Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Sounds of Cuba

Growing my Cuba Playlist

David Cogswell |  April 21, 2016 3:00 PM ET

When I traveled to Cuba in 2013, I discovered that at practically every public place you go you will see live musicians playing quality music, and most of them will have CDs of their music to sell you.

On my first trip I picked up a number of recordings from musicians I encountered and they have given me immense pleasure since. So this time I made sure to bring enough cash to cover purchasing CDs at virtually every opportunity.

When I got home I dumped the contents of the CDs onto my iPod and created a Cuba playlist that is a rich trove of fine music that brings the experience, the feeling of Cuba back to me.

There is nothing quite like music to evoke old memories. Can’t you still vividly remember the first times you heard many of your favorite songs? When the songs come on you are transported back to the moment when you first experienced that music.

Talk about cultural exchange on a personal level, I can’t think of any better way to experience it. I was able to take home samples of a great variety of the music I heard along the way. It was like taking a little piece of the sonic fabric of Cuban life that I can transplant into my own living room, or through my headphones into the space between my ears.

With these CDs, I can recreate that Cuban atmosphere at home, and revive those memories of Cuba. And it is nice to know that I contributed one little bit to the careers and efforts of the musicians I crossed paths with. Through the music I can return to Cuba in my mind.

It’s a richly rewarding and highly personal kind of foreign exchange, a mutually beneficial exchange between foreigners. I especially like the idea that these exchanges are really people to people. There is no corporate entity deciding which of these groups to sign, record and promote, based on what they think is marketable.

And it’s not an exchange between the respective governments of the countries. There is no intervening entity between us travelers and the musicians whose music we purchase. It is just the grassroots musicians themselves packaging their own music and distributing it directly to us.

Before going to Cuba I had heard plenty about how great Cuban music is. But even having that expectation, what I experienced when I arrived in Cuba was something beyond the range of anything I had experienced before. And it’s not just superficial aspects of musical style. The difference runs much deeper. They really experience music differently to the way we do.

Life in Cuba is fundamentally different from what we know in the states. It’s different enough to be called a different world. When you are there you experience some of that difference. It’s a different experience of living. It’s stunning. It’s hypnotic to be ushered into a world that is so enchantingly different.

There are few places that present a greater contrast to American life, in spite of the fact that the two countries are so close to each other and their histories are inextricably entangled. There are deep affinities between the two countries, and yet because of the separation for the last half century, they are enormously different.

The music provides just one lens that enables us to experience the difference.

The performers and bands you meet at all these stops have their own styles and way of doing things, weaving together various traditions of music. The ensembles have many different instrumentations, from duos to orchestras, and play many different styles, from folky son music, to salsa, to jazz and pop and orchestral music and lots more in between. All the CDs I purchased were good enough that when the songs come up in the iPod shuffle, they are good to hear. There were no clinkers.

But as varied as the range of music was, I sensed something they all had in common, a certain kind of seriousness and focus when they picked up their instruments, a kind of authority in their craft and belief in themselves. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but as I tried to probe it, I found myself trying to imagine the Cuban musical experience.

I could experience Cuba for a week, but I would have to try to extrapolate on that experience to try to grasp what it is like to grow up there. From the standpoint of a musician: what does Cuba sound like? What is the sonic environment in which a Cuban musician grows up and develops?

The biggest difference in the musical environment in Cuba is the difference in the role of electronic media between the two countries. In the U.S. we are almost always being exposed to some kind of electronic media. We live our lives engaged with our electronic media.

While you are still in line to show your passport to Immigration at JFK International Airport, you are already being blasted with images from CNN. And it pretty much continues nonstop. In America, I feel that I am almost always in the line of fire of some media channel.

Cyber technology products are our favorite and most absorbing toys, and they are also essential to the maintenance of our lives. We are almost constantly engaged with media. There is rarely a moment of silence. It’s not like that in Cuba.

I have often wondered when listening to the music of Chopin or Beethoven how different the world in which they lived must have been. We can only try to imagine it, but we know they had no recordings, no TV, no radio. When they heard music it was someone playing an instrument or singing, a live person.

Now in the states we are in the middle of so many noises piled on top of each other that it blends into a dull roar. The worlds of those composers were quieter. They had their own musical thoughts and they probably could hear themselves think a little easier than we can. I don’t think they would have wanted to have the radio or TV on all the time.

Cuba is way behind us in this particular avenue of progress. Cuba lacks the pervasive media that we are familiar with, and I can’t help but think it has something to do with the quality of the music produced on the grassroots level.

Marshall McLuhan said our media are not just neutral channels of communication, they change the way we think and behave. We can only imagine what the world of Beethoven sounded like. But when you go to Cuba you are entering a world that is much quieter in terms of media chatter than the U.S.

It is a novel, striking sensation itself to experience such a different sounding world. But you can also witness its effects long-term on the people who live in that world. And from the sound of their music, there is something very beneficial in that relative calmness that they experience in their lives.

With this trip I added a few more CDs to that collection, and I can put it on shuffle and be swept back to Cuba, at least in my imagination until I can return again.

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