A New Documentary on Cuba’s Musical Experimentation Group
HAVANA TIMES — At the close of the 1960s, the Cuban Film Art and Industry Institute (ICAIC) headed by Alfredo Guevara was one of the few institutions that could claim a measure of autonomy in terms of cultural policy and had the financial resources at its disposal to gather restless young artists under the banner of an innovative cultural project.
One of the ideas at the time was to have young, aspiring musicians undergo intensive training in solfeggio, harmonics, composition, instrument playing and other areas, so that they would be able to channel their unbridled creativity and produce musical scores for motion pictures (and do so through a collective analysis and study of Cuban popular music).
This is how ICAIC’s Musical Experimentation Group (GES) was born. Its members – a generation of poets in a constant search for new means of expression – were people who had a lot to say. Hence Lourdes Prieto’s apt name for the documentary that tells the story of the GES, Hay un grupo que dice… (“There’s A Group of People Who Say…”), a film shown on Cuban theaters this past January.
The 80-minute film affords us an overview of the ideological, political, cultural and social circumstances that surrounded the creation of the project, where members not only studied music but also produced scores for dramatic films, documentaries and newsreels.
Some of the founding members of the group – or their close friends – tell us about the time they first met, the repercussion this had on their lives and how they came to be a part of a project in which, according to Sergio Vitier, “there was no aesthetic affinity among members; what we had was an ecumenical gathering of diverse aesthetic tastes.”
The years immediately following the revolution were intense and frantic and marked the lives of all Cubans who experienced them (for better or for worse). Events followed one another in quick succession: the literacy campaign, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the 10-million-ton sugar harvest, the coffee-planting campaign, the kidnapping of Cuban fishermen, voluntary work, the opening of new schools, the building of houses.
Singer-songwriters felt duty-bound to document the times in their lyrics. The social reality they described gave their songs a committed edge and prompted them to look for a new language with which to express themselves.
The GES also produced instrumental and experimental pieces – it was a laboratory for contemporary music where jazz, rock, feeling, percussion, folk music, Hindu or Brazilian music were studied, at a time when Cuba’s cultural break with the world began to be felt more intensely and anyone could be accused of ideological diversionism for listening to foreign music.
The GES, made up of innovative and revolutionary young artists, of course met with difficulties when it set out to divulge its work. ICAIC and Casa de las Americas served as refuge for several such artists and helped prevent their works from being swept away in the tide of socialist realism or the cultural policy of those years.
The opposite, however, took place at the Cuban Television and Radio Institute (ICRT). Some of the members of the group were not allowed to go on television or the radio. Documentary filmmaker Santiago Alvarez made a number of videos shown in movie theatres. That way, in the words of Silvio Rodriguez, the group would manage “to break through the blockade.” The GES also staged concerts at junior and senior high schools and universities, in an attempt to come into closer contact with the young people who loved their music and directly involved in the social changes and transformations then taking place across the island.
When restless people join forces, one can expect the result to be something explosive – and so it was. Six months after its creation, the ICRT had no choice but to lift its prohibitions and begin to broadcast the group’s work over the radio.
The group didn’t have an easy time producing their music, for there were shortages of every kind at the time. Luckily, need is often the mother of invention. In the documentary, we find out that Eduardo Ramos played a bass lent to him, whose strings were telephone wires of varying thickness. The drums used by the group were a veritable collage: a school drum to which they had added an old cymbal and bass drum. Even keys in a key-ring were turned into a percussion instrument.
Another interesting detail is that several of the warm GES recordings we know so well were made using an old radio console which the group expanded to accommodate nine channels, at a time when the Beattles were recording their songs in multi-track consoles.
Though the group wasn’t directly targeted by the “standardization” measures that took root in most cultural centers around the country in the 1970s, some of its members ran against such policies individually, before joining the group.
Though much of the documentary is devoted to this issue – and the people interviewed were once rebellious individuals who told things as they are – I was left waiting for a serious exploration as to the causes and the people responsible for that destructive shock wave that caused so much damage and suffering in Cuba at the time.
Party cadres would dictate the course culture was to take, expressed their opinion about what poetry or theatre should be like, who should be allowed to work at the ICRT, what music could played on the radio and what not, which artists could exhibit their work and which couldn’t.
But, what led to the emergence and the reproduction of that cultural policy? Who gave those cadres their authority? How and why did intellectuals – and people in general – allow the times to become the most difficult and dismal for Cuban culture? No questions of the sort are answered.
An agreeable feeling accompanies the film: the sounds of sweet-timbred instruments, of clarinets, flutes and acoustic guitars are combined with images of the tender, hard-working and intelligent dreamers, caught up in the task of building a better country – or, at least, giving it a sincere try.
Unfortunately, Hay un grupo que dice… has not had much impact on audiences. The movie theatres were almost empty during screenings. The fact of the matter is that people associate the voices of the GES with the tired ditties of the revolution. The documentary, however, affords us an opportunity to see human beings grow up in pace with their times.
After leaving the theater, I felt the need to know how and at what moment the transition occurred, when those kind, talented, spontaneous, creative people who sought to bring about changes became the stiff singers who repeat the same, tired patriotic pieces again and again. What would have become of each of the members of the GES had they not made up the group, if, during the years of political witch-hunts, they hadn’t felt that their duty was to sing for the homeland?