Cubans are incredibly creative people, and most Cubans enjoy making music in just about any setting.
For Cubans, music has a physical dimension as the mastery of a craft and a metaphysical dimension that is a cultural connection to an eclectic blend of histories and influences stretching back hundreds of years. Turn any corner in a Cuban city and you will likely encounter musical Cubans unleashing their gifts, paying no attention to the oily puddles and rusty rebar that surrounds them.
It was recently announced that Sony Music International struck a deal with EGREM (Empresa de Grabaciones y Ediciones Musicales) to release decades of state-owned Cuban recordings. It’s the largest catalog of its kind, dating back to 1959 when Fidel Castro nationalized the music industry following the communist takeover.
Things changed after the Cuban revolution. The regime wanted to cut ties to the past, and favored classical music to its creole counterpart.
The Afro-Cuban culture and the religious practices that had played such a role in the musical history of the country took the brunt of the new regulations.
Night clubs were closed. Radio stations and record companies became state institutions.
To put it mildly, there was a lot of state intervention when it came to music and artists, leading to a mass exodus of musicians, among them Celia Cruz, who some now refer to as the most influential female figure in the history of Cuban music.
For the musicians who stayed, the state paid their salaries. Young players were given conservatory training.
Composers Harold Gramatges, Juan Blanco, and Guitarist Leo Brouwer succeeded during the era because they had the support of those in charge – Alfredo Guevara and Fidel Castro.
Gramatges founded the Havana Chamber Orchestra, and transformed music education in the country. As a composer, his style slickly blended contemporary classical with modern Cuban music. Meanwhile, Blanco put a progressive spin on tradition and made history in 1961 as the first Cuban composer to write an electroacoustic piece. “Musica Para Danza” was produced with an oscillator and three tape recorders.
Along with Blanco and Brouwer, Carlos Farinas was also a key player in the Cuban avant-garde movement.
(Side note: Blanco’s music is part of the EGREM catalog.)
The strength of the country’s music and its ability to make changes shown once again with the birth of salsa.
In places like New York, salsa was rooted in Cuban Son and big band jazz.
But in Cuba, they took the genre one step further, mixing in Afro-Cuban folklore and American funk. It was written in the streets and often well-seasoned with sociopolitical commentary.
The group Los Van Van is perhaps the most recognizable group out of this era, with their song “Soy Todo (Ay, Dios Ampárame)” considered a Cuban anthem by many.
In the mid 90s, musicians were given the ability to work freely inside and outside the country. Those who were successful were among the best-paid professionals on the island.
The beginning of the 21st century saw the popularity of another genre: hip hop. Imported from Miami, Cuban musicians added their own flavor. Orishas being on the forefront of the movement with their album A Lo Cubano.
Because music and media were censored, those with messages took their songs to the streets.
The method of making hip hop music made it easy to do outside of the government-controlled concert venues, meaning not even the government could stop it from going mainstream.
It also put music once again into the hands of the people, showing that while modern Cuban music is a combination of many styles and genres, its roots remain in Son and on the streets where they first were heard all those years ago.