Exclude, accuse, absorb!

Cultural policy-strategies of the Cuban government against rock music, nueva trova, hiphop and reggaeton

Polemic Paper, 2013

15 Pages



A few years after the revolution of 1959, jazz (and rock) became identified by Fidel and his friends as „imperialistic music“. Though it had never been forbidden to play them, Fidel’s „words towards the intellectuals“ left enough space to allow some functionaries to ban it from TV- and radio-broadcasting or to hinder the production of discs. A lot of musicians left their island. In case of the nueva trova -movement in the mid 60ies at the beginning happened the same as with rock music. But there a new strategy showed more success: embracement, which led to promotion by the government. 30 years later the government – exactly a new and young cultural minister – tried to apply this strategy with the growing hiphop-movement and the reggaeton-scene but failed partly. Many rappers – especially the second generation - did not like to be part of the system. This article compares the different strategies which the Cuban government had used during 50 years to battle against disliked music styles and shows their consequences, successes and failures.

Keywords: Cuba, rockmusic, jazz, nueva trova, hiphop, reggaeton, cultural policy, censorship

In 1959, los barbudos – the “bearded”, meaning Fidel, Che and their followers – chased the dictator Batista from the country and henceforth put to practice their own political concepts. The state systematically took over control of the cultural life. The new authorities introduced a series of measures which at first did not seem like any structured policies, but which were deemed necessary to satisfy the people’s growing demand for culture and were to incorporate, as far as possible, all artists and intellectuals into the revolutionary process. This event had both positive and negative effects for the country’s music. The positive effects will be briefly outlined as follows:

- Culture was seen for the first time as a political factor
- Musical institutions, such as orchestras (f.e. National Symphony Orchestra, 1960), music schools and academies, were founded and financially supported by the government (Moore 2006: 80ff)
- Musical education was now free of charge and accessible to (nearly) everyone
- Musicians that were deemed acceptable were given a basic salary by the state
- Manufacturers were established to produce (small) music instruments
- The newly created National Council for Culture – elevated to Ministry of Cultural Affairs in 1976 – developed a national system of festivals for the various forms of music, such as the Festival Nacional del Son or the Festival de Música Electroacústica, which offered upcoming new talents the opportunity to present themselves to a broader public.
- The research into national folklore was supported, especially in the field of music, by institutions such as the National Museum for Music (1971) and the Centro de Investigación de Música Cubana, CIDMUC, founded in 1978 (OEI 2001).

But the focus on supporting national roots in music automatically also led to first signs of suspicion, as musicologist Leonardo Acosta points out: “Actually, in the first years after the revolution the cultural policy was fairly flexible and open, but there were already a few nationalist traits. Jazz, for example, at the time was generally seen as being imperialistic” (Interview, Havanna 5/1999).

Politically speaking, the revolution quickly took a stance in opposition to the USA, which, as is generally known, ended in outspoken enmity. This also affected the music, as on the one hand it became more difficult for the musicians to earn money, travel and produce recordings, and on the other hand, what the revolutionaries and party functionaries thought and expected of culture – and specifically of music – was very different from the way democratic politicians dealt with music. “... se acabó la diversión, llegó el comandante, mandó a parar...”, these are the lyrics of the revolution’s trovador Carlos Puebla, taken from the song “Y en eso llegó Fidel” – unwittingly, he also describes a development here that was to cause grave problems for the music scene. Indeed, in the course of supporting the national roots, and especially in an attempt to distinguish Cuban music from that of the USA, fairly early on a certain distrust of artists can be made out in Cuba’s cultural scene. In 1961, the short documentary film “P.M.” was banned. This act of film censorship startled artists and intellectuals, and led to a first major debate on the relationship between culture and politics (Schumann 2001a: 671) There were endless discussions in which Fidel Castro tried to convince the intellectuals of the necessity of the measure taken, and tried to define their relationship to the revolution. The debate eventually culminated in his “Speech to Intellectuals”, in which Castro coined what must be his most-quoted postulation: “Within the Revolution, everything. Against the Revolution, no rights at all!” (Ministerio de Educación 1986/87: 29). This key sentence of Cuban cultural policies does not contain any specific criteria, nothing enforceable – everything might be prohibited, but many things might also be allowed. And this ambiguity has ever since marked the relationship between the state and various youth cultures and music scenes. Anglo-American expressions and forms of culture as well as music styles were brought into disrepute – the first “victims” being rock music and jazz (Eßer 2004: 41ff).

Midnight Music

Cuban teenagers were enthusiastic about the emerging new rock’n’roll. Bands like the Hot Rockers or Los Llópiz copied the hits of Elvis Presley and Bill Haley. But it did not take long until this kind of music was no longer featured in the state media. Indeed, the respective artists were not only no longer funded, but they were having to face restrictions concerning their performances or recording requirements (Manduley López 1997: 137ff). Rock music was not discovered to be an “important factor in political affairs concerning youth and culture,” as Erich Honecker propounded when he assumed office in the GDR (Rauhut 1999: 32).

A new music style, the mocambique, was propagated by the government as an alternative to rock, comparable to LIPSI in the GDR. The idea was to marginalise the American rock music. In the 1960s, things had escalated so far that owning foreign rock LPs could have a negative influence on a young person’s CV: for example, they had to face being expelled from school. To the revolutionaries, rock music was cultural imperialism and as such likely to politically and ideologically impregnate society. Though rock music was never officially banned, the musicians’ work was often thwarted and lyrics were censored. Ignorance and in part also suppression were the strategies applied for rock music (González Moreno 2004: 309-310). In Cuba, rock came to be known as musica nocturna (midnight music), because this was the only time of day when one could listen to rock music relatively unharmed.

History’s Paradox: whereas in 1968 hippies and “revolutionaries” in the rest of the world chose Che Guevara to be the icon of their peace movement, the Cuban government would not suffer the few Cuban jipangos (hippies) at best, they were “only” discriminated against, at worst, they were imprisoned. Indeed, from 1968 on, censorship became more drastic, caused amongst other things by the increasing economical dependency of the Soviet Union (Zeuske 2000: 197). Censorship was especially tough during the five “grey” years of 1971 to 1975. It culminated in 1973 in a radio and television broadcast ban for any kinds of Anglo-American music (Manuel 1987: 164). Rauhut’s statement concerning the GDR can also be applied to Cuba: “The aim was to hunt down the class enemy, who seemed never to rest and to even subvert socialism by means of sounds and rhythms” (Rauhut 1999: 33). This is why the rock music scene stagnated until the 1980s. Finally, in 1981, the first rock festival was staged in Havana, named “Invierno Caliente” (Manduley López 1997: 136). However, all the many repressions could not prevent the run of events; the young people simply developed their very own system of strategies to counter these repressions.

Jazz did not really fare much better until the 1980s, it merely had the fortune of very rarely having lyrics that were deemed suspicious and of not engendering a very conspicuous youth culture. But jazz musicians had to suffer just as much from the state’s cultural policies. As musicologist Leonardo Acosta explained, “this was less of one political strategy concerning culture than many different strategies, because ever and again things were suddenly possible that had been prohibited otherwise” (Interview, Havanna 5/ 1999).


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Exclude, accuse, absorb!
Cultural policy-strategies of the Cuban government against rock music, nueva trova, hiphop and reggaeton
University of Strasbourg
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Dies ist ein Diskussionsbeitrag / eine Streitschrift. Der Text spiegelt ausschließlich die Meinung des Autors wider.
Cuba, rockmusic, jazz, nueva trova, hiphop, reggaeton, cultural policy, censorship
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Torsten Eßer (Author), 2013, Exclude, accuse, absorb!, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/460644


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