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The cassette years in Cuba

At the end of the 80's (of a century that is already gone) I remember going to one of those hotels that border the avenues near the sea in the Playa municipality to look for a couple of cassettes sent by a family friend from that kind of nation that was as fictitious as it was real, that place that sounded to a whole generation like a forbidden and magical place at the same time and that answered to the all-encompassing and bombastic name of he foreigner. (Where did you get those shoes? or ...and that cute pullover? were questions that were answered in a simple and classic way: They were brought to me from outside or They were sent to me from abroad).

The tapes in question had as a common denominator the peculiarity that they were by The Beatles. Factory, not bootleg versions. To wit: Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and 20 Greatest Hits. They still had that peculiar smell of a recent airplane flight, of a first world full of winter and fallen leaves in deserted parks. The Sergeant Pepper even had a printed booklet with the lyrics of the songs. Without going into considerations that this recording material was, apparently, too sophisticated for the ears of a teenager (it took me years to assimilate and taste the sonic and highly experimental capacity of that 1967 record), let's go to the fact that that same teenager (which was me) was then discovering that there were cassettes with high sound quality and pristine equalizations, light years away from the ORWO tapes marketed by the Cuban State at that time.

ORWO was headquartered in the GDR and its products (at least those that reached Cuban stores) were generally of very poor quality. The sound was terrible and the tapes tended to get tangled. At this time, superior quality cassettes began to appear (Pioneer, TDK, Sony) but they were not within everyone's reach because they came from that "magical and forbidden" place to which reference has already been made. 

My parents used to fill the space on their cassettes (30 minutes on each side; I never saw a 90-minute ORWO) with recordings taken directly from the airwaves of Cuban radio stations that had been broadcast on the airwaves. in a country where foreign music was so difficult to obtain and national music depended on the fickleness of the few record labels available and the cultural policies of the time. was one of the few ways to get music.

The State itself gave free rein to this type of recording: many music programs had continuous music slots arranged in this way so that they could be recorded domestically (the Radio Progreso program, for example). Youth 2000 had and still has an hour on Saturdays set aside for a concert, before which they recommend listeners to get their recording devices ready). In the 1980s, my parents' ORWOs were full of tunes and songs broadcast on the program Nightbasically. Many times the lyrics of the songs could not be understood, due to the poor recording quality that resulted from those low-cost tapes.

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These songs, taken from programs broadcast on different days and radio frequencies, were the soundtrack of the childhood of many Cubans. The Spotify of an era, one could say. The voice of the announcer, who used to speak on top of the song to clarify title and interpreter, lent more absurdity and a sympathetic air of piracy to those little tunes of the alleged prodigious decadeThis epithet was misused most of the time because, in reality, it was a period of time that covered from 1963 to 1979. 

It was very common to make mixtapesThere was not much to choose from beyond the music offered by the official channels and the occasional recording obtained, in those days of good weather that propitiated the most diaphanous radio reception, from stations in the scrambled, brutal, musical North.

For national artists we had a flourishing vinyl industry that offered a varied selection of records at quite affordable prices. The discographies of Silvio Rodríguez, Los Van Van, Pablo Milanés, Amaury Pérez and a long list of musicians and bands were available in that format. 

But the cassette culture, with its more discreet size and ease of recording and playing music compared to the old format, came to displace vinyl as the predominant way of storing music. It had the advantages of greater capacity in minutes of storage and the possibility of being reused multiple times, modifying its content at the whim of the owner. Its smaller physical size made the transportation process less cumbersome, in addition to taking up less space on the shelves. In Cuba, compact discs did not make serious competition to this tape culture until well into the new millennium, when many blank CDs began to be marketed on the island, ready to record the music you wanted with quality clearly superior to the cassette format; and with storage capacities equal or sometimes superior.

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When in the 1990s better quality tapes finally made their appearance in Cuban stores at quite affordable prices, entrepreneurs also emerged who, for a fixed price (usually 10 pesos), recorded the tape at the customer's request. In the middle of the decade, the business moved to the tolerated street fairs of handicrafts. In those located on Reina Street or the one in front of the Pabellón Cuba you could find cassettes with music from a wide international selection at three dollars a tape (the CUC had not yet been introduced and the enemy's currency went from hand to hand as it fluctuated wildly in price. Sound familiar?). The quality was good; the covers, decent photocopies, in color, of the originals, what more could you ask for?

The selection of Cuban music offered at these fairs, with rare exceptions of music with wide popular appeal, was almost nil. For local artists, there were the radio waves and the almost defunct vinyl industry (the last LP records that I remember marketed by Egrem ranged from encounters by Amaury Perez to the trilogy of Silvio, Rodriguez, Dominguez from Silvio Rodríguez, passing through the occasional record by Alfredito Rodríguez or Adalberto Álvarez). The Cuban alternative song was almost restricted to programs conducted by Juanito Camacho, Humberto Manduley or other announcers that my memory cannot recall. 

Probably with the intention of bringing national music to the corresponding public, and because the acquisition costs of the cassette had already become too low to allow it, by the end of the 1990s Egrem and Artex began to commercialize in this format music of a wide selection of Cuban artists at affordable prices for the average Cuban (about 15 or 20 pesos national currency, if the production merited it). Cuban music, previously restricted to the whim of radio programmers, began to be available in stores and bookstores throughout the island. It was a laudable but short-lived effort; the CD would soon become the primary form of access to music and cassettes would become obsolete.

This short window of time which lasted perhaps five or six years was enough, in some cases, to cover the successful career of some bands (the group Moneda Dura, for example, released three albums and a soundtrack) while, in other cases, it was barely enough to provide an output of normally prolific artists (butterflies by Silvio Rodríguez and the immediate future by Santiago Feliú, to illustrate). The quality of the graphic materials and designs varied extraordinarily. To take as an example the ones already mentioned: while butterflies has an extensive booklet with lyrics and song durations, Santiago Feliú's only presents the titles and little else.

Those were the years prior to September 11 and the fall of the Twin Towers had not yet marked the world with its tsunami of war processes and boundless sadness; the so-called "Energy Revolution" was beginning in our country and people were doing their best to get out of a Special Period without suspecting that 20 years later we would return to a similar point in worse conditions, surrounded by monetary rearrangements and world pandemics.

Raul Flores Raul Flores Iriarte Havana, 1977. Writer and occasional DJ. He likes Andrés Calamaro the same as Billie Eilish but he prefers the Beatles. He likes to title his books with the name of records. The dark side of the moon and Paperback writer are examples of this. Apart from those already mentioned, he has published perhaps a dozen more works. More posts

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  1. Dagoberto Vega says:

    Por casualidad he encontrado a este escritor. Y me ha hecho volver a una época, que sigue muy presente para mí. Acá en Chile nos ocurrió lo mismo en los tristes tiempos del dictador, y recurrimos a maniobras similares para grabar a Silvio, Serrat, Milanes. Hasta hace poco aún conservaba algunos de ellos, ahora ya no se escuchan, y en aquel tiempo era peligroso tenerlos.

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