CubaBrief: How Rock and Roll helped free Central Europe, inspired Chinese students in 1989 and is still pushing for freedom today in Cuba

Cambodians, Cubans, Chinese Czechs, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Poles, Belorussians, Romanians, Russians, Venezuelans, Vietnamese, and other peoples with diverse cultures and histories that share one common trauma: communist dictatorship. The language, geography and weather may be different, but the patterns of repression are remarkably similar. This sad reality brings us together in a tragic kinship or into what the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka called the solidarity of the shaken. We understand each other, and the monstrous system that weighed down on so many of our lives with an ever pervasive grayness both physical and spiritual.

It was within this environment that rock n roll was forbidden music banned due to its association with the decadent West, and also threatening with its hymns of rebellion and freedom. All the more reason that this music became precious to many of us.

András Simonyi, the former Hungarian Ambassador to the United States, has authored a memoir, Rocking Toward A Free World: When the Stratocaster Beat the Kalashnikov that explores the formative role that rock n roll played in his upbringing in Hungary. This is an important book to read and share with friends on the cultural power of music to change minds and lives.

Rock n roll played a role in bringing freedom to Hungary’s neighbor. The Plastic People of the Universe was a rock band that formed in communist Czechoslovakia in 1968, the year of the Prague Spring when the Soviet Union invaded and occupied the central European nation in opposition to “socialism with a human face.” Eight years later in 1976 this rock band was jailed for “disturbing the peace:” and it generated an unexpected reaction.

Communist repression boomeranged and 240 Czechoslovak intellectuals on January 6,1977 gathered together in a movement that became known as Charter 77 to demand that communist authorities follow their own laws, the Helsinki Agreement that they had just signed recognizing international human rights norms and protections, and free the musicians.

In less than a dozen years Charter 77 would oversee the end of communism in Czechoslovakia, and one of its members Vaclav Havel, would become president of Czechoslovakia and invite Lou Reed and the Rolling Stones to play in the newly freed country.

This is not only a European phenomenon. In 1989 prior to the June 4th crackdown in Beijing during the months long students protests in Tiananmen Square Chinese rocker Cui Jian played protest songs in a concert for the students in the Square. One of the songs “Nothing to My Name” became an anthem for the demonstrators.

In Cuba, the Castro regime was equally if not more hostile not only to rock n roll, but Cuban music that did not fit the revolutionary paradigm. Thousands of jukeboxes were confiscated by the communist regime, and in 1968 in the midst of the Cuban equivalent, of a cultural revolution, 1,200 cabarets and dance halls for which Havana had been known for were shut down (with only a couple such as the Tropicana kept open).  Fifty years later and the music of Olga Guillot, Celia Cruz and many other seminal Cuban artists, who are known around the world, are still banned from the Cuban airwaves and black listed.

In 1961, at the First Congress of Writers and Artists in Cuba, music was defined as an organ of integration into the new Revolutionary society. Two years later on March 13, 1963 Fidel Castro gave a speech were he openly attacked rock n rollers as “long-haired layabouts, the children of bourgeois families,” roaming the streets wearing “trousers that are too tight,” carrying guitars to look like Elvis Presley, who took “their licentious behavior to the extreme” of organizing “effeminate shows” in public places. The Cuban dictator warned: “They should not confuse the Revolution’s serenity and tranquility with weaknesses in the Revolution. Our society cannot accept these degenerates.”

Rock n rollers were called “freakies”, had their hair forcibly cut, many were sent to work camps called the UMAP (Military Units to Help Production) in the 1960s. They were sent to forced labor camps because they were caught listening to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones or some other decadent and counterrevolutionary rock band.

Rock music is played over the airwaves today in Cuba, but the music of Olga Guillot and Celia Cruz are not. Nevertheless rock n rollers and rappers are still looked on with suspicion by the authorities.  Groups in the new millennium such as “Porno para Ricardo”, “Los Aldeanos” and Orishas have defied censorship writing and performing protest songs critical of the dictatorship.

Ambassador Simonyi’s memoir, Rocking Toward A Free World: When the Stratocaster Beat the Kalashnikov reminds us of the importance of culture in the battle for freedom, and how resistance to communism unites many people around the world, as does rock n roll. Below is a letter from a Cuban exile who read the memoir and connected with it through her own experience. This is followed by a 2009 article outlining how the Castro regime waged a cultural war on Cuban music.

