A revolution in culture

Summer 2004

Trish Mehan and Dave Willetts trace the development of Cuba music and arts since 1959

In June 1961, in the Havana Country Club, Fidel Castro said in a famous meeting of artists and intellectuals:

“Now is the time for you, in an organised way, to contribute with all your enthusiasm to the tasks which fall to you in the Revolution and to constitute a broad organism of all the writers and artists.”

What were these tasks? No more and no less than the creation of an entirely new revolutionary way of creating, teaching and distributing the arts.

In pre-1959 Cuba, arts education consisted of mostly private academies of music, ballet and visual arts - only accessible to the children of the wealthy classes.

Income for the academies was the priority and many students studied art for entertainment and social status rather than vocation, despite the efforts of a dedicated few. Also, few institutions existed outside the capital. In short there was no coherent programme of cultural and artistic development.

Soon after the triumph of the revolution in 1959 all this changed. The national literacy campaign in 1961 laid the groundwork for teaching aimed at the development of the education and culture of the whole society rather than a privileged elite.

In the same year Fidel Castro met concerned artists and writers to discuss the problems of arts in the revolution and ideas of creative freedom and this debate gave birth to a new type of art school with democratic ideals: no discrimination based on class, sex or race and providing expensive specialist teaching free to students with creative ability, potential and commitment.

Thus in 1962 the Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA) was founded. Some of its first graduates were young literacy teachers who had showed creative talent. The five specialisms were music, ballet, plastic arts and the dramatic arts, modern dance and folkloric dance were added a few years later. The ENA became the biggest and most multidisciplinary art teaching laboratory in Cuba ever and probably in Latin America, and became the model for a national system committed to developing future artists of a revolutionary Cuban culture. Indeed, it produced some of the best musicians in the world today.

Arturo Sandoval, widely acknowledged as one of the greatest jazz trumpeters in the world graduated there in 1967 and later joined Irakere, formed in 1973 and crucial innovators Afro-Cuban jazz. Gonzalo Rubalcaba, acknowledged as one of the most outstanding and virtuoso jazz pianists in the world studied piano and percussion there.

Adalberto Alvarez, who founded one of Cuba’s premier groups Son 14 (whose innovative versions of popular music such as son, bolero and guaracha significantly contributed to the development of the contemporary music scene) and later Adalberto y su Son, studied there. Another ENA graduate was Jose Luis Cortes, founder of NG la Banda, the main innovators of timba which became the unique Cuban sound of the 1990s with its ‘son’ roots with the conjunto bands of the 40s and 50s, international influences of jazz, rock, and funk, and local folkloric music (rumba, guáguánco, batá drumming, sacred songs of santeria).

It was no coincidence that at the same time groups dedicated to the study and performance of Afro-Cuban art forms emerged such as the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional, which now performs worldwide. Supported by the new government, it was formed in May 1962 in Havana, and was set the task of compiling and spreading knowledge about Cuba’s national dances and associated music, obtained from scientific research conducted throughout the country by its founder and folkloric adviser, Rogelio Martínez Fouré. Clave y Guaguanco, also formed in the 1960s and was dedicated to the interpretation of rumba and other Afro-Cuban drumming and singing styles under the direction of Amado Dedeu and continues to flourish, touring the world. Many local folkloric groups were formed or revived in this climate. In Santiago de Cuba, Guillermon Moncada folkloric group amongst many others, was formed in 1967. Generally these local groups are non-professional musicians and dancers (‘aficionados’) but free rehearsal space alongside a rigorous cultural commitment ensures a high quality of teaching and performance.

Meanwhile, sound foundations were being built in other areas of arts and culture. UNEAC (Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba) was co-founded by Nicolas Guillen, Cuba’s national poet and champion of Afro-Cuban culture. ICAIC (Cuban Institute of the art and industry of cinema) was founded in 1959 and continues to run the national film industry. It also supports a thriving animation and video industry. It quickly became an important critical space for exploring controversial social and political issues such as homosexuality, misogyny and bureaucracy, among many others. Also in the early 60s, museums were opened and theatre and dance groups were created. More than 250 Casas de la Cultura were created all over the country bringing cultural events and opportunities to all, often completely free.

State organisations such as UNEAC, Hermanos Saiz Association (aimed at young artists and writers and a big promotor of non-traditional art forms) and Casa de las Americas have developed their role of overseeing the work of artists and writers giving privileges and support. ‘Grupo de Experimentacion Sonora’ (sound experimentation group) was founded in 1970 sponsored by ICAIC with Leo Brouwer, pioneering musician and composer. The group developed an experimental trend in Cuban and Latin music, creatively transforming the influence of folklore. Its members included now superstars such as Pablo Milanes, Silvio Rodriguez, Sara Gonzalez, Sergio Vitier and others who gave birth to the Nueva Trova movement in Cuba.

1976 saw the establishment of a Ministry of Culture, and also the Instituto Superior de Arte (for post graduate level study) and in 1977 vocational schools (secondary school to higher education level) teaching music, ballet, dance and visual arts at elemental to semi-professional level along with professional specialist schools.

Since that time the national system for art education has continued to develop; to improve teaching methods and conditions for learning and opportunities for students to participate in international events. The system is now overseen by CNEArt (Centro Nacional de Escuelas de Arte) which directs the vocational schools and ENA and by the Instituto Superior de Arte. The specialisms now cover music, ballet, dance, visual arts, cultural promotion, musical shows, theatre, circus performance, librarianship, media and communication arts and arts teaching. In 2003 there were nearly 9000 students in the system and over 1200 teachers. Students from other countries have also studied in it and many especially from Latin America and Africa receive scholarships.

Complementing this system the Culture department of each province of Cuba makes the links between CNEArt, local schools and other local cultural institutions including Casas de Musica, Casas de la Trova and Casas de Cultura.

Clearly, with education and support, artists and musicians have continued to create and innovate since those heady days of the 60s. Some currently famous music school graduates are: Angá (born 1961) known as Cuba’s greatest conga player and lead percussionist with the Afro-Cuban Allstars; Isaac Delgado (born 1962) one of the main proponents of salsa and timba in the 1990s; Ernesto Reyes, director of Jovenes Clasicos del Son. Building on the work of Sintesis, which formed in 1978 and created a unique fusion of santeria songs and rhythms, jazz and rock, a new collaboration of very talented musicians called ‘Interactivo’ led by pianist Robertico Carcasses and including Yusa are currently defying categorisation with their very Cuban groove fused with funk, jazz and rock. At the end of March 2004, ‘Tendencia’, a rock group from Pinar del Rio proponents of a new ‘ethno-metal’ sound performed in a special concert in Havana called Concierto Desconcierto, a groundbreaking project sponsored by Hermanos Saiz Association to create a space for the most alternative variants of the Cuban modern music panorama.

Investment in arts education in Cuba continues to be seen as investment in its social and political future, as Fidel Castro said in 1961 in his words to the intellectuals:

“We ask the artist that he/she develops his creative force to the maximum. We want to create for the artist and intellectual the ideal conditions for his creativity because we are truly creating for the future. Why would we not want the best for our current artists and intellectuals? We are asking for the greatest development in favour of culture and more precisely in terms of the revolution because the revolution signifies, precisely, more culture and more art.”

CNEArte website: www.cnearte.cult.cu

For up to date information in English on Cuban arts and cultural news, developments and events see www.cubarte.cult.cu/eng/

Support the MUSIC FUND FOR CUBA and raise money to support musical and artistic education in Cuba. Contact CSC for a leaflet

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