Cuba's "World-Class" Music Education?


The New York Times has a goo-goo story up about how Carlos Varela, "Cuba's Bob Dylan" (quick question: what does the world wrongly think it has more of, "fill-in-the-blank-country's Bob Dylan," or "the Silicon Valley of fill-in-the-blank country"?), who is currently in the U.S. trying, as the headline says, "to sway America's Cuba policy with song." Here is your requisite NYT-Cuba WTF paragraph:

His life has been marked by the highs and lows of the Cuban revolution. The government gave him a world-class education in music and theater, but refuses to broadcast many of his songs, which have veiled critiques of the Communist leadership.

This "world-class education" stuff I'll never understand. When you're talking particularly (though not only) about the humanities, whether music or literature or architecture, how can any education be "world class" if it is utterly and intentionally choked off from a thick chunk of the outside world? Is it technically possible to provide a world-class education in music while, for instance, banning the Beatles?

You used to see the same kind of credulous nonesense written about the former East Bloc. What literate, well-educated, artsy people! (Never mind that many were pretty well educated, often better educated, before the Red Army began policing the borders.) But the joyless, restrictive dead-endism of communist thinking poisoned the humanities there as much as anything else. One of the first things that Czechoslovakia's post-commie Fine Arts Academy rector did was fire each and every one of the professors. A Czech classical music student I knew flunked out of one key oral exam by failing to properly answer the question: "What is music?" (The correct answer: Music is art that is experienced by the ears.) With whole swaths of music and literature banned, and expression/exchange frowned upon and criminalized, many artists and/or free-thinkers would aim to receive as technical an education as possible (for instance, in engineering, or the restoration of old buildings). In Cuba, I befriended an architect and former revolutionary who finally turned his back on Castro after the regime suddenly announced post-1989 that it could no longer afford to import Central European newspapers and journals. A revolutionary architecture that willfully cut itself off from the global conversation, he decided, was an architecture without foundation.

It should be intuitive that closed systems generally produce bad learning, with only occasional exceptions of results produced by grotesque over-emphasis (for instance, medicine in Cuba, and swimming in East Germany). But apparently it's not.

Varela's offical website here. I wrote about the island's crappy culture of information back in 2002. Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin wrote about "Castro's favorite propagandist" in 2007. And Michael Moynihan caught up recently with Cuban punk rocker Gorki Aguila for ReasonTV:

Finally, for connoiseurs of terrible music, here is Varela's pal Jackson Browne singing "Going down to Cuba," a song whose righteous lyrics about Americans' freedom of travel cannot begin to make up for the line "They make such continuous use of the verb to resolve."