Tag Archives: Cuban music

That Irrepressible Cuban Creativity

The creativity of Cuban performance artists was on full display this past month in New York City. I attended two concerts/performances that left me shaking my head from the sheer amazement of what Cubans are capable of achieving on a stage. And I mean not only on a stage in New York City, but also on the world’s cultural stage.

In my Cuba courses I have always tried to balance my coverage of political history with an appreciation of cultural expressions. To focus exclusively on the former is to dwell on the dismal, but the latter is a story of extraordinary achievement, not just now, but always. I tell my students that if there is ever a final judgment day for the world’s cultures, the Cubans could never claim, say, contributions to better governance. But my people would be at the front of the line of those claiming to have made world-class contributions to the performing arts, especially music. That engagement on the world’s stage, dating back to the nineteenth century, continues undiminished to this day. It’s a hell of a run.

Anyone who thinks that I am just being the usual hyperbolic –exagerado – ethnocentric Cuban did not attend the two events I attended in New York City in the past few weeks. Those were not quaint folkloric performances. They were performances that, in a uniquely Cuban way, push the envelope in the universal genres of jazz and modern dance.

May 16, Friday, the stage of the Appel (née Allen) Room of Jazz at Lincoln Center was the site for a gathering of five virtuosos that had not previously played together as a group. With Columbus Circle, 57th Avenue, and Central Park as the


backdrop in that beautifully designed hall, the mostly Cuban group delivered an original set of ten compositions by the performers under the title “Nuevo Jazz Latino.” All the Cubans in the quintet started their careers in the island’s musical institutions and arrived in the U.S. in the late 1990s: Yosvany Terry, saxophone (Camagüey); Dafnis Prieto, drums (Santa Clara, see my previous blog on Dafnis); Elio Villafranca, piano (Pinar del Río); and Pedrito Martínez, percussion (La Habana). The fifth performer was Carlos Henríquez, acoustic and electric bass (Nuyorican, born in the Bronx).

Dafnis Prieto
Dafnis Prieto
Pedrito Martínez

Pedrito Martinez



Each musician contributed two of his own compositions for the concert. It was a varied and intense concert, played without an intermission and with a minimum of interruptions. The ten pieces collectively represent a milestone in Latin Jazz, pushing the boundaries of the genre in different directions. There was not a weak spot, but I especially liked the opening “Back and Forth” by Dafnis; “Keep Talking,” by Martínez, based on an African canto; the danzón-inspired “Tula’s Dream,” by Henríquez; and Terry’s “El Noticiero,” the finale.  It was in that final number that the group was joined on stage by Eladio (“Don Pancho”) Terry, Yosvany’s father, violinist, legendary leader of a charanga orchestra in Cuba, and perhaps best known as a master of the chekeré, which he brought with him in a case and played it throughout “El Noticiero” with great gusto.

It was an evening that ended triumphantly with a standing ovation. Too bad the New York Times’ reviewer Jon Pareles left the hall after the performance by the New Jazz Standards Quintet at the Appel Room earlier that same evening. In his review of that performance, Mr. Pareles noted that “the [New Jazz Standards] quintet is an all-star group of composers whose daunting task was to come up with 21st-century jazz standards.”  Had he stuck around for Nuevo Jazz Latino, he might have heard (and reviewed) another all-star quintet of composers and performers whose work may well become part of the new jazz “standards” of this century.

Another New York Times reviewer, however, did attend a performance of MalPaso, a dance company from Cuba, who performed, in their first tour outside of Cuba, at the intimate Joyce Theater in Chelsea from May 27th to June 1st. Liza and I went on the last day’s matinee performance and found it truly electrifying. The New York Times reviewer, Siobhan Burke, heaped praise on it: “It’s impossible to choose favorites among the dancers, many of whom studied at Cuba’s National Ballet School. They have the pristine technique but none of the


rigidity that comes with that kind of training, as comfortable on the ground — in coiling, capoeiralike flips and tricks — as they are in the air. They’re both humble and sparklingly present — and remarkably strong all around, with the men and women doing equal lifting.”


The company was founded by Osnel Delgado Wambrug and Dailé Carrazana González, two gifted dancers and choreographers who are joined on the stage by six other equally talented dancers. The program featured two pieces, divided by an intermission. The first was “24 horas y un perro” and the second “Por qué sigues.”  Liza liked the second one, an energetic piece with African musical motifs and movements derived from Yoruba folk dancing. But I preferred


the first one largely because it had live music, composed and arranged for the piece by Arturo O’Farrill and performed right next to the stage by O’Farrill and his Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble. Besides, I really liked the “dog” theme, chronicling an eventful day using a canine allegory.  I know literally where they’re coming from: after visiting Havana many times, I have developed a little theory about the behavior of street dogs in that city. But that’s for another blog post . . .


