Where is the ‘Real’ Cuba?

Yo Si Soy Guajiro, de Verdad’: The Place of ‘El Campo’ in Cuban (Musical) Identity.

A continuing theme running through this work is the notion of a search for collective – even national – identity, and definitions of Cubanness. As Antoni Kapcia suggests there has existed a “Cuban tradition [of] a political search for identity which has run through Cuba’s independent history until today” (1982:63). Kapcia goes on to say that:

Nowhere (apart, perhaps from Puerto Rico and Panama) was the problem of national identity greater that the semi-colonial Cuba of the Platt Amendment, the Cuba where by the 1950s the economic, political and social domination by the USA was stifling. (ibid.:64)

Pre-revolutionary Cuba was a nation indebted to the US, not only economically, but, as Louis Perez suggests, in the shaping of its national identity:

Images [of cultural identity that] Cubans sought to negate were precisely the ones that succeeded in representing Cuba as a commodity [in the US]. The contest for control of representation and self-identity was rarely easy and almost never won… If the United States served as the place of personal fulfilment and professional accomplishment, it was necessary to conform to what popular tastes and market forces proclaimed ‘Cuban’ to be. (Perez, 1999:215)

But what was this identity imposed from without? Certainly music and dance played a significant role, as did the associated image of a life of abandon and hedonism. This was the Cuba imagined in this post-independence, pre-revolutionary period, and it was imagined by United States tourism. So an image of the Cuban identity, which will be familiar still as a spectre of Cubanness in the mind’s on the reader, compounded by the revival of many aspects of this spectre in the wake of a glut of tourism since the mid-90s (see Gott, 2004 and Perez, 2006), was formed; and it was one that Kapcia suggests began to permeate into Cuban self-definition, precisely because of the islands dependence upon the US:

During the six decades following political independence from Spain, Cuba imported not only investments, consumer commodities, food, technology, and business methods from the United States, but also much of its culture, including many of the ideas that Cuba held about itself. In Havana, at least, a Cuban identity and mode of life was filed away in the memories of a few Cuban anthropologists and historians (O’Conner, 1970:1) (Kapcia,1982:68)

It is telling that Kapcia here adds the caveat that this ‘loss’ of national (and nationally defined) identity happened at least in Havana, for a running theme of Cuban identity can be seen in references to something approaching a Cuban national ideal through this pre-revolutionary period, and, vicariously, to the ‘place’ where that identity may be found: the guajiro and el campo.

Guajiro/a simply means someone from the countryside, yet it somehow describes and embodies something of a national identity for Cuba, possibly as a counter to the image of the hedonistic dancer and raucously licentious mulatta conjured up by the American tourist. As Tim Edensor notes, this embodying of ‘the nation’ into the idealised persona of rural life is far from unique to Cuba. He claims “it is difficult to mention a nation without conjuring up a particular rural landscape (often with particular kinds of people carrying out certain actions)… These specific landscapes are selective shorthand for these nations, synecdoches through which they are recognised globally” (Edensor, 2002:39-40). If we are to take Edensor’s notion of the rural synecdoche for the nation, then in many Cuban songs, the vista imagined is that of red earth and olive green foliage; the mountains of the Sierra Maestra[1], sugar and tobacco plantations. The figure inhabiting this vista is the guajiro; virtuous, hard-working, machete, cigar, thick black moustache, battered cowboy hat, atop a horse.

The Authentic City: Moving the Site of Authentic Cubanness?

The above does not suggest that pre-special period Cuban music was bereft of references to urban locations, and that these locations were not conceived of as sites where authenticity could be found. Indeed, there are copious examples of such references, not surprisingly mostly centred around Havana (though other notable examples might be ‘rucu rucu a Santa Clara’ by Irakere). However, as Vincenzo Perna suggests, most often these songs were presented as “ode[s] to places of conventional urban prettiness” (2005:172).

