Pop Music’s Identity Crisis: Some Thoughts from Cuba

by Tom Astley

With a worn nylon-string guitar cradled in his arms, and a weary kind of smile on his face, Ricardo laments the state of contemporary Cuban music making in surprisingly bleak terms.  He’s a professional rock musician; a graduate of the prestigious Havana Institute of Arts, a gigging guitarist, a man who has made a career from popular music that, if not always well-paid, is at least regarded in Cuba as a respectable profession; a Cuban profession, even.

Defining a national identity, as so many writers on Cuba have noted, is something of an obsession that permeates so much of Cuban politics, art and history.  And music – particularly the popular – has, in its multiple ‘indigenous’ genres (bolero, chachacha, son, mambo, rumba) been a significant tool for bringing together, defining and reflecting what it means to be Cuban.  Even more recent Cuban reinventions of hip-hop and forms of rock music have striven to make whatever is Cuban part of their sound, and to make their sounds part of whatever is Cuban.

But as Ricardo plays little snippets of songs and scales, I ask about new music in Cuba and he just shakes his head.  Frustrated but resigned, he sums up his concern with a curt phrase that encapsulates more than just a Cuban problem: “hay una falta de ‘swing’”.  The borrowed English word ‘swing’, in its Cuban slang rendering which swallows the ‘g’ sound, is hard to translate back.  In this instance, it means a kind of coolness, but a meaningful coolness, an ingenuity, and integrity, a significance.  And what is important is that it seems to be lacking.  What is lacking, perhaps, is the ability of popular music to so radically and relevantly speak to and of a socio-cultural reality.  What is lacking is the purpose of the music; it’s identity.

It’s hard walking around Havana to come to terms with the notion that there is something lacking in the music here.  There’s certainly no lack of music; it’s everywhere in so many forms and formats.  It is an integral a part of the everyday soundscape – from reggaetón blared from an apartment window, to traditional septetos with familiar clavé rhythm beating out in tourist-packed colonial squares.  But the concern is not so much that popular music isn’t a part of the Cuban identity anymore, it’s that the music being made now isn’t capable – or just isn’t living up to the task of – representing a contemporary reality.

Narratives of Cuban history tend to focus on the grand events; epoch defining ‘breaks’ from the past.  The biggest of Cuba’s modern history – the Revolution of 1959 – certainly had a significant impact on the amount of – and meanings given to – foreign musics permeating Cuban society.  This narrative of change would have it that the Revolution transposed the iron curtain to the Caribbean.  Rock music, along with Jazz, became invisible and mute across the island.  Of course, in an official capacity this may have been true.  The excellent animated film Chico and Rita (2010) has a scene where the protagonist Chico is unable to perform with his big band in the hotel as, seemingly overnight, Jazz had become the music of the ‘enemy’.  But against this official backdrop of censorship through the 60s and 70s, where, as middle-aged Cubans now will tell you, owning a Beatles record was illegal, where groups of long-haired rockers in drainpipe trousers would have their hair and trouser legs cut by the police, where rock music, officially did not exist ‘within the Revolution’, there was still a tacit thread of continuity.  Indeed, not only did foreign music (and Cuban-made musics referencing these foreign styles) continue to find a clandestine place within Cuban culture, it could also be argued that their very ‘forbidden’ nature afforded them an even greater significance and an even greater agency in expressing an ‘alternative’ vision of a Cuban identity.

I spoke to a radio DJ who remembered congregating in the park with friends in the 1970s to tune in to Latin American radio stations that played ‘música inglés’ (the stations made no distinction between British and American music).  This music, as Deborah Pacini Hernandez and Reebee Garofalo suggest, was often “fragmentary...  and highly decontextualised”[1] coming to Cubans with little additional information about the musicians or translations of lyrics.  But in a sense, this fragmentary information may have further enhanced its meanings – the ability to mean something – in this new cultural context.  By having a partial picture, Cuban rock fans were forced to ‘fill in’ the blanks; to speculate, perhaps, on what the musicians may have looked like, what the words they were singing may have meant.  Swapping illicit recordings in person also helped establish close-knit social groups with music defining part of their shared identity.  This DJ referred to these late-night musical gatherings as a “rico[2] fantasy” – a fantasy in which cultural material was ascribed a Cuban significance. 

If anything has diminished the cultural relevance of popular music in Cuba today, then it is not a strangulation of the supply of foreign musics into the country.  Rather it may be the overabundance.  Turning on the television in Havana one Friday night, I saw a Cuban heavy metal band Hipnosis on a prime-time music show playing an industrial-metal cover version of the Queen song ‘We Will Rock You’.  They were dressed in full goth attire – long black leather coats (particularly conspicuous in the Caribbean sun), arrow-straight black hair and vampire-blue contact lenses – and were head-banging along to the pre-recorded track.  Rock music, in its myriad guises, has more of a place within Cuba than it ever has, yet its ability to define a contemporary culture seems ever-diminishing.

