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Buena Vista Social Club
Critics, self-criticism, and the survival of Cuban Son - 
November, 2000
by Eugène Godfried
Caribbean specialist
Radio Habana Cuba
Radio Progreso Cuba (1)

Many observations, speculations and thoughts are continuously being expressed for almost three years now on the phenomenon Buena Vista Social Club. In all the many countries that I have recently visited -- Guadeloupe, the United States, France, Holland and England -- the question is repeated whether I know the musicians of Buena Vista Social Club, and whether they are just as popular in Cuba as they are abroad. People who have been following the developments with regards to Cuban popular dance music for many decades ask me whether this music is still being played in Cuba. This is especially so when they compare Buena Vista’s music to the type of musical expression they have been faced with coming out of Cuba for the last forty years.

I hear favorable remarks and expressions of enthusiasm all over not only for Buena Vista Social Club, but also for the Afro Cuban All Stars, Cubanismo and even more so for the success of 94 year old Francisco Repilado, better known as Compay Segundo.

In Cuba, some are looking at this international development embracing the Cuban Son and its long-standing Soneros and are adopting defensive attitudes. However, a significant group of concerned citizens rejoices for the triumph of the most representative and authentic expression of Cuban cultural identity as far as popular dance music is concerned.

The dialogue on the phenomenon of Son has to continue and many reasons are obliging me to take part in this world debate on Cuban music and the African presence in its profile. After reading the article published on August 14, 2000, in Granma, written by my colleague Pedro de la Hoz, I was convinced that I should relate some reflections concerning this topic.

As an outright defender of the Cuban popular dance music rhythm complex Son, it is my intention to discuss the reality from a wide perspective. I am not at all interested in criticizing the producers of Buena Vista Social Club based on any artificial nationalistic considerations. Neither do I want to agitate against innovators in whatever cultural manifestations. I would like to put the sequence of events that led to the success of the soneros in Buena Vista Social Club in their correct order and in a certain perspective.

Thanks to international enterprise, the Buena Vista Social Club has caused many cultural policymakers in Cuba to understand the power of Son. Prior to this, these policymakers were ignoring and marginalizing the soneros, whose African rhythms are fused with European melodic styles. Now they understand that Son is untouchable, as is one of its legendary architects, the African Cuban composer, arranger, and tres – guitar player from Guira de Macurijes, Matanzas, Arsenio Rodriguez, who wrote the original song entitled "Buena Vista Social Club."up.gif (925 bytes)

Arsenio Rodriguez deserves a special place in the history of Cuban popular dance music and should never be forgotten by new generations of Cubans, for he contributed a style of music which determined the development of Son both inside and outside his own motherland. One of Arsenio’s major merits was that he has ensured a permanent African presence of the Congolese Bantu and Calabar Abakua components inside the manifestation of the Son, through the lyrics and the introduction in the musical group formations of the percussion such as the ‘tumba’ and the ‘bongoes’. This historical fact was honored in a song that he wrote entitled "Kila, Kike y Chocolate", in which at the same time he pays homage to these three giants of percussion. By introducing the ‘tumba and the ‘bongo’ in the Septet formation which was the predominant formation of the musical groups in the twenties, thirties and the forties, Arsenio Rodriguez conscientiously contributed to establishing a special and clear African touch to the sound and timbre of the Son. This process was made stronger when as a director of his band he added three more trumpets to the usual one trumpet known in the current Septet formations. So from then on we have to speak of a "conjunto", an ensemble of musicians who play together. The instruments are: bongoes, tumba, bass, guitar, tres – guitar, piano, four trumpets, claves, maracas and the voices. The arrangement of the voices is done according to the African pattern of ‘call and response.’ The prevailing genres susceptible to this type of sharp and forceful "conjunto" playing are the son montuno and the rumba disciplines adapted to Son, such as the yambú, the columbia, and the guaguancó. Arsenio Rodriguez’s love for the African rhythms and the African Cuban religious manifestations was so big and wide that he developed a style known as ‘afro son,’ which is illustrated by the legendary anthological title song "Bruca Manigua". Arsenio Rodriguez had various compositions in the genre of romantic boleros. His way of expressing the boleros became known as "boleros machos", literally translated as "male boleros", for their powerful expressions and close harmony in terms of their arrangements both for the instruments as well as for the voices.

Finally, Arenio Rodriguez’s early political as well as African consciousness are expressed in his anthological lyrics "Adorenla como Martí" and "Cardenas".

Thanks to this consciousness of social and political affairs in the Cuba of his epoch, he has sought to mobilize the peoples of the "barrios", the urban quarters of Havana by dedicating a song to a significant number of those "barrios". That was his instrument of consciousness raising for the people of African descent who had a social club in the "barrios" he dedicated a song to. By composing a guaguancó son for those marginalized barrios of people predominantly of African descent, he appealed to their sense of cohesion and gently lit a shining light of hope in their hearts. All these manifestations we are making references to are in pre – revolutionary Cuba and could include the very early period of the revolution, before the private barrio activities and the social clubs were discontinued and transformed. The revolution, as a new social process, decided to introduce the workers’ recreational centers. Trade Unions and other mass organizations were given the management of former country clubs and other type of recreational centers that used to belong to the deposed bourgeoisie to carry out recreational and cultural activities of a new type which were not based on racial lines. According to many of the former participants to the social club in the barrios such as the Buena Vista Social Club and La Union Fraternal in La Habana, this abrupt change, despite its good intentions and projections meant the slow death of Son. Meaning the active disappearance of group activities of people of African descent with their own projection and interpretation of their ongoing reality. Although the societies of the ‘blancos,’ the whites, were compelled to open their doors to accept non Iberian – European – Cubans to their activities, yet the ‘Asociaciones’ de Gallegos, Andaluces, Canarios etc, continue to exist and to perform their own cultural manifestations that are typical of their nationality. That is plainly their right.

