- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2005

SANTIAGO DE CUBA - Uno, dos, tres. One, two, three, Mercedes counts to the rhythm of a Cuban melody on her little portable radio. She teaches modern Cuban dance here in the first capital of Spanish Cuba, founded in 1589, now its No. 2 city and the heart of the new sound: merengues, guarachas, boleros and cha-cha-chas.

A $5 dancing lesson can take up to three, sometimes four hours. The house Mercedes teaches in belongs to a friend, Roberto, who also teaches modern Cuban dance in Calle J (J Street) but took the day off.

Canadians and Europeans flock to Santiago to dance their days and nights away since Ry Cooder immortalized the new Cuban sounds with his 1998 Grammy-winning album and songs of all types that he named the Buena Vista Social Club performances.

Mercedes apologizes for the huge amount of money she is not supposed to charge: An average Cuban earns no more than $10 to $12 per month, though everything available with a coupon in stores is subsidized. Compared with such monthly salaries, her income is huge and “anti-democratic.”

“What can I do,” she said, “we’ve got to make a living somehow or other. Everything is state controlled, so in theory, we should be able to survive. But if we don’t improvise, we won’t.”

At La Casa de la Trova (The House of the Minstrels), in a beautiful old building at the center of Santiago, several bands, including an all-female band, start playing off and on at 10 a.m., stopping only for lunch. Visitors mostly listen to music but sometimes start dancing wildly.

The House of the Minstrels also functions as a social gathering space where Cubans of all ages meet tourists or one another to have a drink and exchange the latest news or gossip. The entrance fee is a dollar. Many Cubans who can’t spare a dollar watch the musicians perform from the open windows and dance in the street.

The music goes on until 10 p.m. After 1 a.m., professional dancers from clubs such as the Lido join in and perform the most mesmerizing stunts and new dancing techniques for small tips. The fun lasts until 3 a.m. All the band members are employed by the state.

Julian also works at the Lido. His great-grandfather wrote the first copyrighted bolero in 1883 and called it “Tristeza” (“Sadness”); it made him a hero. Julian enjoys the status of a well-known Cuban musical historian. He is a journalist for Cuba’s state radio, writing text for reporters to read on the air.

He has won four awards — two Cuban and one each in Spain and Mexico. He always returned to Cuba from his trips abroad, and because of this and his great-grandfather’s national fame, he is paid three times the minimum income — the equivalent of about $30 per month.

Unfortunately, he has to type his radio scripts on old, outdated Soviet typewriters that do not always perform. They still need ribbons, and there are no more typewriter ribbons in the country. Inventive as the Cubans are, Julian puts two blank sheets of paper in the machine with a sheet of carbon copy in between, facing down.

The carbon imprint on the bottom sheet should be enough for the news reader to do his job, “but we have no more carbon paper,” he laments, “and if the anchorman cannot read my text, they cut my income by a substantial factor.”

Cuban music is historically rich, and has gotten new influences from the flocks of tourists coming to dance. It has roots in French and British colonial music, as well as Spanish and Portuguese, plus several strong African elements.

In the 1940s, Cuban music won fame in the Unites States when big bands such as the Perez Prado band swept Americans off their feet. In the early ‘50s, big bands such as the Sonora Matancera from Matanzas province and singers like Celia Cruz, Bienvenido Granda and Alberto Beltran were famous worldwide. Generations of pre-Elvis Presley and pre-Bill Haley Americans grew up with Cuban music.

Cuban musicians toured and conquered the world. In Cuba, they were immortal. After the revolution was proclaimed in January 1959, leader Fidel Castro prohibited certain types of music. Some musicians were persecuted as “anti-revolutionary.”

“The musicians and performers fled the country, often to the United States, but also to Spain and Mexico,” Julian said. “They were called really bad names and considered serious traitors.”

Listening to contemporary musicians, who greet tourists at the airport at 8 in the morning with their mesmerizing music, and to others who perform at La Casa de la Trova all day long, one thing is clear: They don’t appear to know their cultural heritage and roots.

That part of their history is denied.

No one here knows that Ms. Cruz died in New York two years ago, and that 125,000 visitors attended her wake there. Or that her body was flown to Miami, where 100,000 more came to pay respects.

“Our cultural heritage has been erased from history,” said an older man and former musician. “So are other parts of our rich history. Youngsters don’t know where they came from, and I wonder if they know where they’re going. I doubt it.”

Unasked, he tells how he worked all day on a farm and was paid with two mangos. He holds them up high. “This is what we used to feed to swine when I was young,” he said. “I am not surprised they charge you that much money for those dancing lessons.”

He said special attention ought to be paid to the skills of the dancers. “Because of the situation, everybody wants to leave our beloved island. And because they dance so well, the foreign ladies sometimes give them a ticket to Canada or Europe, where they finally learn about their cultural heritage.

“But it really is time to learn about our political heritage as well. That, too, has been erased completely and serves only the ones who gain from us, not the ones who dedicated their lives to the revolution.”

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