Calle Neptuno, La Habana, Cuba.
taken by Kazemde George, December 2012
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The following is an account of my experiences and some of my most interesting insights during ten months living in Cayo Hueso, Habana, Cuba; from September 2012 through July 2013. The purpose of my trip was to learn about Cuban music from the perspective of a performer and ethnomusicologist, as well as to learn about Cuban culture and the reality of living in a communist dictatorship. This trip was made possible by Harvard University’s George Peabody Gardener Fellowship which is designed to help graduating students pursue non-academic projects in foreign countries as a means to expand their own interests and overall world-view.
The effective Habana economy
I arrived in Cuba at one of the most interesting times in its history since Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959. Along with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba lost most of its international support and subsequently experienced many years of intense poverty and widespread famine dubbed the “special period.” In 1994 Cuba instituted a two currency system with the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) set equivalent to the US Dollar, and the Cuban Peso (CUP) with an exchange rate of about 25 CUP per CUC. Today, these two currencies mirror the two sides of a split economy. On one side, the Cuban economy, composed of goods and services meant to be consumed by Cubans, and on the other, the international market, made up of goods and services that are often imported and meant primarily for tourist consumption. With such a discrepancy in the value of the two currencies, there exist two effectively separate economies within one country
According to the “Mean Salary in Figures” report published by the National Statistics and Information Bureau of Cuba (ONEI), the average Cuban salary in 2012 was 466 CUP per month, the equivalent of about 20 US Dollars (or 20 CUC). These wages are meant to be spent mostly on goods produced and sold as part of the Cuban economy. Together with rationed goods, and free services (e.g. healthcare), this income is supposed to be enough for the average Cuban to afford basic necessities. There are many cheaply produced goods on the Cuban market which are extremely inexpensive by international standards. These goods are usually fairly low quality, with some exceptions (e.g. coffee, rum, fresh produce and fruit juice). A globalized version of the international market is also at play in Cuban cities, fueled by tourism from Canada, Europe and other parts of Latin America. Cuba produces and imports many products that are bought and sold in CUC at prices comparable with American prices or other western economies.
This dual-currency system creates a tough and complex reality for Cubans who often have a hard time living a life that goes beyond the fulfillment of basic survival needs. What’s more, under Castro’s fairly extreme form of socialism, people in technical, highly trained or professional positions make only marginally more than the average wage. For example, medical doctors only make about $70 per month. In Habana, the tale of the college professor turned taxi-driver is ubiquitous. Such a lack of earning power and opportunity forces most to look for alternative ways to make money on the side. Even with access to a small food ration (bread, salt, eggs, etc.), and the domestic market of extremely cheap goods, $20 per month isn’t enough to live comfortably, only enough to survive.
To make extra money, Cuban people often try to capitalize on the tourist market. One simple way that people are able to do so is by renting out a room and cooking and cleaning for visitors. Due to the discrepancy in buying power of the two currencies, it would be highly profitable for a family to provide such services for $5 a day, for example. Such a fee would result in $150 in revenue per month, several times greater than the average Cuban monthly wage, but would be considered dirt cheap living arrangements for any foreigner used to paying upwards of $50 a night at a hotel. The Cuban government removes the potential for high profits created by this value differential by requiring that expensive permits be maintained by the homeowner in order to rent out to foreigners. It is fairly common for people to rent out rooms to tourists without a permit so that they can charge less and keep all the revenue.
This institutionalized value differential also helps explain the prominence of prostitution, and jineteros, people who hustle tourists by befriending them and asking for gifts or donations. By associating with tourists, Cubans are able to gain access to the high valued currency that they bring into the country. This is also the reason that it is bizarrely profitable to be an artist or musician. Cuban musicians play shows for tourists very often, frequently charging in CUC. In fact, most public events and shows have two posted prices, one for foreigners in CUC, and another for Cubans, in CUP. Most official shows aren’t very lucrative since the government once again takes a large cut of the musician’s revenue. However, gigs for which musicians are compensated in cash rather than through official means allow the musician to take advantage of the disproportionate value of the tourist’s money. This creates a strange situation where musicians and other artists may make more income than most doctors, for example.
As a result of this dichotomous system, Cubans in Habana are inadvertently incentivized to make money outside of official government means. This means that in Habana there is a fully-fledged black-market where goods and services are bartered for or sold in either currency, unofficially. The term black-market sounds nefarious, but in Habana the distribution of hard drugs is limited, and there are almost no guns in circulation even on the black-market since firearms are outlawed. Most of the undocumented transactions I am referring to are things like the sale of food, clothing or art, and services like taxis, room rentals, or repairs. Many of these transactions would be relatively unregulated in most countries.