Still the people of African descent had to sacrifice their social clubs, which served as a gathering point to meet, discuss and exchange ideas within their social category. The social clubs were also a point for mutual help and for the transmission to newer generations of the legacies of cultural values and norms common to their African nationality living in the Cuban and Caribbean diaspora. Especially, those social clubs provided the instruction of principles and techniques of both the Rumba and the Son complexes and served as important cradles for the development of the young.

Comparing the experience of the existence of the phenomenon of social clubs with other countries of the Caribbean region where we have also known plantation economy, I must say that the phenomenon has existed in several of the societies of the surrounding nations. During post-emancipation days in CuraV ao entering into the twentieth century, social and mutual help clubs were organized for the African diaspora around the initiative of the Catholic Church and could easily be recognized by the names of saints that they bore. Other secular initiatives in the sixties introduced broad based institutions, and the consciousness raising work with regards to the popular cultural expressions such as the ‘tambú’ and the ‘tumba’ as musical expressions of African heritage became a general concern of the society. The decade of the sixties was for the entire region a period of great awakening of consciousness of African values in the entire Caribbean. Many of the earlier ways of assembling people of African descent have been transformed into other mass social organizations. With the appearance of trade unions and political parties in the countries of the Caribbean, one can see that the second half of the twentieth century served to redefine the position of people of African descent. A great deal of time was invested into the rescue of the African heritage and the values and norms of a people living in a multi-cultural society. This is a situation which is characteristic of the entire Caribbean where not one society can ever claim to be homogenous in its cultural identity.up.gif (925 bytes)

My initial experience with popular music in contemporary Cuba

After first arriving on Cuban soil in the seventies, I was amazed by the fact that Cuban music as we knew it in the Caribbean island of Curaçao was not being heard on Cuban radio stations or anywhere else I went.

More surprising and shocking was that when I asked my hosts and friends for music by Trio Matamorros, Arsenio Rodriguez, Conjunto Chappottin, Estrellas de Chocolate, La Sonora Matancera, just to mention a few, I met with complete ignorance. Sometimes there was a direct unwillingness to talk about this matter. On my insistence in knowing the reason for such a reaction, some told me that "esa musica ya no se escucha," meaning, "that music is not being listened to now." Systematically I discovered apathy and rejection concerning the Son music, which people called "chea," "old, ugly, and to be despised." At the same time I began to understand that there was a new style of music that functioned as the official music in revolutionary Cuba. This was the so called "La Nueva Trova."

I was officially asked by the Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos (ICAP), Egrem, CubArtista (now Artex), and the Ministry of Culture to promote this Nueva Trova. I did not know this music, and I tried to promote it on the Curaçao market, but I was completely unsuccessful. I have devoted a lot of time to studying and analyzing the various exponents of this musical style with prominent promoters in Curaçao, and we could not discover any chance of success with the Curaçao dancers who are predominantly of African descent. The people of Curaçao are quite familiar with Cuban Son music and various promoters from that island have long been bringing in top Cuban orchestras, trios, and soloists to perform and entertain the dancers of Curaçao. Up to this very date, one will encounter people who in their homes have a wide collection of outstanding Cuban bands like La Sonora Matancera, Arsenio Rodriguez, Chappottin, Estrellas de Chocolate, Orquesta Aragon, Orquesta America, Orquesta Sensacion, and so on. Many of these did live performances in Curaçao on numerous occasions during the fifties and early sixties.

None of the new styles such as La Nueva Trova or other styles created after 1959, such as the songo by los Van Van, could stand a chance in Curaçao, according to that island’s longstanding and veteran promoter, Angel Job, "El Gordito de Oro". He even rejected a group such as Adalberto Alvarez y Su Son, who did an album devoted to Chappottin’s repertoire, for their lack of fidelity to the basic patterns of Son music.

One wants to know what the problem was. With the triumph of the revolution and the intention to create a new society in the early sixties, the leadership believed that new styles, new sounds, and new timbres were needed to coincide with the process of social change which had just been initiated on the island.

When listening to the new creations, one could notice that the African sound and timbres in the "new" music styles were suppressed. A more diluted music was now being created, upbeat and not respectful of the African dance patterns that were known up until then. Traditional compositions entail genres which have their dance patterns to go along with them. Now, composers started to de-codify these genres and reproduce them as something new, but where the African flavor and color of the music was suppressed. Genres like Bembé, Son Montuno, Guaguanco Son, Afro Son, stemming from the Yoruba, Calabar (Abakwa), and Congolese music in Africa, were hardly heard or were de-codified and transformed into scarcely recognizable expressions. This is a eurocentric approach to culture which is not new to the Caribbean region at all. Whenever trends are coming up saying that the traditional music and dances ought to be ‘modernized’, one always runs the risk that this ‘modernization’ process will imply Europeanization, or EuroAngloAmericanization, of our African Caribbean based rhythms and dance styles.

