Background Music in Cuba

Irina Pino

Caetano Veloso

HAVANA TIMES — Recently, a friend was telling me about how hard it is to find a restaurant where you can eat while listening to agreeable background music. What you hear most at these establishments are dance pieces or catchy songs with tasteless lyrics, when the natural thing would be to play soft, relaxing melodies, or a romantic number that is creative.

My friend invited me to a bar where they regularly play pieces by Caetano Veloso, a singer, poet, filmmaker and founder of tropicalismo, a man who doesn’t have a powerful voice but is blessed with a flair and tenderness that allows him to express any feeling. He can sing Vete de mi (by Argentinean artists Homero and Virgilio Exposito, a piece Cuba’s Bola de Nieve infused with much passion) and Argentine’s Fito Paez’ Un vestido y un amor (“A Dress and a Love Story”) with the same ease. He’s also performed his own versions of Maria la O and the tango piece Vuelvo al Sur (“Return to the South”). The Brazilian musician has known how to make these his own, reaching the essence of these works and giving them his personal touch.

At the two Bianchini bakeries located in Old Havana – establishments I wrote about a year ago – pleasant melodies play in the background. They always play folk music and jazz at very low levels that do not bother visitors.

Words and harmony demand a strange symbiosis that only the enlightened can bring about. One truly does not live long enough to hear that much good music.

I make a habit of looking for new things and I exchange music with my friends using USB memory sticks. I’ve already assembled a huge library that includes rock, blues, jazz, early music, classical music, boleros, Brazilian music, tango, country, Hindi and Celtic music, movie soundtracks, famous songs from Broadway…and I’m constantly expanding my collection.

One tends to grow up listening to music at home – musicologists say our families train our ears. Our mass media, however, increasingly bombard us with the worst of the worst. Decades ago, in buses, one only heard people’s conversations and murmuring. Today, we are tortured with aggressive numbers.

I remember the record player we had at home. For years, it played those magic long-play discs that one would wash and hang out to dry, to get rid of the dust and improve the sound quality. This is how I was introduced to Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninov, George Gershwin, Biset, the great operas, The Beatles, Cuba’s Los Zafiros, Cuban traditional folk music, son, jazz and French songs – a broad variety of music that nourished me spiritually and helped me developed my “tastes.”

Schools should offer a musical appreciation course to train our ears to tell beauty apart from the superficial and vulgar.

There are musicians who are capable of reflecting moods and states of mind with their compositions. Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolda express the strength of passion that unites lovers and makes them wretched, while Chopin’s Nocturnes bring us nostalgia, sadness and melancholia.