In Cuba these types of unofficial transactions are punishable by exorbitant fines and/or harsh jail sentences. A friend of mine once tried to rent out a room to a young Colombian traveler for $5 a day. The traveler didn’t pay for his stay, and then went to the police claiming that he had already paid, and wanted a refund. My friend was very lucky and didn’t have to pay the fine associated with renting illegally, but was forced by the police to pay the Colombian hustler in a situation where it was one man’s word against the others. In another similar situation, a friend and I went out walking along the Malecón where we encountered four German women visiting the city for a few days. While we were talking to our new friends, a crew of police came through and rounded up all of the non-tourists from the area. This included myself, since they assumed I was Cuban, but I avoided trouble by showing them a copy of my US passport. The area is known for being a tourist and jinetero hang out spot, so the police had come to prevent potential hustlers from harassing foreigners. My friend was taken to jail that night, and was released around dawn.
The enforcement of laws preventing people from finding alternative forms of income goes even further. Although I never witnessed it first-hand, it is common knowledge that members of the military and other parts of Castro’s power structure often act as spies within the community, alerting authorities to unofficial transactions, sales and expenditures. For example, if someone were to purchase something well outside of their purchasing power, such as a plane ticket out of Cuba or an automobile, that person may be reported as suspicious and investigated by the government.
Other issues with the Cuban system
The overwhelming majority of Cubans face a staggering lack of opportunities to improve their circumstances. Thus far, I have mostly described my perception of the economic reality in the city, but that is not the only thing hindering Cuban people from success:
The Cuban government severely limits access to the internet and outside media sources. There is no circulation of international news and media. Only Cuban new papers and publications are printed, meaning that propaganda messages are distributed ubiquitously. There are only a few points of internet access in Habana. Some privileged families have personal home computers with access to dial-up internet, limited to 30 hours per month, and certainly monitored by the government. Large hotels provide internet meant for tourists where dial-up costs $10 per hour. The other option for Cubans is to connect through specific government communications agencies, schools and other organizations, which have costly and slow internet with use limited to members of those organizations. I had to help a friend navigate the American college application process by sneaking into the Instituto Superior de Arte between 10pm and 4am (the only time that the connection wasn’t burdened with many other users) several nights a week to look up the requirements and deadlines online.
In general, Cuban regulations and laws are often ridiculous. For example, citizens may be jailed for years for the slaughter, sale or purchase of beef on the black-market. Beef is a heavily regulated product in Cuba, probably because the government wants to maintain it’s complete monopoly on the product. They accomplish this by applying a harsher sentence for killing cattle than for killing a man. Another ridiculous law criminalizes jineteros, allowing police to arrest my friend for simply fraternizing with white foreigners. I was on tour with Bobby Carcassés the day that Hugo Chaves died in Venezuela. In response, the Cuban government issued a halt on all festivities, including arts and music events, out of solidarity with the nation of Venezuela, one of Cuba’s critical allies. This meant that our gig that day was suspended, and for a whole week all events were canceled. These kinds of inane decrees and nonsensical regulations make living in the country difficult, and often fairly surreal.
In Cuba, simple errands often involve unnecessary, slow moving bureaucracy. For example, going to the bank to do simple transactions can mean waiting in line for over an hour, and often, random unforeseen circumstances can prevent you from carrying out daily tasks. All too often I have left the house to accomplish a simple task like exchanging money, or buying something, and my destination has been closed due to an apagón (a controlled, but unscheduled power outage), or the specific person I need to deal with is not there that day, or the product I needed to purchase was not available to be bought for some reason or another. As a general rule, in planning a day in Habana, it may be ambitious to attempt to accomplish more than any one errand or task. What’s more, most government offices seem largely corrupt, making money and connections the most effective ways to get any requests moved through.
There are tight regulations on travel, especially internationally. Possession of a passport may seem like an entitlement to people from most countries, but in Cuba it is much more of a privilege than a right. Cubans are required to go through a complex vetting process to determine the true purpose of travel, and to insure the traveler’s return. On January 14th 2013, while I was living in Habana, the Cuban government revised its travel restrictions to eliminate the 30-day exit permits needed to travel abroad, along with other changes. This ruling greatly reduced the cost and bureaucracy involved in international travel, and was considered a historic policy change. However, Cuban citizen’s are still far from liberated to travel as they see fit, primarily due to the cost of a ticket, the cost of a passport ($200), difficulties acquiring visas in the destination country, and all of the many systemic obstacles mentioned above.
