Cuban Music: Beyond Buena Vista Social Club [A Lecture]
It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog. I am not as active in the Cuban dance community as I used to be before. I have taken up other projects, focused on other things. You can say I am “burned out,” and you’ll be right.
Lately I have been getting messages from some people, asking if there is anything else new coming. While the answer to that is “No,” I remembered that I had stored this transcript from a lecture I did at the Hispanic Cultural Center in the city of Albuquerque (U.S.) in the summer of 2018. This lecture kicked off their annual Albuquerque Latin Dance Festival, which I would recommend to anybody in a heartbeat.
(I am not saying this because I was invited to the festival. I truly enjoyed myself. Besides the sights, the architecture, and the great food, the people I got to meet there were the best part. At any rate, I digress.)
This lecture is more geared toward music rather than dance. It explores the musical production in Cuba after 1959. I enjoyed writing it tremendously, and I do hope that you find it helpful and that it encourages you to find and listen to Cuban dance music from the period of 1960 to 2000. There are a lot of musical gems out there that do not get played at socials / congresses because they do not “fit” the sounds we are accustomed to dancing today. Yet I think you’ll find them as flavorful and as complex to dance to as any contemporary “timba” song.
Without further ado, here’s the transcript, and I do hope you find the lecture useful.
As we begin this lecture, we first have to talk about the title: “Cuban music: Beyond Buena Vista Social Club”? Why this title? Because it almost always happens that everywhere I go to teach Cuban dance, or when I tell people that I like to listen to Cuban music, people ask me if I like BVSC. And this question has always baffled me. With all the music that has come out of Cuba, why is it that people are always asking me about BVSC? Or more to the point, are people aware that there is more to Cuban music than BVSC?
I don’t have an all-encompassing answer, but I do have some hypotheses that I would like to present to you. The embargo has been instrumental in the way the U.S. people have perceived Cuban music throughout the second half of the 20th century. In the early 1960s, after Cuba declared itself a communist country, and by extent an ally of the Soviet Union, the U.S. imposed an embargo on Cuba. What this meant for U.S. people is that products from Cuba stopped arriving to the U.S., most importantly, for the purposes of this lecture, Cuban music. Some of you may remember that Havana, the capital of Cuba, used to be considered the “Las Vegas” of the U.S. back in the day. This speaks not only to the allure of Havana—which to this day remains a constant for U.S. citizens—but also to the ease with which people could go from one country to the other—something that today is marred by strict regulations and a ton of paperwork. This ability to travel more freely between Cuba and the U.S. meant that Cuban musicians were also performing here; in fact, they were recording here, and under the financial backing of the U.S. market, promoting their music all throughout Latin America. Because of the marketing power of the U.S., Cuban music influenced a lot of the musical production of Latin America, which I will not get into because that would be another presentation. Suffice to say that these pre 1959 sounds—that is to say, the sounds of Cuban music before Fidel Castro took over—were very popular in this hemisphere, and specially the United States. Terms stemming from the Cuban musical tradition, such as mambo, rhumba, and chacha were and intrinsic part of the musical lexicon of this country during these times—and still are if you are a dancer or musician.
What this meant for U.S. exposure to Cuban music was that these sounds—the sounds of the mambo, the chacha, the rhumba, and others—were the last sounds coming from the island that they got to listen to; following the embargo, the island, in the eyes of any U.S. person, sort of went “musically silent.” Between 1959 and the early 1990s, Cuban music went into a relative “Dark Age”. And like the Dark Ages, I don’t use the term to say that nothing was being produced in Cuba, but rather to argue that very little was known about Cuban music production outside of Cuba during these times.
Then, in the late 1990s, guitarist and composer Ry Cooder goes to Cuba in search of African-derived music. Why would he want to go to Cuba instead of any African country to find African music? Only he will know. But if you ask me, I think it’s mostly because he just wanted an excuse to visit what had until very recently been a forbidden place: the city of Havana. At any rate, as he went in search of these sounds, he found instead the lost sounds of Cuba—the sounds that the U.S. public had been exposed to before 1959. He found musicians from that era, musicians who had had their “moment,” so to speak, back then, and with them produced what it is know as BVSC. The album was released in 1997, and won a Grammy the following year, joining Irakere, a band that will be talking about shortly, in being the only two bands of Cuban musicians living in Cuba who would win a Grammy up until that time.
