Music: Cuba

Forty years ago this week, Castro finally drove the dictator Batista from Cuba. The revolution may now be on its knees, but an unrivalled musical heritage is finding new followers around the world. Francis Giacobetti photographed some of its greatest stars. Words by Sue Steward

Havana, 1 January, 1959: Fidel Castro goes on the radio and tells the Cuban people that the dictator, General Batista, has fled the night before. Los Barbudos - Castro's bearded army - are taking over. On 8 January, his rag-taggle guerillas drive their Jeeps triumphantly through the streets of the capital amid euphoric cheers from the massive crowds - and isolated, desperate violence from Batista's remaining supporters. Three years later, having failed to persuade President Kennedy to support his brand of reformist politics, Castro announces that Cuba will become a Socialist Republic. The US responds by inflicting an embargo on the country which still holds 40 years later. Among theunintentional gifts left to the island by the Americans in 1959 was the newly opened Hilton Hotel in the centre of town, where the stark neon letters on its roof were replaced by a sign declaring, "Havana Libre".

Under Castro's new regime political folk singers received official endorsement, unlike their companeros, or "brothers", in Chile, Argentina and Brazil. They appeared on stage in their Che Guevara berets alongside Castro and Che himself, and sang songs which endorsed the new policies: agrarian reform, literacy. Music and revolution had gone hand-in-hand in the years of build-up to 1959 - Castro's army softened their life fighting in the mountains with the songs written by the troubadours in Havana and Santiago de Cuba. They marched with guitars as well as rifles slung over their shoulders.

Today, Havana is a building site, trying to keep up with the influx of European tourists to the latest fashionable destination. Journalists, photographers and location scouts seek out the moody streets and alleys and perfectly distressed interiors - and the music.

Since the unexpected success of World Circuit's Buena Vista Social Club at the US Grammy music awards a year ago, record company touts have been flocking to Cuba in search of new - or preferably old - "undiscovered" talent. Cuba is still as synonymous with music as it was in the heady Forties and Fifties, when the mambo and cha-cha-cha drew crowds of US tourists.

For the majority of Cubans, Castro's succession was welcome at first. The corruption, racism and poverty created by Batista had left a wounded and depleted country. Before long, though, Cuba's most successful musicians, with their fabulous houses and planes and lucrative contracts with the glitzy night-spots in New York and the capitals of Latin America, realised that the new order would curtail their glamorous mobile lifestyle and limit future plans. An initial trickle of musicians moving to the US became a haemorrhage which deprived the country of performers. Exit visas were stopped in 1964: those who remained behind were with the revolution - or had to plan to escape.

Cuba is a small country with an extended musical family that contains several key dynasties. Like Africa's hereditary griot families, there are certain names that are always associated with one instrument (Guillermo Rubalcaba, for example, is from a long line of pianists). The family tree of Cuba's musicians is as tangled as a mangrove's roots. Their music is now reaching an international audience, but many of the faces behind it remain less well known. A few photographers and film-makers, however, are beginning to change that.

In May 1999, Wim Wenders' documentary on the extraordinary success of the Afro-Cuban All Stars and 92-year-old guitarist Compay Segundo, will be premiered in London. And this series of photographs, an exceptional record of Cuba's musicians by the Paris-based Corsican photographer Francis Giacobetti, was suggested by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Three years ago, Giacobetti photographed Fidel Castro for an interview, in which it was suggested that Marquez should produce a book about Cuba. Giacobetti narrowed the project down to the country's musicians, explaining, "Music is the language of Cuba; they don't have money or food, music is their religion."

He rented a house in Havana and set up a tiny studio in the basement. "The musicians came to the house with their instruments. We made spaghetti and they played music and we drank rum," Giacobetti recalls,

"I shot them all in five days. I'm very shy - for me to stay an hour with them in a studio is impossible, I need just five minutes! I shot most of the pictures with the same colour filter - yellow. I didn't want aggressive colours, these people aren't aggressive. Why bare flesh? I was terrified by their T-shirts with Pepsi and Coke slogans. I wanted to just see faces and hands. The Papines were most difficult - there were four of them and it was a very small room."