As a promoter of cultural exchanges in the Caribbean area in general and especially between Cuba and Curaçao, in the Netherlands Antilles, I have tried for several years to promote all the newest Cuban musical expressions and trends across the Caribbean and in Curaçao.

From more than twenty years of experience I can give the following testimony with an open heart. In Curaçao, we had made no headway with a great number of contemporary Cuban groups for the above described reason. The Curaçao audience did not feel that Cuba was producing Caribbean music styles as it used to before 1959, where the African presence in the sound and timbre of the music could readily be recognized. The Curaçao public has a long history of appreciating and dancing Son Montuno, Guaguanco Son, Afro Son, Danzon, Charranga, Guaracha and Bembé, to mention a few. Moreover, Curaçao dancers have long been familiar with such styles not only in Cuban music but also in their own rhythms, the Tambú, Tumba, and Seú, which are of West African, Calabar, and Congo origin respectively.up.gif (925 bytes)

Septeto Sierra Maestra – Young Soneros opening doors in the Caribbean

Angel Job, the long standing promoter from Curaçao, whom we have mentioned before, asked me in the seventies and the eighties on several occasions to intermediate on his behalf in contracting Conjunto Chappottin y sus Estrellas to come and play in Curaçao in his establishment "Isla Verde". He insisted so much in having the ensemble come to Curaçao, since the founding leaders Felix Chappottín and Miguelito Cuní were still alive, but were already aged men. I did all that was possible to find Conjunto Chappottín y sus Estrellas in Cuba. It is terrible to say that employees representing official institutions of culture misinformed me constantly even to the point of making me believe that the band did not exist anymore and that the leaders Felix Chappottín and singer Miguelito Cuní were longtime dead. It is unfortunately to have to relate these types of occurrences which were intentionally done in order to stop the process of direct contact with world renown soneros and to persuade me to make Mr. Job contract other type of musical groups doing so called "modern" and "new" stuff. Mr. Angel Job, an experienced businessman, rejected all counterproposals sent to him from Cuba and never contracted any of those groups, which he told me were not doing down to earth African Cuban music. He obviously didn’t want to take any risk and lose his investment afterwards. Mr. Job knew this side of the Curaçao market very well.

I persisted in promoting the music done by the new generation of musicians delivered by the revolution. Searching around I came across a septet of young engineer graduates that had quite some popularity in the eighties in Cuba. The Group’s name was "Grupo Sierra Maestra", and they were very successful with a guaracha, composed by a Commander of the Revolution, who is of African descent, Juan Almeida Bosque. The title of that guaracha was "Dame Un Traguito Ahora", ‘Please give me a drink now’. Grupo Sierra Maestra paid hommage with their style and repertory to legendary sonero Ignacio Piñeiro of the Septeto Nacional.

In the month of July, 1989, there was a cultural exchange program between Cuba and Curaçao which was coordinated by the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples, ICAP, and its counterpart in Curaçao, KOMITE PA AMISTAT i SOLIDARIDAT KU PUEBLONAN, (KASP), meaning in Curaçao’s papiamentu language, the Committee for Friendship and Solidarity with the Peoples. As part of this exchange, Grupo Sierra Maestra was invited for a week’s performance in that Caribbean island.

How did the Curaçao’s public react to the unknown and young Grupo Sierra Maestra?

Their first performance took place at "Hofi Bill" located in an area called Yotín Kortá, where they played alternate sets with a local orchestra called Arnell i Su Orkesta. The dance place was full with dance couples who were dancing on the tunes of Arnell i Su Orkesta, which was playing predominantly Cuban Son. On the other hand, they were not dancing when Grupo Sierra Maestra was playing. From a commercial standpoint that was dangerous for the continuity of the Group’s remaining itinerary, which we were just beginning.

I called the musical director of the septet Grupo Sierra Maestra, Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, to the side and we analyzed the situation. We were trying to find an answer as to why the public was not dancing with the Cuban group, but was not dancing with the Curaçao group that was playing Cuban Son Music all the time. Juan de Marcos told me after a while of reflecting that he thought he knew the answer. He told me that the reason was that Arnell and his Orchestra of Curaçao were playing Arsenio Rodriguez’s style, which was not too fast and upbeat, but the compositions were carried out in a more relaxed manner. Besides, they were not playing fast and upbeat guarachas all the time, like Sierra Maestra was doing, but they put more emphasis on Son Montuno, Guajira Son, Guaguanco Son and romantic Boleros. I told my friend and brother Juan de Marcos that I appreciated his observations a lot. Its is absolutely true that Arsenio Rodriguez, Chappottín, Estrellas de Chocolate, have left a significant imprint in the musical consciousness and taste of the people in Curaçao. But, I knew from my own experience that such was also the case in many other places like New York and elsewhere in the USA, Puerto Rico, neighboring Venezuela, Colombia and Panama.

Well, Juan de Marcos assured me that as musical director of Grupo Sierra Maestra he would hold special rehearsals the following morning and that he would adapt the arrangements to make them meet with the flavor of the music of Arsenio Rodriguez. That was precisely what happened and it was a delight to witness the response of the public and how the attendance at the parties increased day by day. Sierra Maestra became the first successful contemporary Son musical group from Cuba to play in Curaçao, the Caribbean.

