Fidel Castro’s musical impact

Fidel Castro’s musical impact


norman lebrecht

November 26, 2016

Five decades of international isolation allowed an antediluvian style to be conserved on the island.

Cuba’s music was largely uncorrupted by commercialism.



  • V.Lind says:

    Antediluvian? Hmmmm…

    You don’t actually pull that off without excellent grounding. But in case you are in doubt:

    This orchestra was one of the first things Castro did when he came to power — he founded it before 1959 was over. He was as quick in establishing the ballet — he hauled Alicia Alonso back from American Ballet Theatre, where she was a major star, and gave her money and support to found a company for Cuba. I first met this company in the early 70s and covered them in Canada, the US and Cuba for many years and, on their day, they were and are equal to anyone.

    Castro wanted Cuba to stand tall in the world of serious arts, as well as, of course, their indigenous forms. Neither has been without international support — Canadian artists have been involved with Cuban artists for years, hosting them on Canada and going into Cuba to help them (the great Canadian jazz musician Jane Bunnett and her associates were the spearhead of programmes to bring instruments into Cuba during desperately poor periods). And of course everyone knows the influence of Ry Cooder, so at least one American thought the embargo was waste matter.

    Re-evaluations of Castro will soon be starting. But it was clear from what achievements are inescapable in any summation — in the arts, in education, in health care — that Castro sought a good and vibrant Cuba. And, to some extent, saw it happen.

    It was perhaps a mischance of history that he ran up against the demented anti-communism of the Americans in the 50s, coupled with the eternal preference of American politicians for what they regard as a stable government, however corrupt (see Middle East, Chile, Central America) over one that rocks the boat.

    In the end, the American Dream is financial, not moral or ethical — as long as American business was raking off profits the Americans did not care that Cubans starved. A more enlightened view might have prevented the alliance with the Soviet Union and alignment with the communists during the Cold War. So it is all the more heroic that Castro and his financially strapped government managed to all but eradicate illiteracy and made free universal health care available to all — and of a quality that made the loan of Cuban medical staff welcome wherever they were called to assist. And in the midst of the political turmoil and the massive social objectives, he had time to establish the arts at the highest level.

    I am well aware that Castro’s Cuba has a lot to answer for in terms of free speech, freedom to dissent, and all the consequences that go with challenging a one-party, totalitarian state. His legacy will be at best mixed. But it might have been different if one of the superpowers could have extended a helping hand instead of a closed fist. The artistic legacy, along with health and education, is a sign of what could have been.

    • Alank says:

      “Demented Anti-communism”. Tell that to the surviving relatives of the millions of humans who perished in tge Soviiet Union, China, and Eastern Europe. Russia had terrific orchestras and ballet companies but strange why artists like Rostropovich failed to appreciate the paradise. BTW Castro did all he could to start a nuclear war and it was when Khrushchev realized how erratic he was he made the deal with Kennedy to remove the missiles

      • Peter says:

        Your reply is nothing but childish nonsense. The typical demented, or – for a more positive spin – childlike world view that is typical for so many in the western world, who’s material wealth is enormous, but their intellectual achievement is retarded, brainwashed, unable to differentiate. Black and white polarized. Several lost generations.

        • Alank says:

          Yes you are right of course. We can all bask in the achievements of the great communist revolutions as evidenced by all those Nobel prizes in physics chemistry and medicine I suppose all of the millions who have fled or who died trying to flee to those materialistic societies were obviously misled and brainwashed and childlike in their ambitions

    • PaulD says:

      Demented anti-Communism? I think Dmitri Shostakovich would differ with you.

      Moreover, you can provide good healthcare and education without oppression. It’s been done in many countries.

      • Holly Golightly says:

        Name three.

        • Mike Schachter says:

          Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland: there that’s four. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? Castro was a typical middle class fantasist like Mao, Lenin and Pol Pot who destroyed millions of lives in pursuit of their ideal societies: Stalin admittedly was a working class psychopath. They are still admired by the affluent “intelligentsia” who despise the country they live in and whose mental development stopped with their posters of the mass murderer Che Guevara.

          • Holly Golightly says:

            Oh, OK, you meant the nations with staggeringly high taxation!! And not enough incentive to encourage them to actually build their own populations.

            The rest of your comments I agree with.

          • Peter says:

            Those nations rank highest and above the US in human development index and general quality of life.

      • V.Lind says:

        I’m referring more to American “Reds under the bed” obsessions, and McCarthyite witch hunts and black lists of that period. Not commenting on the Soviet Union. If the US had been receptive to “regime change,” as it wasn’t called then, they might have made a friend of Castro, with decades less heartache for a lot of people.