However, through analysis of the song “Los Sitios Entero” by NG la Banda – a song which makes reference to the barrio of Los Sitios in Havana – Perna discusses a replacing of the authentic place of Cubannes; an act which is as politically motivated as it is aesthetically motivated. Perna claims of the song that by “identifying Los Sitios with rumba, [song writer José Luís] Cortés celebrates as ‘an authentic neighbourhood’, home to the real cubanía, a black, working class area” (ibid.:174). The Cuban identity here is made distinctly urban but also, through its strong connection to rumba, it presents a Cubanness that is “a world of toughness, machismo, danger and crime populated by lower-class Blacks” (ibid.:176). As Perna points out, however, this description of the home of ‘authentic Cubanness’ should not be seen as “innocently ‘mirroring a reality’” (ibid.), but as a deliberate strategy to present a marginalised Cuban voice; that of urban Black communities, facing a tacit prejudice from a supposedly ‘colourless society’ (Sujatha Fernandes, 2003), and stake for it some form of legitimacy within Cuban discourse.

Following Perna’s ruminations on NG la Banda’s resituating of “real cubanía” to “an authentic neighbourhood”, at the very cusp of the special period, in the remainder of this subchapter, I will examine one musical example of the legacy of this relocated authentic Cubanness, in the song ‘Arrollando Bien’ by Habana Abierta. However, in doing so, I want to analyse this song with respect to the above asserted theory of dual authentication – both of place and artist. Because songs such as ‘Los Sitios Entero’, recorded ten years before ‘Arrollando Bien’ had laid the ground work for presenting urban, Black Havana as “authentic neighbourhoods”, Habana Abierta are able in to use this established authenticity framework – that of the authentic place – reflect their own credibility, and simultaneous help to re-increase the image of the place itself.

However, this relocation of the site of Cuban identity has not been without its contestation, for, as the following subchapter will suggest, at the same time as Habana Abierta were seeking to align themselves with the urban image of Cuban identity, there was, through the ‘revival’ of Cuban ‘traditional music’ as part of the ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ project, a move to re-relocate the image of Cuban identity back to ‘el campo’, to re-play the guajiro identity as authentic, but to present Havana as the site of this rekindled rurality; creating an image of a rural-city, and an urban-guajiro which played into tousits and world music images of Authentic music from the ‘periphery’.

To’ El Mundo Lo Sabe Bien

In 1999, Habana Abierta, a band of Cuban musicians living and working in Spain, released their second album ‘24 Horas’. Though the band themselves describe the music as ‘rockason’ – a hybrid genre fusing rock with Cuba’s most symbolically national genre son – in truth the album’s musical influences are much more diverse. Shades of funk, rumba, conga, hip hop and jazz all find their way into the eclectic soundworld. Yet within this diverse sonic palette, there seems to be a concerted effort to present the band as an expression of authentic Cubanness that is never far from the surface. Nowhere is this more apparent that on the song ‘Arrollando Bien’, written and sung by Jose Luis Medina.

From the opening drum call, which combines Cuba’s ubiquitous conga drums with the crisp roll of a snare drum, to the presentation of a fast and purposeful conga beat which allies and embellishes itself with distorted (though immaculately so; there is nothing of Porno Para Ricardo’s anarchic sound here) electric guitars, the presentation of a contemporary Cubanness which play homage to its musical forbears but which takes dramatic and authoritative ownership of them to mould them into new configurations is made abundantly clear.

At around two minutes into the song, the lyrics make an overt reference to place and, in doing so, nail their colours as an authentic voice of contemporary Cubanness firmly to the mast. For alongside the mentioning of place – Guabanacoa, a barrio in Havana that is as “unmistakably black” to Cuban listeners as the Los Sitios sung about by NG la Banda (Perna, 2005:172) with the added reputation as a hotbed for Santería – is a list of Cuban musicians from Guanabacoa whose place in the pantheon of Cuban greats is uncontested:

