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Country music and repentismo, an art stranded in time? (YO)

On August 28, 1955, at the Campo Armada soccer stadium in the Havana municipality of Arroyo Naranjo, the mythical Controversy of the Century took place between Ángel Valiente and Jesús Orta Ruiz, The Nabori Indian. This poetic meeting came to gather more than 10 thousand people to hear two repentistas sing; Most of the attendees were summoned through the radio, thanks to the great rivalry that existed since the 1940s in the Lilac, Tricolor, Red and Blue sides.

As counted in volume Tenths for history: the controversy of the century in improvised verse (Letras Cubanas, 2004), "Naborí was a stellar member of the Red Side and Valiente was his counterpart on the Blue Side." The sides starred in festivities that filled the famous La Tropical hall with the public, a place currently destined for popular dance music and other genres, but which was also the stage for the tenth and Cuban peasant music.

These events marked a boom within the phenomenon of this peasant oral tradition, and are part of what some researchers call "the golden age of Cuban repentismo". However, according to the researcher, writer, teacher and improviser Alexis Díaz-Pimienta, in his book poetic improvisation theory (Scripta Manent, 2014), "it is in the eighteenth century when the tenth as a stanza makes its entry into Cuban literature. All scholars agree that along with the written tenth and even more profusely than this, the sung-improvised tenth ruled the country, in the voice of peasants of Canarian origin who said them with old tunes of work and revelry.

“According to many scholars, it is precisely the Canarian peasants —also with a strong influence of Andalusian roots— who root this tradition in our soil. The geography of the point and the improvised décima in Cuba coincide with the geography of coffee and tobacco, a settlement of fundamentally Canarian origin, while in the easternmost provinces, with a greater population of African origin, the cultivation of the improvised décima does not prosper , being the son montuno and other Afro-influenced musical forms the local peasant songs”.

Today, when the digital takes over Cuban society more and more, what used to be a discussion in the corridor between colleagues or acquaintances, has now moved to virtual spaces, and thousands of users, with just one click, have the reach all published information. Country music does not escape this phenomenon and little by little the debates around the genre are growing on social networks.

In the Facebook group Cuban country music, recently there was a controversy on this topic. We share some of the comments:

“Peasant music will be lost, it is the fault of those who promote it, and of the composers who have not been able to impose themselves with current themes. From Albita Rodríguez and her theme take out the suitcase, we have not seen anything new that sets the standard. The field is no longer cane, nor cart. Peasant music must be updated or it will not survive” (Rafael Sarmiento).

“Peasant music and the tenth are being killed. Just note that there is only one program on national TV and the 95% of the program is political propaganda and information about overcompliance and success in agriculture. And many of the invited groups are not at all peasant. The party, from Radio Rebelde, was almost daily at 8:30 pm, and now it's only on Sundays. In the popular celebrations they have eliminated the peasant areas” (Raúl Báez).

"Generally, the people who direct or write peasant programs in the media do not like the music of our fields, and since they do not like it or do not know it, nothing can go well" (Maribel Mirabal).

One of the constant claims of its followers is the lack of interest of the media in this musical genre. There is practically no specialized criticism or published studies. For this reason, in order to try to organize at least the reasons for the discontent, Oralitura Habana —a platform for disseminating the tenth (oral and written), both in a traditional and contemporary way— has embarked on an investigation through surveys and interviews with some important representatives of Cuban peasant music and repentismo.

The questions surrounding gender and its context are many. Why are many of the best exponents of Cuban repentismo not popularly known? Why is country music not promoted properly, and still (being such a long-lived art) there is a distorted environment regarding the genre? Why do improvisers and country music performers and instrumentalists feel institutionally abandoned? And we could keep asking ourselves questions, but we better start looking for answers.

Clash of Improvisers between freestylers and improvisers at the Havana Oralitura Festival, 2019. Photo: Yoandry Ávila.

Clash of Improvisers between freestylers and improvisers at the Havana Oralitura Festival, 2019. Photo: Yoandry Ávila.

The term "campesino", an obstacle to the development of the Cuban point

At present it seems that country music presentations have been stranded in time, or that because they are traditional they must turn their backs on new technologies, on the modern and attractive technique that is used in any current artistic show.

