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Cuba: The place where pleasure and politics meet

Musicians perform on the street in Old Havana - Credit: Getty Images

Before and after its revolution, Cuba’s soul has been found in its music, says SOPHIA DEBOICK

Despite existing in a silo for decades, Cuban music has swept the world. The long-standing post-revolution embargo has seen artists struggle to get visas to play in the all-important US, and the thaw of relations begun by the Obama administration has been rolled back under Trump, but Cuban rhythms have proved irresistible and artists from the capital and cultural centre of the island in particular have received international recognition.

When Havana-born, Miami-raised Camila Cabello’s sultry global hit Havana – emblematic of the triumph of Latin rhythms and Spanglish on the contemporary charts – became the best-selling digital single of 2018 it suggested that Cuba is more culturally relevant in the West than ever.

Before the revolution, Cuba was a playground for the rest of the world. As the go-to party destination for American citizens seeking a good time and – under Prohibition – a drink, the island hosted gangsters and American film stars and offered probably the most thrilling night out in the world. The atrocities of the Batista regime apparently proved not much of a discouragement to foreigners as Havana, lying just 100 miles off Key West, offered some of the best casinos, bars and nightclubs in the world and, of course, incredible music.

Celia Cruz was one of the larger-than-life performers of that glittering era. A native of Havana’s working-class neighbourhood of Santos Suarez, Cruz’s big break came singing with dance troupe Las Mulatas de Fuego from the late 1940s before she joined orchestra La Sonora Matancera. Her first recording with them, Cao Cao, Mani Picao (1950), was an example of the up-tempo and light guaracha and saw her dubbed ‘La Guarachera de Cuba’. Cruz’s ostrich feather and sequin-clad turns at the opulent El Tropicana club typified the glamour of mid-century Havana.

Beny Moré was another transcendent star of Havana’s thriving pre-revolutionary music scene. He was born in 1919 in the tiny rural town of Santa Isabel de las Lajas in the island’s interior. The oldest of 18 children, he went to Havana to seek his fortune when still in his teens. Early years scraping a living gave way to singing on Havana’s thriving radio stations, and when he landed a regular spot at the famous El Templete bar and restaurant he was spotted and recruited by popular group Trío Matamoros. He would use the group as a springboard to stardom.

Landmark recordings for RCA Victor made in the 1940s like Bonito y Sabroso (‘Beautiful and Tasty’) – Moré’s signature song which praised Mexican women’s mastery of the mambo as a reminder that Havana and Mexico City “are two cities that are like sisters” – saw him become Cuba’s most celebrated singer. His reframing of the idiom for the full gamut of Cuban popular song, from mambo, son and guaracha to bolero and cha cha cha led to him being dubbed ‘El Bárbaro del Ritmo’ (‘The Master of Rhythm’).

Moré’s success was not unalloyed, however. He suffered racial discrimination as a mixed-race Cuban of partly Congolese slave descent and while his own La Banda Gigante, founded in 1953, became massively popular in the Havana clubs, just six years later the triumph of the revolutionaries saw the nightclubs closed and life in Havana turned upside down. While Celia Cruz fled the island and went on to living legend status in the US, Moré stayed and died in his adoptive city aged just 43, a victim of alcoholism and circumstance.

While the Revolution marked the end of one period of Cuban musical creativity, it also signalled the birth of another. The nueva trova – an updating of the trova folk music form that had first arisen in the 19th century and of which Carlos Puebla was the master into the 20th – emerged in the early years of the Castro regime, with socially conscious songs that looked both to the native folk music of the past and the political bent of new American troubadours like Dylan and Baez.

While elsewhere in Latin America nueva canción ranged itself against US-installed dictatorships, Castro’s Cuba was a place where the anti-Western sentiments of nueva trova’s leftist politics meant it could be at least tolerated and was often actively encouraged. Its leading lights worked under the auspices of the regime’s Cuban Cinematographic Institute and the Casa de las Américas cultural institution, and the International Protest Song Meeting, held in Havana in 1967, is seen as the point of the movement’s birth.

Two performers at that meeting would define nueva trova. Silvio Rodríguez, born in Havana Province in 1946, is the master of philosophical, existential and mystical lyrics that have made him a legend of Latin American music. His songs carried the hopes and dreams of leftists across Latin America, with his Unicornio (1982), which uses a lost blue unicorn as a metaphor for the eternal search for utopia, being widely adopted as a liberation anthem. Havana Conservatoire-educated Pablo Milanés, known for songs like his tribute to Che Guevara, Si El Poeta Eres Tu (‘If the Poet is You’), had been imprisoned in one of Castro’s labour camps in his early 1920s and, although he continued to support the revolutionary project, he was keenly aware of its failings.

Into the 1990s, nueva trova lived on in Havana. Rodríguez opened Ojalá Studios – named after one of his best-known songs – in the Miramar area of the city, and his protégé Carlos Varéla became the face of novísimo trova (‘newest song’), which added a stronger rock feel to the genre. But other voices came out of the city in that decade too, and the socially conscious nature of post-revolutionary Cuban music took a new path.

While Afro-Cuban music had been part of Cuba’s musical backbone for centuries, in the 1990s hip hop and rap provided the impetus for a flowering of a new, politically charged Afro-Cuban music. Having got his start in his parents Carlos Alfonso and Ele Valdés’ world music band Síntesis, rapper X Alfonso pioneered a fusion between Cuba’s rich musical heritage and hip hop on his 2001 album-length tribute to Beny Moré, X-Moré. He has become one of the most innovative and outspoken voices in Afro-Cuban music.

X Alfonso painted a realistic portrait of Havana’s poverty and its “ditches full of garbage” on 2005 song Habana, but nonetheless maintained in the lyrics “Esta es mi ciudad” (“This is my city”) (his founding of the Fabrica de Arte Cubano cultural centre in the city in 2014 showed his civic pride). This year’s spoken word song Reflexión, concerned with abuse of power, had obvious relevance to the oppressed of Havana.

The 1990s also saw two other Havana rap outfits emerge to engage with issues of race. El Disco Negro (2011) by married rap duo Obsesión was essentially a concept album about racial injustice in Cuba, with the track Victimas dealing with police harassment while Calle G called for Havana’s colossal monument to José Miguel Gómez, president at the time of the 1912 uprising of Afro-Cubans, to be pulled down. Rap group Orishas, meanwhile, who take their name from the deities of the Yoruba people, found success after leaving Havana for Paris from where they have released a succession of politically conscious albums which have garnered critical acclaim.

While still seen as a socialist utopia by some, the reality is that Cuba is still on its journey, with arbitrary detentions, endemic racism and suppression of freedom of expression marring its society. Cuba’s music will continue to defy and engage with those circumstances in equal measure.


American guitar legend Ry Cooder was partly responsible for a revival of international interest in Cuban music in the mid-1990s. He went to Havana to produce Buena Vista Social Club (1997), the eponymous album of a project bringing a spotlight to pre-revolutionary performers like singer Ibrahim Ferrer and pianist Rubén González. Cooder also played on the debut album of allied project the Afro-Cuban All Stars.

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