Nobody listening? A proxy for music in Cuban art
Living in a country like Cuba, where sounds and musicalities spring from every crevice, seems the perfect setting to produce and create unique “sound visuals”, or at least disturbing sound-visual experiences. But is it (has it been) really like that? I confess that I have taken a while to raise this lateral angle, almost tangential, to look at Cuban art of the past century or today. Nothing is gratuitous, and perhaps the question about the specificity of each medium (or artistic expression) and the way to correlate them, how to amplify (fic) the aesthetic "experience", is still disturbing.
If the music we listen to, choose to dance or even unconsciously hum, is shaping our existence as a soundtrack, why are the projects in which contemporary Cuban visual artists have made use of it as a structural or complementary part of their works, are only specific? ? It is still a terrain of many possibilities and potentials, but apparently difficult to master. A type of work built on a collaborative basis that depends not only on the talent of a creator, but sometimes on the work or collective contribution, coordinated, on the synergy that is achieved. An aesthetic experience where the limits of authorship can be blurred, or at least put back together. And I do not think that it is a question of a divorce between the music scene and the plastic one, many have been the visual artists who have conceived the album covers, image and set design of concerts of musician friends from the 90s to here - and surely long before . It is not even about the topic of the accentuated sensitivity that would have to exist towards one or another manifestation. Or how to move from one to the other. It must be something else. Perhaps the inability to conceive, to think part of a synaesthetic experience. Not everyone reaches a quasi-limbic state where idea / sound / image can become the same thing. Ah, but those who access that subliminal space are overwhelmed by a certain clarity and a particular vision of themselves and creation. Something that can also reach the "others", the consumers of his art.
It is not fortuitous that a work like The Triumph of the Rumba (Eduardo Abela, ca. 1928) catches us . For those who appreciate it in the National Museum or in a catalog, the intrinsic movement will always be a mystery, the music that we think we hear emanates from those drums suspended in the composition, a-temporal, that is, eternal in syncopation, triumphant in the rhythm of the one who dances, in that rumbera that in the center of the circle is also the rumba. In those years it was daring to coin the rumba as an expression of "the Cuban thing", due to the social stratum of its cultivators, their gestation and consumption space.
The affirmation of this other, popular, effervescent (and subaltern) sensibility, daughter of that cultural "ajiaco" that still defines us today, in some way, took almost a century later to be recognized once and for all as Intangible Heritage of Humanity, like other traditional Cuban genres. Although it is true that this work could not be defined as sound art, its image sounds in our minds, because there is installed the timbre of the tumbadoras, the tone of its singers that we could recognize with just look at her. Yes, El triunfo de la rumba could well be a virtually synesthetic work. Index of a cultural experience, unique evocation, frozen image that can be enjoyed as many times as you like. Like a loop.
And if we went a little further back, we would discover in the pictures of Víctor Patricio Landaluce in the 19th century the Cuban peasants in their dances to the guitar playing (the zapateo and / or hat game) or the hubbub of a January 6, the only day where blacks were allowed to celebrate in the streets with their rhythms; while the whites remained mostly domestic, fearful of "mixing." Landaluce, although Spanish, luckily went to the streets, and immersed in that atmosphere, he left us a fleeting vision of that resilient Cuba, essentially musical and festive.
From there to here it has rained a lot, but by leaps - and leaving aside the fact that Cuban commercial cinema made a "harvest" with popular music, between the 40s and 50s of the last century - it would be fair to stop at the scrambled 60s (with all his load) and look for some milestones that from the cinema (alternative or not) used music conceptually to communicate events and realities. Likewise, how 30 years later some other visual artist made use of this filmic material, with no less critical intentions, and others, imbued with that unbiased look, began their own searches from video creation.