It’s not just that the styles and symbols of popular music have become less shocking.  For many musicians in Cuba the problem seems to be that they are arriving via much more ‘complete’ modes of dissemination.  The music video leaves much less to the imagination than a grainy radio transmission and as such requires (or demands) less reinterpretation, and thus less ‘Cubanisation’ to make it comprehensible.

The lament for the (relative) ease of access to foreign popular musics is more than just a technological romanticism.  There seem to be two related concerns on the minds of many musicians I have spoken to here.  Firstly, there is a concern at the mimicry and appropriation of generic styles from without; ‘copied’ without the necessary local translation.  But as importantly, there is an overly reverential treatment of the glut of musical sources from within; the preservation of the innately Cuban tradition.  These two concerns have created, in the eyes of many, a blockage in the system, a fatal repetition, the needle skipping on the record.  A lack of innovation, a timidity that will neither invent nor reinvent.  As such, nothing new is said and nothing ‘genuine’ is reflected.  It’s not just that popular music needs to keep moving forward to survive.  It’s that the moment in which it is made keeps changing and so too do the questions and the concerns.The mores of the moment keep shifting.  And if music is to accurately reflect that, it must change too.

This lack of innovation is exacerbated by the relative co-option of these once forbidden musics by the state-run music ‘industry’.  The state has ceased to forbid previously controversial music, and, in increments, begun to include certain artists and styles into its stable.  Contestations over the place of hip-hop ‘within’ the Revolution have run since the genre’s inception on the island, but increasingly even rock music is having its outsider status questioned.[3]     

The increasing incorporation of alternative genres of popular music into state-run labels and musicians’ unions increases the professionalisation of the popular music performer; a goal of the Revolution from its beginning[4].  Though it is this very professionalism which has made popular music such an integral aspect of Cuban identity, it means that those wanting (or having) to work ‘outside’ the official system have their opportunities severely reduced.  Musicians who are not members of the state-run union have difficulty finding venues to perform, or have their professionalism as an artist questioned and may be labelled as politically problematic.  Of course, there are concessions – aesthetic as well as political – that artists may have to make to be ‘inside’ the Revolution.  But if making some creative concessions means an audience for their music, many musicians opt to work within the system.  Such compromises however can help foster a certain creative conservativism which panders to the ‘already-acceptable’.

Perhaps this reluctance to be the first to say something new – something ‘outside’ the already-accepted – might be a particularly Cuban concern that affects more than just music making.  But the lament for the general state of popular music is depressingly familiar.  It seems to be everywhere.  As someone who has had (and continues to have) great faith in the power and pertinence of popular music, it’s a tough thing to write, but maybe what we’re lamenting isn’t just a dark patch waiting for a new light, but the petering out of the poignance of popular music.

If pop music has a meaning, it is to reflect the moment – to say something about it, using the vernacular language sincerely.  But maybe it’s no longer the medium to do that.  Maybe popular music has reached the end of its culturally significant lifespan and is no longer the form through which we tell everyone (including ourselves) who we are, where we’ve been and where we might go?

Maybe this is too desolate and too sweeping an assertion.  I hope so.  But talking with Ricardo, in a city like Havana that has always defined itself through song, has brought home the lack of relevance of so much contemporary popular music to its place and time.  Why do we expect the medium of pop music to live forever?  Why shouldn’t it fade from cultural relevance like other popular art forms before it? And if it is doing, can it be revived, and should it be?

Maybe people have always mourned the ‘death’ of things in their time.  New laws have recently been passed that encourage Cubans to start private businesses which may help spark a renewed vigour in music making.  I visited a recording studio and micro-record label ‘La Paja Recold’, run by the punk band Porno Para Ricardo.  Their goal in establishing this label was to demonstrate to other Cuban musicians that a way ‘outside the Revolution’ is not only possible, but aesthetically viable.  Such small-scale, personal production of music could help reignite the passion for the popular that exists within Cuba, and could perhaps bring some much-needed variation to the voice of Cuban music.  Or perhaps popular music really is dying and a new medium – replete with ‘swing’ – needs to be found to gives us a reflection of ourselves?

Tom Astley is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at Newcastle University.  He is the author of Outside the Revolution; Everything, a book about contemporary Cuban music making and left wing identity and co-edits the fanzine ‘The North East Passage’.



[1] Pacini Hernandez, Deborah and Reebee Garofalo (1999) ‘Hip hop in Havana: Rap, Race and National Identity in Contemporary Cuba’ in ‘Journal of Popular Music Studies’ 11/12 (1999/2000) pp.  18 -47 Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

[2] ‘Rico’ is a particularly Cuban colloquialism, which can take on various meanings, depending on context.  Here it means ‘enjoyable’ or ‘excellent’.

[3] As many on both sides of the Revolutionary divide are keen to point out, either to illustrate hypocrisy or evolution, the once-banned John Lennon now has a park, a statue and an annual concert named after him.  The statue’s inscription “you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” takes on a surreal (some might say Orwellian) tone in light of this cultural-political change of heart.

[4] Antoni Kapcia’s book “Havana: The Making of Cuban Culture” (2005, Oxford:Berg) in particular notes this drive for professionalism in all the arts, but particularly in music.

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First published: 26 February, 2013

Category: Culture

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