Among most Cuban youth there is an attitude of complacent frustration, and the prospect of leaving the island is a nearly universal dream. Fear of punishment from the military power structure is the main deterrent for young people who might otherwise step up to speak out against the dictatorship. For most, the system is an unchangeable circumstance of life. Or as I once saw it powerfully put, on a propaganda poster: “La Revolución, una hermosa eindestructiblerealidad” (trans: The Revolution, a beautiful and indestructible reality).
Benefits of the system
Despite the many economic and systemic issues, there are many positive aspects of this form of communism. Habana is very safe despite the pervasiveness of poverty. This is probably due to the very limited access to guns and hard drugs on the street. There is largely a great sense of community and trust, in part due to an incredible nationalistic pride. Although there is certainly discrimination between white and black Cubans, and even between people from different regions, a singular Cuban identity always helps tie people together. For example, on the bus, strangers will usually help you hold bags during the ride if you have your hands full, children and the elderly often ask strangers for aid in crossing the street, and people give thorough directions if you are lost, and seem to genuinely care about your well-being.
In such an extreme form of socialism, although much of your income goes to the government, you do (at least in theory) receive additional benefits through government programs. No one dies of hunger in Cuba because everyone is provided with basic food rations. Even if you don’t work, you can probably get enough food to survive. A bus ride costs about 1¢, and even poor Cubans can afford to attend sporting and cultural events which usually maintain low prices for locals, even if tourists must pay more. Cuba’s completely free educational and medical systems are both quite impressive considering that Cuba is considered a third-world country. While it is true that the health-care system is often under-equipped to treat the volume of patients, it is still commendable that they offer totally free come-as-you-are treatment for anyone who walks into a hospital or local poly-clinic. Prescriptions are given for medications which may cost only several cents, and even costly surgeries and treatments are offered for free. There have even been sex-change operations carried out in Cuba for people who have verified that they are legitimately transgender or identify with a different gender. Like the hospitals and poly-clinics, schools are usually under-equipped or even rundown, but none-the-less, the literacy rate in Cuba is higher than in the US (Cuba – 99.8%, USA – 99.0%). Teachers and administrators make do with what resources they have to provide access to high quality education in most fields for free.
Music in Habana
The emphasis on quality public education extends to the world of music. In Cuba, children with special interest or skill in music are identified early on in the education process. From the age of eight or ten, selected students are placed on a music education track. These students attend music conservatories where they take music theory and history classes, and have private lessons, and performance exams, in addition to regular academic courses. All of these music conservatories exclusively teach western classical music, and the playing of any religious, American, or “popular” music, including Cuban folk music, is banned or discouraged. I spent considerable time at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), which has departments in Dance, Graphic Arts, Theatre, Music, and Multi-Media with a beautiful green campus in Playa, a suburb of Habana, and El Conservatorio Amadeo Roldán, which is a high-school music conservatory, one of two major conservatories in the city. High-level technical music education from an early age, in combination with strong musical culture and oral tradition within the community, practically eliminates the dichotomy of the well-trained classical musician versus the uneducated folk musician.
Musicians in Cuba are meant to make their money through government “empresas”, or “companies” which document and publicize the musician’s gigs, charge the venues for the musician’s services, and then pay the musicians. This is how the government regulates the musician’s wages, akin to how they require homeowners to register with expensive permits in order to rent out property. It also means that no one gets paid for their official shows until several months later. A degree in music from a school like the ISA is required for membership at an empresa, meaning only classically trained artists are officially allowed to work as musicians. That being said, it is fairly common for people to get paid under the table; even as a foreigner, I got paid for many of the performances that I played in Cuba.
Overall, the musical environment in Cuba is very rich. There are numerous genres of folk and popular latin music which have originated from or been highly influenced by Cuba in the last 200 years. This includes Timba, Salsa, Rumba, Son, Trova, Changüí, Danzón, Cha Cha Cha, Mambo, Bolero, and Musica Campesina or Guagira, as well as forms of West African religious music such as Santería (e.g. Bata drumming), and Abakuá, which are still commonly played by descendants of African slaves on the island. Cuban music is flavored by seemingly endless regional variations. It is incredible to me that such a wealth of musical style could come from a relatively small country. This probably has something to do with Cuba’s history as a main Caribbean port where different cultures came together to exchange goods and ideas, much like New York City or New Orleans, whose roles as major international ports made them important hubs for the development of American music.
Since I had only ten months in the country, I felt the need to focus on only one genre if I planned on making any significant progress in learning to play and understand the music on a deep level. I decided to try to learn the most about Rumba, since that was what had sparked my interest in Cuba initially, when I started listening to recordings by Grupo Afro-Cuba De Matanzas. I identified strongly with the style of music because the heavy emphasis on improvisation seemed akin to the Jazz music which I had grown up playing.
