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New Song Movement
Karen lee Wald
Jamin b. Raskin
Richard alan Leach
Slippin' & Slidin'
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Lennonism in Cuba at Last
Twenty years after his death by an assassin's bullet, and more than thirty years since Beatles' music was considered part of the negative influence coming from the English-speaking imperial powers, John Lennon has at long last been welcomed in Cuba.
On December 8, 2000 a statue of a Lennon sitting on a park bench was unveiled—with the words “You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one” etched in Spanish at his feet. Fidel Castro and other leaders paid homage. Silvio Rodriguez, one of Cuba's top New Song Movement singer-composers, played and sang “All You Need Is Love.” That night, thousands flocked to an all-Beatles concert with an amazing variety of Cuban singers and bands. It was a long time coming. In the heyday of the Beatles, Cuba's political leaders had other things on their minds and paid little or no attention to this cultural phenomenon. Unfortunately, that left a vacuum that filled with intolerance, suspicion, and outright rejection of anything that could be associated with colonialism, neo-colonialism, and imperialism—cultural or otherwise. Rock music fell into this category. At that time, Cuban revolutionaries were making a valiant attempt to recover their own history and culture, having just thrown out the brutal Batista dictatorship with all of its made-in-the-U.S. trappings, along with Mafia-controlled drug, gambling, and prostitution rings that they considered part of “capitalist decadence.”
In this context, it was perhaps understandable that they failed to perceive the revolutionary side of the Beatles, and particularly the political development of John Lennon. But this was not the case for many of the rising young singers and musicians of the Cuban Revolution and, for them, the statue of Lennon represents the culmination of a long process from intolerance and repression to understanding and recognition.
The Story of Silvio
Nobody exemplifies this better than Silvio Rodriguez, whose name has become synonymous with “Cancion Protesta,” “Nueva Trova,” and artistic commitment to political causes. He was one of many whose artistic sensibilities clashed with the culture czars of that time. Amazingly, the political commitment of many of these young artists to the Revolution did not falter.
Silvio has made veiled references to this period before, but has never discussed it in such depth as in an interview with Cuban writer Jaime Sarusky in the September-October 2000 issue of Revolucion y Cultura. Sarusky starts by saying that, in the first decade of the revolution (1959- 1969), “there were fabulous moments that nobody would want to forget, and others they wouldn't want to remember.”
Silvio comments, “You have to remember [what it was like then], because the things that happened in that epoch, or things that didn't happen [weren't allowed to happen] on television, would seem completely absurd and laughable today.” He refers to a list of criticisms that led to his dismissal from his job at the Cuban Radio and Television Institute, where he used to head a program called “Mientras tanto” (Meanwhile).
First among his “sins” was the fact that he had listed the Beatles among his musical influences and made other favorable comments about them. Criticism two was that he “hung out with someone” who had been confined in the notorious UMAP camps. (These had been set up to provide rehabilitation for former gangsters, pimps, prostitutes, thieves, and drug dealers of the Batista-Mafia period—but also briefly tried to “rehabilitate” many people because of their long hair, dress, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, or other perceived deviations mistakenly associated with “anti-social elements.”) Criticism three was “that I met at the Coppelia ice cream parlor with young intellectuals from the university who were somewhat suspicious, “and four, that “I had shown a video clip of two people kissing on the mouth during my television program… and that just wasn't done on Cuban television at that time.''
So the official reaction to the Beatles needs to be seen in this context. You also couldn't show women in mini-skirts or men with long hair—unless they were the rebels who'd fought in the mountains, a strange contradiction at first glance. But the assumption was that the rebels had grown beards and wore their hair long during the guerrilla war because they had no choice. Now that they had come out of the mountains and were trying to build a new society, they wanted to look “respectable.” It didn't dawn on them that they had set a style for rebellious young people all over the world.
New Music Emerges
When the higher-ups called him in, Silvio was not one to bite his tongue. Looking back, he believes that they probably only wanted to give him a dressing-down, not fire him. But faced with the singer-composer's staunch defense of his friends, of the Beatles, of the kiss, the tone escalated. Silvio walked out of the studio where he was taping music for his program, telling his co-workers that the program had been suspended and he'd been fired. Although ICR continued to keep him on their employees list, the indignant singer refused to pick up his wages. He wanted to quit, but ICR would neither let him go on the air nor leave. Other cultural institutions—Casa de las Americas and Raquel Revuelta's theater group—gave him a chance to sing and play occasionally.