Arriving at a party and two poets —considered geniuses within the world guild of traditional poetic improvisation— are singing with a single microphone of very low quality, with a timid light bulb above their heads, finding the public constantly passing through the middle of improvisers in the middle of a show to reach for a drink or to comment on something to someone on the other side of the “stage”, is something very common.

Sindy Manuel Torres—sudden artist from Pinar del Río settled in Mayabeque for years and five-time champion of the National Improvisation Contest Just Vega, from the Jornada Cucalambeana, one of the most important events of the Cuban point—has much to contribute on this matter: “For the most part, the traditional events, singing, guateques, parrandas, serenades, present a very poor and outdated concept of the current shows; the lack of knowledge in terms of lights, innovative designs, scenery, cameras, has separated the new generations from its consumption”.

It also seems that few are interested in safeguarding and dignifying an art that has once identified us as Cubans.

Sayli Alba Álvarez, a writer and researcher from Sancti Spiritus, assures that those born after 1990 have no ties to repentismo, nor to country music. “For them it is nothing more than what appears in the program Palms and Reeds. There is nothing that brings them closer to these expressions of art. In primary, secondary and pre-university education they do not receive subjects that bring them closer to these manifestations; therefore for them they are unknown and far from the topics and symbols they know. This is doubly important, if we take into account the great promotion of other genres that, due to their rhythms and lyrics, represent their cultural codes and, therefore, are appealing to them. Ignorance, disinterest or ignorance of young people for Cuban peasant music (including repentismo) is a phenomenon to be considered for its conservation and transmission. No one can defend and preserve what he does not know.

So, we can say that a great responsibility for what is expressed falls on the media, on the education system, on the promoters of events, on the exponents themselves and also, and not least importantly, on cultural institutions.

The constant teasing is the most painful and worrying. The distorted image of this tradition creates many complexes in the few young practitioners. His classmates and neighbors do not take seriously or respect a manifestation of which they should be proud, to the point of wondering how these poets manage to combine their skills.

Erdwin Vichot is one of the most notable lutenists of the peasant genre. He learned at a music school, where pianists, violinists or saxophonists graduate, to give a few examples.

“In my case I have lost even the name, people say: ʽLook at the Palms and Reeds, look at the peasant who plays the lute'. When I was in art school, I had to hide my instrument in a guitar case to avoid teasing,” he tells us.

Why make fun of an artist who decided to defend the Cuban tradition, who chose the lute, an instrument that is difficult to interpret? The instrumentalists are not the only ones who have suffered popular grievance, the improvisers too. Anabeivi Rodríguez, a 20-year-old improviser from Pinar del Río, tells:

“Throughout my study stage I received ridicule from people. They said obscene words to me, they were rude to me, they treated me badly; even some teachers criticized me, except when they needed my talent to look good at school events.”

In Havana it was no different. Roly Ávalos Díaz was another decimist who received the rejection of his contemporaries, people who have never been to a party and who have no idea of the structure, more than complex, of our national stanza.

“It was usual that every time I performed in the square of my high school, while some admired that it was sudden, others made fun of it. In the neighborhood it was the same if some teenager had seen me on television singing tenths. I don't think it was malicious, but they did. They would imitate my gestures while I sang, or imitate peasant music ensembles when they saw me arrive. I think because they thought it was something ridiculous, archaic, out of fashion, a peasant thing (although I am not a peasant or born in the countryside, but since they associate suddenness with the rural world, that attitude is typical). The customs and clothing of the peasants are the target of ridicule for adolescents.

Based on these testimonies, we can say that the misuse of the terms "guajiro" and "campesino" has negatively influenced and continues to influence the exponents of the genre, to the point that some, during the complex years of adolescence, decide to leave (temporarily , or forever) the scenarios of repentismo.

Once again we turn to Saily Alba Álvarez: “In the case of our 'peasant music', I think they are terms misused or used unnecessarily, because such country music no longer exists. Since the beginning of the 20th century, this phenomenon has spread to the city and this transit, together with the media and the facility that the tenth has to sing to any circumstance —as Dr. Argeliers León stated— made the demonstration perpetuate; in such a way that it is as much from the countryside as it is from the city.”