If a material like Now (1965) by Santiago Álvarez turns out to be almost unclassifiable —although it could be a video clip or even be close to the deconstructive lines of the early days of video art—, its cinematographic-sound composition is unforgettable in the artistic panorama of the decade. It is true that, separately, the images and music of the homonymous song by the North American Lena Horne narrate, but together they are something else: the mastery of rhythm, intensity, the urgency of the speech made song (and image) in the “here and now ”of the struggles of Afro-descendants in the United States. But also a little earlier, the piece Cosmorama (1964) draws attention, which in its collaborative base merged cinema (Dir. Enrique Pineda Barnet), visual arts (Sandú Darié) and music (Bela Bartok, Pierre Schaeffer and Cuban Carlos Fariñas). A hybrid and transversal proposal. The sonic universe (classical and electroacoustic) was so embedded in the visual work of the abstract-kinetic artist Darié, that the idea could not have found a better driving force than the light of the cinematograph. Today Cosmorama is included in both film festival programs and art exhibitions.
However, in another area of the melodic spectrum, a short documentary like PM (1961) by Sabá Cabrera Infante and Orlando Jiménez, apart from all the controversies that it caused at the time and the censorship that suffered, has that halo of objet trouvé when its authors register that Havana slum of the port area that as licentious limbo was enjoyed to the popular sound of a victrola or a traditional trio, sprinkled with rum or beer and with the smell of bay. An ordinary night in 1961. A year of definitions.
As a sign / trope of censorship and converted into historical film material in itself, was used by Lázaro Saavedra in 2008 in two pieces whose (re) editing and sounding introduced current or distancing references according to the author's professed intention, which - at the time - it was included at the end of the credits, mimicking typography and visual rhythm with the original. Heir assumed, Saavedra manipulates the images of PM and substitutes the once popular Cuban music for the emerging reggaeton (also popular, marginal) by Elvis Manuel, whose track La Mulata was embodied in the carefree image of the Cuban mestizo who danced joyfully in 1961. Before, as in 2008 and today, the most popular classes participate in a being and an action sometimes lateral to the televised continuum discourse. They must be made visible, either from a comprehensive gaze, as in Reincarnation, or from the sonorous estrangement of a Japanese koto and the repetition of the image of that mulatto half-alienated by alcohol makes the rewind effect in the piece Spirituality. It is about recognizing them, in short, from their own spaces of socialization.
Now, although the visual arts during the 60s and 70s focused their attention on the human being and his transit through new sociopolitical conditions, both experimental documentary cinema (in the poetics of Sara Gómez: Iré a Santiago, Y... tenemos el sabor; or Nicolás Guillén Landrián: Los del Baile , Coffea Arabiga ) as the Cuban documentary photography turned their gaze towards the popular and, of course, the music and its cultists were taken in full delivery to the public or as symbols of a tradition. There are the photos of the great Benny Moré by Raúl Corrales; that photographic report that Alberto Korda made of a Bembé (1960) published in the magazine INRA and that was left as a draft for a never printed book that finally saw the light in 2011 as a catalog; other reports made for the same magazine —then named Cuba after the one that in 1965 projected Mozambique rhythm and Pello el Afrokán internationally (Photos: Ernesto Fernández, Mario García Joya, among others). Also appear the images of foreign photographers who visited the island such as Paolo Gasparini, who photographed the carnivals in Santiago where, according to him, “Benny Moré's mambo and the Communist International” were mixed in unison. Music and dance as a sine qua non condition of the public or private space in that extraordinary Cuba.
Years later, the photographer and researcher María Eugenia Haya, Marucha, would visit other spaces where the bodies transmitted Cubanness and joy in equal parts: thus, we see some octogenarians in El Lyceum (1979-1980) being transported to their younger years thanks to the music (a danzón or a son probably), or to young people enjoying the songo or changüí of the moment in the series El mamoncillo (1983), in the middle of popular dance. The music sounds in those black and white images, as if we were there, sharing with them.
It should be remembered that this decisive turn towards the popular from the beginning of the 60s is, among other things, the materialization of the teachings and the work of countless intellectuals and creators who had as a reference the work of the Department of Folklore of the National Theater with Argeliers León at the head, as well as the Cuban Music Seminar conceived by Odilio Urfé, the creation of the Modern Dance Ensemble in 1959 with the staging of pieces such as Suite Yoruba (Dir. Ramiro Guerra) or Suite Campesina (Lorna Burdsall ), and the work of the Conjunto Folclórico Nacional, founded in 1962, with its cycles (Yoruba, Congo, Abakuá), its Rumbas and Comparsas or the Cuban Stamps and popular music.