At the end of 1968 Alfredo Guevara (no relation to Ché, but a close friend of Fidel's since their school days) came back from a film festival in Brazil, all fired up about the new music he'd heard there. He invited Silvio Rodriguez and classical guitarist Leo Brower to a conference about the experience in Brazil (the Joao Goulart dictatorship had just been overthrown and “tropicalismo,” protest song, and other new musical sounds were all the rage there). After the conference, Guevara asked the two musicians what they thought of the idea of creating a group dedicated to “sound experimentation,” based on Cuban and Latin American musical roots.
Out of this emerged the Experimental Sound Group of ICAIC, ostensibly to provide music for films being produced by the newly created avant-garde film institute headed by Guevara. ICAIC took in people like Silvio, Leo Brower, Sergio Vitier, Pablo Milanes, Noel Nicola, Carlos Alfonso (who later formed the popular band Grupo Sintesis), Pablo Menendez (who after a stretch with Sintesis formed the equally popular Grupo Mezcla), Sara Gonzalez, and others whose names over the years came to be identified with the revolutionary musical scene in Cuba. It also included virtually unknown performers and rejects (for their lack of discipline) from the arts school.
Silvio recalled how other outcasts and misfits—most of whom now form part of Cuba's musical hall of fame—were added to the group. Not that the transition was easy, he acknowledged. Not everyone liked rock. Some preferred jazz, others traditional music. “But we all were interested in freely experimenting in whatever genre occurred to us, without limitations.” They composed and recorded English-style rock, traditional “son,” guaguanco…whatever fit the theme of the movie and their mood. They didn't limit themselves to only producing sound tracks for films.
But although they worked well together and had found a shelter in ICAIC, their problems with the sometimes self-appointed “culture czars” didn't end there. At times, this led to an uneasy relationship with ICAIC higher-ups, too. “It wasn't a bed of roses; there were arguments there, too. We—the troubadours—were really very incendiary at that time.…”
Looking back, Silvio now observes: “I imagine that the ideological battle that ICAIC was carrying out at higher levels was sufficiently delicate that an uncontrollable element such as we were could easily break up the precarious balance that had been established. Over time I came to realize this, but at that moment I was blind with rage.”
They were a “wild bunch,” these artists who were refugees from the over-zealousness of those who wanted to ban anything they believed would undermine the formation of a revolutionary Cuban culture. Yet these cultural rebels remained firmly committed to revolutionary ideals.
Commitment to the Revolution
It seems astounding that Silvio, Leo Brower, and other ardent young revolutionary musicians and artists of that time were able to see beyond the human errors that so profoundly affected their lives, and continue to support the work of the revolution. Probably one of the reasons they were able to do so is that they saw beyond the individual to the process. When asked who was leading that dogmatic and intolerant current, Silvio replied: “I think it was a lot of people, actually. You could remember the names of those who led this or that agency or organization, but it seems to me that the trend went beyond individual leaders. When you don't like something, it's always easiest to just eliminate it, to get it out of your sight, without analyzing why you don't like it, or whether or not you're right.”
He added, “I think that it was in part a phenomenon that was riding the tail of that revolutionary euphoria of the sixties, fed by the enormous necessity the Revolution had to defend itself at that time, and by the unquestionable reality of the harassment and attacks we [the Cuban revolution] were facing then. All this was mixed together.”
The singer did not dispute his interviewer's contention that it also had to do with opportunism on the part of some people, but he felt it was more than that, involving immaturity, lack of perspective, and the ease with which some could manipulate the revolutionary fervor of the moment. He said, “I think that it all stems from a too-rigid interpretation of what society is, what socialism is, and what a socialist society is. It's a kind of Puritanism that at its base is very hypocritical, because it says ‘Do as I say, not as I do.' And it's an abuse of power by those in a position to determine that things should be done one way rather than another, just because they say so.”
Relating the “outlawing” of rock music to other aberrations, such as cutting off long hair, or organizing groups who threw stones and tomatoes at the homes of those leaving during the Mariel exodus, Silvio reflected that the manipulation of crowds to engage in such thoughtless acts “was a mistake, a conceptual error— though I never thought it was done in bad faith.” Silvio and others like him held their ground through all this, refusing to perform in places that engaged in behaviors such as forcibly cutting hair or bell-bottom trousers of students (as occurred at the medical school and polytechnic institute) until better minds prevailed and those absurd policies were abandoned. He added, “It was giving free reign to feelings that were not the best, not the most humane, not the most altruistic, that showed little sense of solidarity and were not the most dignified expressions of human sentiment. They would not have been supported by Marti or Ché.” Current leaders like Fidel, who might also have rejected such behaviors, were distracted by the much greater problems they were facing from the outside, and not focusing on the harmful aspects of what was happening inside, as Fidel now admits.
