Sue Miller – Cuban Flute Improviser, Writer & Academic

Music and Revolution: Cultural Change in Socialist CubaJune 8th, 2010

Review of Robin Moore’s book Music and Revolution: Cultural Change in Socialist Cuba in Cultural Politics Journal Volume 03 Issue 02 July 2007, p265 -268:


music and revolution (Small)

Cultural Policy and Music Making in Revolutionary Cuba

Sue Miller

Music and Revolution: Cultural Change in Socialist Cuba, by Robin D. Moore, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 2006, 367pages, £38.95p/£15.95,

HB ISBN 0 – 520-24710-8, PB ISBN 0 – 520-24711-6

In Music and Revolution Robin Moore,  professor of music history at the University of Texas, presents a comprehensive survey of cultural policy making in Cuba from the early years of the revolution, the ‘quinquenio gris’ (from 1969 to 1973), the more optimistic 1980s, and the special period in the 1990s through to the present day. He looks at the ideologies behind the policies, exploring how issues of race and religion, alongside cultural theories of socialism, Marxism and nationalism, have impacted on cultural policy. After a chronological overview of cultural changes from the 1950s onwards, Moore turns his attention to various case studies. Here, I shall focus on his discussion of dance and  Afro-Cuban ‘folkloric’ musics, although Moore also explores  Nueva Trova, Salsa and Timba to illustrate the effects of various policies on Cuban musicians themselves. As he states in his introduction, critiques of cultural policies in Cuba are rare due to the tendency of writers on Cuban matters to come down on one side or other of the political divide (pro or anti-Castro). His stated aim is to fairly evaluate the impact of cultural policies in Cuba post 1959 with a view to opening up an informed debate on the subject. The sense of victimhood and isolation felt by Cuba (due to the US embargo and the  collapse of the Soviet Union) has often led to a defensive stance as regards evaluating its own cultural policies and in this book Moore sets out  to discover the truths surrounding cultural life in socialist Cuba. He states at the outset that as a North American academic, this has not been an easy task as many obstacles have been put in his way. For example, he has had difficulties getting funding to study in Cuba from the US side and the Cuban Ministry of Culture has refused him access to statistical data.

Moore highlights the fact that the Afro-Cuban community was the first to benefit from the revolution in terms of better living standards, housing, health and education. Many Afro-Cuban artists also received state support, particularly in the early years of the revolution. However, such support does not always mean that musicians are free to do what they want given various attempts by the government to interfere with the development of Cuban musicianship. Moore recounts one amusing tale of Pedro Izquierdo (Pello el Afrokán) being asked by Fidel Castro in 1965 to write a song about the sugar harvest to spur on the workers. The resulting song pleased both Fidel and the musicians through the well tested Cuban art of double-entendre, with lyrics such as “Ay, how tasty the sugar cane is honey…bring your cart over here!” Other examples of state intervention had more serious consequences however, such as Nueva Trova artists in the early part of their careers being sent to ‘voluntary’ labour camps for ‘re-education’.

Moore’s exploration of dance music shows how the socialist government has struggled to reconcile the pleasure principle with its concept of music as having to ‘edify’ and ‘educate’. However, Cuban son music, emanating from the black working class, with its lyrics about daily life and its emphasis on dance and sensual pleasures, is  not an ideal medium for political messages. Charanga and Son Conjunto bands were, of course, immensely popular in the 1950s but were viewed as escapist and frivolous by the new leadership. Consequently,  many of these dance bands received little state support. Yet as Moore explains, to acknowledge the rich artistic life of the 1950s does not in any way negate the existence of prostitution, poverty, racism and other hardships suffered by ordinary Cubans. As he remarks, many musics such as Jazz and Tango have originated amidst appalling social conditions. The rise in popularity of Salsa worldwide and of Timba in Cuba in the 1980s and 1990s, however, have led to a volte-face by the state, which now  supports dance music as a means of securing much needed revenue.

The facile criticism (by Cuban commentators such as Ariana Hernández-Reguant) of the Buena Vista phenomenon, (the 1997 international hit ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ documentary film and recording by UK-based ‘World Circuit’ Records that showcased pre-Revolutionary artists such as Rubén Gonzalez and Ibrahim Ferrer), as ‘imperialist nostalgia’ is challenged by Moore (p132) as he points out that performers from the 1940s and 50s have been consistently underpromoted in post-revolutionary Cuba and that these musicians have been unfairly stigmatised by association with the Batista era. Moore points out that the state record company, EGREM, could have effected a similar success to that of World Circuit’s Buena Vista productions had it chosen to promote its high quality back catalogue of 1950s performers.

Regarding ‘Afro-Cuban’ forms of music (Rumba, religious ‘folkloric’ music such as Santería, Palo Monte and Abacuá), state support has been uneven and contradictory. This is  because the issue of racism is rarely discussed in the context of socialist Cuba, as the leadership promotes an image of a unified Cuban nation in the face of US aggression. Nevertheless, racism did not disappear in 1959 and Moore points out that Marxist  intolerance of religion has also been used as a cover for racial prejudice, with Afro-Cuban folkloric drumming often viewed as ‘atrasada’ (backward) by party officials and musicians too (composer Gonzalo Roig described the music as barbaric). All forms of religion were banned by the revolutionary government and Afro-Cuban religions in particular have been viewed as a throwback to primitive, colonial times. State support for the music and dance of Santería and other Afro-Cuban religious  forms have set out to valorise the music and dance but separate them from their religious content, turning performances of ‘Afro-Folkloric’ music and dance into ‘heritage folk-art’ for the concert stage. The first state-supported Afro-folkloric group, the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional was founded in 1962 and is perhaps the most well known both in Cuba and abroad. Criticisms of these staged performances of Afro-Cuban artforms by Cuban musicologists such as Helio Orovio and Carlos Moore include the lack of spontaneity, the diminished role of improvisation and the increased formality of these events. On the plus side these groups have played an important educative role, particularly as conservatoires up until very recently have not allowed Cuban popular music or ‘Afro-folkloric’ drumming into their curriculum.

Moore’s book gives a fascinating insight into how state intervention in the arts affects artists on the ground in Cuba. Some policies have been immensely successful (for example a ‘Casa de Cultura’ in every town, top level free music education, guaranteed salaries for performing musicians), whilst other measures have been more detrimental (such as the banning of Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies  in the late 1960s and the instigation of  education programmes in schools and youth summer camps aimed at eradicating Afro-Cuban religions).

Although the book is well researched, Moore’s inability to gain access to the Ministry of Culture’s statistics means that his work is necessarily incomplete. Let us hope that the Ministry of Culture will soften its policy of non-cooperation with US researchers sooner rather than later. As a musician who has interviewed Cuban musicians,  I appreciate the in-depth background that  Moore’s book affords researchers such as me.  The thirteen musical transcriptions included serve to illustrate some styles and rhythms, and show evidence of the use of Afro-Cuban religious music in popular dance genres, yet  knowledge of musical notation is not a prerequisite for understanding the book. In sum, Music and Revolution will be of great interest to Cubaphiles, ethnomusicologists, cultural, and political theorists in addition to anyone concerned with how the state’s involvement in cultural policy can affect the artistic life of nations.