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Cuba, the Beatles and Historical Context

“Let the world be grafted onto our republics, but the trunk must be ours.”

— José Martí, Our America

Tom Miller recently published in the Washington Post (02/17/08) an opinion piece entitled “As Fidel Fades From the Scene.” [1] It is not the intention of this commentary to address the different issues the author raises. However, at one point the articles refers to an unidentified Cuban who states, “I used to listen to the Beatles on a cassette player in the bushes down by the Almendares.” Why were the Beatles forbidden? Was it prudishness? Was it an expression of cultural and historical context? Yet, Cubans learned the songs of other foreigners such as Daniel Vigglieti [Uruguay], Mercedes Sosa [Argentina] , Violeta Parra [Chile], and many Latin American and African groups.

In all fairness, Tom Miller’s article mentioned the Beatles just in passing, but superficial impressions can be long lasting. Moreover, it is true that the Cuban authorities did not permit the Beatles to be known. A similar situation was also confronted by the very Cuban “canción protesta” movement initiated by Silvio Rodríguez at about the same time. [2]

Obviously I cannot write a parallel history of the Beatles and Cuba. But below are at least some moments that should be taken into consideration. The intention is not to rationalize nor justify a banning policy, but to attempt to put things in some historical frame in order to understand. Then we can discuss matters in a more discerning fashion.

While the US experienced “British Invasion” with the Beatles’ music, Cuba had experienced a real military invasion. While teenage American girls experienced metaphorical orgasm by watching Ringo, Cuban teenagers were engaging in the literacy campaign [1961] or getting ready for a possible invasion as a result of the Missile Crisis [1962]. In August 1963 while Swan Records released “She Loves You,” – Operation Mongoose and AM/Lash were preparing the assassination of Fidel Castro and a wave of sabotage.

In 1963 American Bandstand’s Dick Clark made snide remarks about the Beatles’ long hair, while longhaired and unshaven Latin American guerrillas were setting up camp in Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Guatemala and Mexico. The Cubans, of course, were involved. These were confrontational moments.

The 1964 presidential campaign in the United States saw the emergence of Republican Senator Barry Goldwater who promised to forcefully liberate the island. While American teenagers were singing and dancing to “I want to hold your hand” while the CIA sought to cut Fidel Castro’s throat.

From 1964 to 1966 Cubans were learning about the national liberation struggles in Africa, the revolution in Algeria, and the Turcios Lima guerrillas in Guatemala or Peruvian peasants in arms. The 1 million Indonesian communists massacred in 1964 outraged political leaders in Havana and left them with no patience while the revolutionary regime battled the growing internal bureaucracy..

The escalation of the war in Vietnam (1965), the rift between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (1963-1966) did not leave much room for music appreciation with help from Liverpool. Moreover, American teenagers were becoming a mass market for “I Saw Her Standing There” while in Havana people discussed how to take a country out of underdevelopment. Then there was also the problem of defeating 600 guerrilla groups armed by the Central Intelligence Agency and operating in the Escambray Mountains. In New York DJs spoke of “Golden Hits” but in the Dominican Republic US Marines were landing and hitting towns with their overwhelming fire power. And the US air force had just begun bombing North Vietnam.

Cubans were baffled when the Queen of England appointed the Beatles “Members of the Order of the British Empire” circa June 1965; by then Che had begun the efforts to spark continental revolutions in Africa and Latin America began to confront a wave of military coup d’etats.

In those days, the Americans certainly could not lecture the Cubans about matters of music appreciation. When the Beatles finally began to address the necessity of giving “peace a chance” [a Plastic One Band project] and even criticized US policy in Southeast Asia, criticism of them began in the United States. When Lennon made the passing remark that they were more popular than Jesus, the Bible belt reacted. Radio stations classified the Beatles as anti-American and a boycott ensued. The Beatles had to choose between sales and political convictions. They ended up apologizing for their views on politics and religion to the American rightwing. The Cubans found the whole matter disconcerting.

Granted, by 1966, the Beatles had turned against US interventionism. The Beatles were not a phenomenon that had a popular impact on Cuba, then. Yet, Silvio Rodríguez in the late 1960s had a TV program called ‘Mientras Tanto’ where he actually defended the Beatles’ music and songs. Silvio was criticized and lost his TV spot. [3]

The Beatles’ transcendentalism and Eastern mysticism (circa 1968) alienated Cuban radicals and revolutionaries as well. However, Cuban musicians were impressed by their freedom of composition. But in those days, Cubans had more serious concerns than imagining a yellow submarine when the real ones were just 12 miles away, and the only “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” they knew were the U-2s and Blackbirds that entered their air space in order to clock the Cuban Air command and control structures.

