‘The deaths of Cuban musical legends Compay Segundo and Celia Cruz…” -July 24, 2003

The deaths of Cuban musical legends Compay
and Celia Cruz are vivid reminders of the large space
taken up in my life by Cuba and its culture. Cruz's
was accompanied with the kind of notice Catholics usually
reserve for deceased popes. In a truly odd twist The Washington
noted her passing on its editorial
The Miami Herald took the Celia Cruz' obituary
as opportunity for an anti-Castro
. Jon Pareles' obit
for the Times
was the only piece that stayed on point,
mainly the passing of a great musician. My own response was to unearth
my copy of Caliente's great sixteen-selection CD compilation Introducing
Celia Cruz
and pop it into the my ride's player and jacking
up the volume as I cruised I-95 south into the Havana of New England,

When I finally construct a FAQ for myself (a looming
necessity as I seem to be receiving an ever-growing stream of electronic
mail) after, Question: Where do you get so tan? Answer: I have a
convertible, I will deal with Question: Why are you so interested
in Cuba? Elsewhere
I have talked about my youthful encounters with things Cuban: listening
to Dizzy Gillespie and the great Cuban percussionist Chano Pazo
and Diz and Bird playing the ere and haunting "Tin Tin Deo"
and then about the same time of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution
with Fidel and Che and Camilo Cienfugos appearing in newspapers
and Life Magazine. As Gil Scott Heron says in another context
(Military and The Monetary) "Peace is not the absence of war
but the absence of the rumors of war." And so in that way Cuba
has stayed a hot-button subject (Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis,
JFK Assassination, the hunt and murder of Che Guevera) most of my
life since those innocent and heady days when a small group of bearded
revolutionaries overthrew another one of those regimes held in place
by American support and compliance.

As I wended my way through the labyrinth of a poor
public school education and a poorer university experience, my study
of American foreign policy and the many untold stories and hypocrisies
exposed, reinforced my support for the Cuban Revolution. That continued
into the raucous Vietnam era with the iconic Korda photo of Che
(along with that other ubiquitous poster of the time, Huey Newton)
adorning walls all over my world and visual field. Revolution was
in the air, the Beatles wrote a song so entitled. Life was full
of endless possibilities. Volunteers from around the world, the
Venceramos brigades, went to Cuba to help with the sugar harvests.
Socialism and the advent of a New Man were in play in what seemed
a real way.

For reasons that therapeutic investigation will one
day reveal, my '70s are largely a self-indulgent blank. Not that
I suffered a substance abuse problem (I was an obsessive long distance
runner competing in six marathons and a myriad of other long distance
races from '77 to about '81) or any particular obvious dysfunction.
I held a number of odd jobs, moved to Boston, hung out in Cambridge
bars and had a lot of very superficial relationships. And most telling,
I read very little. In Cuba, the Soviet period was in full tilt
and Fidel was exporting revolution to Angola and Mozambique. Central
America, especially with the fall of the American-supported Somoza
dictatorship, became the next setting for the anti-Cuban agenda,
as the nascent indigenous revolutionary movements attacked the American
supported the status quo in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
Ah, the Reagan years: death squads, massacres, mass disappearances,
the School of the Americas, contras, Oliver North, Eliot Abrahms
and Sandinista/Soviet tanks rolling across the Rio Grande. Who can
forget them?

As I returned to a life of reading and engagement
I was regularly struck by the submerged but strong interest that
otherwise normal Americans seemed to have about Cuba. That I knew
anything at all about Cuba quickly marked me as an expert (that,
of course, also marked the beginning of my own skepticism about
'experts'). Despite the ascendant interest in Cuba by an assortment
of thrill seekers and trendies, my own connection continued. In
the '90s and onward I read, John Sayles Los Gusanos, Thomas
Sanchez' Mile Zero, Georgette Geyer's hatchet job bio of
Fidel, Tad Szulc's Fidel Castro, Gullerrmo Cabrera Infante's
Mea Cuba, John Lee Anderson's Che Guevera, Oscar
Hijuelo's wonderful novels, Renaldo Arenas' Before Night Falls,
Christina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban, Pico Iyer's Cuba
and the Night
, Thomas Miller's travelogue of Cuba, Che's Motorcyle
, Hebert Padilla's melancholic memoir Self Portrait
of the Other
, and the anthology edited by Ann
Louise Bardach

Also in the' 90s I visited Havana and Cuba twice and
delved deeper into the music, discovering Beny More, Cachoa Lopez,
Arsenio Rodriguez, Sylvio Rodriguez, Los Maniquitios, Ernesto Lecuono,
Chucho Valdes, Arturo Sandoval, Reuben Gonzalez, Ibrahim Ferrer,
the unforgettable Celia Cruz and many more. Much of the music made
by these great Cubans has been the soundtrack to my life and who
is to say how much of the Cuban spirit has shaped my outlook.

But, happily, I know that it has.


Instruments Without Players
copyright 2003 Robert Birnbaum

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