The sun sets on the kora and the xylophone—and rises on the clave and the timbales. The taste of world music aficionados has switched from the Sahara, from the desert blues of Mali and Senegal, the sound so novel and seductive a few years ago, to the Caribbean, to the vocal discipline and lissom percussion of Cuban dance music. And there it seems to linger.
Last year was the year of Cuba, the year the recording industry discovered son, the key genre of Cuban popular dance music, ancestor of salsa. It was the year of Buena Vista Social Club, the wondrous album produced by the American musician Ry Cooder, long-time champion of African and Latin music, who brought together some of the most venerable and brilliant musicians on the island to recreate the dreamtime of Cuban dancehall music. And it was the year of the Afro-Cuban All Stars, an ensemble that recreated the brassy, danceable sound of Cuban big bands of the 1940s and 1950s.
So what will be the next sensation in world music? Brazilian choro maybe? Surinamese kaseko? No, it looks as if 1999 will belong to Cuba too—at least as far as this sector of the music industry is concerned. Public taste has been detained by the smoothness and sweetness of the Cuban rhythm, an effect achieved, according to ethnomusicologists, by shifting the notes of the bass away from the downbeat. In an engaging cliché, Ry Cooder, whose learned musicianship and admirable self-effacement are a perfect frame for this music, compares its effortless flowing quality to a river, one that you stumble on unexpectedly, but that seems to have been flowing forever.
The album he produced won a Grammy award, becoming, in PR-speak, the biggest World Music album since World Music began. Since then the Afro-Cuban All Stars have toured Europe to universal acclaim. A quintet of even more venerable musicians, the Vieja Trova Santagueira, is the most recent to tour abroad. They are from the Eastern part of Cuba, from Santiago, where the African influence is strongest. When they played at the Royal Festival Hall in London two weekends ago—at a benefit for the Cuba Solidarity Campaign—the audience was in raptures. There’s an irony. A country that is the last remaining cause of the old left was represented on stage by five jaunty eighty-year olds—men older than Fidel Castro—with shiny shoes, impeccable timing and a line in unreconstructed machisto backchat that would have gone down well at a police social club.
It’s the US embargo on Cuba that is partly responsible for the preservation of these old styles of music (not to speak of the machismo). The island was effectively unplugged in 1957. Like the big-finned fifties American automobiles that are the only cars to be seen in the streets of Havana, some genres of Cuban popular music, having reached a kind of perfection, have stayed there, keeping time, keeping faith, waiting to be delivered from the enchanted castle. An American writer describes the island as a musical Galapagos, where music has taken its own distinct, evolutionary path.
Rumba sí, trabajo nó
The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky told me a story about a visit he made to Havana. It’s a good story, though I can’t vouch for its veracity.
As Brodsky tells it, Fidel Castro was addressing a crowd in the national stadium. It was one of the near-interminable speeches for which he is well known, lasting four, five or six hours. The message was Stakhanovite: the revolution, Castro declared repeatedly, required dedication. He stressed the importance of hard work, and the dangerous distraction of dancing.
“Rumba nó! Trabajo sí!” was Castro’s refrain. No to rumba, yes to work.
When the president finally ended his oration, Brodsky told me, the crowd began to file out of the stadium. They repeated the message first dutifully, then with increasing gusto—Rumba nó! Trabajo sí!—swinging from side to side, keeping time, tapping their feet, clapping their hands, making a tune out of it. Then calling out the two-beat, three-beat rhythm of rumba as they danced their way collectively onto the street, with the refrain of what was about to become a new song in their heads, the two phrases now reversed and altered in meaning.
“Rumba sí!” they sang. “Trabajo nó…”
Thus was the harsh revolutionary message transfigured into song and dance.
One of the reasons musical culture thrives in Cuba is the absence of recorded music. Few Cubans own CD players. As I remember the state-run record shops in Havana stock a couple of hundred titles in total—fewer, probably, than the Latin section in a branch of Tower Records or a Virgin megastore. Poverty has forced Cubans back on their own resources, so live music thrives. Now that transnational recording companies are scouring the island for more octogenarians to launch as global celebrities the primacy of live music may be threatened. Yet in Cuba you still can’t buy a newly issued CD by the All Stars or Vieja Trova. In the US, on the other hand, you can’t hear these bands play live, because of the blockade.
Let us be thankful, then, spoilt consumers that we are, that we who live in Europe are able to do both: to hear these amazing musicians in our homes and also see them on stage, while they are still living, before they are sucked into the cult of celebrity and consumed by the global entertainment industry, by the world of boy bands, girl bands, hard drugs, chart-fixing, toxic celebrity and silly money. ★