That significant experience led to new avenues for Grupo Sierra Maestra and his musical director, my friend and brother, Juan de Marcos Gonzalez. Some years later, in 1995, the group issued a CD that was a great success, featuring Arsenio Rodriguez’s "Dun Dun Banza", "Cangrejo fue a estudiar", "No me llores mas" and Ignacio Piñeiro’s "Mi guajira son". All these four tunes became great hits in Curaçao, and the Netherlands Antilles, especially the song "Cangrejo fue a estudiar", won the simpathy of that island’s dancing and music loving public for many months.

Curaçao was among the first countries to contribute to honoring the Cuban Son music and also to open up the way for the young generation of Cuban soneros to achieve international success. This was undoubtedly the case with Sierra Maestra, whose tour I and others had helped to promote on that Caribbean island in 1989.

With pleasure we see today that this process continues and has been enhanced when Juan de Marcos Gonzalez got in contact with Ry Cooder and developed the project Buena Vista Social Club. Juan de Marcos and I on various occasions have shared thoughts on the situation of contemporary music in Cuba, which has turned to be an unrecognizable expression that has nothing to do with our way of writing and saying music. We both were very much preoccupied with the fact that the radio program producers on all major national radio stations were not promoting Son groups and Son music. Those radio show producers were deliberately promoting the music of a ‘new elite,’ comprised of not more than 10 groups. I’m referring to groups like Adalberto Alvarez y su Son, Juan Formell y los Van Van, Isaac Delgado, La Charanga Habanera, NG La Banda, Paulo FG y Su Elite, to mention a few. These ‘elitist’ groups were producing a music with arrangements of almost the same style, and as far as the lyrics were concerned they were very rude compositions. This was an offense to the idiosyncrasy of an eminently Caribbean people like the Cuban people and called for heated public debates which provoked interventions by the leadership of the Federation of Cuban Women, the FMC. This prestigious woman’s organization expressed severe complaints against these new trends for being quite disrespectful to women in their lyrics.

This whole phenomenon in the history of Cuban history has caused many discussions and unpleasant feelings among our colleagues, music lovers, and promotional and broadcasting professionals, so we have to describe some developments that contributed to its existence.up.gif (925 bytes)

To begin with certain of these groups mentioned above for more than thirty years have been chosen or selected based on political criteria to actively create a new sound and timbre in the Cuban Son music. I must reiterate when analyzing critically their production that I cannot help but conclude that the African taste in the sound and timbre was either lost or suppressed. Former bass guitar player and arranger for Elio Revé’s Orquestra, Juan Formell, who later formed his own orquestra ’Los Van Van’, was assigned the task to create new rhythms, and came out, among others, with the ‘songo’. The songo has everything to do with the son, charanga, and other imported musical tastes like the ‘cumbia’ of Colombia. To be considered a genre it is imperative that a particular rhythm has transcended and caught on in other latitudes of the world. Such a criterion could be said of the ‘cha cha cha’, created by Enrique Jorrín, the last Cuban genre to transcend and immortalize itself successfully. No one else thereafter could be given that honorary position.

As the deliberate silence of Son on the media continued, with the argument that the ‘new’ expressions ought to be promoted, and the Nueva Trova and other creations such as the songo were actively replacing and transforming the tastes of the Cuban youth, new inventions took place.

After certain entrepreneurs in New York and musical groups from elsewhere were filling the gap in the sixties and seventies by playing Cuban Son, but calling it "Salsa," new policies were developed inside of Cuba to counteract that situation. At first there was a distance and dislike for the manifestation in the United States termed "Salsa." Still the producers of Salsa from New York to Puerto Rico, Venezuela, CuraV ao, Panamá, Haiti and other countries felt a need to conquer the international market and the likes of the world public. Then something unheard of took place. The same official institutions of cultural policies and the mass media decided to start calling this music, produced by Juan Formell, Adalberto Alvarez, Pachito Alonso, La Charanga Habanera and other "elitist" musical groups, "Salsa Cubana", meaning Cuban Salsa, as distinct from "New York Salsa".

Criticism intensified on radio programs such as "Un Domingo con Rosillo" of Radio Progreso, the only Son program in the national territory which is actively intended to promote the Son as Cuban cultural identity . Other sectors got involved in the discussion between Cuban Son and so – called Cuban Salsa on the national level. And then came the grand success from the international podium of Compay Segundo, Cuarteto Patría of Santiago de Cuba, La Vieja Trova Santiaguera, Afro Cuban All Stars, Buena Vista Social Club, Cubanismo, etc.

The promoters of Cuban Salsa were definitely taught serious lessons, but they remain persistent. Their urgent objective became to seek new ways and forms to try and safeguard the privileged positions they had obtained through selective preferential treatments and mechanisms granted to them by different entities within the the state apparatus. Consequently, they attempted to carry out a name change for their production. No longer were they Cuban Salseros producing Cuban salsa, but now they out of the blue they became "Timberos" playing "timba". A very spectacular move, but not isolated and much less innocent. This attitude is not unique and has its explanations. In so doing the exponents of this kind of music grasp the African Cuban cultural legacy known as rumba. A ‘timba’ in its original sense and meaning is a spontaneous gathering in popular urban locations of rumberos to play, sing and dance rumba, as an established recognized manifestation of African Cuban heritage. It is an orderly manifestations with its rules which are recognized and adhered to by the participants. The Euro-Iberian elite in Cuba, of course, have historically looked down on that manifestation and have always referred to it in deprecatory terms to this day. Just like any other gathering of partying people both with the elite or the masses, the rumba, or timba, also knew moments in which one or another participant could misbehave or break a rule. The despising and rejection of the rumba by the elite is a product of lack of tolerance and hegemonistic tendencies which are characteristic of the ruling circles towards any African manifestation in the colonies.

