Lights Off in Havana

Cuban Music

Today’s music scene revolves around the use of the internet—without WiFi, how would you access Spotify? And even if you don’t use Spotify (what year are you living in?), and you download your music, you need internet connection for that too. How about producing and distributing music? Most producers use modern technology to record, and advertise online to distribute their music. This makes perfect sense to you, I’m sure. Well, I’m here to tell you that you’re taking it for granted.

My mom and her family fled Cuba in the early ’60s to escape political and religious persecution. Her father was imprisoned for absolutely no reason other than intimidation—freedom of speech was nonexistent. At 17 years old, my uncle was not allowed to leave the house as my grandmother was afraid he would be taunted or attacked because of the family’s political beliefs. And this all still happens today, without showing signs of relief.

Cuba is considered one of the most disconnected countries on Earth, which takes a toll on its access to American and international music and recording technology. Severe censorship, alongside intense technological and financial restrictions, create astronomical problems for emerging musicians. Until three years ago, the internet was virtually nonexistent in Cuba. Even now, Cubans wait in line to get scratch-off cards to receive outdated, censored, and slow internet access (that is, if they can afford it). Some Cuban residents have even gone as far as creating their own type of internet (illegally, of course) in which data is put onto hard drives and distributed to as many as three million Cubans. American music, movies, and TV shows are often smuggled onto these hard drives, known as “Paquetes,” by friends or relatives across the strait.

My point is to illustrate just how difficult it is to succeed as a musician in Cuba. The country has been, to put it simply, unplugged—from the leading American music scene, from modern production techniques, from all sorts of technology aiding in the making of 21st-century art of any kind. State-controlled media doesn’t allow for much access in terms of arts and culture.

Cubans are effectively excluded from a worldwide dialogue. In Cuban universities, classical European compositions are still being taught as the norm for modern-day music. One example of a Cuban group that has succeeded in the United States and internationally is Gente De Zona. They have shown unprecedented triumph, but have put in the work. Alexander Delgado, the group’s founder, had to bike an hour to the nearest studio where he used egg cartons as sound insulation. They broke out of the Cuban music scene with the help of Descemer Bueno, a Miami native who has worked with other Latin musicians. Gente De Zona became internationally popular when they were featured on Enrique Iglesias’s hit “Bailando.” They have since become an inspiration to Cuban artists, dreaming that one day they will be able to compete on a worldwide scale, or at least with the country that lies only 90 miles north of Havana.

If you want to help local Cuban musicians (and artists of all types), my recommendation would be to support the ones who have fled the country (they presumably reside in Miami). Artists who have successfully made it out of Cuba, such as Gente De Zona, have become inspirations to struggling artists on the island, and easily represent its music scene. Buying anything directly from Cuba causes many problems—it is said that at some consignment stores, the government can keep nearly 90 percent of the profits.

The music scene, with all its struggles, becomes more complicated the more it gets promoted. Herein lies the problem—since the embargo was lifted a few years ago, music festivals in Cuba featuring big-name DJs are becoming more prevalent. Musicabana was a fairly well-attended music festival in 2016 that featured popular DJs such as Major Lazer. Originally, multiple Cuban artists were in the lineup, but they never performed (a little suspicious, don’t you think?). You might think to yourself, Great! “More tourism equals more wealth for Cuban residents. And this is where I’ll remind you that you’re wrong. More money going to Cuba means more money going to the Castro regime. The more money the regime has, the worse off Cuban residents are. The profits made from music festivals and the tourism that will indisputably follow will not assist the poverty-stricken Cuban residents in the philanthropic ways most think they will. The government, ultimately, is the entity benefiting most from tourism. The more money, and consequently power, a dictator has, the more they will oppress the people—that’s just how communism works.

This is a long, twisted way of saying that attending music festivals in Havana (which don’t even benefit or promote Cuban musicians) essentially brings more oppression to Cuban residents. It’s a lose-lose situation. This money isn’t stimulating the economy, it’s benefiting a historically oppressive regime that drove my family and countless others out of their homes, as well as sustaining a culture of intense poverty, apartheid, and general exclusion (of minorities within the country, and of the country as a whole from a modern world).

When I shared my findings on Cuban festivals with my friends and classmates in the Cuban-American Student Association, they were just as appalled as I was. When I thanked them for sharing their opinions, one replied, “Always a pleasure to take a shit on the Castros.” Enough said.

Featured Graphic by Nicole Chan / Graphics Editor

About Emily Himes 41 Articles
Emily is the Assistant Arts Editor for The Heights. She is from Miami, FL. She enjoys country music, bad television, long walks on the beach, and "The Piña Colada" song. Contact her (please) at [email protected] Complain to [email protected]