The singers and composers who were given shelter in the 1960s by the film institute, security and stability to write, compose, create, emerged as the driving force of Cuban culture over the next two decades. As they developed, new musical groups formed and split off from the original Grupo Experimental Sonora de ICAIC. A new era in Cuban musical culture was born.
Somewhere, there in its resistant beginnings, along with the magnificent African roots and Latin trunk, with the great soul survivors of jazz, blues, and Afro-American rhythm and blues, sprang forth among the spreading branches the rebellious music of the 1960s, including the new sound and voice of the Beatles, and the special genius of John Lennon.
Lennon Takes His Place
The belated coronation of the most politically aware of the Liverpool Four in the Cuban homeland of revolutionary culture may also be attributed to the fact that many of the teenagers who listened to and loved the Beatles music in the 1960s have come into leadership positions in the 1990s. The December 8 dedication of the statue of John Lennon in the park in the Vedado section of Havana was introduced by Francisco Lopez Sacha, the current president of the Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC) and one of those who fought longest and hardest to see that the Beatles were given their due in Cuba. Like others, he spoke of the influence Cuban music had on the Beatles and their reciprocal influence on Cuban music of the 1960s. Among those listening to Sacha's passionate, extemporaneous remarks was the Minister of Culture, Abel Prieto, and alongside him President Fidel Castro.
Sacha and Ernesto Juan Castellanos were among those who persisted in extolling the virtues of the Beatles throughout the years. Castellanos chronicled the reemergence of the Beatles in Cuban music in “The Beatles in Havana,” a summary of the discussions and debates in the first Beatles Colloquium in 1996. His newest book, El Sgto. Pimienta vino a Cuba en un submarino amarillo (Sgt. Pepper Came to Cuba in A Yellow Submarine), was released as part of the recent commemoration.
In his introduction to the Castellanos book, Sacha wrote: “The Beatles' recording debut in October 1962, barely two weeks from the October Crisis, surprised us in the midst of change, in the midst of a fundamental conflict between the Cuban nation and the government of the United States. At that time the slightest hint of “anglofonia” [love of anything British, which was not distinguished from anything North American] in the cultural realm, any approach to foreign musical models—especially those aimed at the youth—was labeled ‘conflictive,” seen as an enemy to our own roots.”
He wrote that “primitive rock,” sung in Spanish by well-known local artists, was overlooked, “but the Beatles were virtually ostracized by the media.” He continued, “We saw them only once in the splendor of their days of glory, when Santiago Alvarez [Cuba's renowned documentary filmmaker, recently deceased] had the courage and intelligence to include them in an ICAIC newsreel. They remained off-camera (and radio) until 1966,” he writes, yet when the popular Havana program “Nocturno” on Radio Progreso revived them, “they'd already been listened to by almost everyone.” Even so, he recalls, “our joy was indescribable.”
Sacha's introduction goes on: “My generation, who were then 12, 14 and 15 years old, had remained suspended in limbo between Paul Anka and Elvis Presley, and limited in terms of Cuban sound by the tragic death of Benny More.” Traditional Cuban charangas and other old-style music couldn't fill this gap—but the Beatles could, and did. He writes, “The Beatles dropped like a bolt of lightning over the Motorolas and RCA Victors that had survived the blockade, and over those Czech record players that had begun to replace them.… Although their name wasn't pronounced on the radio until 1967, on Chuch Herrera's program Musical Surprise, their seed had already been planted in our music and their first fruits had already transformed the charanga and the trova, so deeply rooted in popular Cuban music.”
In 1996, Sacha, Ernesto Juan Castellanos, Luis Manuel Molina, and others who continued to venerate the Beatles' sound found a new space within which to pay back that debt. They organized the “First Colloquium on the Transcendence of the Beatles,” bringing together young and old musicians with people who reminisced about those times and what the Beatles' music had meant to them. The discussion—and the music—was repeated the next year, and the next. Informal groups began meeting regularly in people's homes, to listen to and sing the music they loved. Eventually, one group formed an official Beatles' fan club, and began meeting at a university student recreation center in Miramar.
At the ceremony, after several speeches, Fidel Castro took one end of a long sheet that draped the statue and Silvio Rodriguez took the other to unveil the likeness of Lennon to loud applause and cheers. Then Silvio sang “All You Need is Love.”
Asked what he would say to John Lennon if he could speak to him now, Fidel said “I would tell him: I am sorry I never got to know you.” He spoke of their commonality—that they shared many of the same dreams, and were not alone in believing in these dreams—although, Fidel added, he'd had the good fortune to live to see his dreams realized.