At the same time, the visionary proposal of the Experimental Dance Ensemble of Havana (1961-1966) that brought together the talent of choreographers, dancers, musicians and visual artists in memorable works such as Rhythmic Study (Cor. Alberto Alonso, music by Roberto Valera, scenography and costumes by the painter Mariano Rodríguez), Mystery I, II, III (Cor. Tomás Morales, music by Argeliers León, scenery and costumes by the painter Luis Martínez Pedro) or Form, color and movement (Cor. Luis Trápaga, music by Domingo Ragú , set design and wardrobe by the Romanian-Cuban artist Sandú Darié). A hybrid work, performance where music, image, dance are solid, indivisible.
In the 1980s, and with the Havana Biennial as a context, the selection of Manuel Mendive's performance as a prize in the 1986 edition, constituted a new path in the work of this already established creator who continued to explore until the eleventh Biennial ( perf. The heads, 2012). Each performance piece by Mendive feels like a natural extension of his pictorial work, not only because of the transit of his subjects from canvas to being bodies in action (body art) but because of the holistic perception that makes musicians, spectators, dancers understand / exercise ritual, the embodiment of Afro-descendant myths and imaginaries in Cuba, regardless of whether one is initiated / devout or not. And although with choreographic guidelines, the performances flow, they adapt, there is improvisation, decentration.
Rock as a musical meta-story, dissatisfied and alternative, would finally be the axis on which, two decades later, the group Golden Popeye's Theory would focus its artistic performance. The initial fake rock band managed to make the total crossover and not only perform on stage, but also cast some of their video clips on the Lucas program. The supposed anonymity of its three members (always after “homemade” masks and costumes), the aesthetics that mixed design references and different styles of animation (Japanese and international), and the fact that they had no musical training, the it led to the choice of arrangements with few chords, and they evolved through “cycles-appropriations” of sounds from grunge, nu metal, indie and noise. A performative proposal that, far from being neat, gave room to the random, sought to connect with a generation yet to define itself, to know itself. Open to collaborate with other projects such as the Danza Combinatoria group, adapting and integrating, probably their video Tropic3 —which came to involve Iván Vera, guitarist of the Zeus group—, was one of their best presentations as an artistic-sound project.
Nor could it be enjoyed in the now historic "ball game" (La plástica cubana se dedica al béisbol, 1989), the concert of the rock group scheduled for the event - due to lack of electricity - to what the audience in the stands responded with the improvisation of a couple of tumbadoras. The joy that the game as a performance action generated in those present was undoubtedly cathartic, a sign of the end of a decade. And if the sound of the drums did not make it out of the University Stadium (as the rock group had inevitably done), it was one of those acts of resistance in which "in the end they all dance together", whatever it sounds. Joy and resilience.
Rock as a musical meta-story, dissatisfied and alternative, would finally be the axis on which, two decades later, the group Golden Popeye's Theory would focus its artistic performance. The initial fake rock band managed to make the total crossover and not only perform on stage, but also cast some of their video clips on the Lucas TV show. The supposed anonymity of its three members (always after “homemade” masks and costumes), the aesthetics that mixed design references and different styles of animation (Japanese and international), and the fact that they had no musical training, the it led to the choice of arrangements with few chords, and they evolved by “cycles-appropriations” of sounds from grunge, nu metal, indie and noise. A performative proposal that, far from being neat, gave room to the random, sought to connect with a generation yet to define itself, to know itself. Open to collaborate with other projects such as the group Danza Combinatoria, adapting and integrating, probably their video Tropic3 —which came to involve Iván Vera, guitarist of the Zeus group—, was one of their best presentations as a project artistic-sound.
