Cuban Culture: Art, Dance & Music in the Pearl of the Antilles
Like most people born in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century, I never had a chance to visit Cuba before Dwight D. Eisenhower suspended all diplomatic relations with the country in 1961.
During the 53-year U.S. embargo against Cuba, most of us developed our interest in Cuban culture by consuming popular culture: reruns of I Love Lucy, films such as The Godfather: Part II (which was actually filmed in the Dominican Republic) and Buena Vista Social Club, and books like Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man & the Sea and Elmore Leonard’s Cuba Libre gave Americans our first taste of a country we were legally prohibited from visiting.
Since December 2014, when President Barack Obama announced that he would finally restore full U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba, American interest in traveling to Cuba has reached a fever pitch. With the recent US Department of Transportation announcement that six US airlines (American, Frontier, JetBlue, Silver, Southwest, and Sun Country) have been licensed to operate up to 90 round-trip flights a day to Cuba, the floodgates are officially about to open.
Now that restrictions on travel to the island are being lessened, it’s a great time to learn more about Cuban culture as a way to enhance our experiences when we visit.
Blending myriad different African, South American, European and North American influences, Cuban art is just as diverse as its people. It’s even more intriguing because the embargo cut off most of the island’s connections with the outside world for half a century, allowing its artists to develop unique styles relatively unaffected by modern popular culture.
The country’s most acclaimed artists include photographer Alberto Korda, who was renowned for his pictures of Che Guevera in the early days of the Cuban Revolution; surrealist painter Wilfredo Lam, who studied under the same teacher as Salvador Dalí; folk artist Corso de Palenzuela, whose vibrant landscapes depicted icons such as Che, Celia Cruz and Ruben Gonzalez in rural settings; and avant-garde muralist Amelia Peláez.
After the revolution in 1959, some artists left the island to pursue their careers in exile, ultimately tapping into the sociopolitically charged movements of the United States and Europe in the ’60s and ’70s. Others remained at home in Cuba, where all art was sponsored by the government and typically censored by the state.
Today, Cuba’s thriving arts scene reflects myriad styles. From the grand visions displayed in Havana’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and the National School of Art to independent artists with studios in Havana and Trinidad and a burgeoning street art movement, Cuba’s visual art is is both vibrant and vital.
Cuba is home to the world’s biggest ballet school– the Cuban National Ballet School, which has around 3,000 students. But its most popular dance styles have deep roots on native soil, ultimately spreading far beyond the island’s shores to influence dancers from the ballroom to the discotheque.
Most of today’s modern Cuban dance styles can be traced back to the Danzón, the nation’s official musical genre and dance. Danzón evolved out of the contradanza, or habanera (literally, “Havana-dance”), a dance with English origins that was probably introduced by the Spanish, and then later mixed with Afro-Caribbean influences.
Danzón was an update of the traditional sequence dances of the 18th and 19th centuries (which pre-dated the intricate choreography of modern ballroom dancing). The Danzón was initially considered controversial because of its sexy, sensual, African-style hip movements, which were deemed obscene partly because they were popular among a young, mixed-race crowd.
But by the mid-20th century, Danzón was evolving into new forms of music and dance that would ultimately influence other cultures around the world. Mambo (which means “conversation with the gods”), named after a 1938 song by Orestes and Cachao Lopez, added African folk rhythms. The cha-cha-cha syncopated the fourth beat, as dancers shuffled their feet to the scraping rhythm of the güiro. Salsa, which originated in New York City in the ‘70s, incorporated elements of swing dancing and The Hustle with these distinctly Afro-Caribbean styles born in Cuba.
These days, you can’t watch talent shows such as So You Think You Can Dance or America’s Got Talent without seeing the influence of Cuban culture in action.
The Music of Cuba has had an enormous influence, especially when you consider its longtime political isolation. Other than Jamaica, it’s hard to think of another country whose global cultural impact has been so significant despite its relatively tiny size.
The 18th and 19th centuries in Cuba were largely dominated by European classical music. But the folksy bolero and guaracha styles, which were favored by itinerant musicians known as trovadors, continue to be adapted to various genres of Cuban music today. It was a style known as Son cubano– which married Spanish guitar with African percussion– that rose to popularity in the 1930s and put Cuba on the world’s musical map.
Son (which has many stylistic variations) was born in the mountainous regions of the Cuban province of Oriente. But it was perfected in Havana during the Prohibition era, when Big Band instruments were added to the traditional ensemble of tres guitar, double bass, claves and maracas. It was Son that gave birth to Cuban jazz, and ultimately made artists such as Compay Segundo, Rubén González, and Ibrahim Ferrer famous as leaders of the Buena Vista Social Club.
Many of these legends of Cuban culture have passed away now, but their influential legacy lives on in the music of Cuba today. You can still hear their spirits resonating in the streets of Havana and Trinidad, in the music that provides the soundtrack to the everyday lives of Cuba’s people. –Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.