand the complex historical relationship of Spain and Africa that culminated on an island in the New World. That process was shaped by non-musical events such as Congolese religious practices, Havana’s 19th-century secret societies and of course the Cuban Revolution, and Sublette covers these extensively in his carefully-researched volume, the first complete history of Cuban music in English.

Culture develops in the spaces created by society and empire, Sublette says. That’s why an understanding of American music would be incomplete without knowledge of the Holiness Church, the Great Depression, and the struggle for civil rights. And that’s why our grasp of Cuban music depends on familiarity with key events in its history. But general readers need a unified, compelling narrative, and Sublette’s story is so burdened by its broad scope that it wavers, presenting more information than readers can use.

Sublette is at his best when he’s using detail to reveal the emotional and cultural impact of the music at peak historical moments, such as the liberation of African drums in the ’30s that preceded the new constitution of 1940 which outlawed racial discrimination. Those who want basic answers instead — What’s a rumba? Who should I listen to? — might do better with the compact Rough Guide to Cuban Music.

To experience music in context, though, nothing beats the sights and sounds of film, and an excellent three-hour historical series narrated by Harry Belafonte, The Roots of Rhythm, came out in ’97. Unfortunately, Bridge to Havana falls short of showing much of Cuba beyond street scenes and vintage autos, and the bridge appears to be a one-way street when, with a few exceptions, northerners receive the most screen time and much of the music sounds like American radio with occasional Spanish lyrics. Perhaps the filmmakers believed American audiences needed the familiar faces of, for example, Dave Koz, Gladys Knight, Montell Jordan, and Mick Fleetwood. They never do explain why these musicians were selected, either.

But the goal was contact, and all testify to the life-changing power of sharing the island’s music and culture, as do the film’s best performances — “Esto Es para Gozar” and “Vacilon,” for instance. Overall, “Bridge to Havana” projects hope and affirmation.

That was 1999. What a difference five years have made.


Bridge to Havana, 11 p.m. Monday, KOPB.

Available on DVD from Pyramid Music Corp.

A colorful effort, at the height of Cuban-U.S. exchange in 1999, to bring together musicians from the U.S. with their Cuban counterparts during a week in Havana, where they composed and then performed their collaborative work at the National Theater for this live concert film.


Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo

By Ned Sublette

University of Chicago Press, $36.00, 688 pages

The complete, comprehensive and gloriously complex story of the development of Cuban music and its effects on the United States.


Roots of Rhythm with Harry Belafonte

Cultural Research and Communication, Inc. 1997

A colorful, informative and accurate three-hour video tape series showing how the music of Cuba developed. Full of great music and dance.


The Rough Guide to Cuban Music

By Philip Sweeney

Rough Guides Ltd., 2001, 350 pages, $11.95

A compact, 5-1/2″x4″ volume with brief descriptions of Cuban musical styles and eras with photos and extensive notes on recommended albums.


The Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin American Music in the United States

By John Storm Roberts

Oxford University Press, second ed., 1999, 294 pages, $14.95

For years the best analysis of the intricately tangled threads of cross-cultural influence, it covers more than Afro-Cuban styles.

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