The course of Cuban music history shifted remarkably after the Fidel Castro-led Cuban Revolution ousted Fulgencio Batista in 1959. In the 40s and 50s, the island nation was internationally regarded as a creative hotbed for Caribbean music, with a thriving nightlife scene of cabarets and concert venues. Starting in 1959, music became a powerful tool of the revolution, and the Cuban state established infrastructure to provide training and equipment for aspiring musicians, as well as government agencies aimed to regulate the messages of artistic production. Organizations like the Instituto Cubano de Arte y Cultura, Casa de las Américas, and EGREM, the government-run record label of Cuba, spearheaded the nationalization of popular styles to foster support for the revolution.
Critics of Fidel Castro’s government denounced censorship and control of artistic production, while supporters celebrated his financial support for musicians. In an infamous 1961 speech, Fidel Castro spoke out about the rights of artists and musicians at Cuba’s national library, stating, “What are revolutionary and non-revolutionary writers’ and artists’ rights? Under the revolution: everything; against the revolution, none.”
Whether you’re a Fidel Castro supporter or not, one thing is certain: over the course of six decades, his controversial government saw the birth and death of dozens of music movements on the island. Though there are plenty of styles we could cover – like the rise of songo and timba pioneers Los Van Van or the now world-famous Buena Vista Social Club – we’ve decided to bring you a brief snapshot of four specific genres – nueva trova, rock, hip-hop and electronic music. Here’s how the government of Fidel Castro shaped those traditions.
The nueva trova movement emerged around 1967-1968 and soon became the voice of the Cuban revolution. Leaders like Pablo Milanés and Silvio Rodriguez blended early twentieth century trovadores’ nationalism with folk idioms drawn from Argentine and Chilean nueva canción icons like Violeta Parra and Victor Jara. Lyrics described the plight of the working class, the virtues of socialism, and denounced social injustice. Haydée Santamaría, often considered the mother of the nueva trova movement, was the head of Centro de la Canción Protesta, a cultural center within Casa de las Américas that helped develop the movement.
As writer Ed Morales notes in his book The Latin Beat, at its outset, the Cuban government regarded nueva trova with skepticism, going as far as jailing Milanés in 1967. But by the early 70s, nueva trova was institutionalized and supported by the state. According to scholar Robin Moore, the Special Period (an economic crisis that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union) and the renewal of the tourist economy shifted interest in nueva trova to more commercially viable genres.
In its early years, Fidel Castro’s government considered rock music a form of “ideological diversionism” associated with U.S. imperialism and Western values. Fidel Castro famously banned The Beatles from the island in 1964, though he later softened his position on the group (he even erected a statue of John Lennon in Havana in the 2000s). 1960s rock bands like Los Astros faced opposition from the Cuban state, but various styles like punk and metal made their way to the island in the 80s. Punk and metalheads (known collectively as los frikis) continued to play their music despite government crackdowns. Figures like Gorki Águila of punk band Porno para Ricardo recalls Beatles vinyl being confiscated at a party he was attending in 1979.
In the 80s, a new group of singer-songwriters – including Carlos Varela – started making novisima trova, a response to the older generation of trovadores like Silvio Rodriguez. Some maintained the folk style of the earlier movement, while others added electric guitars and elements of American pop. In 2007, Maria Gattorno helped found the Cuban Rock Agency, a governmental organization responsible for regulating music and establishing venues and providing rock artists with training and instruments (though musicians still struggle with access to new and functional equipment).
The music of hip-hop icons like A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy made its way to Cuba in the early 90s through international radio broadcasts, inspiring a generation of young Cubans to harness the political power of the genre and apply it to their own context. Much like rock music, Cuban authorities initially viewed hip-hop with skepticism. Along with promoter and radio host Ariel Fernández, Nehanda Abiodun, an African-American black power activist exiled in Cuba, helped shift government opinion toward the genre (interestingly, a conversation between Fidel Castro and Harry Belafonte in 1999 seemed to have altered the regime’s stance on hip-hop, too). In 2002, the government founded the Cuban Rap Agency, which runs the state-sanctioned label La Fabrik and the annual hip-hop festival. The CRA helped develop the careers of groups like Obsesión, Doble Filo, and Orishas, though the latter famously left the island for France after signing a record deal with EMI.
Today, detractors (including Fernández, who now lives in New York) see the CRA as a threat to the development of underground hip-hop. As he told Slate in 2015, “When the Cuban Rap Agency has to make a decision, whose interests are they going to protect? The government’s? Or hip-hop’s?” The island’s hip-hop community experienced a major shift in 2009 and 2010, when two Serbian promoters contracted by USAID were sent to Cuba to infiltrate the scene. The clandestine operation was aimed at spreading anti-Castro sentiment through notable hip-hop groups like Los Aldeanos. Hip-hop no longer thrives the way it did in Cuba, which many attribute to the CRA’s new investment in reggaeton artists.
Like many of the other movements that developed under Fidel Castro’s government, electronic music arrived to Cuba through radio broadcasts from Miami and gifted cassettes from European visitors in the late 90s. Today there’s a burgeoning community of DJs and producers, with artists like DJ Jigüe and PAUZA blending Afro-Cuban rhythms like rumba and tumba francesa with more traditional electronic genres like deep house and techno. Earlier this year, the historic Manana Festival billed itself as the country’s first-ever electronic music festival, offering local DJs a platform to showcase their talent.
Government-run institutions like the Laboratorio Nacional de Música Electroacústica organize workshops on electronic production and engineering, though access to equipment and Internet remains limited. But interest in electronic music culture is booming, with venues like El Salon Rosado and Fabrica de Arte Cubano hosting massive raves on weekends. In March, Major Lazer played a free show to 400,000 people – the first performance from a U.S.-based artist since Audioslave played in Cuba in 2005.