BVSC became such a worldwide phenomenon that shortly thereafter a documentary depicting the process of the production of the BVSC album was released, to major critical acclaim. With the release of this documentary, U.S. people not only got to hear the music of Cuba as many remembered, but also got to see, many for the first time, what had become of the old “Las Vegas” of the U.S., the once luxurious, U.S.-controlled buildings of Havana, now mostly decrepit due to negligence and lack of capital; the 1950s Chevys which somehow were still working and transported people all throughout the city. It was a city lost in time.
I believe that a big part of that success of BVSC is that it spoke to that nostalgia that the U.S. had for Cuba. For BVSC gave the U.S. exactly what the U.S. remembered. The entire project was a revival of pre-revolutionary Cuban music.
Now, before I continue, I would not like to assume that you are all acquainted with BVSC, or its music. So I would like to play a little of one of their songs, and in doing so not only expose you to these sounds that I am talking about, but also to set a sort of guideline as to how I would like to lecture to proceed. This lecture is about music. Given this expectation, I think it would be a very boring one if I just read about music, and not play music. So, throughout this lecture, I will be playing music and switching between playing music and speaking. At any rate, here is an excerpt from the album.
Now, this lecture is not about BVSC. In fact, it is pretty much about everything else besides BVSC. But I did have to contextualize things a little, specially because of the music that you are about to start listening to from now on. For example, this song called “Tremenda Atmósfera”, by a band known as Charanga Habanera, which came out two years before the BVSC album.
Quite different, right? It doesn’t take a music expert to know that these songs are very different. And I mean, very different. And as I mentioned before, this song by Charanga Habanera came out two years before the BVSC album. In fact, as a Cuban who grew up in Cuba during this time, that is the kind of music that I was listening to. I had never heard of BVSC. And in fact, I only heard of it after I arrived here in 2004. This is not to take away from any accomplishments that BVSC may have had. Rather, what I seek to do is to highlight the disparity of what was presented to the world as “Cuban music”—or BVSC—and the actual reality of Cuban music at the time, as many Cubans in the island experienced it. Ry Cooder not only gave us a nostalgia-themed album, he essentially bypassed entire generations of musical production that led to the song that you just listened to.
What I seek to do with this lecture is to “correct the record,” so to speak. I want you to know how much more Cuban music exists beyond BVSC. Indeed, BVSC was a revival project focusing on pre 1959 Cuban music, which assumes that Cuban music at the release of the BSVC album was in decadence—hence the need to revive it. Ironically, it was the furthest from the truth. In fact, I would argue that the 1990s saw one of the most innovative musical productions in Cuba—and certainly what set the standard for what Cuban dance music is today.
The Charanga Habanera song that you listened to did no occur in a vacuum. It wasn’t like Cuban musicians decided to stop producing music after 1959, and then all of the sudden they began producing it again, developing, out of nowhere, completely different sounds. There is a genealogy at work, and to understand how music from Cuba got to be so different in the 1990s from what BVSC would have us believe Cuban music was, we have to take a closer look at what Cuban musicians did after 1959. That is my invitation to you, today.
Because this presentation is focused on the musical production within Cuba following the 1959 revolution, it will not touch on the work of Cuban musicians who produced music outside of Cuban after this date—the most widely known of them being Celia Cruz. The reason for this is two-fold: one, because Cuban musicians who left the island after 1959 are more widely know outside of Cuba, and two: because these musicians, along with many other musicians from all over the world, were not privy to the musical developments that were occurring in the island because of the embargo that the U.S. had imposed. Therefore their music continued to be played along the lines of what musicians outside of Cuba had been doing, prior to 1959, whereas Cubans musicians in the island took a different route—a route which we will be exploring shortly.
The other caveat that I would add is that musical production in Cuba is huge. Huge! It is impossible to cover everything in an hour—all of the musical genres, all of the musicians, all of the developments. It’s impossible to encompass them all. Therefore, this lecture will focus mainly on what Cubans refer to as música popular bailable, or “popular dance music” because, between the years 1959 and 2000, that was what the people were listening to—and dancing—the most. For these reasons, I will be leaving out genres such as the nueva trova—which wasn’t really danceable and had a lot of politically-oriented themes, and also dance music that was more popular before 1959, namely the danzón, the chachachá, and the mambo. The focus will then be in the genre known as son, which to this day is widely played in the island.