A large part of the exponents of repentismo today do not come from the countryside, nor do they cultivate any crops. Young improvisers are consumers of the rhythms that are in fashion and have the same tastes as their contemporaries. Although for the general public they continue to look like peasants dressed in a guayabera, hat and machete. However, despite the exodus from the countryside to the city that has taken place in recent decades, caused by the aspiration of young people to be urbanites as a synonym for success, many of the exponents of repentismo prefer to continue singing in rural areas and to a peasant audience, because that is where the biggest parties are held.

Some of these young people are graduates of the experimental children's improvisation workshops (TERI), with more than 20 years of creation and a large number of graduates throughout the Island; among them not only improvisers, but also writers, researchers, musicians of other genres, connoisseurs and, above all, defenders of this art.

The cultural baggage achieved during the study of improvised oral verse managed to bring popularity to Lenier Mesa, reggaeton player from Güines, Mayabeque, who has his first school as a lyricist in improvisation and who we have seen singing tenths with important Cuban improvisers.

Also on the urban scene are the Avilanian brothers Reiber and Rainer Nodal, who maintain parallel careers in both genres; Reiber is even the winner of all the improvisation contests in Cuba. The young improvisers Luis Jonniver Quintana and Noelilo Sánchez, sons of the improvisers Luis Quintana and Noel Sánchez, are also dedicated to reggaeton and rap respectively. While Luis Jonniver has presented video clips of the urban genre in the Lucas project, and Noelito has participated in the battles of the Potaje Urbano festival as freestyler, they have not left aside the tenth and repentismo as fundamental allies of their work.

As we can see, not all the decimists and performers of peasant music are beings frozen in time. We must begin to change the established canons and the mentality of many people. We must not give up the typical traditional clothing, but that is not the only image of the genre.

Imaginary and reality of Cuban repentismo

How is it possible that so many young people are fans and faithful followers of the great exponents of freestyle (sister manifestation of repentismo), and at the same time feel rejection and make fun of the decimistas?

Young people see a repentista acting and the first thing they do is compare them with their favorite urban improvisers: that if traditional versadores take longer than rappers to improvise, that they respect (in certain cases) musical interludes, that they sometimes repeat both first verses, that his tune (way of singing) is slower, that the tenth singers are less casual on stage...

But these same young people are unaware of the stanza with which the repentistas are improvising. Furthermore, they are unaware that they must be governed by a fixed structure of 10 eight-syllable lines that always rhyme according to an established form (abbaaccddc); that all rhymes must be consonant, but that, also, the Cuban repentistas are so exquisite that they avoid rhyming plural with singular (hands/Cuban) and do not use internal assonants within the tenth; that, among many other rules and techniques, use literary resources and surprising poetic discoveries in a matter of seconds.

In the Clashes of Improvisers —confrontations between repentistas poets and exponents of the freestyle carried out in recent years—it is evident that the public following the freestylers, once he discovers the structural complexities of the repentistas and sees them in action, he is impressed, and eager to continue learning about this art.

The same has happened with their own freestylers. Some have been interested in passing suddenness courses, and discover the creative reality of the decimists. This is the case of Leonard Akozta, rapper and director of the group Rapzodia.

“The only approach I had with repentismo was Palms and Reeds. I thought it was something old-fashioned, that I would not consume, in fact I never sat down to watch Palms and Reeds. Later I rediscovered suddenness thanks to RolleX, and then I sat down at various times to watch the program. One day I saw Leandro Camargo acting, I remember that he improvised something about photography; another Sunday he spoke of the various moments of life, from birth to death. There I met the lyrical load and talent. After all that I began to value suddenness.

“When I understood that the repentistas had stricter guidelines within which they cannot move, I began to respect them more. I realized that between the metrical syllables, the structure and the rhyme, they had a straitjacket, they were limited, it's not like the freestyle of rap, which is completely free. Ever since I found out about it and saw Sindy Manuel Torres, I said to myself: it's incredible how these people do this so exactly, so perfectly, it's like poetic architecture with lyrical beauty and plenty of content. Later I enrolled in the improvised tenth workshop because that knowledge enriches me a lot. I'm already writing décimas and using them in my songs”.