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E-mail from Tina to Marianna,  January 14, 2020

Feladó: Tina XXXXXX

Dátum: 2020. január 14. 5:05:31 CET
Címzett: Marianna XXXXX
Tárgy: the book that you recommended

Dear Marianna,
Thank you for your friend Andras’ book.  It was a very easy, enjoyable read, while at the same time, full of feelings, thoughts and memories for me too.
I could see so many things in common, we were almost the same age when he was dealing with communism in Budapest while I was experiencing similar things in Havana. And there were differences, but the need to be free, not to be told what to do, what to think was the same.

On the music scene, before Castro, we had experienced the West and mostly the United States through 1959. I had Elvis’ records and those of my favorite Bill Haley, of Rock around the Clock fame.With the revolution American and English music was forbidden, a radio station=owned by a Cuban Jew of German background- that only played American music was confiscated and closed.

In my teens I had learned to play some accompanying guitar with an acoustic (Spanish) guitar. although my interest was romantic songs and ballads. I composed many songs at that time. I played them in my bedroom, with the windows closed. After all, I wanted to leave my guitar to a friend when I eventually leave the country.If the wrong neighbor heard the guitar, the neighborhood police could demand that I turn it over to the officer of the Interior minister when the exit permit finally came.

I could relate to the Viewmaster, to “forbidden magazines”, and  to agricultural-forced-labor as part of the “free” education, to young men with long hair or tight pants being sent to labor camps, In Havana I rode the Ikarus buses, that did not last long, oval-like design, hot as hell. English was never taught again, that was the language of the enemy…..ironically, the government opened the Abraham Lincoln Languages School, but did not teach English. Russian became the preferred language.

And yes, America and the West in general were/are full of contradictions, complications, injustices, oppression, lies, but those had/have no comparison with exactly the same things that were product of the socialist system.

I was very touched by many things that Simonyi described:: the decay in a grand building that still kept glasses in green color, a bit of hope in a totalitarian society that is in charge of every thing and every body, from toilet paper, to promotions, to art, to where you live and with whom,

I loved Simonyi reminding us about the lies and half truths of communist societies. Fidel Castro was a master in twisting truths and lying. The exploited workers versus the “freedom” from exploitation that workers and peasants on socialists experienced. (From the enormous social conquests that Cuban workers obtained (in part because of the Communist Party push before Castro) when salaries, benefits and working conditions were improved to levels unheard of in many western countries today . How after the revolution, workers no longer demanded anything, they apparently were happy with doing the work they were assigned to, in the place where they were assigned to and making the money that the “enterprise” decided.  Banners demanding better salaries, etc  were replaced with banners against the “yankee imperialism”.

I felt in every cell of my body  the experience of having to be part of the Communist Youth in order to be recognized  in school. Perhaps because I take things too seriously, I could not do it. And that is why I never joined the militia and eventually had to fake an illness to leave university=avoiding expulsion- which  made me “a housewife”=as it was written in my Cuban passport.

I again felt the possibility of having to adapt to live under communism all my life, having to lie, to fake, to pretend all the time. In my family situation ,

I had never realized what public ownership really meant for Hungarians versus Danish at the time. The difference from individuals owning shares of a company to “all workers owning” the enterprise and being represented by the government. A jewel of a description….

Also, I did not realize how important and devastating the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia was to Hungarians. And how that was perhaps a turning point or a last straw in the hope   that things could move forward with more political and economic freedoms. My parents and I had listened to the events in Prague through the Voice of America. Very few people in Cuba knew what was going on. People had to wait until Castro went on television to “explain” what had happened, and why. The same excuse to preserve socialism.

Perhaps the turning points for Cubans were the Bay of Cochinos fiasco and later, the Missile/October crisis. Hopes finally crushed. We learned that the old belief that “Americans would not allow communism in the Americas” was not going to be true.In 68 the Cuban regime was completely consolidated, all businesses big and small confiscated and the repression system working 24 hours a day. There were three options, fight the system and risk being executed or in prison for life; try to leave the country; or the horrible word, adapt.

I am sure Andras’ father tried to combine “the best of the two systems” considering that a return to democracy and capitalism was not an option. We know that those two systems cannot be combined.

The suspense of chapter 42 left me holding my breath. I thought Andras was going to defect. Then the telephone call. I felt myself standing in front of the telephone booth wanting :”mother” to answer while the phone kept on ringing……And then, the realization that that decision would bring enormous, irrepirable damage to the whole family.

I felt again the same longing, the same need to expand my horizons, not to be told what to think, what to say, what to do. I guess Andras called it, in part, positive curiosity.