Even the dogs are creative . . . 🙂







Rumba, Race, and Identity in Central Park

I heard it as soon as we headed west from the Bethesda Fountain. There was no mistaking its origins: the layered multi-rhythmic percussion that is perhaps Cuba’s foremost contribution to world culture.  As we walked towards the Bow Bridge, the claves and the tumbadoras grew louder and I suddenly remembered: yes, of course, it’s Sunday, it’s summer, and so it’s Rumba in the park! It’s been around for so long that I thought it had already been relegated to the past. Yet there it was, on the banks of The Lake: Afro-Cubans, mostly, young and old, men and women crowding around the players beating on the drums and singing the lead-response choruses that characterize Afro-Cuban music.

I first learned of the existence of this Cuban New York tradition from a 1996 piece in the New York Times by its Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter, Mirta Ojito, now a Columbia journalism professor. When did the rumba in the park start?  “Nobody here seems sure how these rumba Sundays started,” wrote Mirta sixteen years ago. “Some say it started spontaneously 80 years ago with a group of friends who wanted to play drums outdoors. Others recall a day in May 14 years ago when a group of Latinos, looking for a place to continue to party after a big parade, settled on this specific spot in Central Park and started a tradition.”  Mirta interviewed one man who claimed to have started rumba Sundays around 1966.

Liza and I wandered around the crowded scene on the sidewalk by The Lake. The percussionists sat on the benches, the singers facing them, standing. Others were milling around. Food and beverages were passed around. Families were picnicking on blankets in the grassy knoll behind the benches.

A middle-aged Afro Cuban man came up to us and introduced himself. I’ll call him Ernesto (not his real name: I neglected to ask him if I could quote him). He had heard Liza and I talking and identified us as Cubans. He offered us something to drink and bid us to make ourselves feel at home.  Ernesto lives in the Bronx and arrived in the U.S. on the 1980 Mariel boatlift. In her 1996 New York Times story, Mirta noted how the longstanding informal “gatherings received an unexpected jolt when Cubans who had arrived in the Mariel-Key West boat lift began appearing.”

In May of 1980 the Cuban government allowed anyone from the United States to sail into the port of Mariel in northern Cuba to pick up their relatives who wanted to leave the island. A massive flotilla ensued. The Cuban authorities packed the boats with a lot more people than just the relatives of the boaters. In five months 125,000 Cubans arrived in the U.S.  Mirta Ojito was among them. She has written about her experience in her book, Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus.

One of the distinctive features of the Mariel boatlift is that it is the only post-1959 migration wave from Cuba (before 1980 and since then) with a significant representation of Afro-Cubans. Mariel was responsible for a more visible presence of Afro-Cubans, and Afro-Cuban cultural traits, within the U.S. Cuban community, including Rumba Sundays in Central Park.

Ernesto said two things that have stuck with me. One had to do with Miami. When I mentioned that I had recently moved to New York from Miami, he shook his head and said: “”Don’t like Miami. I lived there briefly after leaving Cuba, and didn’t feel comfortable.”  Among Afro-Cubans, Ernesto is not alone. The 1990 U.S. Census, the first one after Mariel, found that less than ten percent of Cubans in Miami identified as non-whites. Elsewhere in the U.S., one-fourth of all Cubans were non-whites. I suspect (although I do not have the data) that in New York the non-white percentage is even higher. Miami has not been the preferred place of residence for Black Cuban-Americans.

Why? We don’t have a complete picture of racial relations within the Cuban-American population, but research I conducted a few years ago with census data showed that race, and not ethnicity, is the determinant factor in where Afro-Cubans live in Miami, one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States.  Black Cubans are more likely to live in predominantly African American areas of the city than in predominantly Cuban areas.

And the second thing that Ernesto said to us that Sunday? “If I hadn’t heard you guys talking, I would have thought you were unos blancos.”

Since moving to New York I have become accustomed to the way race and ethnic categories are sliced here (very differently from Miami). I found out from the Latino students in my Race and Ethnicity class at John Jay College that Latinos here are not White and they are not Black, they are Latinos. Whites are those other people with fair skin who are not Latinos. And Blacks are African Americans.

Since they view race and ethnicity as mutually exclusive, the students have a great deal of difficulty with fact that the U.S. Census asks race (as in White and Black, etc.) and Hispanic origin (as in Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, etc.) separately. The students want to answer the race question with “Latino” or “Dominican” or “Boricua”, as indeed many Latinos do.  The Census Bureau, however, follows the principle that race and ethnicity are distinct and that therefore “Latinos may be of any race.”  Ernesto has apparently adopted the New York perspective. Once he discovered Liza and I were Cubans, we were no longer blancos.

I cannot help but think that Ernesto’s (and perhaps many Cuban New Yorkers’) perception of racial and ethnic categories has been transformed sometime after arriving from Cuba. On the island, Cubans are also negros, blancos, mulatos, and even chinos (surrogate for Asian) and whatever other labels people want to use to categorize a multiracial society, for better or worse.

Ultimately, of course, race is a cultural construct and therefore fickle. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Central Park, with the boaters in The Lake seemingly rowing to the rhythm of the drums, with everyone having a good time, it did not matter who was blanco, or Cuban, or negro or Boricua. What mattered was the rumba.