It's said that in Cuba, people sing while talking, dance while walking and woo with the lyrics of a song. It's probably still true that Cuban music is the artistic expression which has most influenced the Cuban personality.
But whether it's music, visual arts, literature, film, or the performing arts of modern dance or theatre, Cuba has an undeniably rich culture and range of artistic expression, often respected far outside its Caribbean borders. From a heritage of Spanish and African roots, with some Chinese and French Haitian influences, Cuban culture is known for its diversity and quality.
In music alone, Cuba is the musical birthplace of musical forms including the son, the habanera, the guaracha, the danzon, the rumba and the punto, not to mention the original basis of salsa. And Cuba has contributed not only to the development of jazz, but also to Argentinian tango, Ghanaian high-life, West African Afrobeat and Spanish nuevo flamenco.
Meanwhile, in the visual arts, Cubans have embraced many genres and influences, including surrealism, cubism, Soviet-influenced propaganda art posters, Afro-Cuban art forms, expressionistic art, conceptual and performance art, street and graffiti art, nalve art, and photography.
"Cuban artists are creating some of the most exciting and innovative contemporary art in the world," wrote entertainment attorney/writer Miles Mogulescu last year in the Huffington Post (July 2015), after attending the 12th Havana Art Biennial in June 2015 and being blown away by its offerings. He continued: "The best Cuban art can stack up against the best contemporary art being created in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London or other world art centers, while still maintaining an essential Cuban spirit."
Blogger Melissa Leclezio wrote (in her article at https://theculturetrip.com) that there are currently about 14 art schools, a University of Fine Arts, as well as 13,000 registered artists in Cuba, despite an American embargo and a lack of internet access which she feels has severely constrained artistic development. As a result, many Cuban artists either emigrate or take another job on the side to survive in Cuba, she wrote.
The Cuban state has long played an important role in the arts. Leclezio noted that in 1983, the Revolutionary Government of Cuba established the Centro Wilfredo Lam, whose aim was to research and promote the richness of artistic creation from South America, Africa and Asia–the idea was to be universalist as well as devoted to third world culture, and also very nationalist in outlook.
Through this arts centre, the very first Havana Biennial – a visual/performing arts festival–happened in 1984. The Biennial has since "radically redefined the state's relation to art and has also provided an opportunity for local artists to obtain international recognition," says Leclezio, adding: "Cuban art is constantly reinventing itself through radical experimentation and visually arresting paintings and performances."
The legacy of Fidel Castro in helping to shape all of these artistic expressions is interesting. On the one hand, the Cuban State has nurtured many artists and cultural workers with an excellent arts education.
For example, in visual art, the Cuban State founded the National School of Plastic Arts in 1962. In film, it founded the Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematogr�ficos (Cuban Institute of Film Art and Industry) as early as 1959.
And Cuban music schools are world renowned for producing some of the world's greatest musicians–a disproportionally high number considering the nation's population of 11 million.
Indeed, Blogger Isabella Creatura wrote in an article called Evaluating Music Education in Cuba and the US (posted April 25, 2015, on the site www.brownpoliticalreview.org) that: "In Cuba all children are afforded the opportunity to play the flute–or the piano, or the guitar, or any instrument in the orchestra–and play it well. Opened in 1961 as one of Castro's early education reforms, la ENA (the Escuela Nacional de Artes) in Havana offers a nationalised music programme for children ages eight to 18."
On the other hand, however, some critics note that much of this arts education can be skewed to nationalistic or propagandistic aims, and that some artists feel the need to leave Cuba in order to be free enough to express themselves without censorship.
The Guardian asked some T&T cultural workers who have either been to Cuba, or worked with Cuban artists or cultural organisations of different kinds, to comment on Castro's arts legacy. Here's what they said.
Music businessman; concert producer; music blogger & reviewer; director of Production One Ltd, a company that produces the annual concert Jazz Artists on the Greens.
For some Cubans, Castro's Cuba was a fertile ground for learning and having a protected career, but in the wider world (and even here in Trinidad), we see what isolation and political constraints have caused by the loss of the possibility of a real world context for industry and commerce in music.
Someone wrote on a blog, "Cuba's music was largely uncorrupted by commercialism." For better or worse?
I am part of the team that presents Jazz Artists on the Greens annually, and since 2008, we have featured Cuban artists, via the Cuban Institute of Music, at our shows.
One of the things that was apparent was the lack of commercial experience highlighted by the poor marketing material, including CDs.