Like Jazz, Rumba represents a firmly established musical tradition which has been thoroughly informed by African rhythmic traditions, European harmonies, and concurrent popular music. But unlike Jazz, Rumba’s ties to West African music are much stronger. It developed as a secular interpretation of ancient Congolese and Nigerian rhythms. Music such as Batá drumming and the music of the Abakuá originated from (and in many cases are identical to) ancient traditions consisting of songs and cycles which are performed to communicate with and praise specific African deities. Unlike in the USA, in Cuba, when the first Afro-Cubans were enslaved by the Spanish and made to work, they were still allowed to maintain some of their language, music, dance and spiritual practices, although in some transmuted form. These enslaved Africans were sometimes allowed to play their drums, sing, dance and worship, but when they were then forced to convert to Catholicism, they re-purposed and disguised these customs as a way of celebrating the different catholic saints through a process referred to as “synchronization.” The new religion that arose is now called Santeria, or sainthood, which today seems to be the most widely practiced religion in Cuba, although the primary religion may officially be reported as Roman Catholicism. Suprizingly, much of the musical and choreographical material associated with Santeria and Abakuá is nearly identical to that of their African originators.
Rumba music has a lot in common with these sacred African forms, featuring similar instrumentations, and lots of common material, but the purpose and function of the music is totally different. Unlike the ceremonial musical styles from which it originates, Rumba is considered popular music and often functions as party music; in Cuba, the word “Rumba” is literally synonymous with “party”. Rumba dance is playful, competitive, and often very sexualized with traditions like the blatantly sexual dance, “El Vacunao.” Rumba singers often do covers of popular songs and improvise vulgar lyrics. That being said, modern Rumba finds its heritage in Batá drumming and Abakuá, even if it has found a much different social context today.
My musical journey in Habana
I began my private studies with my percussion teacher, Lali de la Caridad, learning the basics of conga technique, the clave, and the three different rhythms that comprise Rumba music: Guaguancó, Columbia, and Yambú. After a few months of regular lessons and practice, I was able to sit in on casual Rumba jam sessions, which for me was somewhat of a feat. Rumba is based on improvisation and group interaction within a very specific rhythmic and melodic framework which must be thoroughly internalized. In Cuba, the oral tradition surrounding music is very strong, especially in the more traditional genres. Although you may never see any of the musical material notated in western musical notation, musicians will almost always emphatically correct you (or remove you from your instrument) if you play anything that is outside of the codified style. I imagine that this is the mode by which the music has been passed on for generations, through eras that didn’t have printed music, recordings, or YouTube. But this meant that even just sitting in at an impromptu jam, I had to know exactly what to play.
Much of my sitting in, I was allowed to play the clave, two sticks struck together to play a basic repeated rhythm (the rhythm which is played on the clave is also called the clave), which is the crucial rhythmic basis of any Rumba composition and much of Cuban music. Since the clave is a support part of the rhythm, and doesn’t involve any improvisation, it serves as a good entry point for a beginner. Playing clave is still far from easy, as your role is to be the time-keeper for the whole group. A single misplaced note will garner dirty looks or discouraging shouts from other musicians. I was able to learn much about the intricacies of the music by first picking up the supporting parts, as would be the traditional way to learn many styles of African folk music.
The other primary way that I linked in to the music community in Habana was through playing Jazz. I found it easy to familiarize myself with the Jazz scene by frequenting La Zorra y el Cuervo, one of the two main Jazz clubs in the city. Among young Jazz artists in Cuba, there is a strong culture of musicians attending other players’ performances and sitting in as invited guests; this made it easy for me to play with and meet almost all of the players who perform Jazz in the city in just a few months.
Through this process I was able to meet Robertico Carcassés, leader of the popular fusion group, Interactivo, and his father, Bobby Carcassés, the legendary trumpeter, singer, pianist, percussionist, dancer, and Jazz educator. Interactivo is a group of Jazz and Cuban musicians who come together to make a unique and eclectic style of dance music which blends Cuban musical styles, such as Salsa, Timba, and Rumba, with American forms like Funk, Rap, and Jazz. I met many of the members of Interactivo through playing Jazz, and from there was able to connect with a whole community of Cuban musicians associated with the band. Eventually, I became part of a regular rotating cast of musicians who would come to the band’s shows to sit in. It was almost like I was part of the group. I memorized the horn parts for many of their songs, I could enter their shows for free, and when I showed up, I would always be invited up to play. My interactions with Robertico’s father, Bobby were quite different. I participated in two small tours organized by Bobby in order to take young Jazz musicians on the road. The other students that I traveled with were the top Jazz players at the local music school, Conservatorio Amadeo Roldán. On one of our trips we played at a community center in Santa Clara, about three hours outside of Habana, as part of an event meant to raise awareness about “Los Cinco Heroes”, “The Five Heroes” of Cuba, five Cuban spies who were captured in Florida and remain detained by the USA for years. During a press conference with Bobby’s youth group, I was actually interviewed on the subject of “Los Cinco”. It was one of the many moments when I had to ask myself: “how the heck did I end up here?” It was the same thought I had the day that I went to the Cuban television studio to film a performance to be aired on one of Cuba’s handful of TV channels, with Bobby Carcassés, and Yasek Manzano.
