Cuba's digital destination
Chapter 1: Made in Havana City
Are you Latina?” Clad in a khaki green safari suit, the immigration official at José Martí International Airport in Havana peered at me over the top of thick rimmed glasses as he examined my passport.
“No.” It seemed best to keep things brief.
“So why does it say here that your name is Fernandes?”
I trotted out the usual response. “Because my parents are from the part of India in the South that was colonized by the Portuguese.” So much for brevity.
His brow wrinkled. “But this is an Australian passport.”
“Yes, my parents migrated from India to Australia thirty years ago, and I was born there. I’m an Australian citizen.”
“So why are you coming to Cuba?”
Why was an Australian-born, Indian-descended, Portuguese- surnamed gringa like me coming to Cuba? Would you believe, to deliver pickles? On my mother’s orders I was bringing home- made dried shrimp pickle for my sister Deepa. Deepa, who had lived in the Ecuadorian forests with shamans and hitch- hiked down the Amazon with another adventurous soul, was now a features producer at Radio Habana, and our mother’s main concern was, “Is she eating properly?” I had successfully smuggled the jar of pickle through Tokyo and Montreal in my circuitous route to Havana, and it was only in Mexico City that a scrutinizing customs official asked me to open it. The thought of disrobing the bulky jar—swaddled by my mum in layers of plastic and tape—was so ludicrous that I burst into hysterical laughter. The Mexican official, taken aback at first, joined me in laughing and sent me on my way with the jar untouched.
This official before me now wasn’t laughing. It seemed best to keep things brief. “I’m visiting my sister.”
My covert mission as a pickle courier aside, I figured that this was my opportunity to see revolution in action. It was January 1998, and I had finally graduated from college after years of part-time study. I had spent my undergraduate years as a student activist trying to convince other students that capitalism was unjust, and, if we wanted to know what a true socialist society might be like, we should look to Cuba. My bible was a booklet called The Cuban Revolution and Its Extension, which lauded the bold and radical revolution carried out on this small Caribbean island. I argued passionately with the student conservatives and anarchists who said that Cuba’s was an authoritarian society where citizen rights were restricted and homosexuals were locked up. Of course, I was aware that Cuba had its problems. But I also felt that the Western media painted a distorted picture of what was really happening on the island. I had read the auto- biography of the former Black Panther Angela Davis, and, like her, I imagined myself joining the masses to cut sugarcane in the fields.
As an aspiring emcee, I had heard that Cuban hip hop was the site of a rebirth of revolutionary rap music. All kinds of American rappers, from the indie star Common to the rapper- turned-actor Mos Def, had come down here to perform at the annual hip hop festival. In her emails from Havana, Deepa described in detail all the rappers and producers she was meeting and told me she could introduce me to them. I was intrigued. What did hip hop look like in this place where revolution had such a potent meaning and history? Hip hop was known as a revolutionary music, as a culture of protest, but what would hip hop be in a country like Cuba, where the state itself was said to be revolutionary? Could it be a counterrevolutionary force here?
Cuba seemed the ideal place to continue my journey in search of a global hip hop generation. My exploration had begun in Sydney, where I joined in workshops for a hip hop theatrical production on Sydney’s West Side. But as I watched hip hop in Sydney being taken over by mainstream record labels, I wondered if I might find a purer, more authentic, form of the culture in Cuba. What would it be like in a place that had not been infiltrated by Americanization? I was curious about how a digital age music like hip hop had developed such deep roots in a metropolitan city that had only two Internet cafes. What could it tell us about the power of hip hop as a truly global form?
There’s no time to sleep,” said Deepa, as she climbed into the back of the powder blue 1952 Chevrolet. “We’ve only got an hour to drop off your bags and make it to the rumba.” Our driver sped along Boyeros, the long road from the airport to the city, and headed for the tree-lined suburb of El Vedado. Deepa helped me lug my bags up the flight of stairs to the casa particular, a private home where she was renting a room from a Cuban couple with a teenage daughter. My sleep- deprived body longed for the bed with its fresh sheets. Outside the driver beeped his horn impatiently.