Let us, then, begin tracing that genealogy of Cuban music that will help us understand what happened in the 90s in the island. (For a more complete genealogy, see Kevin Moore’s timba genealogy.)
Following the Revolution of 1959, some orchestras and singers left Cuba. The government nationalized all private industry, and the music produced on the island was no longer distributed outside of the country. Because many of their famous orchestras such as the Sonora Matancera had left, their music was considered anti-revolutionary and therefore not allowed to play on the radio—this was the case, too, with Celia Cruz. Personally, I didn’t know who she was until I came to the States. The immediate years following the revolution, therefore, was characterized by the search for more “authentic” sounds of Cuba, something that represented those who had stayed, rather than those who had left. In this wave of musical innovation came very short-lived rhythms such as the mozambique and the pilón, both of them of a more Afro-Cuban orientation.
Let’s listen to mozambique was created by Pello el Afrokán:
Now let’s listen to pilón, which was created by Pacho Alonso:
As mentioned before, these rhythms were short-lived and soon died out. By the late 60s, Cubans were awaiting for the new musical phenomenon. One of the things that the Cuban government set out to do following the revolution was to train high-quality professional musicians by providing better musical education. All over the island, music schools, regional conservatories, and professional schools opened and provided a very high level of instruction. Each student learned to play several instruments, while also studying composition, harmony, and orchestration, in a program of study focused on classical and contemporary music. Knowing this is paramount to understand what ended up happening in Cuba with its popular dance music. Indeed, these highly-trained musicians soon were soon faced with the fact that classical music wasn’t going to “cut it” financially. To make ends meet, they had to play what their schools deemed as “lesser” music; that is, dance music, which was considered by music teachers to be of relatively low prestige.
The first band that benefitted from the new wave of talent was Elio Revé y su Charangón. Elio Revé, a percussionist and a native of the eastern province of Cuba called Guantánamo, had always been a discoverer of young talent. Beginning in 1956, he led a charanga orchestra that can be considered to be the “grandfather” of all musical production that would come later. A charanga refers to a traditional ensemble consisting on traditional European instruments such as the flute and the violin. It was originally used to play danzón, another Cuban genre that was popular prior to 1959, but through several innovations, Elio Revé was able to revolutionize the sounds of the traditional charanga. Namely, he added an electric bass guitar and the metal flute.
Let’s listen to what this sounded like:
Cool, huh? Now, the addition of the electric bass guitar and the metal flute was the work of a young musician who had been recruited by Elio Revé; this musician was Juan Formell. Because of musicial differences, namely because Formell wanted to do things differently than Revé, Formell decided to form his own band in 1969. He called it Los Van Van. The music that he developed was a amalgamation of Cuban rhythms and rhythms from other countries. With Van Van, Cuban rhythms would be combined with pop and funk, and reggae. He created the songo, which he named after the son, a Cuban musical genre, and the U.S. go-go music. Formell was also a big fan of rock and roll, and this is very evident in his early work.
Let’s listen to an early recording of los Van Van, and see how it deviated from the work of Elio Revé:
Los Van Van continued with the tradition of the charanga, which is why the violins are also very salient. In the early 80s, they would incorporate trombones, which came from the tradition of the conjuntos, which we will talk about later.
Cuban music after los Van Van was never the same; from then on, the standard was to mix things up, to rely on the older sounds on Cuba and mix them with the newer sounds coming from abroad. Which is ironic, because while the rest of the world didn’t know what was happening in Cuba, musically, Cuban musicians knew what was happening everywhere else—and most importantly in the U.S.
However, not all orchestras followed this format. The orchestras Ritmo Oriental and Maravillas de Florida, while playing within the charanga, stayed closer to the Cuban sounds and was able to be successful within the island, though not as successful as Los Van Van.
Let’s listen to a song by Ritmo Oriental, produced in the 80s.