Only from personal experience and witnessing this other way of presenting the peasant tradition, Leonard Akozta changed his opinion. In the same way it has happened to the majority, especially to the young people, who have managed to verify the wonder of the improvised tenth, of the live Cuban point. But not all those who reinforce gender stereotypes have been able, nor will they be able, to be part of a different show live, for that you have to reach them in another way, using other means.

Tradition must be captured with a current, modern, 21st century visuality. Listen to the best exponents and their proposals of how they want to be seen. There is a lack of fresh ideas and people with knowledge of the genre to be able to exploit it to the fullest and, fundamentally, people are needed with the desire to defend peasant music and improvisation with its true riches.

Alex Diaz Director of the Havana Oralitura project. Repentista, graduated from the experimental workshops of infantile suddenness. Director of the RolleX group, practitioners and defenders of neorepentismo. Poetic improvisation teacher. He has participated in festivals and improvisation events in Cuba, Spain and Mexico. More posts
Leidys Hernandez Lima Journalist. His preferred genre is the interview. He likes to talk a lot, he says that in informal spaces he has obtained the best revelations. He never lets a good story go, even if it takes a while to post it later. In his next 10 lives he will be a journalist again. More posts

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  1. Rafael Sarmiento says:

    The article is very successful, I would also add that current social issues should be rescued more, as a troubadour, a humorist, a hope does, in Campo Armada Nabori and Valiente touched on very sensitive issues at that time with absolute courage, I believe in my opinion which is a debt of the poets and something that the public appreciates. Congratulations to both for their work and may there be much more. Thanks.

  2. Daysa says:

    Many blessings thank you for emancipating and defending our roots

  3. Armando López Rondón says:

    It is very necessary that this work reaches the receptive ears of those who truly possess in
    His hands the possibility of giving him the course he deserves, the tenth from all its edges, especially the improvised one, and that it does not become a dead letter.
    In Ciego they work for it, however the program dedicated to tradition is currently the worst of the worst.

  4. Magda González Grau says:

    interesting text. From all of that, I'm really glad to have something on that topic in the Calendar series coming up soon. Congratulations.

  5. lázaro Palenzuela campos says:

    I agree on many of the aspects raised with the researchers but respecting their criteria, I also do not agree with much of what they state categorically, the investigations cannot be substantiated by having only a personal criterion or imagining that what happens in the center and east of the country just to cite one example, is what happens throughout the country, each personal experience counts in some way but I humbly consider that not everything is as it has been told about it, for example Mayabeque is not only Lenier Mesa , who fortunately is a fruit of our workshops in the beginning, but our province has young people who have been standing out in the cultivation and defense of our identity, to mention some of the figures would be to inadvertently omit any of them and it is not my intention , it is very necessary to investigate and try to motivate people to defend, care for and protect our PEASANT heritage because it will always be á CAMPESINO, although on many occasions (not all of course) the genre is urbanized, trying to change the purpose would be like saying that the rumba is not African because it is played, for example, in the alley of Hamel, the origins of a tradition are not they can be changed, no one is empowered to do so and I leave my comment unfinished with the certainty that we cannot allow a country party where two geniuses of improvisation display their talent to perform without the minimum essential conditions, for example under a dim light bulb or with a single microphone, it is also essential that those same geniuses of suddenness and creativity do not do so by openly consuming large doses of alcohol or smoking a number of cigarettes that affect their health and that of the observing public, that they wear appropriate clothing, not It has to be precisely a guayabera that I don't see because it can't be, but they shouldn't hand over their art to the people dressed dismally either. Ngadas or clothes not suitable for a performance of respect, there are many criteria in this regard but although I do not intend to argue if I can say that what I expressed before with my words is only the experience of more than 30 years immersed in this world of true peasant parties , it would be very interesting to be able to meet in a few days of uninterrupted work to address the issue in more depth in order to favor a genre that cries out for an SOS for continuing to be intangible heritage of humanity.

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