        It is in their genes — long after Castro’s revolution, the US did everything it could to undermine Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, to the point of Iran-Contra, despite monitored elections deemed to be free and fair. Problem was, he unseated their stooge, Somoza, who was the Nicaraguan Batista. The US likes to support the fat cats, not the working classes.

        Obama, a new generation and a different exposure, started the process of opening up relations with Cuba, partly in response to Cuba’s own ventures, tentative though they might be, into a more open society. It remains to be seen whether The Unknown Quantity, whose eulogy for Castro remains one of the most shrilly hostile, will leave that to develop or put a spoke in it out of ideology.

        • Peter says:

          The US does not “support the fat cats”. That’s a bad euphemism for the US simply supporting their corporate class and interest. The American subcontinent was considered as the de facto US colonies.
          The US influence on the Americas is a clear example, how their intent is not driven to support freedom and democracy, but to loot the earth.
          Wherever the people in Latin America democratically elected a government, which was not aligned with US corporate interest, the US intervened, openly or through their massive CIA operations on the subcontinent.

          Henry Kissinger approved this message.

  • Alank says:

    I suppose one could say the same for North Korea. It is more than despairing to read these type of remarks coming from affluent residents of countries where freedom of speech and travel are a given So quaint those Cubans driving 50 year old cars and harvesting sugar cane by hand and uncorrupted by American commercialism.

    • Malcolm James says:

      Except that when I was in Cuba in 2011 everyone clearly had a roof over their head and was adequately clothed and fed. Life was clearly not easy in Cuba if you wanted more than the basics, but everyone seemed to have those.

  • YadaYada says:

    As uncommercial and pure as the Buena Vista Social Club? Much too much is made of Cuba and things Cuban by ignorant and mid-century nostalgic anglo-saxons. But that is because these nostalgics have not have to live with the consequences of a regime they would never tolerate. Good riddance.

  • Richard Rosenberg says:

    Havana was once the undisputed cultural center of the Western Hemisphere.

    After a concert tour in the early 1860s, United States composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk left two operas, five orchestral works, at least one work for wind band, chamber music and solo piano works in Havana. He never returned to Cuba to collect those materials and so there those compositions remained.

    I went to Cuba on a research grant from Yale University in 2010 specifically to collect those Gottschalk works. I scoured the crumbling libraries and interviewed dozens of musicians, musicologists and archivists. What I learned was that after the Bay of Pigs invasion, and along with all the other music, art and literature by the “Imperialistic Aggressors from the North,” Fidel Castro had the materials bought to Havana from all over the Island where they were summarily burned.

    No matter your political viewpoint as to who was in the “right,” to politicize art is wrong.

    A shameful act indeed.

  • Holly Golightly says:

    I rolled about laughing: “uncorrupted by commercialism” – yep, that’s right – little sewage, rubbish in the streets, slums, cars from the 1950s rusted out, no money, no luxuries.

    Just what planet ARE you people living on?

    • Ellingtonia says:

      Ah, the Jezza acolyte and sycophant rises again with a rose tinted view of good old “communism”……… we say up North “get real love!” Did you know Ukraine has just commemorated the Holdomor famine when good old Uncler Jo starved millions of Ukrainians to death……….all in the name of communism.

  • cabbagejuice says:

    Former Cuba president, Fidel Castro had an estimated net worth of $900 million. Too bad he can’t take it with him. Probably he doesn’t need warm clothing over there either.
    It is difficult to estimate his actual victims, but 10,000 directly killed under his orders is a good place to start. “78,000 innocents may have died trying to flee the dictatorship. Another 5,300 are known to have lost their lives fighting communism in the Escambray Mountains (mostly peasant farmers and their children) and at the Bay of Pigs. An estimated 14,000 Cubans were killed in Fidel’s revolutionary adventures abroad, most notably his dispatch of 50,000 soldiers to Angola in the 1980s to help the Soviet-backed regime fight off the Unita insurgency.”

  • mario lutz says:

    What do you mean by “Musical Impact”??
    Some dissident who will beat his guitar to sing for freedom?
    He would certainly feel immediately the violence of Castro’s repressive impact.

    I’m not going to celebrate like the Cuban immigrants in Miami, the death of a dictator.
    In fact, his ideology has died since long time ago. Possessing the same national as the famous “CHE” and as anticommunist I am, that is enough for me.

    I would have wished Norman a better job of research on your part, especially if Wikipedia is such an accessible medium today.