Miguelito Cuní, legendary lead singer of Conjunto Felix Chappottín says in the song

"Guaguancó a los Rumberos:

Yo me acuerdo de estos Rumberos
Yo me acuerdo de estos Timberos,
Que en mi Cuba cantaron Guaguancó
Yo me acuerdo de Manana
Andra Baró, Omo Oba Tubakó
I remember those Rumberos
I remember those Timberos
Who in my Cuba sang guaguancó
I remember Manana
Andrea Baró, Omo Oba Tubakóup.gif (925 bytes)

Timberas and timberos is a serious popular cultural manifestation which since the 19th century has been the property of those great men and women living in the urban and rural areas of Matanzas and La Habana. These cultural ambassadors were the ones who have contributed to shape the rumba complex into an everlasting cultural manifestation of African Cuban heritage. No movement could rationalize their existence by clinging to an important historical manifestation such as the rumba and in so doing deform the original sense of its meaning. This could mean an offense to the sentiments of the participants to the rumba complex and its convinced ‘timberos’ like the unforgettable Chano Pozo. It is a repetition of Eurocentric attitudes to again be imprecise with African features and to interpret African manifestations no matter how sloppily. Worse of all is that African manifestations can be arbitrarily brought out of their context, even employed as a justification for whatever is considered vulgar and disorderly.

The case of this new trend incorrectly called ‘timba’ becomes more serious when this current has been stimulated by institutional promotions entities in Cuba to exclude and prevent the Son from its natural development for progress. The confusion becomes ever greater when it is being promoted as an ‘Afro - Cuban’ manifestation, which in my view it is not at all. On one occasion, in 1990, I had a dispute with one another cultural promotions manager of "La Cecilia", who was then in charge of that nightclub restaurant located on 5th avenue of the formerly posh Miramar district in Havana. The argument centered around the fact that that promotions manager did not want to accept my proposal to contract well known Son groups such as Conjunto Estrellas de Chocolate and Conjunto Felix Chappottín to play in that tourist dollar oriented center. His response was that he strictly preferred ‘new’ bands that played the so called ‘Cuban salsa’ or ‘timba’, which he defined to be ‘Afro - Cuban’ music. I told him that having a group of youngsters of African descent playing in a band does not mean that they are playing either African or Cuban music. African music is the product of a logical historical development and its creations are the property of the entire people. Whenever changes are required or need to be implemented according to any change agent, then it is obligatory that the efforts and contributions of so many wise men and women who were active before that change agent be recognized and respected.

There is a lot of confusion in that regard and I was faced with it constantly. For instance, on another occasion this time in 1992, I went to discuss matters of promotion and cultural exchanges with the promotions agency called Artex in their new building in Miramar. The two functionaries who attended me then, a woman and a man, were totally deaf to my requests and interest for Son groups. The most they could do was to offer me "la Original de Manzanillo", a group from Granma Province under the leadership of Pachi Naranjo that I admire, especially as sonero Candido Fabré is the group’s lead singer. During the rest of the conversation I was being offered many unknown artists and groups, which in commercial terms were hard and costly to promote in the Caribbean. Among the groups that those functionaries were persistently trying to sell to me was "la Charanga Habanera". The woman told me additionally with a smile on her face that those boys were still new then, and that "son unos negritos feítos, pero hacen algunas cosas interesantes en el escenario" , ‘they are some ugly little blacks, but they do some interesting things on stage." I said to myself, we have a long way to go, the promotion of artists and groups is being done on the basis of negative selections suiting Eurocentric prejudice and ‘stereotypes’ of musicians of African descent. I told myself again that this will only provoke great problems in the Cuban music profile. The way this tendency of innovation, change, and modernization is handled on the basis of what I just heard by executive functionaries of cultural policies like Artex can only drive us into big cultural confusions and distortions in the behavior of the youth. Moreover these expressions were not far away from all that the world had experienced in the earlier years of Jim Crow.

Returning to our discussion on the intervention of the Federation of Cuban Women, the FMC, to halt the process of deformation of the youth with lyrics that in some cases promoted what was officially considered the ills of the capitalist consumer’s society, I concluded that the FMC’s motion was very timely and fortunate. The situation in the country demanded that a body with authority exercise its influence on policy makers who up to then were either immune or were supporting that ongoing process of cultural deformation.

What explanation could there be for this attitude of those authorities? Could it in the best case be ignorance, or was it in the worst case a sign of shameful opportunism?

One has to understand that since those ‘elitist’ groups were benefiting from all the promotions they were receiving from official cultural institutions and also from a big portion of the mass media, they were in the position to travel abroad and bring back hard currency to Cuba. That in itself could assure them a significant position in society, Possessing hard currency in the "Special Period", the economic crisis period officially recognized by the government in 1990, could make any individual or group gain importance in the society. Therefore we can consider those ‘elitist’ groups in the period that they have reigned in Cuba to be nothing more than ‘crisis groups’.

