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Music A Longtime Feature Of Cuba-U.S. Cultural Exchange


The American car market in Cuba has largely been frozen in time, but the cultural exchange between the two countries has been more dynamic. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports that Cuba and the U.S. have been involved in an on-again, off-again musical affair for nearly a century.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: The 1941 film "Week-End In Havana" was set in a very different Cuba.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In a tropical paradise of lilting laughter, romantic rumba rhythms and Latin lovers, you'll join lovely Alice Faye in her search for fun and romance.

GARSD: It was a time of free cultural exchange with the U.S. - 90 miles of ocean were a bridge, not a barrier. Havana was the go-to destination for American tourists, who were treated to Cuban musicians, like pianist and composer Bebo Valdes.


GARSD: In the U.S., clubs like Palladium in New York were packed with Cuban performers, including Arsenio Rodriguez, Celia Cruz and Chano Pozo. And U.S. musicians, like Dizzy Gillespie, embraced the island's rhythms.


GARSD: America's fascination with Cuba as a place of forbidden pleasures goes back to prohibition in the 1920's. Professor Louis Perez teaches Caribbean history at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

LOUIS PEREZ: You could drink your brains out, have a good time, when you couldn't drink in the United States.

GARSD: The 1959 Cuban Revolution shut down a lot of night clubs and casinos. Many musicians fled. And Perez says some of them used the stage to criticize the Castro regime. Among the most famous - Celia Cruz.

PEREZ: Celia was clearly and vocally and publicly critical.

GARSD: In her song "Por Si Acaso No Regreso" she sings, in case I don't come back, I take your flag with me, lamenting that my eyes will not see you liberated.


CELIA CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: But the Revolution had its own music. Though it didn't reach the U.S., it spread widely through the Spanish-speaking world, and its undeniable star was the son of a farmer from a tobacco growing area just outside of Havana. Silvio Rodriguez became a musical icon for the Latin-American left. In his song "Preludio Giron" he speaks about the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion.


SILVIO RODRIGUEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: For decades, Cuban musicians encountered a bureaucratic nightmare trying to get to the U.S. When jazz pianist Chucho Valdes and his band Irakere won a Latin Grammy in 1979, he was not allowed to come to the U.S. to pick up the award, as he told NPR in 1999.

CHUCHO VALDES: (Through translator) Imagine, it was a terrible frustration because the most important thing after winning the Grammy was receiving it and we couldn't do that.

GARSD: These barriers to free movement meant the development of very different sounds on and off the island.


GLORIA ESTEFAN: (Singing) Come on shake your body, baby, do the Conga. Know you can't control yourself any longer.

GARSD: In the mid-1970s, a young Cuban-born singer, whose father participated in the Bay of Pigs Invasion on the U.S. side, joined a band called Miami Sound Machine. Gloria and Emilio Estefan fused Cuban rhythms and American R&B grooves, often with an anti-Castro message.


ESTEFAN: (Singing) I pray that the rain will bathe you in freedom, only music and laughter be heard on the breeze.

GARSD: By the mid-1990s , thought, things finally started to change.

BILL MARTINEZ: During the first Clinton administration it was fairly fluid.

GARSD: Bill Martinez is an immigration attorney who specializes in U.S.-Cuba cultural exchanges and he says the band Los Van Van was at the vanguard.

MARTINEZ: Once Los Van Van came in, and Irakere got in, we knew that, at least during the Clinton administration, the door was open.


LOS VAN VAN: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: Slowly, but surely, musical relations between Cuba and the U.S. have been thawing since well before President Obama's announcement yesterday. It's been impossible to suppress the cultural love-hate relationship between the two countries. And Martinez says yesterday's announcement is just the latest tentative step in a long distance relationship.

MARTINEZ: It becomes normal - imagine that.

GARSD: Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Washington.


LOS VAN VAN: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.
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