    Buena Vista Social Club is the name of a very popular social club in Havana, Cuba, whose members practiced dancing and music. The Cuban revolution did not bring improvements of any kind to the unemployed musicians; on the contrary they lived in extreme poverty

    Buena Vista Social Club It is also the name of a musical group created in the 1990s, almost 50 years after the club closed, which inspired a recording made by the Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González and the American guitarist Ry Cooder with traditional Cuban musicians, Many of them former members of the club where they performed when their popularity was at the top. But during

    The recording, called Buena Vista Social Club, by that institution in Havana, was an international success, and the group performed with their full training in Amsterdam, Netherlands in 1998.

    German film director Wim Wenders recorded the presentation, Followed by a second concert at Carnegie Hall in New York, which was the summit of the documentary that resulted from the work of Wenders. The documentary also includes interviews with the musicians carried out in Havana. Wenders’ film, also named Buena Vista Social Club, was acclaimed by critics and received an Oscar nomination for best long documentary and numerous awards, including Best Documentary at the European Film Awards.

    Any of these should happen without “that thing” you call corrupted commercialism??

  • Peter says:

    Anyone jumping on the anti-communist bandwagon must remember: Castro’s revolution in Cuba was a reaction to the suffocating grip the US Corporations together with the CIA had on the American subcontinent.
    Wherever democracy elected a socialist leaning government in Latin America, brutal intervention by the CIA and US government, instigated by their US corporate Lords, was the result.
    One can not look at Castro in historical honesty without this context of a subcontinent trying to liberate itself from the US imperialist gridlock and gain sovereignty.
    Could it be done without establishing a dictatorship and closing the government to CIA destabilization attempts through the “democratic” opposition?
    The historical reality of that subcontinent clearly says: probably not.

    Henry Kissinger approved this message.

    • mario lutz says:

      This is not a site I would like to speak about political context, but your partial vision should be confronted with the reality to much people lived with, with the approval of self experience.

      Throughout the twentieth century, Fidel Castro was a really central and significant actor of the so-called Cold War, which moved our own hemisphere. In fact, his dictatorial rule always depended on foreign aid. First of the Soviet Union, soon, of Venezuela.
      In 1962, Fidel Castro contributed to the dangerous crisis of the missiles that settled in Cuba almost ended in an armed confrontation between the United States and the then Soviet Union.
      After overthrowing the terrible dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, in addition to having contributed to install on the scene of politics the social question and the need to alleviate human inequalities from justice. In contrast, there appears the harsh and constant curtailment of human rights and the civil and political liberties of its own people. By 1965 he had openly acknowledged having in his squalid prisons no less than about 20,000 political prisoners. The vast majority of them for the unforgivable alleged sin of dissent. Extremely authoritarian, he deprived his people of the right to speak independently, as well as to publicly express their ideas through the press, and to meet to defend their ideals.
      To what must be added that the standard of living of its people is today one of the lowest in the region. With food rations that have been in effect since 1961 and power cuts and scarcity of almost everything. To such an extent, that a country that exports medical services has incredibly its own hospitals in operating conditions of extreme precariousness.
      Their clashes with the Catholic Church were diminishing. He was visited by three Pontiffs successively: John Paul II, Benedict XVI and, more recently, Pope Francis. Only in 1998 he reestablished the Christmas party, from which he had deprived his people.

      • Alank says:

        Well stated Mr. Lutz. So many armchair revolutionaries pontificating on the evils of western capitalism from the the comforts of their abodes in the affluent neighborhoods of New York, Paris, London, Berkeley and stockholm. They probably have made their political pilgrimages on luxury tours that allowed them to meet up with some fine peasant poets. But I am sure they all drive hybrids or electric vehicles to save the earth so they canno be all bad

        • Peter says:

          So you are basically saying in order to drive an electric car and live a middle class life, one must approve the bloody and brutal interventions by the US in e.g. the overthrow of Allende by Pinochet, or the support of the Death Squadrons in Middle America serving the Reagan admin. Is that so?

      • Peter says:

        You have preconceived your own notion that one bad defines another good. That is not so. The US being a destructive and evil force in that part ofthe world doesn’t mean their opponents e.g. Castro are good guys.
        The infantile confusion in the Hollywood-Disney-Americanized primitive mindset sits deep.
        They compulsively think if one party is the bad guys, the other must be the goid guys.
        Because all their childhood movies and cartoons said so. As did the priest on Sunday.
        Retarded. Thus now they have Trump.

        • Alank says:

          Your infantile characterizations of America are truly revealing and justly deserve the sarcastic responses of my previous postings You clearly have a penchant for totalitarian regimes and despite your protestations clearly found favor in Castro and the like Well good for you I wish you happy journeys to places like Venezuela and North Korea I suppose America evil perpetuated on the world included saving Europe twice from self destruction though I suppose people of your ilk will give sole credit to Stalin

          • Peter says:

            First of all I wasn’t talking to you. Second of all what you write has nothing to do with me and all with your own preconceived concepts. “When all you (mentally) have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” You simply are incapable of thinking beyond the good-bad dualism. A concept that has been overcome by the intellectual elites for a few centuries by now. But it’s not supposed to be understood by the masses, hence they would be much more difficult to control then.

