Reggaeton vs The Buena Vista Social Club – The Musical Realities of Life in Cuba

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Back in December of 2012, the government of Cuba banned reggaeton, declaring state-run recording studios and broadcasts off-limits to songs with “questionable” lyrics. They also prohibited the music in performance spaces subject to government control. Our correspondent Teresa Sanchez, who is living in Cuba while researching her dissertation in ethnomusicology, writes from the front lines of the clash between the old guard and new guard in Cuban music.

Since Buena Vista Social Club’s 1997 album is the best-selling World Music album of all time, it’s not surprising that tourists who come to Cuba (mostly Spaniards, Italians, and Canadians) expect to hear traditional son and boleros like “Dos Gardenias” when they visit. As a result, if you walk down Calle Obispo in Old Havana, you are assaulted by the sounds of live son groups on every block.

Calle Obispo
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At first I thought it was awesome (because c’mon, who doesn’t like son?), but after living in Cuba for months, the misrepresentation of Cuba’s music scene began to frustrate me, because the truth is Cubans themselves don’t listen to this music. The BVSC musicians, while fantastic, were of another, older generation. It would be as though everyone outside the US thought that American music = Frank Sinatra, period.

Instead of son, the overwhelmingly popular music of the last decade has been reggaeton, much to the dismay of older generations, “serious” musicians, and the intelligentsia. Even if you don’t listen to reggaeton actively, you’re forced to hear it when you ride the bus, take a máquina (the flat-rate taxi for Cubans), or when you’re at home and your neighbor’s teenage son blasts it at an unbelievable volume.

There’s a real anxiety surrounding reggaeton, and it’s something Cubans talk about frequently. The genre serves as a scapegoat for a lot of the societal changes that are going on in Cuba right now, especially for how elements of capitalism have trickled in since the country opened up to tourism in the 1990s. But it’s more than that, too.

My neighbor, a retired university professor, complains about reggaeton’s overtly sexual lyrics. “It’s the music of people who don’t have nivel,” she explains. (Nivel literally means “level” but here means something like class/education). “My four-year-old grandson came home from school singing the lyrics to ‘La mujer del pelotero’ and making sexual gestures along to the lyrics. I don’t understand why they’re playing this music for little kids.” There’s a fear that if young people grow up listening to this music, they’re going to become accustomed to vulgarity, and there will be an entire generation of Cubans without manners or nivel.

El perreo, the dance associated with reggaeton music
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This complaint, that reggaeton’s lyrics are too sexual, is very common—but it’s also perplexing because Cuban culture is profoundly sexual. The problem seems to be that reggaeton lyrics leave nothing to the imagination, the double entendres aren’t subtle enough. Cubans appreciate sexual lyrics, but only when they’re poetic or artful, e.g.,in the case of Silvio Rodriguez’s ode to the female anatomy “El espacio en que no estás” / “The Space Where You Aren’t.”

Professional, classically trained musicians are among reggaeton’s fiercest critics. They resent how, with just a laptop and no musical training, anybody can become a famous reggaetonero, making big money and going on international tours while they, with a decade or more of conservatory training, struggle to get by. Reggaeton superstar Baby Lores can charge $100/ticket for a show at a hotel, whereas a Julliard-trained Cuban musician will earn $5-10 in exchange for playing all night at a jazz club.

“[Reggaeton] is easy to make, you really only need one person and a computer—you don’t need to go to a studio or to pay a big group of musicians” explains my friend Carlos, a 26-year-old classically trained violinist who plays with Mariachi Habana. The simple logistics and the potentially huge payback make reggaeton an alluring career option.

The other big anxiety surrounding reggaeton is that it’s shifting attention away from the traditional musics of Cuba. “We’re losing our culture as a people” is a common sentiment, probably stemming from the fact that reggaeton is the first genre of non-Cuban origin to achieve such widespread and long-term popularity. “Young kids don’t think about it. It’s catchy and it’s simple, it’s trendy” explains my friend Manuel, a 25-year-old musician who plays in a jazz/funk trio. Worst of all, it is a music that celebrates conspicuous consumption—an exotic and controversial topic in this (post-?) Socialist country.

But everybody, even the harshest critics, allows reggaeton one compliment: es rico para bailar, it’s good for dancing. There’s a brujeria in that dem-bow rhythm (boom-ch-boom-chick) that gets everybody’s hips swaying, from the youngest kids to your abuela to tourists who don’t have the slightest idea how to dance. And even those who say reggaeton is an abomination will tell you that some good Cuban reggaeton exists: the group Gente de Zona and solo artist El Micha are the two oft-cited examples. Gente de Zona are praised because they have “Cubanized” reggaeton, working the sounds of timba into some of their songs, and their lyrics tend to be a little cleaner. El Micha is a charismatic artist with a distinctly deep, full-throated voice.

El Micha
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Last Saturday, I went to the small beach town of Guanabo to check out El Micha in concert, at a large, open-air club. I laughed when he started singing the chorus to one of his songs: “es rico para bailar… es rico para bailar.” It seems that even El Micha knows he has to defend his music. After the show, I wandered backstage and met El Micha and Javier, his producer. El Micha seemed uncharacteristically thoughtful for a reggaetonero. For example, he was acutely aware of how he sets an example for Cuban youth (“If I so much as cut my hair, I have to really think about what I’m going to do, because I know the next day half of Havana is going to have my same haircut”).

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After hearing so much about how reggaetoneros don’t have nivel and are crude, I was struck by how warm, considerate, and quick-witted these guys were. In the end, I don’t think young Cubans are losing their culture due to reggaeton. It’s not BVSC, but despite all the societal changes that are happening today, the youth in Cuba still maintain a profoundly strong sense of their musical identity. They still listen to the sacred canon of classic artists like BenyMoré, BarbaritoDiez, and Bola de Nieve, and contemporary groups like funk collective Interactivo draw on a variety of rich Cuban musical traditions, too. Even capitalist-minded jineteros (people who hustle tourists) are absorbing the traditional sounds of rumba and son, as they walk around Old Havana looking for their next target.