Yenisel Rodriguez Perez
For a long time now, the political routine in Cuba has been unable to self-servingly employ the popular energy that characterizes the island’s people.
For many years political leaders used popular culture, especially music, to carry out ideological propaganda.
This was easy work during the days when people believed the Revolution would generate the social changes promised since the beginning: those of granting power to the people themselves.
However this has not happened and it’s an even more remote goal today. What this means is that a strategy of masking authoritarianism with “entertainment and partying” is a thing of the past.
The relationship between popular cultural expression and official political discourse is a history loaded with betrayal and failure, like that represented in the musical career of the group Los Van Van, one of Cuba’s most successful and popular musical groups.
The songs of Van Van have been inspired simultaneously —though not equally— by the cultural legacy of the popular Cuban world and by its role as a promoter of official political discourse.
Since its founding in the 1970s, Van Van has served as a vehicle of mediation through which understandings and misunderstandings between popular and official minds were resolved.
Classic songs that spoke of La Habana no aguanta más (Havana can’t take any more), La titi manía (Robbing the cradle mania) and Los pájaros tirándole a la escopeta (The birds shooting the shotgun) expressed the state of the public’s mood, which called into question a social system unable to overcome an intense climate of conflict: People had begun asking when would the work of the official leadership finally bear the expected fruits?
Other songs were made on order for political leaders who desperately sought the support of the majority, support that they actually possessed for a long time. Therefore many of the band’s famous songs, such as Súmate a mi actividad (Join in with what I’m doing),” exercised great rallying influence and power.
Responding to the call of the State for people to do voluntary labor, seeking to contribute to the nation’s collective wealth (though one never hears news of this), these songs made us feel united. What’s more, they were also enjoyed as an erotic and transcendental break from the norms of the home: it was an escape from the tutelage of one’s parents and the existing powers. Plus, with a little luck, you could enjoy some occasional sex.
You had to “join in,” but with movement of your waist: súmate…, pero muévete, mueveteeé… (join in, but move your body, move) satisfied everyone: it stood for political sacrifice and popular enjoyment.
In These Times
In the more recent period, a deep and definitive rupture has been produced between the interests of the political leaders and those of the average individual. Political propaganda has been exposed and made disjointed given people’s repudiation of songs that hide what they are.
Although the Van Van continues to perform, people make a distinction after recognizing themselves in certain metaphors —such as: Chapeando con iré (Opening the way with good vibes), Se me pone la cabeza mala (Givin’ me a monstrous headache), Porque en La Habana hay que especular (Because in Havana you have to speculate)”— the band unexpectedly intones metaphoric slogans of Súmate a mi actividad, followed by other more recent creations like Ahora le toca a la juventud (Now it’s the youths’ turn) [a slogan of the Young Communist League].
People tend to suspect that the musicians are giving into pressure, yet they know by their own experience that doing anything else bears tremendous risks, and for this the musicians are forgiven.
People don’t stop dancing (who could in front of Los Van Van?), however the dancer, with a mocking gesture, expresses the defensive complicity of those who know to lie in wait. It is a look that slips in between the cracks of power. A hip movement (muévete, or “move your body”) is also a ritual of resistance and confrontation.
The State functionary is left isolated, like a castaway in popular imagery. He or she is found, behind their desk, hemmed in by the slime that comes with absolute power, but which is no longer hegemonic.
Few “join in” today behind the call of political leaders in those feigned activities, at least not with movements of their hips, such a level of prostitution is impossible.