Now let’s listen to a song by Maravillas de Florida, also from the 80s. The sounds are very similar:
While Los Van Van remained the top band in the 70s, it would soon meet its match with Irakere. Irakere at first caused a sensation by adding to dance music the batá drums, which are West African drums; the group fusioned Afro-Cuban rhythms and percussion with contemporary sounds. The drums are reinforced by the tumbadoras, or as they are also known, the congas; the guitar and bass are electric, played alongside the piano, the flute and the keyboards. From the beginning, Irakere had one of the most brillas brass sections in history (trumpets, saxophones, and trombone). Whether on brass or percussion, all Irakere musicians are virtuosos, having come out of the musical training instituted by the Cuban government. But what young people really liked best were the electronic effects.
Let’s listen to an Irakere song.
Not so BVSC-like, huh?
The virtuosity of Irakere proved to be both what made the band successful and also slowly disintegrated it. Many musicians left to pursue solo careers, the most known of these ones being the lead trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. Eventually entire the brass section left to form what would be known as NG la Banda in the early 90s, which we will talk about in a bit.
First, however, let’s stay in the 1980s. Because during that decade, another current of Cuban musical production, more along the lines of traditional Cuban music, was in the works.
In 1978, Adalberto Alvarez formed Son 14. Adalberto introduced the trombone alongside the trumpets, which he borrowed from the salsa musicians abroad while maintaining the tres, the traditional Cuban guitar which is used to play son. He used both piano and keyboards and reinforced the use of the cowbell.
Let’s take a listen.
As you can see, the flute and the violins that were so prevalent in the charangas, in the conjuntos are non-existent. Though musicians have later reinvented the format of both types of ensembles, Son 14 set the tone for a more traditional way of playing Cuban music while still staying current and competing with the sounds of the charangas. Many orchestras followed his lead.
Opus 13 is a very good example of this. Opus 13 was the starting point of many musicians that would later on go on to become very famous in Cuba, most prominently Paulo FG, who we will listen shortly. Here’s an excerpt from an Opus 13 song called “Anda y dime por qué” or “Go ahead and tell me why”.
I hope you have enjoyed the musical selection so far. We have a little bit more to cover, but we are almost there.
The year 1987 marked a turning point or rather a logical consequence of the Cuban musical book. Since 1985, a workshop of young musicians and singers from various orchestras sought to define a new type of popular music around a recording project. The main person of the group was José Luis Cortés, also known as El Tosco, or the Rude One. He began his professional career with Los Van Van and then joined Irakere—see how things connect? Following a series of album releases in 1987, in 1988 Cortés and his musicians formed NG la Banda, or the band of the new generation. It had the entire brass section of Irakere, which came to be known as the “brass of terror”, because of the apprehension and anxiety that they could cause other musicians who attempted to play like them. The orchestra’s aim was the aim of the entire younger generation: to use all of the complexity of harmonies and sounds of contemporary classical music to develop and modernize fundamental genres of popular music.
Let’s listen to NG la Banda:
NG la Banda’s influence in the music that followed during the decade was irrefutable. What Los Van Van had begun in early 70s, NG la Banda continued in the early 90s. From their lead, many bands sought to make their own sounds. One of them was Charanga Habanera, which we listened to at the beginning of the lecture.
I will give you two more, so that you can see the extent of the innovation, the virtuosity, and the foreign influences—which is something that BVSC would have you believe, in its revival of its traditional past, didn’t happen. Indeed, in a way, Cuban music has more in common with music from the U.S. than music the rest of Latin America has in common with the U.S. Why in the U.S. we are not listening to more Cuban dance music, given its similarities, I still don’t know. But hopefully that changes through more exposure.
At any rate, here’s an example of Paulo FG, former member of Opus 13, trying to find his sound, just like NG la Banda, in the early 90s:
And here is Klimax, another band of virtuosos that left a mark in the musical production of the island in the 90s, and who is still very much current.
Cuban musical production did not stop in the 90s, of course. I set the 90s as the ending point because BVSC was released during that decade, and also because of time constraints. Since then, there are many other bands that have made their debut, to great critical acclaim inside and outside of Cuba. Some of these bands include: Pupy y los que son son, Maykel Blanco y su Salsa Mayor, and Havana D’Primera, just to name a few. The history of Cuban music past 1959 is extremely rich, yet quite sadly it hasn’t been studied in as much depth as the musical production in Cuba before 1959. There are a lot of reasons for this: the embargo is certainly one of them. Also the rise of salsa obfuscated any close attention we could have been paying to Cuba and its music. I hope that this lecture has enticed you to find more about Cuba and its music and to, of course, go beyond BVSC.