Giacobetti relied on a local friend to co-ordinate the visits with tour schedules. Compay Segundo, for instance, was shot in a London hotel room after a sell-out concert at the South Bank.

Strikingly, the subjects of all these portraits have closed eyes, breaking one of photography's basic rules that the subject engages with the viewer with their eyes. Giacobetti explains his decision: "They are listening to the music; it's a concert. The music is so emotional and it's bad to have two senses working at the same time. If I go to a concert I don't want to look - I listen"

Manoln (El Medico de la Salsa)

Here is the new generation of Cuban salsa: Manoln - El Medico de la Salsa (The Salsa Doctor), who, according to the legend, "swapped a stethoscope for a microphone". While most Cuban musicians train in the conservatories, Manoln came straight to singing after medical school in 1992. His untrained voice is still controversial in a country where pop stars are as technically skilled as opera singers, and musicians can switch between salsa shows and symphony orchestras. But the kids don't care about such old-fashioned values: since his first album, Una Aventura Loca (A Crazy Adventure) came out in 1995, his songs have hit the spot for any teenager with the blues. His secret lies in his combination of local slang and catchphrases with poetic lyrics, in stories about everyday situations - exactly what the singer Juan Formell achieved with Los Van Van 30 years earlier. Either Manoln had the Cuban equivalent of a silver spoon, or his family's musical connections have paid off: he landed a residency at the prestigious Palacio de la Salsa in the Hotel Rivera, which is a hang-out for the new generation of young, hip, rich, salsa stars and their friends.

Compay Segundo

In 1996 Compay Segundo - Francisco Repilado as he was named at birth - was 89 and leading a sedate life measured in cigar butts, guitar tunes and occasional gigs with his band, the ironically named "Muchachos" (Boys). Then Ry Cooder tapped on his door and three years later he was collecting a Grammy for their collaborative album, the Buena Vista Social Club. Giacobetti photographed him in five minutes in a London hotel room, and captured the essence of this former peasant who rolled cigars by day and smoked them as he played guitar at night. His name translates as "second mate", a reference to the fine baritone harmonies he added to his guitar duo for many decades.

Under Castro's new regime political folk singers received official endorsement, unlike their companeros, or "brothers", in Chile, Argentina and Brazil. They appeared on stage in their Che Guevara berets alongside Castro and Che himself, and sang songs which endorsed the new policies: agrarian reform, literacy. Music and revolution had gone hand-in-hand in the years of build-up to 1959 - Castro's army softened their life fighting in the mountains with the songs written by the troubadours in Havana and Santiago de Cuba. They marched with guitars as well as rifles slung over their shoulders.

Today, Havana is a building site, trying to keep up with the influx of European tourists to the latest fashionable destination. Journalists, photographers and location scouts seek out the moody streets and alleys and perfectly distressed interiors - and the music.

Since the unexpected success of World Circuit's Buena Vista Social Club at the US Grammy music awards a year ago, record company touts have been flocking to Cuba in search of new - or preferably old - "undiscovered" talent. Cuba is still as synonymous with music as it was in the heady Forties and Fifties, when the mambo and cha-cha-cha drew crowds of US tourists.

For the majority of Cubans, Castro's succession was welcome at first. The corruption, racism and poverty created by Batista had left a wounded and depleted country. Before long, though, Cuba's most successful musicians, with their fabulous houses and planes and lucrative contracts with the glitzy night-spots in New York and the capitals of Latin America, realised that the new order would curtail their glamorous mobile lifestyle and limit future plans. An initial trickle of musicians moving to the US became a haemorrhage which deprived the country of performers. Exit visas were stopped in 1964: those who remained behind were with the revolution - or had to plan to escape.

Cuba is a small country with an extended musical family that contains several key dynasties. Like Africa's hereditary griot families, there are certain names that are always associated with one instrument (Guillermo Rubalcaba, for example, is from a long line of pianists). The family tree of Cuba's musicians is as tangled as a mangrove's roots. Their music is now reaching an international audience, but many of the faces behind it remain less well known. A few photographers and film-makers, however, are beginning to change that.

