By Dimitry Prieto
On May 3rd each year, my town Santa Cruz del Norte celebrates Holy Cross Day in honor of its patron saint with High Masses in the Roman Catholic and Anglican-Episcopal churches, regattas of fishing boats in the town’s small bay, each craft decked out with May crosses, adorned with flowers, processions, and all this after being woken up by a “mambisa” trumpet. Those are the characteristics of these festivities sponsored by the local government and ministry of culture office.
The only thing missing is the placing of a shining cross on the Jijira hill, as the elderly say used to be part of the tradition. The people of Santa Cruz hope that one day the cross will return. Beyond its Christian and Maritime symbolism, the flowered cross evoked the “May Pole”, a phallic symbol that is still part of the May festivals in many corners of Europe, Asia and America.
But the parties of today are just that: parties, a good time, and although the May Pole might be lacking, what’s not missing these days is Reggaeton.
In the early morning hours on the eve of May 3rd, my sleep was interrupted by this contagious music of uniform rhythm that many Cuban groups play in unique variations, a small sample of which provided entertainment at the parties.
Reggaeton filtered through the coolness of the cool Cuban spring night from a plaza located on the other end of town directly into my ear on the fifth floor of the modest building where I live, which was built by micro-brigades.
Reggaeton has polarized Cuban society: on one side, the illustrious opinion of the defenders of tradition, public morals and good taste; on the other side, the persistent clueless -those who play it and listen to it, and who blast it from their cars and stores…
The latter have been winning the battle for public spaces; the mass media usually keeps a distance from the issue and the cultural leaders have practically given up on it as incorrigible. They’re hoping to on the counterattack soon with a program of competitions and activities aimed at promoting the more “conservative” genres of music among the youth.
But Reggaeton has a unique quality: it has something that the Russians call “Pravda.” That word, which was the title of the main Bolshevik, and later Soviet newspaper, means not only “truth” or “justice” but also something like “testimony”, “shared living experience”, or “moral rectitude.”
It refers to the creation of an avenue for communicating the experiences of the people and for assuming with sincerity what is actually happening.
Reggaeton has brought out into the open lifestyles that many of us knew existed but prefer not to talk about; lifestyles that even some of us have lived at different times in our lives.
Those lifestyles are difficult to accept. And when those Reggaeton artists scream to the four directions of the wind what is happening “on the streets”, many Cubans are not as bothered by the rhythm as by the harsh lyrics that do not attempt to embellish the facts, but on the contrary, turn into art the life experiences that many have shared in secret, but which are difficult to accept at such close range.
Reggaeton has been a strange “close encounter” with ourselves.
There is something Nietzsche-esc about Reggaeton, in its limitless defense of the spirited and “power hungry” street dwellers; their songs project a singular image of “super-men”, infused with technology, mercantilism, and machismo.
In fact, I used the metaphor of Reggaeton a few days ago when I had to introduce the philosophy of Nietzsche to my students. But in my own core, when I hear that rhythm in the street (or when it keeps me from sleeping in my own bed on the eve of the May Holy Cross celebration), I prefer to think of the Russian Christian existentialist Nikolái Berdiaev, who in the mid-20th century gave a brilliant analysis of Pravda in Russia and its role in the subversion of czarism and the Bolshevik ascendance.