Yo soy de Guanabacoa To’ el mundo lo sabe bien De alli tambien era el Bola El gran maestro Lecuona Dona Rita Montaner Yo no respeto a otra joya, Yo no respeto a otra joya Yo sigo, yo sigo mi negra…

I’m from Guanabacoa Everyone knows that Bola was also from there And the great maestro Lecuona, Lady Rita Montaner You can’t get any better than that Here I go, mi negra

In both the naming of place and the listing of Cuban greats from that place, Habana Abierta are, as Perna suggests of NG la Banda, forging an authentic location where the ‘real Cubanness’ may be located. They are making, or at least helping to reinforce, Guabanacoa an authentic place. The three greats mentioned are the flamboyant pre-Revolutionary piano player Bola de Nieve, composer and piano maestro Ernesto Lecuona and the multi-talented Rita Montaner; all from this same barrio, all assured of a place in Cuba’s musical annals.

Yet their strong alliance in these line to the specific location (rather than to Havana, or even to Cuba) is telling. For it creates an aura around the place mentioned that is familiar in many other discourses surrounding ‘authentic places’; it suggests that somehow the place itself is partly responsible for embuing these greats with their talents, and that the place itself hold within it a multitude of similar stars waiting to emerge. It is a discourse picked up upon by Harvey Taylor in the ostensibly drastically different context of ‘Geordie’ sporting heroes:

The role of the sporting hero in the North-East was certainly more than simply to be the subject of hero worship. Backed by the belief that there were many more of this calibre just waiting to prove their worth, the hero was seen as typical of the region and representative of its skills and strengths (1992:114)

In asserting the importance of Guabanacoa to these three stars, Habana Abierta create something of the same connection between ‘hero’ and place. Rita Montaner becomes Guabanacoa; becomes a representation of its people and evidence that it is a place where a definitive image of Cuban musical prowess can be unearthed simply by finding someone from that place; Guabanacoa is full, it would seem, or budding Rita Montaners. Jose Luis Medina’s impassioned assertion that he too comes from this place further serves to accentuate the potency of this authentic place; contemporising it by showing that this new generation of Cuban music owes its existence to this authentic place.

But as Perna saliently points out, the referencing of place in song is not as innocent as “mirroring a reality” (2005:176). Guabanacoa is not a priori an authentic place. By referencing it in song – by deeming it important enough to sing about, and by implying its importance in forming these past greats, Habana Abierta are imbuing this place with its authenticity, whilst simultaneously describing the facets that constitute authenticity to them; that is success, musical prowess, an intimate knowledge of Havana, perhaps, it may even be said, an air of internationalism – Rita Montaner (the highest of the high) being celebrated and working in Cuba and the United States.

Having outlined the authenticity of this place, they then attach themselves to that authentic place; they are, as the whole world knows, from that place and thus, by definition, must share in that authenticity; there can be no doubt that the band themselves are an authentic voice of Cubanness because they come from an authentically Cuban place.

Thus we can see a clear example of the mutual authentication suggested above; artist mentions and authenticates place, and by doing so envelops him/herself in that authenticity, which in turn provides more authenticity to the place mentioned.

Such a trope would be of paramount importance to a Cuban band living and working entirely outside of Cuba. As this album was produced, the band had not played within Cuba, and it is arguable that their claim to an identity as a contemporary Cuban voice, with their finger on the pulse of modern Cubanness was made spurious by their physical dislocation from the island. This would perhaps be the case with any musician living outside their ‘place’ (particularly when such deference is made to that place in the music), but within the polemicising discourse of Cuban politics, which casts those who leave the island as gusanos and seems to revoke their claim to a Cuban identity as a mandatory charge of leaving, the desire to cast off the spectre of inauthenticity is made all the stronger. Thus Habana Abierta are adamant to assert their Cubanness; referencing a barrio only other ‘true Cubans’ would have heard of and would formulate a mental image of. Then, by listing other Cuban greats form the same place, Medina inserts himself into the authentic lineage of Cuban musicians.

