There’s no single way to look at contemporary Cuban life, culture and the arts without understanding the contradictions, overlaps and influences that have existed for centuries– the powerful pull of early Spanish Colonial masters, the traditions Africans brought with them as slave labor, and the symbiotic, often-troubled relationship from the 19th century on between the United States and the island nation.
Our Cuba Series begins with this overview and a snapshot of how Cuban music, dance and art are increasingly available to a world audience. Check out our Cuba Photo Gallery
Coming next: Must-see places, people and experiences in Cuba. Our suggestions come directly from friends and colleagues who have recently been on “people to people” exchanges to Cuba. They also loaned some 1500 photographs to create a portrait of today’s Cuba.
The official silence of 50 years – and the embargo — between the U.S. and Cuba is being lifted with “normalization” of diplomatic relations – and promises to deepen access, understanding, and exchange in the visual arts, photography, music, dance and design.
The Contemporary Vibe
In the past 20 years, Cuba’s talented artists and performers have come through more porous borders to audiences in New York, Chicago, Amsterdam and other world cities.
The recent 12th Havana Biennale (May 2015), now a 30-year-old tradition, brought 180 artists from 45 countries to transform every possible space in the Cuban capital, making the whole city an artistic venue. Art Institute of Chicago members traveled to Havana to see what’s happening. New York Times story and slide show
New York’s Bronx Museum of the Arts and Cuba’s National Museum of Fine Arts are exchanging exhibitions from their permanent collections. In fall 2016 the Museo Nacional brings 100 works to the Bronx as the second half of the exchange.
The World Art Deco Congress met in Havana in 2013 to see firsthand the many fine examples of Art Deco in Habana Vieja buildings—many still in need of restoration. (Havana Times story includes photo gallery)
Cuba Vibra – a new generation dance troupe by Lizt Alfonso, with its own band – fuses ballet, flamenco, cha-cha, rumba, conga, bolero and salsa—and travels in November to perform in Washington DC and New York. (web and video)
Standout musicians and bands from Cuba perform regularly on the world music circuit – from the legacy members of the Buena Vista Social Club (one hour video) and Afro-Cuban All Stars to jazzmasters like pianist Chuco Valdés (video interview)
From First Flowering to Decadence
The ripples in this amazing artistic and cultural pond spread over 500 years, ranging from Spanish Colonial to Art Deco architecture; son, the beating heart of salsa, and the influence of santería in Afro-Cuban rhythms now familiar to a world audience; the legacy of 20th-century popular Cuban music immortalized in rumba, conga, mambo, and cha cha chá; the artistic rigor and triumph of the Cuban National Ballet by choreographer/dancer Alícia Alonso.
By the time of the U.S. Civil War, thousands of North Americans traveled to Cuba annually, thanks to new technologies, US business interests in railroads, sugar plantations and hotels. Cuba participated in the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893. Baseball caught Cuban imagination in 1860’s; within a decade there were teams in competition.
In the 20th century – once Cuba was liberated from Spanish control – the island was marketed to Americans as the place to travel for tropical beauty, exciting women and sensual experiences. There were cabarets, nightclubs, bars, brothels, follies, and casinos. Hotels were luxurious; many had house orchestras with bands playing mambo and cha cha chá. The tourism of the ‘40’s and ‘50s catered to every whim and appetite – especially for celebrities (Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando), the wealthy and those seeking gambling and an adventurous time.
From the 1930’s to the ‘50’s, Cuba emerged as the go-to place for a host of talents in music, literature, poetry and photography. Ernest Hemingway took up residence at Finca Vigía and stayed for years. Writers Graham Green and James Michener added to their literary repertoire from their Cuban experiences. Composer George Gershwin spent two weeks carousing in Havana and came up with Cuban Overture in 1932; composer Aaron Copeland created Danzón Cubano. Notable WPA-era photographer Walker Evans (The Family of Man) traveled to Cuba in 1933 to photograph the island and its people for Carleton Beale’s book The Crime of Cuba.
Cuban music became a powerful force in U.S. popular music from the ‘30’s into the ‘50s’ through bandleaders like Xavier Cugat and TV personality Desi Arnaz (I Love Lucy), movies and entertainment venues like New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, with a house orchestra. ”Mambomania” was named the exotic dance craze of 1954; Rosemary Clooney drove the hit Mambo Italiano, a tune with only a distant likeness to true Cuban music. Roseland and the Palladium in New York sponsored mambo-crazed events. Major U.S. artists like Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole and George Shearing “adopted” the Cuban idiom and made it their own.
Where, in fact, did Cuba’s cultural identity end and America’s begin in the years before La Revolución?
People to People : Learning from Cubanos
The era of Socialist government under Castro deprived Cubans of freedoms that would have allowed a fuller flowering of their artistic and cultural aspirations. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba went through the Special Period (of extreme deprivation and hunger) and then came to grips with the need to improvise, relax and allow some better opportunities. An important breakthrough has been allowing small private businesses that give Cubanos the opportunity to create art, grow food for the marketplace, reinvigorate music – and improve their living and earnings.
- Literacy became a universal gateway – an educational “army” of youth went all over the country — to help in the farms and teach reading and writing that helps pull people out of poverty.
- Free education has offered years-long formal training in visual arts, dance and other fields.
- Renewed respect for black heritage from Africa’s legacy has played a pivotal role in resurgent native identity.
- Pride in finding solutions –improvisar (improvisation) – has been the byword for everything from renovating Old Havana’s buildings to machining parts for the vintage American cars that ply Havana’s streets.
People to People Sheds Light
“People to People” travelers share the following insights from their recent trips:
- Hardship and deprivation helped Cubans form an identity: they are self-reliant, self-sufficient, not bitter. We found connected communities. Music and dance is everywhere, it’s inter-generational.
- Authentic is the word that is offered most often by visitors who see Cuban culture in “people to people” trips that showcase local artistic, cultural, social, and everyday experiences. Their experience is vastly different than those of Canadians and European tourists who today seek out the island as a “Club Med” –style pleasure place at a few privately developed resorts and golf courses.
- There is an entrepreneurial spirit that has been building since the Cuban government lifted controls to allow individuals and families to earn extra money and supply the tourist industry.
- Small stakeholder farmers sell their produce to restaurants and keep a portion for themselves; and bring organically grown food to market.
- Artists and crafts people are licensed (taxed) and then keep a portion of the income they generate
- Tourism also thrives on an exchange system between Cubans and Norteños: Norteños bring with them items from a “wish list” of goods from the U.S. For the dance school experience, it might be dance-related supplies. For the private tour of a house, it could be baby supplies, household goods, or spices.
- Music is everywhere – bars and clubs, but also unexpected places where there may be small and group performances held in parks, churches, the workers’ hall, even in large private homes that were reassigned to families after the Revolucíon where it is possible to tour and dine.
- Dance schools not only teach, but offer tourists the chance to see rehearsals, informal events, or an audition
- The best of Cuban cuisine is likely to be found in New York and Miami where there is an abundance of ingredients and spices. However, another approach to dining in Cuba is the “palador,” dining in a private home or apartment. Here’s the opportunity to see how Cubans live, an interior view of home life, extra income for the household!
Coming Next: Looking for the Authentic Cuba: Our travelers share the best places, neighborhoods, sites, and ways to experience social and cultural exchange.