Yet these musicians are top-notch. Since Castro, those who stayed (in Cuba) benefited from a well-established musical conservatory education that served them well, superseding musicians from all the other islands. Their arts were world class in quality. All styles (bat�, son, nueva trova, salsa) on all instruments, including violin, xylophone, saxophone, have been features of our shows.
We know a whole lot of musicians left or never returned to Cuba–Gloria Estefan, Paquito D'Rivera, Celia Cruz, famously–and they benefited from engaging in the commerce of music and the influence of synergies. A generation in Cuba played without awareness of their value.
Since Raul took over from Fidel, and some relaxation of restrictions on musicians' travel exists, we still had to deal with chaperones accompanying the musicians. They weren't managers. One musician told me that all he got from what we paid, was a stipend.
I've dealt with Cuban musicians now resident in Toronto, Canada, and they are better prepared for the world of music business.
Simply put, Castro's Cuba maintained and supported traditional Cuban music, but at the expense of a wider global preparation for after he was gone.
Filmmaker; co-designer of the BA Film Programme at UWI; film lecturer; founder of the T&T Film Festival and the New World Film Centre; founder of the production company Banyan Productions; co-editor, with Luis Notario, of the book Exploring Caribbean Cinema, launched at the Havana International Book Fair in 2012.
Fidel Castro used to enjoy watching all types of films, but he was very aware of the power of film and its ability to help shape attitudes and behaviours. Thus he was concerned about the predominance and influence of Hollywood films and their ability to spread American culture in Cuba and internationally. So one of the first cultural institutes to be established after the Cuban revolution in 1959 was the film institute ICAIC. Within months, film production had started, and Cuba is now recognized as being one of the leaders of Latin America and world cinema.
The annual film festival in Havana starts in a few weeks and Cuba has demonstrated its regional commitment by screening Caribbean films and working closely with the trinidad+tobago film festival, while Cuban films prove to be some of the best appreciated at ttff. Fidel had the vision to support local film production, recognizing how important it is to a nation's independence and development.
Visual and mutimedia contemporary artist, arts writer, arts editorial advisor for magazines; one of the administrators of Alice Yard, a TT arts collective
The Havana Biennial is one of the major platforms for artists in this hemisphere and is a starting point for many. This is now a major global art event.
Trinidad remains oblivious and is still locked into little local picture sales as art events, and exhibitions in little air-conditioned spaces, with no broader ambition.
In fact, the work that got me into the Havana Biennial in 1994 was ridiculed by some big-name local artists, but was seen/respected by the Cuban curator who was doing research. So it was an engagement or investment in my potential–what my work could become, rather than a dismissal. So that was my first exposure, after art school in the US, to the real art game.
As a professional participant, I never really looked back. At the Havana Biennial, I met artists, curators and critics from India, Africa, Mexico and Latin America... even some US and British professionals searching for global conversations. Being invited there launched my career in a way that Trinidad was not interested in or capable of, and this was during Cuba's "Special Period" when things were tough there– they still had the commitment (it seemed ironic).
Their artists and curators are now major world players because they invested in these kinds of events, dialogues and institutions. There are now so many major artists from Cuba on the world stage.
This does not mean that Cuban artists are not challenged by the State, (when the artists) push their critique too far, as the recent events surrounding Tania Bruguera illustrated.
I attended an international workshop some years ago at the Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, in Cuban modern dance. This dance style, known as Cubadanza, is a hybrid of ballet, modern dance, Afro-Cuban folklore and social dancing.
The classes were rigorous and physically demanding and conducted in a very disciplined manner. Drumming accompaniment was an integral part of most classes and reverence was always paid to the presence of the elders, who were the drummers.
Apart from another foreigner, the classes were made up of Cubans who were extremely proficient with this style and whose manner and approach to the training was passionate. Due to limitations with language, conversations with classmates were limited. I was, however, assigned an interpreter, who was present at every class.
A couple years later, I was privileged to see Sulkari, the work of the famous Cuban choreographer, the late Eduardo Rivera, performed at a dance festival in Grenada. Dancers from Grenada and Jamaica have forged strong links with Cuba and avail themselves of the training there on a regular basis.
It is said that after the Cuban Revolution, the development of Cuban artistes was one of the goals of the Fidel Castro-led government. In the case of dance, an indigenous form was created, to embody all the styles of dance practiced in Cuba, displaying the forces of cross-pollination.
Government support was given for this endeavor. This is very evident in the ability of the dancers, trained in this style, who develop the strength, flexibility, precision and dexterity of modern dance and ballet, but also the fluidity of the spine and the earthiness that is characteristic of many folk forms. Dance is central to Cuban life, both as a form of worship and entertainment.