In May 1999, Wim Wenders' documentary on the extraordinary success of the Afro-Cuban All Stars and 92-year-old guitarist Compay Segundo, will be premiered in London. And this series of photographs, an exceptional record of Cuba's musicians by the Paris-based Corsican photographer Francis Giacobetti, was suggested by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Three years ago, Giacobetti photographed Fidel Castro for an interview, in which it was suggested that Marquez should produce a book about Cuba. Giacobetti narrowed the project down to the country's musicians, explaining, "Music is the language of Cuba; they don't have money or food, music is their religion."

He rented a house in Havana and set up a tiny studio in the basement. "The musicians came to the house with their instruments. We made spaghetti and they played music and we drank rum," Giacobetti recalls,

"I shot them all in five days. I'm very shy - for me to stay an hour with them in a studio is impossible, I need just five minutes! I shot most of the pictures with the same colour filter - yellow. I didn't want aggressive colours, these people aren't aggressive. Why bare flesh? I was terrified by their T-shirts with Pepsi and Coke slogans. I wanted to just see faces and hands. The Papines were most difficult - there were four of them and it was a very small room."

Giacobetti relied on a local friend to co-ordinate the visits with tour schedules. Compay Segundo, for instance, was shot in a London hotel room after a sell-out concert at the South Bank.

Strikingly, the subjects of all these portraits have closed eyes, breaking one of photography's basic rules that the subject engages with the viewer with their eyes. Giacobetti explains his decision: "They are listening to the music; it's a concert. The music is so emotional and it's bad to have two senses working at the same time. If I go to a concert I don't want to look - I listen"

Right: Chucho Valdes

Jesus "Chucho" Valdes and his Afro-Cuban jazz orchestra, Irakere, are probably Cuba's best-known musical exports. Valdes founded Irakere in 1964 while working in Cuba's film institute, composing film soundtracks. "Irakere" is the name of a sacred forest in Yoruba culture, where secret drumming ceremonies took place. African music and African culture are inseparable elements in Valdes's musical life, even though his training was in the conservatory and in the European classics. As a professor of music himself now, he ensures young music students get the full education. "Irakere is a school", is a frequently heard comment from ex-members of the band. Chucho has now handed Irakere to his son and picks his gigs and collaborations from the barrage of offers he receives from all over the world. Cover image: Cesar Portillo de la Luz

This small, dapper man arrived at the studio with his wife and asked to stand on something to make him look taller. Giacobetti was transfixed by his sculpted features and chose the profile because "it's like a little Rembrandt". Portillo de la Luz composes outstanding love songs in the genre called "feeling" - in phonetic Cuban filin - where romance and patriotism meet in an uptempo bolero. Portillo was born into the country tradition of cigars, guitars and singing under the stars, and still evokes the peace and space of the countryside when composing. Last year, his "Delirio" was selected by Placido Domingo for his first recording of velvety boleros.

Above: Los Papines

The four Abreu brothers - Luis, Alfredo, Jesus and Ricardo - could have presented the photographer with a problem: how to fit them into the tiny studio room. "But I wanted these brothers very close - like sardines in a tin," he says. The four faces and the strong hands and arms belong to the Afro-Cuban rumba quartet, Los Papines, who first started playing together in 1957 and are today a Cuban institution. They perform in the traditional African style, with each band member seated behind a conga drum - whereas other conga players now economise and have one player using a nest of drums like a kit. The Papines' effect is like listening to a vocal harmony group, a doo-wop quartet, each drum with its own voice, the four brothers interlocked in the most sophisticated, and simultaneously primeval, communication of drums and voices.

Above: Frank Emilio Flynn

A child prodigy with perfect pitch, blinded at 13, Frank Emilio Flynn learnt music theory in Braille and became one of Havana's most sought- out accompanists. He discovered the singer Omara Portundo, then a teenager, hearing "the light" in her voice. Giacobetti says this was the hardest picture to take, with no eye contact and no shared language, but it was saved by Flynn's professionalism: "He performed for the camera; he sang and played an imaginary piano." Last year, Flynn appeared at New York's Carnegie Hall, a frail old man of nearly 80, in a white tuxedo, and his playing electrified the room.