When Andras said “I could not do it” a memory flash came to me. In the early 60s my parents thought about sending me to Miami with some relatives-“until things change”, later for me to fly to Madrid with my grandmother. Another time, to try to risk crossing to Guantanamo Bay in a boat. Thanks God that those things did not materialize. I certainly would have been able to do it without my parents..

This book has helped me looked back after 50 years, so many memories, before and after, so much reflection and analyses. Being able to leave Cuba with my parents and grandmother was a real miracle. We did it with fake documents. My parents were in their late 50s at the time, my mother recently had cancer surgery, my grandmother was told not to travel to Mexico because of the altitude and her heart condition, my father did not want to leave her mother and sisters behind…..If I had been my parents I would have said to me: “We are too old for this adventure, we really have no family support in the United States, if you want to go by yourself, we will back you up as much as we can. If you decide you don’t want to leave without us, then we will find some contacts, friends, so somehow you will go back to university, somehow you find a job that maybe you can travel abroad. You will have to turn your cheek, adapt, lie, have a double morality. without doing any harm you would have to pretend. We cannot do more”.  They were more than generous when they risked everything for me.

In the introduction what Andras wrote about an imaginary take over of the communists in New York and how the city would look and the people behave was specially poignant.

Again Marianna, thanks for the recommendation, you are free to share with Andras my comments.

Until next time

Tinita

My Latino Voice, November 4, 2009

Nostalgia Corner: Why the Bolero Was Censored in Cuba

Written by Kenia Fernandez

The recent Juanes concert in Cuba created a storm of controversy over the issue of censorship of cultural expression.  Many non-Cubans were perplexed by the intensity of emotion in Cuban-American communities.  But a recent conference I attended illustrated how the emotions were attached to the sounds and scenes we saw erupt across the country.

Boleros Prohibidos, o La Habana Sin Olga Guillot [“Forbidden Love Songs, or Havana Without Olga Guillot,” the acknowledged queen of Cuban torch songs], is a powerful multimedia tour of the romantic music of Havana in the 1950s, the golden age of the bolero.  Its author, Armando López, a journalist and cultural critic, was a man who came of age in Havana’s cabarets and night clubs, when world-class stars such as Olga Guillot, Elena Burke, and Beny Moré were creating their best ballads:  “Miénteme,” “Qué Sabes Tú,” “Cómo Fue.”

Olga Guillot, her music was banned and black listed by the Castro regime.

Olga Guillot, her music was banned and black listed by the Castro regime.

I grew up hearing this music, and it does evoke powerful emotions in me as well.  Few love songs in English can move me so.  These songs and artists are the soundtrack of memories of my mother and father, dancing to “Soy Tan Feliz” in an embrace, of my abuelito serenading my abuelita with “Contigo en la Distancia,” in his honeyed baritone.

The Union City audience of several hundred bolero fans — many silver-haired abuelitos y abuelitas, and not a few much younger folks — sang along with every single sound clip, and ooh’ed and aah’ed at the photos and film clips of their idols.  Many were overcome with feelings and memories.

Why the nostalgia, why such emotion?  Anglo-American seniors don’t tend to cry like this when they hear Nat King Cole or Johnny Mathis.

López went on to explain that in Revolutionary Cuba the bolero came to be seen as in-congruent with the goals of building a new society.  First, jukeboxes were confiscated from corner bars and nightclubs (there were as many as 20,000 jukeboxes in Havana in the 1950s).  Then, in 1961, at the First Congress of Writers and Artists, music was defined as an organ of integration into the new Revolutionary society.  The bolero came to be seen as a reactionary genre, in bad taste, and ultimately,  banned.  Cuba’s world-class composers and performers, many of whom had brought the genre to its golden age, were abruptly silenced.

Finally, in 1968, in the Ofensiva Revolucionaria — the Cuban equivalent of China’s Cultural Revolution — most of the 1,200 cabarets and dance halls for which Havana was known were shut down (with only a couple of exceptions, including the notable Tropicana).  Bolero lovers and performers were left with no viable venues.  An entire generation was traumatized by loss of the very words and music that had defined the key moments of their lives — coming of age, first loves, stolen kisses, secret romances.

So in the context of musical censorship, it is not surprising that Juanes and his project stirred so much controversy.  Heartfelt debates on the usefulness of economic and cultural boycotts are not likely to end, as long as there are states that attempt to silence a love song.

Armando López is a writer, journalist, and arts producer, using a fusion of genres and artists.  His shows have been staged at Lincoln Center and other major venues in New York and Havana.  In Cuba he founded the journal Opina, which the state shut down in 1990.  He has spoken on Cuban popular music at universities and cultural institutions all over the US.  He often writes for Cubaencuentro.com.