            The self destruction of Europe was btw bankrolled to a major part from the US. So they profited twice. Clever guys.

        • Mario Lutz says:

          Are you talking to me?
          because in other place you have said to Alank, that you were not talking to him.
          Are you talking to me? besides the impression you may received from my question in the “De Niro” way in Taxi Driver… I must point out that I have no preconceived ideas in the Hollywood-Disney-Americanized mindset, and about the communists being the “bad guys” in our history.
          Claudio Abbado joined the communist party in Italy to fix his position against fascism.
          In Germany National-Socialism was erected against communism and we have seen the terrible experience that has been.
          Of course we found some examples in the history that the US internally also include “bad guys”.
          But when you made such a clearly statement as “The US being a destructive and evil force in that part of the world” …. well any exchange is imposible.

          • Peter says:

            The history of US interventions in the Americas over the last century is a horrific reality. How can you deny that?

          • Mario Lutz says:

            Hypocritical and cynical who call childish an elliptical mention of the dead in the war for freedom in Europe and wonder how I ignore interventions that have been condemned even in the US, with self-criticism a concept that are unknown to their detractors and overly indulgent with the worst crimes committed against humanism

        • Mario Lutz says:

          Regarding your paragraph “The self destruction of Europe was btw bankrolled to a major part from the US. So they profited twice. Clever guys.”

          When President Trump will claim to Europe about NATO’s military expenditures, you surely will ask him to paid the rental of land of Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial..

          • Peter says:

            Well, he will not do that. Because the NATO is the US’ effective tool to exercise their global hegemony agenda, in that specific case keeping Europe under US control.
            Europe has no interest in putting more money on the table, unless Europe gets to define its own security policies. Which Washington will not allow. You will see.

            As for the rest of your childish remark I refrain from further commenting it.

          • Mario Lutz says:

            Hypocritical and cynical who call childish an elliptical mention of the dead in the war for freedom in Europe and wonder how I ignore interventions that have been condemned even in the US, with self-criticism a concept that are unknown to their detractors and overly indulgent with the worst crimes committed against humanism

    • Pete says:

      Dude, what utter claptrap. I’m guessing many, now starving, people in Venezuela would give a left testicle for some good ol” US intervention…

  • Holly Golightly says:

    Very many of these comments are nothing less than just sad. They reveal the extent to which the bien pensant have been so comprehensively brainwashed that they think a murderous thug is OK because you need to turn around a nation once frequented by Americans for its lifestyle (and which was the home of Xavier Cougat and his particular kind of latin music) and sink it into a third world basket case. That you lock up and/or murder dissidents and then order your people to salute and cheer (North Korea, China)…distract them with classical ballet (bread and circuses) and condemn them to a life of destitution tells me how authoritarian a mindset many in the west – from the Left – now hold that they should want to airbrush all this away. And that mindset explains the reaction to Trump and scares the hell out of me.

  • Kike Daube says:

    ‘Five decades of international isolation allowed an antediluvian style to be conserved on the island. Cuba’s music was largely uncorrupted by commercialism.’

    Wow, this must be a world record. Norman Lebrecht needed only two sentences to demonstrate he knows nothing about Cuban music.

    Has he ever spoken to a folk musician in the island? For the last ten years they’ve been complaining about how Son and other genres are being deformed by reggaetón and other outside influences. And to be honest, this is something that has always happened with different outside influences. Cuban musicians tend to escape from that international isolation that affects many of their fellow citizens. And to include links to Buena Vista Social Club, as an example of conservation of folk music and Cuban music not being corrupted by commercialism is very ignorant — or was he just being ironic? Ry Cooder improvising on guitar? Really?

    I am not a purist. Precisely, anyone that loves and understands Cuban music knows that it is the product of evolution and it continues to evolve every time it is played. The way Septeto Nacional performed Echale Salsita is very different to how the piece has been played by Roberto Torres, Omara Portuondo or Paquito D’Rivera. And that’s not a bad thing.

    But then could Mr Lebrecht refrain from saying that international isolation had a positive effect on Cuban music?

  • Pete says:

    Here’s what one of Cuba’s best and most famous musicians had to say as Cban dictator ans mass murderer assumed room temperature:

    Arturo Sandoval Reacts to Fidel Castro’s Death: ‘He Was Worse Than Evil’