BY JORDAN LEVIN
The first time I heard Cuban music, it was as if I’d been waiting for it all my life and just didn’t know until I heard it. Mario Bauzá was the unsung godfather of Latin jazz, the bridge between infectious Cuban rhythm and soul and the adventurousness and complexity of American jazz. (While he’d been living in the US since 1930, his spirit and his music were still indisputably Cuban.) Small, plump, mischievous and erudite, the elderly Bauzá was nothing like anyone I’d ever thought cool before. But when he and his big band took the stage at the rundown Cameo Theatre in South Beach in 1991, I was possessed. (And with no clue as to how to dance or understand Cuban rhythms, I must have looked it.) But so what? The drive, the vitality, the richness—I’d never heard music so alive. I’d been driven by punk, funked down with the start of hip-hop and bopped to every underground music trend until then. Nothing compared to this.
That night, I joined generations of Americans (or “United States-ians,” as they put it in the rest of the Americas) who’ve fallen for the seductive power of Cuba’s music, its dancing, its culture. I was a cliché, maybe, but that didn’t make my fall any less real. The ranks of my infatuated ancestors swelled with casinos and escapism before the Revolution, shrank for several decades, began flowing again in the ’90s, tightened to a trickle as channels closed in the 2000s, surged again after 2009. But now? Now the stream is a river, and the dam is about to break. Get ready to ride.
Yes, I’ve lived in Miami since 1987, where Cuba looms on the emotional map of exiles and, in some ways, the entire city. My first Miami boyfriend taught me to make Cuban coffee (dark, strong, frothing with sugary foam). I was swept up, not just by the music, but by emotion and political drama as artists from the island, such as NG La Banda, Isaac Delgado and Carlos Varela began visiting the city in the ’90s. I’ve always been a sucker for good dance music and good stories, and Miami set me up for Cuba to suck me in.
But everyone I’ve ever known who’s gone to Cuba has fallen in love. There’s something about its sheer aliveness, the untempered, immediate way that people live, their experience unmediated by the constant wash of media and advertising that inundates us out here in the big world, that captivates people.
Some of that intensity has been cooked up in the petri dish of isolation. We shouldn’t forget the downside, the truncated dreams trapped in those quaintly decaying buildings. I remember my shock, on my first visit to Havana, talking with a young guy who loved American funk and soul. You should go hear this music live, I told him. “I can’t,” he said wistfully. “I can’t leave.” In 1999, the American R&B singer Montell Jordan, in Havana for the Music Bridges project, which brought artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Lisa Loeb and Burt Bacharach to work with their Cuban counterparts, visited a rap concert in Alamar, a bleak housing project that’s the birthplace of Cuban hip-hop. For the kids there, Jordan was like a star literally dropped from the sky. One girl begged him to cut his initials into her arm. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said, freaked. “Why would I cut you?” Because, she told him, that way she’d know he’d really been there. His visit would be a part of her forever.
But the upside of isolation is the way in which Cubans have been forced—and compelled—to create their own culture, one that isn’t filled with the clutter of pop and commercialism. Early on, I realized that one of the qualities that made Cuban music so exciting was its sense of propulsion, of surfing on the crest of the rhythm, simultaneously driving the beat and buoyed by its energy. “Why do Cuban musicians play just ahead of the beat?” I asked the great jazz pianist Chucho Valdés the first time I interviewed him. He shrugged. “To us,” he replied, “it sounds like everyone else is behind.”
The power of Cuban culture stems both from the country’s history and its system of free, state-run art schools, which have created generations of superbly educated and trained artists in multiple genres. But it also draws from deep tradition and street soul.
Another distinctive characteristic is the way Africa lives in the island’s music and dance, in the imagery and metaphors of Santería. Afro-Cubanidad is acknowledged and alive. The ballerina Josefina Méndez, one of the famed “four jewels” of the National Ballet of Cuba, once explained to me how, even in the classics, Cubans danced with their hips and cintura—literally waist, but also an expression for a moving spine. In the courtyard of the former convent that was then the ballet’s home, she showed me how her Odette—from Swan Lake—undulated her torso in a way that would have flowed right into a ritual for the Santería goddess Oshun. “This comes from the way we are,” she said. “It’s an influence you can’t take out.”
Of course, the petri dish could be unbearable to Cuba’s artists, who have often fled to live elsewhere. There were times when jazz, then rock and then rap were repressed as dangerous foreign influences. All have now been incorporated into Cuban music. The island’s artists are mostly free to come and go these days, building careers and connections. Songwriter Descemer Bueno, who cowrote Enrique Iglesias’ international mega-hit “Bailando,” has homes in Havana and Miami. Island-bred ballet star Carlos Acosta is retiring from England’s Royal Ballet to start a contemporary ballet troupe back home.
Americans, increasingly, are coming in, with cruises, commercial flights, phone and Internet lines—and soon, businesses and bank accounts. The pace and degree of change are dizzying, even surreal to anyone, like me, who’s witnessed the endless, aggressive, bitter estrangement between the US and Cuba.
While other countries have sent citizens to Cuba since the ’90s, the United States could soon outstrip them. Geography is destiny. (Or, as the saying goes, “Location, location, location.”) Cuba and the US have been intertwined since the Spanish-American War. Even during the embargo, the lure of the forbidden and family/political dramas kept us connected. The film Buena Vista Social Club resonated with our foreigners’ sense of romantic nostalgia. But culture has been the most natural and positive link. Arturo O’Farrill, the New York City-based Latin jazz artist and son of the great Cuban Golden Age composer Chico O’Farrill, has been empowered and inspired by reconnecting to the jazz his father helped create—while musicians on the island have been thrilled to have the O’Farrill heir return.
Next to tourism, culture is the island’s best sell—as well as its most unique—and just about its only export. And Cuba’s talent, unlike even its beaches, won’t run out. In the age of globalism, Cuba could be the next East Village or South Beach for a world ready to be seduced by the next big thing, by a place and a people reinventing itself, its buildings like a dream of history in crumbling stone. Not just the edgy part of town, but an island that still—at least for now—feels like the edge of the world.
But I don’t think we should assume that Cuba will be the global Motown—yet. Its people may be hungry, even desperate, to join the world, but they’re also proud of who and what they are. And they know that, artistically speaking, they’ve got it going on. Still, the draconian Cuban state remains in control. The flood of tourism means the island needs hotel rooms. But if you want to build a hotel? Get in line.
Meanwhile, change is happening where it should—at the grassroots level. Artists were streaming back and forth between Miami and Cuba for several years before official changes were announced a year ago. Miami’s Vedado Social Club regularly presents Cuban bands. Exiles were going through relatives to buy houses and invest in businesses on the island. Cuban artists were showing in Wynwood galleries during Art Basel Miami. Hugo Cancio, a once controversial presenter of Cuban musicians in Miami in the ’90s, is now a high-end Havana cultural broker and fixer. Fábrica del Arte Cubano, the familiarly edgy club/art space created by musician X Alfonso, is Havana’s name-check hotspot. Visits from celebrities such as Questlove and Beyoncé, those harbingers of the tipping point between underground and selling out, are already old news in Havana.
My friend Geo Darder, a Miami-bred exile son who reconnected so intensely with Cuba in the ’90s that he’s built a life producing cultural and exchange events there and here, says that, right now, Havana is like South Beach in the early days, with the same excitement and creative energy. Will it last?
In some way, I think—or at least I hope—that it will. Now is the time to discover what makes Cuban culture so compelling, so different, so rich. The energy that keeps Cuban music pushing the edge of the rhythm is pulsing in the whole country now. Go on. Jump in. You know you want to.