The participation by Fidel, Cuban parliamentary president Ric- ardo Alarcon, and other leaders was clearly due to the undeniably leftist political leanings of the assassinated singer-composer. Gran- ma quoted the Cuban president: “this sculpture in this park will remind the younger generation, who did not know him, that Lennon was a man who defended just causes, like the struggle against the war in Viet Nam.” He associated Lennon's “you may say I'm a dreamer” with the optimistic expression by Cuba's José Martí, “the dreams of today will be tomorrow's realities.”
The foreign press crowded around Fidel after the unveiling of the statue, plying him with questions. Now 74, Fidel said he had heard about the Beatles at the height of their success, but didn't listen to their music back then. “I really didn't have much time...we had so much going on here,” adding that his musical ear is bad and his English worse. He went on to say they were very ignorant about music and many other subjects at that time—“I'm sorry. We were wrong. We had a lot to learn.”
The keynote speaker, Ricardo Alarcon, emphasized that the Lennon statue was no monument to nostalgia. Instead, he said, “This place will always be a testimonial to struggle…a permanent homage to a generation that wanted to transform the world.” Alarcon continued, “In that time old imperial colonies fell, people previously ignored arose, and their art, their literature, their ideas started to penetrate the opulent nations. The Third World and tri- continental solidarity were born and some discovered that in the rich north, there existed another Third World that is also awakening.”
Of the young rebels of those times around the world, Alarcon proclaimed, “They tried to assault the sky, to conquer, in a single act, all justice, for the black and the woman, for the worker and the poor, for the sick, the ignorant, and the marginalized. They believed they could arrive at a horizon of peace between nations and equality between all people.” It was above all a rebellion of the young, he said. “They turned back the dull mediocrity of an unjust and false society that reduces people to merchandise and converts everything into false gold.”
You Were Always Among Us
Alarcon quoted John Lennon: “The Sixties saw a revolution among the youth...a complete revolution in the mode of thinking.... The Beatles were a part of the revolution. We were all in that boat in the 60s.” He recalled Lennon's contributions to that movement, “from that memorable concert in 1963 when Lennon asked the people who occupied the most expensive theater seats to, instead of applauding, just rattle their jewels—to six Novembers later when he returned the Order of the British Empire in protest of the aggression in Vietnam and the colonialist intervention in Africa.”
Alarcon listed other indications of Lennon's political and social consciousness: “The refusal to perform before an exclusively white public in Florida, in 1966; the refusal to perform in the South Africa of apartheid; the denunciation of racism in the United States when he arrived there to participate in concerts that had been boycotted by the Ku Klux Klan; the calls for peace in the Middle East; the support for young people who deserted the Yankee aggressor army and the constant support to the Vietnamese resistance and the struggle of the Irish people; the incessant search for new forms of expression, without ever abandoning the roots and authentic language of the people; the repudiation of the bourgeois system, its codes and merchandizing mechanisms; and the creation of a corporation to combat them and defend artistic liberty, an entity to which was attributed, even, a certain communist inspiration.”
All You Need Is
The concert held later that night at the Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Tribunal (facing the U.S. Interests Section building and the site of many of the demonstrations demanding the return of Elian Gonzalez) was unexpectedly opened to the public, instead of limited to those holding the coveted invitations. All those who stayed until the end were able to join hands and sing “Hey Jude” together—just like the real 1960s. For me, it had almost come full circle. But not quite. We will never be able to go back to those times. In terms of the cultural repression of those years in Cuba, it is hoped that enough people have learned the lessons of the past. As Fidel said, “I'm sorry. We were wrong. We had a lot to learn.”
Alarcon returned to Lennon's metaphor of the boat to proclaim: “Our boat will continue sailing. Nothing will stop it. It is driven by a wind that never dies. They will call us dreamers but our ranks will grow. We will defend the vanquished dream and struggle to make real all dreams. Neither storms nor pirates will hold us back. We will sail on until we reach the new world that we will know how to build.”
Then once more to John Lennon—“your message could not disappear because love had, and still has, many battles to fight. With you today we see, astonished, the faces of old comrades, amazed to be here among countless young people who were not even born when you, over there in Liverpool, intoned ballads of love with proletarian words and we here defied the monster.” As in the end the voice of Silvio rings out—and the lyrics of a rebellious Irish working class balladeer help sail us farther into the new century: “All you need is love—love is all you need.” Z
Karen Lee Wald is a writer, consultant, and teacher.