Granted, the Beatles musical contributions, then, ought to have been judged by the Cuban public, without any political litmus test attached. Moreover, there was a lack of sophistication in the making of cultural policy and a facile identification of North American and British pop culture with ideological diversionism. The political and ideological shortcomings were exacerbated by a surrounded fortress mentality. But, cultural and political nationalism also shapes the history of countries. The student revolts in 1968 in Mexico and Paris were not identified with the music of the times, but with the death of Che.

At play, during those years, was the concerted effort to construct a revolutionary ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The Cuban political, economic and cultural leaderships assumed that in order to overcome underdevelopment it was imperative to foster an ideology that would be the revolutionary equivalent of the Protestant ethic. Work hard, consume little, defer gratification, invest in further development. The early stages of mass consumerism was considered an external threat. The Beatles were perceived as the vanguard of selfish consumerism and not as revolutionaries who were musicians. Or as Ned Sublette has noted in a comment about this article, “while anglo-americans were pretending that singers were revolutionaries, real revolutionaries were facing challenges of basic survival.” [4]

Despite the imposed restrictions, the Beatles had an impact on Cuban music then. (Juan Formell , Silvio Rodríguez and others have acknowledged as much). [5] Today, the Beatles’ influence is found everywhere in Cuba. Havana has a park remembering John Lennon, there is also La Caverna de los Beatles in the city of Holguin where old timers reminisce about the group, listen and sing. Abel Prieto, Minister of Culture, has written a novel “El vuelo del gato” where the presence of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Simon and Garfunkel appear in numerous pages. Prieto has done, as well, a drawing of John Lennon.

What was forbidden then is now promoted. [6] Videos of Beatles’ concerts are presently shown on prime time Cuban television. In June 2006, a Cuban musical group performed “Hey Jude” in London to the sound of Conga percussion. There is an extraordinary album made with all Cuban artists singing Beatle’s songs but with Cuban rhythms. [7]

On December 8, 2000, Fidel Castro unveiled a bronze statue of John Lennon sitting on a bench at a Havana park while the background music played Lennon’s rendition of “All You Need Is Love.”

In fact, the Beatles have been thoroughly appropriated and Cubanized even by children. Last August at the Karl Marx Theater the children’s company La Colmenita performed Sleeping Beauty to the music of the Beatles. The same group will perform at the 10th Festival of Children’s Theater in Moscow. The festival has been organized by UNICEF. Children from five continents will participate. The Cuban children will perform in Spanish, English and Russian a work entitled: “Cinderella … according to the Beatles. ” [8]

NELSON P. VALDÉS is a Professor of Sociology at the University of New Mexico.

This essay originally appear in Cuba-L Analysis.

Notes

[1] 02/17/08 – Washington Post – As Fidel Fades From the Scene [by Tom Miller]

[2] The Beatles were not the only ones not allowed in Cuba then. One could add other groups as well such as the Rolling Stones, or Cuban musicians who left Cuba.

[3] The banning of the Beatles has been attributed to Papito Serguera who headed the Instituto Cubano de Radio Television. However, there were others in positions of authority and power who considered English language music a form of ideological diversionism. See: Ernesto Juan Castellanos, John Lennon en La Habana with a little help from my friends.Ediciones Unión, 2005 [See the section Papito Serguera – “Los Beatles no estuvieron prohibidos en Cuba”]. A portion of the chapter can be found at: http://puntocubano.wordpress.com/

[4] Email from Ned Sublette to Nelson Valdés, February 19, 2008 8:57 AM

[5] Domingo Amuchastegui has written a balanced assessment of those days. See: 08/26/07 – Cuba-L Analysis (Albuquerque) – NI QUINQUENIO GRIS NI DECENIO NEGRO, SINO INTERMINABLE LUCHA DE IDEAS Y DIVERSIDAD EN LA CUBA REVOLUCIONARIA

[6] 01/25/08 – Juventud Rebelde (Habana) – Los Van Van’s Juan Formell Still Has the Last Word; 03/12/05 – La Jiribilla – Conversando con Silvio Rodríguez [by Marta Valdés]

[7] See: “Here Comes … el Son: Songs of the Beatles with a Cuban Twist,” reviewed by Jacira Castro.

[8] 03/27/08 – Juventud Rebelde (Habana) – La Colmenita to Participate in World Festival of Children’s Theatre

I would like to acknowledge the comments and suggestions provided by Jacira Castro, Louis Head, Robert Sandels, John Kirk, Domingo Amuchastegui and Ned Sublette. Of course, any errors are my own.

 

 

 

 

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Nelson P. Valdes is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico.

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