The Cubanization of America

How have aging jazz musicians contributed to America’s ” latinization”?

January 1, 2001

How have aging jazz musicians contributed to America's " latinization"?

It is often said that music crosses national borders and brings people of different cultures and backgrounds together. Like most such claims, this one is, to a degree, an exaggeration.

But, exaggeration or not, the Hispanization of American culture creeps in like a samba.

Food, music and language dance across the United States’ southernmost borders as if in a rhythm. For many Americans, the added flavors are more than welcome. Yet, the implied drift away from English — the “national” language — and toward bilingualism is making some Americans uneasy.

A few years ago, American guitarist Ry Cooder went to Cuba, where he discovered a group of aging jazz musicians.

They were well past their prime and many no longer performed in their own country. He brought them together — and they recorded an album called Buena Vista Social Club.

The album earned a cult following in the United States — and spawned an entire cottage industry of Cuban music. German film director Wim Wenders then filmed a documentary based on the recording of the album.

After all the club members had issued solo recordings, the entire band reunited under the name Buena Vista Social Club.

Today, they regularly tour American cities to great critical and popular acclaim. It is tempting to see this phenomenon through America’s nostalgia of the early 1950s.

Back when Americans went to Havana cabarets to hear Cuban musicians, the craze for Cuban jazz and mambo soon crossed over to the United States. A popular movie about that time, “The Mambo Kings,” anticipated the appearance of Buena Vista by a few years.

But now, sold-out Buena Vista concerts in New York and other U.S. cities are all about the future. They allow audiences to catch a glimpse of what Cuba and the United States will be like a few years from now.

This is also reflected in the results of the 2002 U.S. Census. While the proportion of foreign-born residents is now the largest since 1910, at 11.7%, more than half of these 33 million immigrants — approximately 52% — were born in Latin America.

In addition, there are as many as 10 million undocumented — and uncounted — immigrants and seasonal workers in the United States, drawn in by the insatiable demand for U.S. labor.

Projected data for the year 2100 sees Americans of Latin American origin comprising up to 33.3% of the total U.S. population.

Over the same time period, Americans of white, non-Latino origin are expected to decrease from 71.4% to 40.3% of the total.

In 2003, the U.S. Census announced that Latinos had surpassed African Americans as the largest minority in the United States.

They surged to an unprecedented number of 37.9 million — or 13.4% of the total U.S. population of 280 million. Blacks stand at 33.2 million, comprising 11.8% of the population.

What is refreshing about the Buena Vista Social Club concerts, however, is that they are completely apolitical, unlike cultural events in Cuba themselves.

Just as they were in Eastern Europe in the days of communism, cultural events are usually loaded with ideology — and tinged with heavy-handed political propaganda.

This is especially true for anything regarding the United States, which Cuban leader Fidel Castro has made it his personal specialty to harangue.

Elián Gonzalez, whom most people in the United States have already forgotten, was still a burning propaganda issue in his homeland.

When the boy’s birthday arrived in late 2000, the event became a very public reason to rehash that summer’s campaign for his repatriation.

In sharp contrast, Buena Vista concerts are devoid of any mention of politics. There are no pro-Castro or anti-Castro statements. Something more important is going on — very good musicians are playing great music.

The world is acutely aware that Cuba faces a very uncertain future after Castro. The experience of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union — from East Germany to Russia — shows that the road for newly liberated countries can be rough.

Cuba, just like its former allies, will have to pay a steep price for five decades of international isolation — and for Castro’s social and economic experimentation.

But the first thing that will return is a refreshing sense of normalcy — and freedom from ideological constraints.

But the United States, too, can learn a lot about its own future at these concerts. The old Cuban band leader and some of the performers spend a lot of time joking with the audience and telling them long, involved stories.

Even though the band’s audiences are usually by no means entirely Latino, the musicians do not worry with English or any kind of translation.

Members of the audience — many of them sophisticated urbaners who do not speak Spanish — lip-synch along anyway because they want to blend in by pretending they understand the language.

Most likely, as in the concert I went to the other night in New York, many people in the audience did not understand the Spanish jokes.

But most pretended they did — and laughed heartily. But, if they do not speak Spanish yet, they had better learn it.

A country that pretends to know the meaning of global leadership in today’s shrinking world will have to be able to do more than lip-sync in a foreign language. In that sense, the real Cuban revolution has yet to come.