Cuba’s Roberto Gomez had a single night free on his first trip to San Francisco, part of a short performance visit in his role as lead guitarist for singer-songwriter Carlos Varela, often referred to as “The Bob Dylan of Cuba,” and “The Poet of Havana.”
Gomez might have chosen to head to any number of clubs, restaurants or other social gathering places in one of the most vibrant and culturally rich cities in the U.S.
Instead, foremost on his mind immediately after the Varela concert performance was his search for a power cord to his laptop computer.
“I just want to go back to my hotel,” Gomez said, “and watch all the music videos we cannot see at home.”
It’s a common cry from Cuban musicians in particular, and artists in general. State-controlled media in the socialist country is heavily censored, and access to the Internet has only begun, leaving Cubans often feeling isolated from the cultural conversations going on in their culture-dominating neighbor to the north.
Indeed, one of the most prized commodities among Cubans is “El Paquete” — The Package, typically a 500-gigabyte memory stick containing downloaded American music, movies and television programs secreted into the country from the U.S. by relatives, friends or cunning entrepreneurs.
Consider it a contemporary expression of the cultural grapevine that has long kept Cuban musicians apprised of what their peers elsewhere in the world are doing.
Cuba’s artists and musicians take pride in forging a cultural scene outside of the direct influence of Hollywood and the kind of hit-making pull that has led countries such as France to impose quotas on American movies and music. But there is still a strong desire for artists and musicians to interact with their counterparts in the U.S. and around the world.
“I come from a generation of musicians that grew up with no access to the Internet whatsoever,” said trumpeter Yelfris Valdes, who left Cuba in 2014 to work in London, where he has played with various world-beat groups as well as his own Dub Afro Electric Jazz ensemble. “Although when I started to learn about jazz music at school, I was fully aware of what was happening with the composers (and) arrangers from around the world.
“Fellow musicians who were already traveling would feed to the rest of us what was going on in the industry,” Valdes said. “Thanks to that information I received as a student, I am now producing a more complex type of music. The more styles of music I can have access to, the richer my own music becomes.”
Which means, despite the stereotype created by the large number of pre-Cuban revolution American cars commonly found in Havana and other cities, Cuban music is hardly stuck in the 1950s.
Future remains uncertain
Along with the traditional son and salsa music that thrives in clubs and theaters around the country, it’s possible these days to find Cuban hip-hop and R&B acts serving up their equivalent to the latest videos by American trend-setters such as Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce or Rihanna.
But it’s a relatively recent development, and Cubans still don’t have ready access to the actual videos, much less live music, from Western pop stars. The Cuban government has a strict filter on media coming into the country.
That is compounded by the political, economic and cultural embargo imposed by the U.S. on Cuba almost 60 years ago, established following Fidel Castro’s history-shifting revolution on Jan. 1, 1959.
Easing of some elements of the embargo under President Barack Obama’s administration has allowed great opportunity for Cuban musicians to visit the U.S. and perform here. Cuba and its music, for instance, will be the focal point internationally at the 2017 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
But many musicians and artists who have welcomed improved relations with the U.S. expressed uncertainty and concern about whether President-elect Donald Trump is more likely to continue opening travel and commerce opportunities or return to more restrictive policies.
As the decades have rolled by, musicians, especially the younger generations, have often struggled to work with their American counterparts, to perform and promote their music to U.S. audiences and to be actively engaged with the most lucrative music market in the world.
“Youth is characterized by the desire to explore and know,” said singer, guitarist, percussionist and educator Jesus Bello. “Most of the young musicians wish to work abroad not only to obtain better pay for their work, but for the exchange with other musicians.”
The reverse is equally true: Americans and other musicians outside Cuba are frequently compelled to visit to learn more about the country’s music and musicians.
“It’s a great, rich place of music — there are so many styles,” Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger said following his band’s first performance in Cuba in March, a free show that drew a massive crowd estimated at 500,000 to 600,000 people. “I have no pretense of understanding where it’s all coming from. Music historians must love it, because there is so much richness in one fairly small place.”
A Buena Vista breakthrough
A major step toward bringing Cuban music to the outside world came in 1997, when American roots musicians Ry Cooder and British producer Nick Gold visited Havana. They spearheaded the Buena Vista Social Club project, a recording and companion documentary (by German filmmaker Wim Wenders) that spotlighted a coterie of veteran Cuban musicians performing the infectious music that’s lived and breathed within the country but was previously little exposed in the U.S.
“There’s a world of music down there,” said singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, who recently led a contingent of international oceanographic scientists to Cuba to study the relatively pristine ocean around the island. During that trip, he arranged for them to be exposed to the music of Varela, for whom Browne has become something of a cheerleader in the U.S., along with other Varela admirers among the rock music community including Dave Matthews and Bonnie Raitt.