There have been other crossovers between visual arts and music. At the end of the 1960s, Iván Cañas, whose musical inclination led him to found Los Cañas quartet in 1966, decided to focus on photography and began working on the photojournalist staff of Cuba magazine. On the contrary, in the new millennium, the guys from Nacional Electrónica (Alexis de la O and Edwin Casanova) went from the visual to the production of electronic music (with several albums), combining both experiences and amplifying their gaze. They collaborated with various dance projects (Compañía Danza Contemporánea), by VJ, conperformers (Shanti Pillai, Iliam Suárez-IA), also in film or theater, they managed to create unique atmospheres in their sessions and video clips ( 100% or ¡Llegamos al futuro! from 2005), with carefree and rigorous at the same time.
The imprint of the work of Raúl Cordero, a true pioneer of video creation and video installation in Cuba, drank from many sound sources, since parallel to his painting and videographic work, for seasons he worked as a DJ, professionally or as a hobby. The way in which he samples images, texts, music, has to do with his open disposition to mixes of information, eager to (de) encode and enjoy layer by layer, shot by shot, the essence of creating for himself and for others. the rest. That it feels like an experience and not mere contemplation, but also. The sounds that run through part of his work on his video range from a Mambo in Miami (1997), to acid jazz (Kilometer, 1999, The zooming experience, 2000) or bebop jazz? (6 chances, 2001) to soul in Adorno (2005). The latter, a video installation exhibited during the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana that year, was an immersive experience, and not because the assembly of screens and televisions and images from different films took the locus of the pool and its use by various subjects taken from various films, but because the voice and sound of the British band Tindersticks were a total mood. Soulful music to dive in.
The imprint of the work of Raúl Cordero, a true pioneer of video creation and video installation in Cuba, drank from many sound sources, since parallel to his painting and videographic work, for seasons he worked as a DJ, professionally or as a hobby. The way in which he samples images, texts, music, has to do with his open disposition to mixes of information, eager to (de)code and enjoy layer by layer, shot by shot, the essence of creating for himself and for others. the rest. That it feels like an experience and not mere contemplation, but also. The sounds that run through part of his video work range from a Mambo in Miami (1997), to acid jazz ( Kilometer, 1999, The zooming experience, 2000) or the bebop jazz? ( 6 chances , 2001) to soul in Adorno (2005). The latter, a video installation exhibited during the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana that year, was an immersive experience, and not because the assembly of screens and televisions and images from different films took the locus of the pool and its use by various subjects taken from various films, but because the voice and sound of the British band Tindersticks were a total mood. Soulful music to dive in.
La impronta del trabajo de Raúl Cordero, verdadero pionero de la videocreación y videoinstalación en Cuba, bebió de muchas fuentes sonoras, pues paralelo a su pintura y trabajo videográfico, por temporadas ejerció de DJ, profesionalmente o como hobby. La manera en la que samplea imágenes, textos, música, tiene que ver con su disposición abierta a las mezclas de información, ávido por (de)codificar y disfrutar capa a capa, plano a plano, la esencia de crear para sí y para los demás. Que se sienta como vivencia y no mera contemplación, aunque también. Las sonoridades que atraviesan parte de su obra en video van desde un Mambo in Miami (1997), al acid jazz (Kilómetro, 1999, The zooming experience, 2000) o el ¿bebop jazz? (6 chances, 2001) al soul in Adorno (2005). Esta última, una videoinstalación exhibida durante el Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano de La Habana ese año, fue una experiencia inmersiva, y no porque el montaje de pantallas y televisores e imágenes de diferentes filmes tomaran el locus de la piscina y su uso por varios sujetos extraídos de diversos filmes, sino porque la voz y sonoridad de la banda británica Tindersticks eran un mood total. Soulful music to dive in.