This example of dual authentication, if nothing else, makes clear the obvious point that notions of authenticity are neither stable nor neutrally constructed; there is always some political aspect to their formation. What Medina and Habana Abierta’s ‘Guanabacoa Cubanness’ identity suggests is something of a hybrid between the “ode to urban prettiness” (Perna, 2005:172), the indisputable face of national achievement and a relocation of the authentic Cuban identity to re-establish it as urban, contemporary, diverse in its soundworld, and perhaps diverse in its eventual location, though strongly connected to its ‘roots’ (physically, musically and historically). Whether this identity construction is self-serving or not (aren’t all constructions of authentic identity models?), it is significant in presenting a ‘different Cubanness’; one that celebrates musical hybridity. Yet as hinted at above, as Cuba emerged from the hardship of the special period and turned to face the new millennium, there grew a much more prominent, far more traditional, and retrogressive image of the authentic Cuban identity provided by an imagined band from a largely imagined bygone era: the Buena Vista Social Club.

De Alto Cedro, Voy Para Macané’: The Reemergence of the ‘Authentic Guajiro’ and the ‘Rural City’

The story of the emergence of the Buena Vista Social Club, with all its encompassed nostalgia and narrative, will be a familiar one. Both Vincenzo Perna (2005:240-63) and Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor (2007:297-318) dedicate chapters to describing the formation and cultural and political significance of the Buena Vista Social Club, and the efficacy of their work makes further repetition here unnecessary, particularly as I do not wish to enter into a debate necessarily around the authenticity (or lack thereof) of the band’s music. Thus I refer the reader to both texts for such arguments and assert the point I wish to make herein; that as groups such as Habana Abierta (and Porno Para Ricardo[2] for that matter) were fashioning an authentic urban and contemporary Cubanness, the Buena Vista Social Club fashioned an image of a distinctly retrogressive, nostalgic and rural Cuban identity that harked back to the image of the guajiro and el campo as the place where true Cubanness could be located. However, the presentation of this sonic and lyrical image situated alongside the images of crumbling Havana streets and anachronistic Chevrolets (as the 1999 eponymous documentary does), the Buena Vista Social Club presented an image of Havana that aligned itself with the rural concept of authenticity; that is ‘old-fashioned’ (indeed just ‘old’), a sort of ‘timeless’ quality, the notion of songs that have existed as representations of ‘the people’ for many years, acoustic music, folk traditions, etc. In a sense, the image of Cuban identity the Buena Vista Social Club gave was that of a rural city, inhabited by guajiros; the place of Cuban identity was still that of the countryside.

The machinations behind this identity presentation again are covered in detail by both Barker and Yuval and Perna, though I believe both place an overabundance of significance (or blame) upon American producer and slide guitarist Ry Cooder, and appear to leave the musicians themselves as passive bystanders in a cynically nostalgic identity construction. As is discussed below, the presentation of an identity can have a number of meanings depending upon the viewer, and I the musicians themselves were complicit, to a certain extent, in the construction of this identity. Though the well-told narrative of “forgotten musical heroes” being rediscovered (Perna, 2005:246) is not without embellishment, the fact remains that the various members of the Buena Vista Social Club went on to international success. By presenting a ‘placed’ identity, working on established frameworks of ‘authentic’ rural Cubanness apparent in both Cuban and international discourse, that they themselves easily (and authoritatively) fit into – that is of the old guajiro troubadours, fading glamour, “the musicians’ wrinkles… becoming metaphors, homologous with the cracks and faded revolutionary murals on the walls of Havana” (ibid.) – the musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club bought for themselves authenticity, and with it critical acclaim and financial reward, where before there had been none.

A Rural Map in an Urban Environment

De Alto Cedro, voy para Marcané, lego a Cueto, voy para Mayarí

From Alto Cedro, I go to Marcané, I arrive in Cueto, then I go to Mayarí

The first lyrics heard in the film and album of the Buena Vista Social Club conjure up something of an exotic cartography for the listener – assuming, as do Barker and Yuval that the listener is not Cuban, claiming that “most Cubans have never heard the recording” (2007:302). Four places pepper the yellow subtitles at the bottom of the screen.