It is an undeniable fact that Soneros either young or older did not have an opportunity on the local media in that period. Both radio and television and other official institutions started to promote the terminology "salsa" for Cuban music, to the extent that even the national television started to present a weekly music program called "Mi Salsa". Total confusion was created especially when, in an annual talent show, the very contradictory sentence was launched: "Mi Salsa buscando el Sonero", meaning "Mi Salsa looking for the sonero". Fortunately, this program has been taken off the air for over a year now.up.gif (925 bytes)

 "Un Domingo con Rosillo" – Sundays from 3 to 6 p.m on Radio Progreso

Up to now we have been talking about efforts and contributions made on the international level to promote son and that led to successes as Compay Segundo, Buena Vista Social Club and others.

I must say that around 1991 I had decided to stop listening to Cuban radio. The reason was that one night I was listening at my home in Santos Suarez to a music program on one of the radio stations when a woman announcer was comparing ‘music from before’ as she termed it, meaning to say music from before the revolution, to contemporary music. Her propagandistic zeal brought her to make one funny comparison after the other trying to make the point that contemporary music was of a higher quality and moral standard than music produced in the capitalist era. She went on saying that, during the capitalist era in Cuba, the compositions and the arrangements were dictated by the record industries and that the texts were banal. To my great surprise the individual went so far as to illustrate her position with a tune done by Beny Moré. That was absolutely enough for me, I thought I had been taking too many insults over the years with regards to Cuban Son, expressed by officials and semi-officials, and this went much too far. I would not accept any disrespect for monuments of popular dance music like Beny Moré, Barbarito Diez, Chappottín, Cuní, and Abelardo Barroso, who were all of African descent. But, it should be clear for anyone that neither would I accept any sign of lack of respect for soneros of Ibero-Hispanic descent such as Roberto Faz, Robert Espí, Orlando Vallejo, and my personal friend Lino Borges, just to mention a few. Upon that disaster being aired that night on the radio, I decided to quit listening to radio altogether in Cuba.

A couple of years later, one quiet Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1993, I was hospitalized in Hospital Hermanos Ameijeiras, recovering from an operation after a car accident in Havana and I had time to listen to the radio again. My mates and some nurses and other personnel on the ward in Hospital Hermanos Ameijeiras were listening to a show that was dedicated to Arcaño, of Orquesta Arcaño y sus Maravillas, who had just passed away that day. I started to pay attention as the program director and his guests were talking about the life of Arcaño and other fellow musicians of his era, and they were playing beautiful danzones out of the repertory of the unforgettable Arcaño y Sus Maravillas. I was pleasantly surprised, for indeed I almost came to believe that it was a sin to listen to that type of music in Cuba or that I, personally, was either obsolete or lunatic to be in love with Cuban Son.

Another Sunday, I paid attention again and I found out that the show was dedicated to internationally renown Cuban singer Orlando Contreras, who had just passed away in Colombia. I sat straight up to listen well, and was amazed, for Orlando Contreras had been absolutely taboo in Cuba for the longest while. It was delightful to hear the sharp near to falsetto voice of Orlando Contreras on a Cuban radio station. Before that show it was something totally unthinkable.

My apathy had come to an end. I started to inquire after the name of the show, the radio station, the name of the producer and director of the show. It was Radio Progreso, the show was called "Un domingo con Rosillo", meaning "A Sunday with Rosillo", and the director and producer’s name was Angel Eduardo Rosillo Heredia. The following day, Monday, I asked permission from the hospital and I went to Radio Progreso to meet with Eduardo Rosillo, as he is known to the people of Cuba.

Our first encounter became the opening of a longstanding friendship in which I have learned a lot from "Maestro Rosillo." As soon as I was officially released from the hospital, he invited me to his live show in which I had a brief intervention on the music of Curaçao as well as the love of the people of Curaçao for Cuban Son. We said goodbye to the audience with a tune by Curaçao’s star group "Doble R SSS."

After listening carefully to my interests and to the objectives of my research on Cuban popular dance music within Caribbean dimensions, Maestro Rosillo got very enthusiastic. He opened his heart and showed me the way from Guantánamo to Pinar del Rio, and we have held many hours and days of dialogue to date.

In the same year of 1993, we were visiting Carnival in the province of Guantánamo and sharing a succulent meal in Hotel Guantánamo with our host Peter Hope, who is a Cuban of Barbadian and Haitian origin. In that conversation we saw the need for systematizing my participation and contribution to the program "Un domingo con Rosillo". I was to highlight Caribbean cultural affairs in general and Caribbean music in particular. We then decided to create a section on the Cultural Identity of the Caribbean in the show, which started officially the following Sunday as we were back in the capital of Havana again.

"Un Domingo con Rosillo" is a program conceived and aimed at promoting Cuban popular dance music, the Son. With the introduction of my Section on the Cultural Identity of the Caribbean, we have enhanced the focus and the reach of the show. For now we are talking about Cuba as part of the wider Caribbean Identity. Up until that moment the terminology "Caribbean" in itself was almost unheard in Cuban media. We had to persist in familiarizing the audience with information every Sunday about one or another Caribbean nation from a cultural perspective and also in playing the most authentic representation of the musical anthology of that nation. That meant, when we spoke about Trinidad and Tobago, we explained and played the Calypso; Haiti, compas-direct; Guadeloupe, Martinique, Zouk; Dominica, Cadence or Bouyon; Curaçao, the Tumba.up.gif (925 bytes)