And in that desire to create atmospheres, a polyphonic, collaborative experience, it is that the intervention of the spaces of Casa de las Américas (July, 2005) by Raúl Cordero, Alexandre Arrechea and Felipe Dulzaides was symptomatic. The symbiosis of the personalities and defined authorship of each one made their individual proposals give way to a type of creation read under the sign of the intertextual, the game, the complicity. “Thawed” all those who arrived and dipped their feet in the blocks of ice that Dulzaides placed at the entrance of the institution; who were then invited to relax and flow to the third floor, ascend in a state of relish to the dark room where video installations, documentations of performances and music (both electronic: set by Raúl Cordero, and in situ by Ernán López-Nussa in download pianistics) completed the experience that took the urban, the found, the objects, the sound and the space as materials for art.
In this event / environment / action, the video piece Arriba de la bola (2000) by Dulzaides was included which, as its name suggests, appropriates the chorus of Manolín's homonymous song El Médico de la Salsa, which in the voice of the artist and against the camera repeats until wear. The textual reference is used as a warning: the necessary readjustment to the times to come. Felipe, son of the prominent musician Felipe Dulzaides, whose contributions to the development of Cuban jazz were important, has carried out several actions that seek to honor his father, and in which his music is the protagonist. FD plays FD held at the 2015 Havana Biennial, was also an immersion in family memory through the recreation of a space where furniture, music, vinyl records and architecture —one of the apartments in the Focsa building— merged so that "FD (son) plays FD (father)", and we could enjoy it. The music of Felipe Dulzaides and his Harmonics of him channeling the memory and updating his listening through a selection of DJ Wichy de Vedado, for his centenary, at the National Museum of Fine Arts; or even the return to the El Elegant bar at the Hotel Riviera, his creative space, for Ernán López-Nussa and others to unload on his behalf.
Alexandre Arrechea, for his part, went from Essays to the Stage (2015) in an expected but no less intimate movement. Indeed, the video-performance composed of original music and interpretation by the violinist Luis Alberto Mariño along with three life-scale watercolors of three violinists in different poses and a mini-stage carved in wood where Mariño was filmed performing his piece, were the elements that Arrechea took advantage of to investigate the topic of creation as an imaginary, a universe of representation and action, “supposed order between reality and fiction”. Thus, opening the space of a creator to others involves considerations that concern the identity of the artist and his art. Precisely, during the Havana Biennial (2019), as part of the collective show Obsessions and accumulations. The artist's cabinet (Estudio Figueroa-Vives / Norwegian Embassy), Arrechea presented The Face of the Nation, a performance by musicians from the band San Cristóbal de Regla and the singer-songwriter Pável Urquiza, along with a video projection where almost abstract and stylized African masks Various drawings brought together the traditional (music and image) and design, as versions of the national face, with the syncopation in the background at times frenetic and at others, calm.
This type of stage-play, platform-play for collaboration with other creators or projects, is also part of the creative strategy of the Balada Tropical collective (Jorge Pablo Lima, Víctor Piverno, Nelson Barrera, Amanda Alonso, Leonardo Luis Roque and Ricardo Martínez ). His presentations, rather interventions, escape any finished form or formula, where the management of the scheduled and the random is balanced as the action is (de) generating, being at the same time construction and destruction: a pendulum movement in which it goes and comes back, without being the same. During the 7th Salon of Contemporary Cuban Art (2017), Basado en hechos reales. Balada Tropical visita la tierra was a unique out-of-body experience, in which we sonically went from a classical choir to noise and improvisation of various instruments, while the voices and the cooking of a “Cuban” feast became cathartic and disruptive descent that took about an hour to finally “touch” land. Shortly after, in <iCañas y Palmas (Galería Continua, 2018) the idea of creating a “poetic atmosphere” where the thought, edited, text of the art critic (taken from the anthological volume Continua Folia) was the forced foot, questioned, in the way that repentismo and composition in tenths are traditionally enunciated, pointed to the frictions between written and declaimed speech, transformed by improvisation (controversy, seguidillas) and sagacity of the repentistas belonging to the Casa de la Décima de Pinar del Río Celestino García. Then, his project Speakeasy during the Biennial in 2019, continued to move through spaces of cooperation, creating strategic alliances with cultural and extra-artistic agents, serving as a bridge between the emerging and the instituted.