As the incantation of place is repeated, we as viewer/listener are given ‘clues’ as to their location of the places and their significance to the soundworld and identity unfolding before us through the images accompanying them, though they may not necessarily be factually accurate. The first repetition shows Compay Segundo and Eliades Ochoa – the former in a suave Panama hat, the latter in robust cowboy hat (symbolic trademarks both) – exchange a knowing smile as the Dutch audience cheer wildly.

As the famous four-chord pattern swirls around, the camera cuts from the live concert to a number of images of Havana in all its glorious, colourful degradation. An anachronistic grandiose car speeds through ocean spray on the malecón, Ry Cooder and son Joachim are seen on a rickety motorbike and side car – searching for ‘something’ perhaps on avenues of dishevelled colonial pillars, old men riding bicycles pass by, old women hang washing out on balconies and gossip, rusting Chevvies and Buicks dodge the myriad potholes as Ry and Joichim maintain their colourful vigil along the streets. The accompanying lyrics speak of Juanita and the eponymous hero Chan Chan sitting on a beach engaging in light-hearted foreplay, and the narrator sitting quietly on an old tree trunk on some forgotten dusty road on his journey around a boundary line of authentic Cuba; at once obscured from the listener, yet well known to the performer; almost magical places the listener will never know, and the singer knows only too well.

But these four repeated places – Alto Cedro, Marcané, Cueto, Mayarí – are not places in Havana, though the accompanying images would suggest that they are. In fact they are small villages in Hoguin province in the east of Cuba. But the amalgamation of these two disparate places – the city and the countryside – is telling.

Another example of this cartographical juxtaposition comes when Eliades Ochoa sings perhaps his most well-know contribution to the band’s oeuvre; ‘El Carretero’ (‘the cowboy’). On a seemingly abandoned train platform, surrounded by rusted corrugated iron and broken concrete being reclaimed by grass, Eliades sits – cowboy hat and guitar – to play to (seemingly) nobody other than himself. Later, he walks down the same deserted train track and sings:

Yo trabajo sin reposo
para poderme casar
y si lo llego a lograr
sere un guajiro dichoso

A caballo vamos pa’l monte
a caballo vamos pa’l monte

I work without stopping

So I can get married

And if I can manage that

I’ll be a lucky guajiro

Ride the horses to the mountains

Alongside the traditionalist rhetoric of hard work and family life, here is presented something of a rural vista slightly incongruous to the pictures being shown: ‘why ride a horse, when we can take the train?’ But once again we have a conglomeration of distinctly urban (even more specifically Havana – the Capitolio building is visible in the background, marking our location) environment with distinctly rural sonic images and ideals; the acoustic guitar, the cowboy hat, the lone troubadour, the work, a sense of pride in one’s region: “el campo mas linda del mundo entero[3]”. Indeed as Ochoa sings these words, the camera cuts to the Capitolio up close, and the bicycle-riding ‘folk’ plying their wares in its shadow. Even in the musical form – a style called ‘son guajiro’ we can hear something of an urban reimagining of the rural aesthetic. Perna, citing Peter Manuel suggests that son guajiro “described as a sort of “fake country music” (Manuel et al., 1995), is a nostalgic idealization of rural life by urban white singers” (2005:251). Certainly in this urban performance of rural ideology, we can see the not only the idealization of the rural, but its relocation as well.

In both these songs the urban – Havana – is presented as maintaining the vestiges of a rural identity; Havana is presented as a palimpsest sat atop this always-present notion of the guajiro identity; always an integral part of the authentic Cuban identity. Here the physical places of that rural identity are moved to the setting of Havana; the two worlds – presented as vastly different by bands such as Habana Abierta – are seen as one and the same in the work of Buena Vista. Here we see a urban-guajiros as the truely authentic Cuban identity, and the rural-metropolis of a crumbling, dirt-road-and-bicycles Havana are its setting.

Viewing Identity Construction

But as mentioned above, it is not my intention to contest the authenticity of this ‘placed’ Cuban identity. But what is worth discussing, as does Perna, is the different ways and means that this identity has been authenticated (or held as already authentic) by various different, often opposing groups, to suit their own desired image of Cuba, and to vicariously gain some authenticity for themselves by staking a claim to that space of authenticity.

Perna discusses a number of people/ groups with a vested interest in promoting this “picture of an island imbued with nostalgia, and of a city of grand, run-down buildings, industrial archaeology and exceptionally-gifted octogenarians” and “nostalgic representation of Cuban culture” (2005:240-2). Of producer Ry Cooder, Perna suggests the presentation of Cuba as a land of “forgotten musical heroes” (ibid.:246) allowed Cooder to present himself as the finder of authenticity, the promoter and reviver of lost authenticity. Perna also suggests that the image of “the pre-modern spirit of Buena Vista has been co-opted into the anti-US, anti-imperialistic discourse [of the Cuban government], and employed to emphasise the national element of Cuban culture in opposition to the xenophile and ‘deviant’ attitudes of timba audiences and musicians” (ibid.:250). To that latter group one could add frikis. So although this image of urban-rural Cubanness was, one could suggest, defined from ‘without’ (by and American producer), it has been co-opted by a Cuban government as a symbol of authentic Cubanness by virtue of its ‘purity’ from foreign influence. Whatever else can be said of the value of son in contemporary Cuban society, there is an unshakable aura surrounding it of an entirely autochthonous origin – perhaps with some quasi-mystical ‘root’ in an imagined ‘Africa’, but defiantly native to Cuban soil. However spurious this claim, this is the ‘accepted’ identity of son, so to present a band as somehow ‘unchanged’ by the ravages of time, and ‘unfetted’ by the corruption of foreign influence was (and still is) a potent symbol of independence and defiance against the “colossus to the North” (this despite Ry Cooder’s description of Ibrahim Ferrer as a “Cuban Nat ‘King’ Cole”, belying this myth of complete musical isolation.).

Not coincidentally, this image of contemporary Cubanness has dove-tailed perfectly with the rise in tourism on the island, Perna suggesting the “nostalgic, gentle neo-colonial mood has contributed to creating a tourist-friendly image of Cuba” (ibid.:263). But even aside from tourism, those from outside Cuba can latch onto this authentic place for their own ends, as Perna describes both “liberal Americans” celebrating Cuba as “an uncontaminated site of human purity, protected from the evils of capitalism and globalization” (ibid.:261) and right-wing Miami Cubans who take from Buena Vista’s pre-revolutionary songbook the implicit message that nothing good has come of Cuban culture since 1959. This former group attach themselves to this ruralised Eden in imagining their own folk heritage perhaps; the communities of folk musicians in the Appalaichian mountains, or the “imagined villages” of Britain (Boyes, 1993); a time before the corruption of industry, globalisation and capitalism. This rural Cuba becomes synecdoche for the lost rurality (and thus place of authenticity) in all national identities. In a sense then, the album becomes a ‘place’ in itself where the ‘imagined golden past’ has been captured, and the loss of one’s own past can be lamented.

One group with a vested interest in promoting this image of Cuban authenticity which Perna fails to mention however, are the musicians themselves. As mentioned above, they, as elderly musicians of traditional Cuban genres, had something of an agenda in promoting this bygone era of musicianship (of which they were progenitors) as still being of value and significance in contemporary Cuba. Thus they can re-present themselves as authentic voices of Cubanness.


[1] The Sierra Maestra is a mountain range in the East of Cuba.

[2] Porno Para Ricardo formed in 1999, as the Buena Vista were attracting significant worldwide popularity and painting their picture of Cubanness to this global market.

[3] This is a lyric in the following verse, translating as “the [Cuban] countryside is the most beautiful in the world.”

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