Eduardo Rosillo is one of the most knowledgeable and informed authorities on the history of the Son music in Cuba. No wonder that his production "Un domingo con Rosillo" has won so many awards by the Ministry of Culture. His persistence in offering the microphones of Radio Progreso to Son groups from the interior of Cuba has made him gain the heart and love of the Cuban audience. When other program directors do not promote musicians from the various provinces of Cuba that play outstanding Son music, those musician of all colors know that they have a space with us in "Un domingo con Rosillo"

When Compay Segundo first became a hit some four years ago in Spain and France, he was then hardly known to the new generations of Cuban youth. It was on a Sunday that Rosillo invited Compay Segundo and his son to the show. As special guests of the show, they were asked to talk and explain to the Cuban audience the great success that their quintet had had in Spain, France, Belgium and Holland. Step by step Rosillo continued to augment the promotion of the then 90 year old Compay Segundo and made Chan Chan a hit inside of Cuba for the first time. I must emphasize that all this was done after Compay Segundo was already successful on the international platform with Chan Chan and other songs.

In December of 1995 I took Maestro Angel Eduardo Rosillo y Heredia to Curaçao where he accompanied the Conjunto Chappottín y sus Estrellas on their tour of that island. Among the many impressions that he appreciated with regards to Curaçao people’ love for Cuban Son music, he enjoyed the fact that Cuban septet Sierra Maestra was having four hits in that sunny island from their CD "Dun Dun Banza". Maestro Rosillo was persuaded by the idea of Curaçao as an important transshipment haven for Cuban Son music to the world.

As soon as the initiative of Juan de Marcos Rodriguez, former musical director of Sierra Maestra, and now with Ry Cooder and Buena Vista Social Club, became known, the program "Un domingo con Rosillo" was put at the disposal of all those involved to promote this new project. Several Sundays were devoted to Buena Vista Social Club when there was still no notion at all in the Cuba of this great success.

This initiative to mobilize longstanding musicians to participate in the Buena Vista Social Club project, as well as similar enterprises such as Afro Cuban All stars, responded to a need to recuperate lost terrain, for indeed those talents for a long while had become insignificant inside the domestic cultural panorama. It is proven that they still had a lot to give to the domestic and world public, especially to the newer generations.

These experiences show that what the program "Un domingo con Rosillo" had persistently stood for during many years became reality. The Son is vibrant and is delighting the music and dance taste of the international public.

Son is Cuban cultural identity, and has always been respected, loved and cherished by Cuba’s friends in the world. The Son is the Cuban passport and should never have undergone aggression and near extermination in its own birthplace.

New trends, styles, rhythms, and genres of popular dance music cannot be created in laboratories. Changes in styles and new creations in terms of rhythms and genres are developments which comes from down up and not otherwise. The masses determine where, when, and why they produce new rhythms and genres. Any other manifestation contrary to this genuine dynamic process will not last.up.gif (925 bytes)

ACSON in Action for Son

Going back again to the year 1994, on one occasion I remember sharing views with Maestro Eduardo Rosillo on the state of Son music, which was not being sufficiently promoted in the media in Cuba, and other related affairs. Part of this was a shame that we had to go through when visitors came from abroad and visited Cuba, looked for a place to enjoy authentic Cuban Son music, and that could not be found.

In those days Hotel Riviera had converted the Copa Room nightclub into a dance hall called "El Palacio de la Salsa". That was a place of great concern that bore the name ‘salsa’ to begin with and furthermore was a nest of prostitution and other illicit activities that was more of a shame to Cuban popular culture than anything else. That spot was directed into drawing out foreign currencies from tourist and foreigners.

I told Maestro Rosillo that still there is a need for such a place where for example ambassadors, business men, cultural guests of all disciplines can go and visit and meet with the Cuban people to enjoy real Cuban popular dance music, the Son. What if we could initiate a project to first assemble soneros, musicians and non musicians, musicologists and non musicologists to come together and form an association or platform for cooperation to restore Son to its just position. The second objective of such an entity must be to create a Palacio del Son.

Maestro Eduardo Rosillo adopted this idea entirely and we started to invited different personalities to debate on the subject until a draft proposal was sent to the official organs to approve the creation of the "Asociación de Cultores del Son", Acson, which means, the Association of Cultivators of Son. This project is waiting at the Ministry of Justice for its final approval.

An offspring of this idea where the need to construct a Palacio del Son or anything similar, came into being through another initiative to construct "la Casa del Son Eduardo Rosillo" in calle Vapor 134, in the historical quarter of Cayo Hueso, in Havana. With popular support and voluntary cooperation of thousands of soneros, an old compound was cleaned up and prepared for restoration in order to house this home of the Son in the future.

We hope that Maestro Angel Eduardo Rosillo y Heredia’s, who is now climbing up in his seventies will be blessed with many more years of life to be able to see his dream come true. La Casa del Son is pending the launching and execution of official construction works. Friends from many countries of the world as well as local soneros have granted donations in support of this project that, based on the popular enthusiasm shown, has proven to be of great necessity in the capital of Havana and other areas in Cuba.up.gif (925 bytes)

Conclusion

Many efforts have been made over the years from many sides both on the international level and the domestic level to defend and promote the Cuban Son.