It was through the jam sessions at “La Zorra” that I met Yasek, a student of Wynton Marsalis, and one of the leading Jazz trumpeters in Cuba. After sitting in on Saxophone with his band one night, he invited me to a rehearsal with the group at his family’s home, and I was in the band from then on. We played shows around the city every week, and even went on a short tour to some of the other provinces. It was an amazing opportunity for me to experience the landscape and goings-on in Cuba from the point of view of a working musician.
My personal growth
In my experience, one of the great merits of travel is the exposure to novel experiences which can potentially alter your perspective; this has certainly been true of my time living in Habana. Outside of the music, the biggest thing that I have been forced to re-think is my understanding of the nature of capitalism and communism as socio-economic systems. Communism is no longer just an abstract theory in my mind, as I have gained a keen practical sense of the benefits, deficiencies, and complications of the system, as applied in Cuba. This new context and perspective has allowed me to re-evaluate my own experience living in the American capitalist system.
I also like to think of travel as a means of comparing and contrasting people of the world. When you go to a new country, it allows you to see what aspects of people’s lives change from place to place, and what things seem to be held constant. I interpret the things that prove to be true of people everywhere as the elements which may be fundamental to human existence and culture. I have observed that people everywhere often have analogous customs and tendencies when it comes to family, food, and communication, among other things. That being said, I definitely noticed some big differences between Cuban and American cultures in daily social interaction. I feel that Cuban people tend to be much more open than Americans in their social interactions: more willing to speak their minds, more outward with their emotions, and more tactile in communication. My general experience was that Cuban people reach a high level of trust and closeness between friends in a short time. Americans may expect to have spent a certain amount of time with a person before they would consider that person a “close friend,” and feel comfortable opening themselves up to that person. On the other hand, most of the Cuban friends I made were willing to do things like show up at my house unannounced, or discuss sensitive personal issues, after hanging out only a handful of times. I was also struck by how this tendency toward openness was expressed within the general community. I was amazed and enamored with the way that strangers on the street would often interact in a meaningful way. In my neighborhood in Central Habana, Cayo Hueso, I would frequently make friends with strangers on the street, and it seemed like everyone in the neighborhood knew one another. On the street in Habana, people make more eye contact than in American cities. If someone falls, people come to help. Overall I got much more of a sense that everyone was in it together.
Musically, this fellowship was an opportunity for me to take my unpolished appreciation for Rumba, and develop it into a much deeper understanding of how the music is played, sung, and danced to, how it functions in society, and how it relates to other musical forms within Cuba and throughout the African Diaspora. Improvisation is a cornerstone of both Jazz and Rumba, but they are styles which have completely different musical lexicons. The role of improvisation in the two forms of music is very different. The sole emphasis in Rumba on vocals and percussion has pushed me to begin developing my singing and drumming, both skills which I consider to be crucial to my development as a musical artist. The effect of these new modes of study on my playing, composition, and overall musical conception has been drastic, and more importantly has helped me further develop my own musical goals.
My time in Cuba has helped me form and clarify a new goal that I hope will shape the future of my life and music. It all started with an honest curiosity, and what felt like an inexplicable affinity for Afro-Cuban music. Today I feel that I have succeeded at learning to play the music, in addition to gaining an appreciation for much of its history and social context. I feel like I have developed a whole new lens through which I see (hear) all forms of music. I would like to continue to foster this kind of growth in myself, as a musician and as a person, by continuing to travel and immerse myself in American communities that are heavily influenced by African traditions as a scholar and teacher of music of the African Diaspora. I hope to have the opportunity to explore places like Brazil, Haiti, and West Africa as part of my journey. My ultimate goal is then to be a new innovator as a composer, and performer, and help communities of underprivileged youth through music education.
I would like to extend a sincere thank you to the George Peabody Gardner Fellowship and Harvard University for making this life-changing year possible. I will never be the same person again, and I thank you for it!