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The Birth Of 'Nueva Trova Cubana' And Other Music Styles In Castro's Cuba


Now we'd like to take a minute to consider how Castro influenced the country in one particular way - its music. To do that, we're joined by NPR contributor Betto Arcos. Betto, thanks so much for joining us.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: My pleasure to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So let's get to the late '60s and early '70s after Castro had been in power not for very long. What did the music sound like then? What was going on?

ARCOS: Well, in the late 1960s and early '70s as the Cuban government, you know, consolidated its social and political structures, there was what I call the sort of establishment of a new revolutionary identity, especially through music. This is the period that saw the emergence of a new musical style called Nueva Trova Cubana. These new troubadours were directly associated with the revolution's philosophy, writing protest songs, you could call them, but were also introspective and self-critical of themselves and of the revolution. The two main proponents where Pablo Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez. And they rose to popularity, not just in Cuba, but all over Latin America.

MARTIN: Let's just play a little bit. You've got Silvio Rodriguez's "Te Doy Una Cancion."


SILVIO RODRIGUEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: This is a song that is an anthem, and it became an anthem all over Cuba, all over Latin America because it says I give you a song, my homeland. I give you a song with the hands that kill, with the hands that give you a guerilla, with the hands that work day to day. This is someone that was deeply immersed into the revolutionary culture of Castro, and he sang the songs of the revolution.

MARTIN: Did these singer-songwriters do this of their own accord? Was there some sort of sponsorship of this? I mean, how did it work?

ARCOS: Absolutely. There was a sponsorship. In fact, the government created the structures to support music and composing and writing. And so, yes, whatever they won, they traveled, they were, in fact, representing Cuba and the government.

MARTIN: OK. Let's go to the '80s.


ARCOS: The '80s is all about this period of excitement of - the economy was flourishing, and it was also the explosion of Cuba's dance music and the acclaim of, perhaps, one of the most popular dance bands ever from Cuba, Los Van Van. We're going to listen to a song called "Havana Can't Take It Anymore" which addresses, interestingly, the housing crisis in Havana caused by the mass migration of people from the country to the city. And, of course, they, as true revolutionaries, if you will - they are critical of what's happening. And they're saying, hey, we can't take it anymore. Let's take a listen. Yeah. Let's hear it.


LOS VAN VAN: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: The story goes that it's perhaps because of this song that the government sort of heeded the call and started promoting this or encouraging people not to come to the city - or if they came to the city, to go back to where they came from because the housing crisis had reached this level of, you know, they can't - they don't - they can't put up people anymore. And, again, it has to do with the economy what was happening in Cuba in the 1980s.

MARTIN: So the economic growth didn't last long, and then, of course, in the '90s people remember that the Soviet Union collapsed. It was a very difficult time. How was this reflected in the music?

ARCOS: The government called this a special period, a euphemism for the tightening of the belt at all levels of society. And one singer that reflected that period is the great Carlos Varela who composed a song called "Guillermo Tell" - William Tell. It's really the anthem of this period. It's a song that retells the story of William Tell - William Tell shooting the arrow at the apple and his son is, you know - has got the apple on his head.

Well, in this case, Carlos Varela turns it upside down and says what if the son shoots the arrow at the apple but the apple is on his father's head? It's a metaphor for what's happening in Cuba. It's like, you know, we got the revolution. We are the youth. We are the new generation. We don't get to say what's going on, what's going to happen. They felt like they had no sense of direction.


CARLOS VARELA: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: It does have a - kind of a very mournful quality.

ARCOS: There is, and everyone knows the song by heart. And in this particular concert which took place in 1993, people were singing every word to this song because they felt it so closely. It was their anthem.


VARELA: (Singing in Spanish).


MARTIN: And we'll finally bring it up to the - today now.

ARCOS: Well, the late '90s saw this influx of American music and, of course, what is youth going to listen to in Cuba? Hip-hop.


VARELA: And there was a group called Interactivo and this fantastic artist Telmary She was part of this group, and, in this particular song, Telmary addresses machismo. So let's listen to this tune called "Que Equivocao," which means you're so wrong. And it basically tells the man, you know, all you want to do is party, all you want to do is drink. You know, you think I'm just going to be home cleaning and cooking - forget it.


TELMARY DIAZ: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: What are some of the sounds that we should be listening for now?

ARCOS: I think you can expect a whole new crop of jazz musicians, a whole new crop of hip-hop and R&B-type artists. Believe me, there's, you know, musicians right now that are happening. They're in their 20s, so we'll see more of that in the years to come.

MARTIN: All right. That's Betto Arcos. Betto, thanks so much for joining us.

ARCOS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Betto Arcos
Betto Arcos is a freelance music journalist. He writes stories about music from around the world, with an emphasis on Latin America. He has been a contributor to NPR programming since 2009, when he began reviewing music for All Things Considered on the weekends.
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