Havana in the 1950s was Las Vegas with beaches. Affluent North Americans escaped to Cuba to indulge in cigars, sex, rum, and affordable luxury. Leading hotels and casinos boasted of dance halls and large orchestras. Modeled after popular New York orchestral combos, these tourism-generated bands infused popular music from the United States with the instruments and rhythms of Cuba, Africa, and the Caribbean.
The result was explosive. The mambo quickly busted out of the glitzy cabarets and into the buzzing streets of Havana. Small, private social clubs, of the type immortalized in the 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club, began springing up on every street corner. Organized by neighborhood, by occupation, and by social status, these clubs helped nurture a strong community-based sense of the new Cuban music.
Like so much Cuban-American culture before the two countries became bitter adversaries, Havana’s mambo craze leapt back across the Florida Straits to a willing United States. New York Jazz musicians began incorporating Cuban elements into their music. Pop singers such as Nat “King” Cole began recording with musicians in Cuba and singing in Spanish. Cuban artists such as Beny Moré and Celia Cruz found themselves at the fore of a new, syncretic movement in pan-American popular music.
And decades before cultural observers would enthuse over the “crossover” appeal of Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, Yankee audiences threw their arms around Cuban percussionist Desi Arnaz, whose mambo band-leader character Ricky Ricardo co-anchored the most popular show on American television, I Love Lucy.
At the height of ’50s mambo fever, you would have been laughed out of the room had you predicted that comparatively tiny and impoverished Jamaica would soon become a dominant force in global music, while the Caribbean’s longstanding cultural capital of Havana fell into irrelevance and decay. But the rise of communism and its attendant cultural protectionism soon choked off mambo and Cuban creativity at the source, while Jamaica’s economic boom and unfettered recording industry uncorked a revolutionary new music called reggae.
The glossy exterior of Havana’s nightlife concealed something much darker. Dictator Fulgencio Batista demonstrated little regard for the constitution he had created more than a decade earlier. Racial and social divides ran deep, free speech and assembly were severely curtailed, and the wealth brought in by the booming tourist trade was seen as benefitting only the well connected.
On July 23, 1953, a group of revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro attacked the Moncada Barracks in Havana. While easily thwarted, the attack marked the beginning of what would be the Cuban Revolution. After a brief prison stint, the bearded revolutionary fled to Mexico, then returned in December of 1956 with Argentinean physician and military strategist Che Guevara and 80 men. Taking to the Sierra Maestra Mountains, and shoring up support from rural workers and farmers, Castro and company began what would be a two-year war against the Batista regime. On New Year’s Day 1959, Batista fled to the Dominican Republic, and Fidel Castro began his long victory march to Havana.
Initially, many musicians were optimistic about the new Cuba. At last they would be able to explore their craft free from the constraints of the market. Class and race would no longer divide people, and artists would now be able to freely connect with all Cubans instead of merely catering to visiting Americans. Most non-headlining musicians saw an initial increase in income, and composers were afforded the security of a regular salary. Cultural education programs strove to valorize domestic music and raise the musical literacy of all Cubans.
But this new musical economy was unsustainable. The casinos were looted and shuttered within days of the revolution. Hotels were commandeered, and tourists stopped coming. With the engine of the economy cut, more and more clubs found it impossible to stay open. By January 1960, the government had taken over most performance venues. And by the summer of 1960, Cuba’s numerous radio and television networks were nationalized.
A musician wishing to be heard in Cuba now required government approval. Opportunities to perform abroad were limited to state-sponsored tours, and formal approval was required even to travel anywhere on the island. Cuban musicians, who once roamed as far as their talents could take them, now found their ability to share their works dependent upon the state’s assessment of their loyalty to the Revolution. And it was not only professional musicians who were silenced: The Social Clubs, so vital to the musical soul of the island, were declared un-egalitarian and abolished.
By 1961, all production facilities had been nationalized. State approval was required for any new recording. Censorship and bureaucratic red tape frustrated artists. Reduced tourism and trade cut Cuba off from its most lucrative markets, and the lack of profit motive meant that no one stood to make money by pushing new music or reissuing perennially popular recordings. Meanwhile, the deteriorating economy (exacerbated by the U.S. embargo) made money still more scarce. By 1966, Cuba, which used to press millions of records a year, only managed to eke out 184,000.
As his country moved much closer to the Soviet Union, Castro soon adopted Moscow’s model of arts production. To be a musician in socialist Cuba, one had to audition for a panel of conservatory-trained professionals who assigned the would-be performer a letter grade of A, B, or C. Given the background of the panel, it was only natural that those most proficient in classical European styles were assigned to the highest class, while those proficient in folk or popular styles would be diverted into lesser pools.
Popular styles of music such as jazz and early rock ’n’ roll were tolerated in the early days of the Revolution, but later years saw them labeled as imperialist, and effectively banned. (Even the Beatles were banned for several years on grounds of cultural imperialism.) Artists attempting the Cuban tradition of incorporating new rhythms and instruments into their styles were blacklisted from state radio and TV.
In 1968, a prohibitionist “Dry Law” closed Cuban clubs, leaving 40 percent of Cuban club musicians with no place to perform. In 1970, most were forced into the sugar fields as part of the communist state’s zafra de los 10 milliones, a desperate plot to save the Cuban economy with a massive, one-time sugar haul. Musicians had their instruments ripped from their hands and replaced with machetes. In just one decade, Havana went from being the wellspring of popular pan-American music to a desert of rigid, top-down culture.
The colonial island 90 miles south of Cuba had a much more modest musical pedigree at the time of the mambo boom. The first popular music documented in Jamaica was mento. Played on homemade string, wind, and percussion instruments in rural parts of the country as early as the 19th century, mento featured an even, playful gait and cheeky lyrics about daily life. Sounding similar to Trinidadian calypsos, mento did not start appearing on record until the 1950s, when entrepreneurs such as Ken Khouri and Ivan Chin sought to jump-start a domestic recording industry.