“C’mon,” prodded Deepa, sensing I was weakening. “There’ll be plenty of time for sleep later.” The National Writers and Artists Union, known locally by its acronym, UNEAC, was at the corner of Calle 17 and H in El Vedado. There was a rumba on its lawns every Wednesday after- noon. At the gates of the mansion that housed UNEAC, a young man sat collecting money. “Don’t say anything, just follow me,” Deepa instructed, as we approached the front of the line. She handed him a ten-peso note and he let us in.
“What was that about?” I asked her, once we were inside the gates. “Cubans pay in pesos, foreigners pay in dollars.” She indicated a blond woman at the gate, who was fishing out a five- dollar bill.
Cuba faced a severe crisis after the collapse of its main benefactor, the Soviet Union, in 1991. Anticipating internal unrest in Cuba, the US had tightened the screws of its three-decade economic embargo, making life even more difficult on the island. The Cuban government christened these years the “Special Period.” The dual peso-dollar economy had developed in the early nineties as a strategy to help the economy recover. After years of being seen as contraband, the dollar was now recognized as legal tender. Dollars entered through remittances from Florida, tourists on vacation, and money earned abroad. But Cubans still earned in pesos. With an exchange rate of twenty- one pesos to the dollar, we had paid just twenty-five cents each to get in. That was the same as Cubans would pay. Deepa was being paid in pesos by Radio Habana, so she was entitled to the peso rate. But she didn’t even need to produce ID. No one here suspected we were foreigners. This was one of the perks of looking Cuban.
There were a hundred or so people gathered on the lawns of UNEAC. Foreigners and Cubans, kids and their parents, and older people resting in the shade all waited for the show to begin. Salsa came from speakers on the stage. A few well-dressed young Cuban men mingled with the French and Scandinavian tourists. The Cubans swiveled their hips effortlessly. Their fluid steps and graceful turns contrasted with the jerky and self- conscious movements of their partners.
“Jineteros.” Deepa nodded her head toward the young men. “It literally means ‘jockey,’ but here in Cuba they use it to refer to street hustlers and sex workers.” “But I thought that prostitution was illegal here.” I recalled reading that the revolutionary government had outlawed prostitution in 1961. Thousands of women who had been involved in the sex trade during the prerevolutionary era were introduced to other occupations through work-study programs and vocational schools.
“Well, nowadays most Cubans find it hard to make ends meet,” replied Deepa. “Prostitution is just another way to survive.” Next to me, a young white man in a Che t-shirt snuggled with a pretty Cubana with light brown skin and curly hair. Were they girl- friend and boyfriend? Was she a jinetera? How could you tell? A half hour or so later, just as my lids were beginning to droop again, an announcement was made. The rap act Primera Base would be making an appearance. Sometimes rappers opened for the main acts at the rumba.
“Primera Base. Cool!” Deepa said in anticipation. “They’re one of Cuba’s most well-known rap groups, and they even have a disc out with EGREM.” EGREM was the state agency responsible for producing and marketing Cuban music. With scarce resources and a small local market for CD sales, EGREM had produced only a few rap CDs. They received little or no airplay on Cuban radio.
I strained my neck to get a good view of the stage. Three young men stood before the microphones. The one in the middle, Rubén Maning, had several thick gold chains around his neck. His shirt was open to reveal a bare torso. He wore plastic sunglasses studded with fake diamonds. Low-slung pants revealed a pair of white boxers with the letter X written in bold at the top. The other two also wore heavy gold chains and black sunglasses.
“It was like this,” opened Rubén, in a grave voice. He bowed his head dramatically. “The 21 of February 1965, he was shot up in the Audubon Ballroom / About to give his last speech, before an auditorium of 400 blacks and half a dozen whites / Yes! That gentleman you know as Malcolm X / WAS DEAD.” From the recorded background beat came the piercing tones of a siren, then people screaming and crying. The beat kicked in, and Rubén performed an homage to Malcolm X. “I want to be a black just like you, with your great virtue,” rapped Rubén, in an old-school flow.
‹‹ Next ›› August 2011