“We’re isolated from Cuba, rather than Cuba being isolated from the world,” Browne told The Times recently. “We are the ones that have isolated ourselves from this incredibly rich musical culture. For all of the attempts at isolation, Cuban music has still had an incredible influence in the U.S. It’s influenced jazz, it’s influenced a lot of our music over the years. But we don’t know the most contemporary stuff” because of the embargo.
Bello agrees that the embargo has resulted in misconceptions and ignorance among Americans about the deep well of Cuban music.
“Silence and isolation between our ways of life have made many (American) people imagine Cuba in a very different way than it is,” Bello said, a situation that increased travel opportunities has begun to change. “I think it is very good for people to see the different ways and musical programs we have in Cuba, from the academies and the theaters to the most authentic manifestations that have been transmitted orally from generation to generation, such as peasant music, rumba and the tunes of African saints, changüi, nengon, parrandas, etc.”
One of the more dramatic results of the recent easing of relations is the April release of “Papa Hemingway in Cuba,” the first major Hollywood film to be shot in Cuba since before the revolution.
Cuban music purveyors as well as rank-and-file fans also point to the watershed moment in March when the Stones performed, although non-Cubans who attended that show noted that most in the audience seemed familiar with the group only in the most general way, and sang along en masse only with one song: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
“Just 3½ years ago things were totally different,” said Nancy Covey, who booked concerts at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, and now runs a music-focused tour company. “The first time I went, I didn’t have any communication with the outside world; they didn’t either and they were desperate to know what was going on in the States.
“It used to be that all they had (in terms of American recordings) was really old, battered vinyl you’d find at flea markets,” she said. “It reminded me a lot of the old Soviet Union. Even in the last year it has changed so much — they’re starting to get iPhones and have access to the Internet.
“I can’t imagine that the influx of American music and culture is not going to be a huge game-changer,” she said. “They’re hungry for it, and here it comes — but they don’t get that they might lose a whole lot of what they have.”
That crystallizes a fear expressed often in Cuba: that a full lifting of the embargo, should it occur, may unleash what Cuban architectural historian Miguel Coyula called “a tsunami” of cultural and economic changes that could overwhelm his country.
“The government here is reactive, not proactive,” Coyula told an American visitor in November. “They will wait until it happens and then try to figure out how to respond.”
Cuban musicians say their motives for coming to the U.S. are closely scrutinized by both governments because of fears on both sides that once here, they would try to remain.
Bello, who lives in Santa Clara, about 170 miles east of Havana, is planning a U.S. visit in the spring to work with a group of musicians in New Jersey interested in learning more about the traditional Cuban music styles in which he is fluent.
But he faces challenges, not only in receiving travel visas for himself and others he wants to bring along, but also in arranging funding for the trip and securing venues for stateside performances that could help offset the prohibitive costs of travel and accommodations in the U.S.
“In general, few people come to Cuba wanting to know about our work,” Bello said recently. “It is important for us and for those who don’t know Cuba. I am looking forward to the possibility to share my work (in the U.S.). Even after the roads that were opened by the Buena Vista Social Club, it is still not anything easy.”
Bello faces the double-edged struggle of passing on Cuban music traditions to younger players, many of whom would rather leave Cuba and try to pursue careers in the U.S., Europe or elsewhere.
Cuban universities still focus on training musicians in European-rooted classical traditions, and Bello is pushing to get Cuban academics to acknowledge and accept traditional Cuban music performance as part of the curriculum at the university level.
His son, Jose Manuel Bello, has been brought up with the traditional son and has formed a band consisting of other players in their early 20s, helping fulfill his father’s wish to keep the traditions strong with Cuban youth.
“I always stress to the young people with whom I work that the path within the music Is infinite,” Bello said. “Each one must find the course that best suits him and exploit his talent as much as the opportunities and his talent will allow it.”
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Along that line, Varela band guitarist Gomez noted that he’d been well-trained in classical guitar techniques in his years at Cuban universities. But he had to seek out and study with a private teacher to learn the nuances of the rock guitarists he wanted to emulate, players including British musician Richard Thompson, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler — a different vocabulary he brings to bear in working with Varela.
American drummer Michael Jerome, a member of Thompson’s band, visited Cuba in 2013 and soaked up what he could of the distinctive rhythms of Cuban music, even arranging for individual lessons with Cuban percussionists while there. He takes a largely positive outlook at the prospect of cultural walls coming down between the U.S. and Cuba.
“I do think Cubans will appreciate more access to American music and we’ll see a lot more evidence of that influence reflected in the coming years,” he said. “I don’t think Cubans will lose any uniqueness or identity. If anything it will be strengthen by the fear of losing it, and/or the love and uniqueness of sharing it. It’s like nothing else and is desired because of it.”
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