As a platform for horizontal exchange in its base or more permanent presentation space (Galería La Moderna) or other more ephemeral ones such as in Estudio 50 or FITCuba, Speakeasy refers to underground bars during Prohibition in The United States as spaces for emergent socialization, a trope of the permissible and the forbidden, now conceived as a kind of transportable assemblages that can be adapted to a gallery, a warehouse or another place. The correlation between live music (by various invited artists such as Cucú Diamantes or Toques del Río) and “recorded” alternated with ease in the Modern Gallery, while it was possible to taste a cocktail named after the group, leaning at the bar or sitting at a table, placidly ready now to exchange: speaking easy.
From the series This is anything but theater by the duo Jorge (Torres) & Larry (González), the set of three performance-interventions, which under the title Melodrama were presented for several months in 2018, it is an incitement. Word and action find new footholds in each of the three melodramatic nights named La cicatriz de Calixto (March 17), Todo es festón y hojeo (May 25 ) and Miley también es Patria (November 14). What is said there is not all, the subtexts and historical scars run through the gallery, and the bodies of the actresses (Yara Masiel and Chabeli Díaz Lara). The objects and videos arranged here or there in each edition tell stories of life, sometimes distressing fragments; the hands and voice of Omar Pérez touching the cajon on the opposite sidewalk, as momentary consolation; the same sidewalk on which we heard another night Miley (Cyrus) shouting from a speaker, and Tamara Venereo and Luis Carricaburu in action, growing up, libertarians. Finally, overflowing when crossing 23 near 12 towards the old Ten Cents to feel, Oh Felicidad, alive. Theatrically alive.
However, and although performance has made a special use of sound (remember La conga irreversible de Los Carpinteros on Prado Street), video is still its terrain par excellence, whether in video arts or audiovisuals such as Habana solo (2000) , by Juan Carlos Alom, Concert (2006), by Analía Amaya, or Pasatiempos del hombre nuevo (2010), by Duniesky Martín. In each one, sound and images are integrated responding to very personal sensitivities and interests that range from capturing the city, its history and its anonymous heroes, or trying to define "the Cuban" musically and visually.
And it is to history, rather to that anonymous heir, that an essentially musical piece like El patriota invisible (2007), by Reynier Leyva Novo, appeals. La Bayamesa , whose fragment became a national anthem settled in our sound memory from a very young age, is here versioned by the artist proposing a guitar arrangement composed and performed by Gerald Moya. The reinterpretation is intense, without appealing to the energetic rhythm of the original, but with a very personal, vibrant, classic feel. Variations on the same musical theme have plagued music for centuries, and the El patriota invisible project thus contemplated two pieces for guitar and two other versions: one for chamber orchestra and one for symphony orchestra. Melody(ies) to reinterpret the nation from its own foundations. Sovereignly.
Referring to Partitura (2017), by Carlos Garaicoa, as a closing, it is not by chance. His presentation at the National Museum during the last Biennial (2019), was a delight. This installation magnifies musical creation and performance on many different levels, since the author becomes conductor / collector / mediator of sounds, styles and instruments combined in this kind of urban symphony, unique in its kind. Garaicoa recorded for years the presentation of countless street musicians whose technical mastery and / or improvisation capacity is admirable when listening to them on the tablets that were placed on music stands in the space as instrumentalists of an orchestra. In the center, on the proscenium, a score with a freely drawn notation points to who is to direct these 70 musicians: the conductor (absent). The installation, which was assisted in the arrangements and composition by the well-known keyboardist Esteban Puebla, finally presents a new work orchestrated from the sounds of each musician, recorded on three video screens. As a result: a world music orchestra that is manifest polyphony. In it, the limits of individual (tablets) and collective (video screens) listening, the relationship between the musicians, the composer and the performer, as well as between the visual and the music, are blurred.
In Cuba, the intersections between the visual arts and Cuban music have thus been many and of very varied intensity. They need to be studied, listened to with relish, attention. The artist, as an international server, is the proxy we need.
Nahela Hechavarría Pouymiró
Curator curated by cinema, music and dance, in that (dis)order.