The Glory of Cuban Music

There are four musicians in Havana… these musicians are always engaged, an in order to gain preference it is necessary to rise their fee and on top of that, which is already exorbitant, provide mounts for them, give them rations of wine and give each one of them and their families (in excess of what they eat and drink at the function) a plate of what is placed on the table which they take home with them.

  —Hernando de la Parra, secretary to the governor of Cuba, 1598

Let me confirm, if you ever doubted it, that Cuba is an intensely musical place. As Señor de la Parra’s 400-year old complaint confirms, local musicians have had an outsized position in Cuban society since way back.

The joyous ubiquity of music is one of my first, and most powerful impression of the place. Continue reading

Alejo Carpentier—Cuba’s Unlikely Musical Hero

Cuba is not a particularly large country, but its influence on the world’s music is immense; indeed, it’s hard to imagine a world without the habanera, mambo or salsa. Over the past hundred years, Cuba’s greatest musical heroes have tended to be performers—charismatic musicians like Celia Cruz, Arturo Sandoval or even Ricky Ricardo, who shot to fame and became pop culture icons.

But perhaps the greatest figure in all of Cuban music isn’t a performer at all—he is musicologist-turned-novelist Alejo Carpentier.

In case he is unfamiliar, allow me to introduce him. Continue reading

A Cuban Reading List

The Minnesota Orchestra’s tour to Cuba is fast approaching, and I couldn’t be more excited. A while back, I had quipped that given the fact that I used to teach Cuban history, I was ruthlessly suppressing an urge to assign everyone a reading list.

I’m surprised by the number of people who approached me and said, in effect, “bring it!”

So before it gets any later, I thought I share a few ideas for those who are going along on the tour, following along at home, or are just curious about our Caribbean neighbor.  I’m happy to do so—Cuba is a fascinating place filled with fascinating people, and there are so many fascinating stories to share. I’ve linked the titles to… not as an endorsement, but only as a reference.

Enjoy! Continue reading