We should always acknowledge the efforts made by European promoters from Spain, France, Belgium, and Holland to Great Britain, who persistently support and find means to open up ways for the Cuban Son on the international platform. In Guadeloupe and Martinique, in the eastern Caribbean, where French is the official language and Kreol the people’s language, promoters have long been active in promoting the authentic popular dance music from Cuba. I have spent this year 2000, altogether six months in Guadeloupe and Martinique trying to acquaint myself with those island’s peoples attitude with regard regional Caribbean rhythms, in general, and, in particular to Cuban Son . It is amazing to see the immense love and knowledge that these people possess for the several genres of the Cuban Son, e.g. the charanga, the son montuno and the guaguancó son. Guadeloupean and Martiniquean dancers also embrace the Cuban bolero. The bolero is a romantic binary music style created towards the end of the 19th century in Santiago de Cuba by a Cuban of African descent, Pepe Sanchez.

Buena Vista Social Club is a rising star in the broad cultural heavens and is a serious warning to all those who have tried to push this people’s manifestation, the Cuban Son, into oblivion.

All those musicians, composers, and bands who were either in or on their way to the graveyard in Cuba ought to be brought back to the scene, they have an art to display to younger generations of musicians and music lovers.

Destroying the Son could only mean a genocide to the peoples who produced this noble expression during centuries. These include to begin with the native Tainos, whose influence is felt in the early genres changüi, nengón and the guiribá while the names of their instruments maracas and güiro are still with us today. Other nationalities are the immigrants from Europe, who contributed with their melodic styles, and the descendants of Africans who have cemented the basis with their impressive rhythms, legacies of many African nationalities.

Five hundred years of history in the Caribbean has shown us that that the African immigrants know exactly when their values and norms are being despised by the Eurocentric elite that surrounds them. Their typical attitude during these 5 centuries of interacting with the European component of the various Caribbean societies has been quite peculiar. In order to passively resist treatments that deny their existence as people of African descent they have developed the ability to say yes, yes to the impositions of the dominant Eurocentric elite. Thus, on the one hand they give the sign of acceptance of their defeat. On the other hand, at the end of the day they will still continue to think and do their thing in their own social group. That has been the only way to ensure that their cultural manifestation could survive to a large extent up until present day. This implies that Cuban soneros, young and old, know and understand very well what has taken place to their culture in general and popular music in particular in their own island. For some time, indeed, it was a greater priority for the African sector to work and obtain better housing, free education, medical care and sports facilities. That is why they have actively participated in the struggle for social changes.

For an instance they could accept to consider the state of popular music to be of a secondary priority. Evidently, poor people, especially according to African traditions in the Caribbean, are very grateful to everyone who in one way or another has done something to help raise their standards of living in material terms. Still, it is just as African not to forget those limitations imposed on their group to freely express themselves according to their idiosyncrasy. Even though they would not talk about that situation in public, yet they would discuss that within their own (- African -) environment of confidence. Consequently, we can rest assured that as long as there are people of African descent in Cuba, the Son, a cultural manifestation through which the African segment of this Caribbean island - nation has contributed so much to shape the national cultural identity of Cuba, will be immortal.

With conviction, I have given all my support, energy, finance and health to defend history from the catastrophe of seeing the Cuban Son disappear. I cannot stand indifferently aside and allow this popular expression which is the property of the entire Cuban, and Caribbean people, suffer further defeats. With this clear focus I have coordinated the exchanges of bands like Sierra Maestra, Orquesta Saratoga, and Conjunto Chappottin y sus Estrellas to Curaçao, located off the western coast of Venezuela. In July of the year 2000 I took Grupo Babul of Guantánamo to Guadeloupe in the Eastern Caribbean, where they exposed Kreol – Haitian – Cuban dance, songs, and other folkloric manifestations at the Annual Festival Gwo Ka.

Buena Vista Social Club pays homage to that social meeting point in the dense quarter of Buena Vista overlooking posh Miramar, where there gathered so many talents among Cuban people of African descent that it is a milestone in the struggle for survival of our Caribbean history.up.gif (925 bytes)

There remains a lot more to say as we keep reflecting on this topic. Ideas could be diverse and diffuse, but we need to achieve consensus on the standpoint that those horrendous actions criticized here should never happen again, even when disguised as modernization’.

All the times are modern. As far as music is concerned, we can only distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music. It is also just as deceitful to allow ourselves to be guided by concepts that vulgarly want to divide our culture into ‘traditional’ or ‘modern’. Semantically those concepts tend to imply respectively ‘obsolete’ and ‘rejected’, as opposed to ‘contemporary’ and therefore supposedly qualitatively ‘better’. Culture is the property of the entire people of all generations, in all its broad and rich representations. There can neither be room for hegemonistic approaches nor exclusivist impositions by one social category on the others that are present in our Caribbean societies. In this way the struggle for cultural liberation becomes a continuous movement for higher social consciousness of our peoples in the region.

Compay Segundo, and all the other Stars of Buena Vista Social Club, Afro Cuba All Stars have proven to humanity that our Cuban Son is always young and modern.

In the African Cuban Abakua creole way of maneuvering the Spanish language we say firmly:

"Monina, todo está inventado ya, no hay nada que inventá!!!!’, which stands for,
"Monina, everything has already been invented, there is nothing else to invent!!!!"

Eugène Godfried
November, 2000
Boston, Massachusetts

(1) The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Radio Havana or Radio Progreso

 

 

Linkstop

Buena Vista Social Club

“Sociedades de Negros” 
“Societies of Blacks”

The African Cuban Diaspora’s Cultural Shelters and their Sudden Disappearance in 1959 
by Eugene Godfried

Afro-Cuban All Stars

 

 

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