Below: Lazaro Ros

Lazaro Ros is "The grand Akpwon of Cuba" - for Afro-Cubans, he is their Pope. In 1930, at the age of 25, he was initiated into Santeria, the religion of the Yoruban slaves which fused Catholicism with their African beliefs. Santeria's language, original Yoruba, is used in the esoteric chants and songs of the sacred talking drums used to communicate with the gods. Since the revolution, elements of Santeria and its secular arm, rumba, have been incorporated into the tourist cabaret shows and form the centrepiece of performances by the National Folk Music and Dance Company which Ros co-founded in 1962. No visit to Havana is complete without a "Saturday Rumba" - when the company's finest singers, rumba dancers and drummers fill the open square behind their Havana headquarters with the most exhilarating music in town. Ros, meanwhile, has retired to the black suburb of Guanacaboa, where he writes plays, teaches music and collaborates with the experimental jazz-rock band Sintesis.

Left: Juan Formell

Juan Formell brought his whole orchestra - Los Van Van - to the photographer's house, where they performed before the photo session. It was like having The Beatles in your front room. "It was impossible to shoot him then," says Giacobetti. "We drank rum, did some very kitsch colour pictures and then we went to the basement. I wanted to put his face with the guitar." Formell's jumpy bass lines have been a significant thread through Cuban salsa since 1969 when he founded his band. Three decades of hits have set the island dancing and singing to his subtly subversive lyrics. All through the Eighties and Nineties, Los Van Van toured Europe and Latin America to earn hard currency for the country's coffers. Many musicians gave up and moved to the US, but Formell stayed with the programme and now has the best of both worlds. He visits his son in Miami and makes occasional appearances in that city's Little Havana restaurants, virtually unrecognised by fellow diners. Ninety miles away he is a superstar and drives the most expensive imported sports car on the island.

Right: Richard Egues The modest 82-year-old Egues came to the sessions alone with his flute, and played for hours. "Magical," says Giacobetti. Egues is very modest, despite his incredible fame outside Cuba, especially in the US and West Africa, where his band, Orquesta Aragon, have influenced generations of local musicians. The West African singers, Youssou N'Dour, Salif Keita, Baaba Maal, all reminisce about Aragon's records and performances. Baaba Maal covered Aragon's hits in his own phonetic Spanish without a clue as to what they even meant. Among New York's salsa aristocrats, Aragon's cha-cha-chas in the Forties and Fifties were a major draw for young musicians such as Johnny Pacheco, who studied Egues' trilling flute solos and imitated them with their own hit bands.

Left: Santiago Alfonso

Santiago Alfonso qualified for these sessions as a dancer and choreographer and also as the director of the Tropicana Cabaret's cast of hundreds of musicians, singers and dancers. "His face is magic," enthuses Giacobetti. "I photographed him like photographing a woman, he has an instinct for pleasure. His shirt was very `kinky', all flowers," he adds, as if he needed a reason for exposing the flesh. "I wanted it very simple." How could the director of the world's most flamboyant outdoor cabaret, where women parade among the trees in feather costumes and with lighted candelabras on their heads, be expected to wear anything quiet? Before the revolution, Alfonso worked in the Sans Souci outdoor cabaret, the Tropicana's rival. His bosses then were based in Chicago and his clients were American tourists who flew in for the legal gambling. Last year, Alfonso's company packed their trunks full of frothy, feathery outfits and transported their Caribbean kitsch to the Albert Hall.

Above: Guillermo Rubalcaba

Cuba's sweetest and most elegant dance music is performed by the flute-and-violin-led bands known as charangas. Their traditional speciality is a dance called danzon, traceable to the courtly dances of Europe. In Cuba nothing stays so straightforward: the danzon's stately rhythms were charged with an African syncopation and given some delicious surreptitious funk. Guillermo Rubalcaba's family is one of Cuba's famous musical dynasties, a line of danzon pianists which was broken only when Guillermo's son Gonzalo moved into Latin jazz. Rubalcaba senior had a quiet regular life with his charanga orchestra, driving up the road to a senior citizens' danzon club in Matanzas once a week, until he performed on the Afro-Cuban All Stars album, and the journeys got longer - taking him to the classiest venues in Europe and the Americas with his old pals. `Oye Salsa!' by Sue Steward, will be published in the autumn by Thames & Hudson

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

    £37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

    Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

    £25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

    Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

    £16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

    Day In a Page

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea