The Washington Post
Last Dance in Havanaby Eugene Robinson
In power for forty-four years and counting, Fidel Castro has done everything possible to define Cuba to the world and to itself -- yet not even he has been able to control the thoughts and dreams of his people. Those thoughts and dreams are the basis for what may become a post-Castro Cuba. To more fully understand the future of America's near neighbor, veteran reporter Eugene Robinson knew exactly where to look -- or rather, to listen. In this provocative work, Robinson takes us on a sweaty, pulsating, and lyrical tour of a country on the verge of revolution, using its musicians as a window into its present and future.
Music is the mother's milk of Cuban culture. Cubans express their fondest hopes, their frustrations, even their political dissent, through music. Most Americans think only of salsa and the Buena Vista Social Club when they think of the music of Cuba, yet those styles are but a piece of a broad musical spectrum. Just as the West learned more about China after the Cultural Revolution by watching From Mao to Mozart, so will readers discover the real Cuba -- the living, breathing, dying, yet striving Cuba.
Cuban music is both wildly exuberant and achingly melancholy. A thick stew of African and European elements, it is astoundingly rich and influential to have come from such a tiny island. From rap stars who defy the government in their lyrics to violinists and pianists who attend the world's last Soviet-style conservatory to international pop stars who could make millions abroad yet choose to stay and work for peanuts, Robinson introduces us to unforgettable characters who happily bring him into their homes and backstage discussions.
Despite Castro's attempts to shut down nightclubs, obstruct artists, and subsidize only what he wants, the musicians and dancers of Cuba cannot stop, much less behave. Cubans move through their complicated lives the way they move on the dance floor, dashing and darting and spinning on a dime, seducing joy and fulfillment and next week's supply of food out of a broken system. Then at night they take to the real dance floors and invent fantastic new steps. Last Dance in Havana is heartwrenching, yet ultimately as joyous and hopeful as a rocking club late on a Saturday night.
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Read an Excerpt
Introduction: Drum Roll
In 1997, a Cuban musical phenomenon called Buena Vista Social Club was born. The album was the unlikeliest of hits -- a bunch of aging, forgotten crooners singing songs few had ever heard of in a language most Americans don't even understand. Despite all that, it was wildly successful. The music was the thing. It was music that compelled you to move, compelled you to dance. Gently sexual and savory-sweet, the album's sounds and singers came from Cuba's musical golden age -- a time before revolution, before communism, before the missile crisis and the Mariel boat lift and the Helms-Burton Act. A time even before anyone had ever heard of a tall, ambitious, socially awkward rich kid from the sticks named Fidel Castro.
Today in Cuba, those sweet Buena Vista songs are played around the clock in tourist bars, expensive restaurants, and five-star hotel lobbies, but hardly anywhere else. The rest of Cuba dances to more urgent sounds.
After forty-four years Fidel is still in firm control of Cuba. He faces no serious challenge; the dissident movement is tiny, largely ineffectual, and was recently shown to be riddled with government spies. More than a decade after the Soviet bloc collapsed and international Marxism died, Cuba remains a defiantly communist state; long after nominally communist China embraced the free market, Cuba still does not allow its citizens to buy and sell property, establish private companies, or even purchase a car for private use without permission. It would be easy to conclude that amid a swirling, transforming world, nothing much is happening in Cuba.
But that easy conclusion is wrong. The sudden cutoff of lavish Soviet subsidies created massive economic and social dislocation, plunging the average Cuban citizen into poverty -- cultured, well-educated poverty with good health care, to be sure, but poverty nonetheless. So that his people might eat, Fidel was forced to allow limited exercises in free enterprise. He had to let two highly suspect influences -- foreign tourism and remittances from Cuban exiles -- become the twin pillars of the economy. In what must have been a galling move, he had to legalize the holding and spending of U.S. dollars, and then watch as the currency of his imperialist enemy captured ground from his own battered peso. He turned a blind eye as Cubans invented their own ways to get by. When asked about the thousands of young women who had flocked to the cities to tease love and money out of visiting Spaniards and Italians, he remarked that at least they would be the healthiest and best-educated prostitutes in the world.
All this happened, and also something else: Fidel got old.
When he passed seventy-five, the unthinkable suddenly became the inevitable. Someday, not long from now, there will be no Fidel. Most Cubans have known no other leader, no other system. His brother Raúl, the designated successor, is just five years younger and has none of Fidel's magnetism, cleverness, or eloquence. What on earth will happen then?
Cubans worry about the future. Meanwhile, they do the best they can, scraping and scrambling to get through the day, through the month.
And whenever they can, they go out and dance.
Two generalizations about the Buena Vista era hold true today: Cuba is a land of music, a thick stew of African and European elements that is astoundingly rich and influential to have come from such a tiny island. And Cuban music, even more than American music or Brazilian music or any of the other comparable strains, is dance music. Cubans move through their complicated lives the way they move on the dance floor, dashing and darting and spinning on a dime, seducing joy and fulfillment and next week's supply of food out of a broken system. Then at night they take to the real dance floors and invent new steps.
Today's dance-floor sounds are harder-edged: a furious brand of salsa called timba, a brassy update of the traditional Cuban son, a still-nascent native brand of hip-hop whose lyrics take up topics like racism and police harassment, subjects that couldn't have been addressed from a stage a decade ago.
There's a national newscast on Cuban television every night at eight, but it's slow and stilted, and everyone knows it's far from complete. The music of Cuba is the real news. Those who make the music are the real journalists, analysts, social commentators. To understand what's happening in Cuba, you have to meet the musicians and listen to their fabulous music.
Then you have to go out and dance.
Copyright © 2004 by Eugene Robinson
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