My Cuban Radio Dial

Yasmin S. Portales Machado

radio relojHAVANA TIMES — To play the album Dial, by Cuban band Buena Fe, I chose my second cell phone, because that particular model could also be used as a radio.

Standing before the store window, the clerk had explained to me the technical characteristics of the three models that would work in Cuba (though, in fact, he wasn’t entirely sure they would). I discarded the touch-screen phone as an option because of budgetary reasons, and I was wondering whether I would have to flip a coin to decide between one of the two remaining ones when I heard the word “radio.” I asked him to repeat that particular detail, I was afraid I hadn’t fully understood his mix of Portuguese and Spanish. It was no misunderstanding: the word “radio” meant the same thing to both of us, the transmission of sounds across the air.

The year was 2011, my cell phone was the booty I had taken away from my trip to Europe, but CUBACEL prices forced me to postpone opening an account and getting a line. So I started listening to the radio again. It’s not that I had stopped listening to the radio altogether at the time, for, who in Cuba does not listen to Radio Reloj from time to time?

As for me, I don’t really have a choice: my mother-in-law starts the day with Radio Reloj, “the radio station in step with time,” which is what practically everyone in Cuba turns to when they need to know the time, to mark the rhythm of the day with the constant beep beep of minutes and news. Personally I find it very annoying.

The beeps aren’t what bother me. It’s the news that they read throughout the day. I can’t handle the Cuban press so early in the morning. My husband insists on hearing these. He says he wants to know the time and that Radio Reloj is the only station that addresses issues that interest him a bit. Of course, that’s only until he hears the arguments behind the news. Then, he gets mad. I don’t understand him, honestly. I mean, is anyone actually surprised by the propagandistic nature of Cuban news this late in the game?

After breakfast, everyone goes their separate way. I turn off the radio (and unbearable beep-beep) in the kitchen, put on the headphones attached to my cell and start listening to the music I like. I listen to three stations: Radio Ciudad de la Habana, Radio Enciclopedia and Radio Metropolitana.

The cycle beings with Radio Ciudad, the “capital’s station for young people.”

Café Ciudad, a music and science program, begins at eight. The news addresses anything from new discoveries about the extinction of the dinosaurs to the development of new variants of Eberprot in Cuba, through computerized prosthetic eyes or research into genetic therapy. The program is peppered with self-promotional materials that allude to coffee production and consumption patterns around the world. One announcement, for instance, claims the following: “more than twenty million people around the world work in the coffee industry. Of these, ten percent listen to Café Ciudad.” How conceited! To close the program, they stage a mini-concert (they say farewell and play three or four songs, uninterruptedly.

Café Ciudad is followed by the renowned Disco Ciudad, a 58-minute program hosted by Juan Camacho, who brings us the best of rock and roll. Generally, the most recent music of the genre is played in the program, but, every week, they devote one program to oldies from the 20th century. Camacho skillfully includes Cuban pieces, recorded at established labels or in one of the independent studios that are taking the country’s music scene by force. Though I am not interested in the genre enough to attend live concerts, the information on performances by rock and jazz bands at the (few) spaces that offer this kind of music keep me in touch with Havana’s music “panorama.”

I enjoy Disco Ciudad particularly because it teaches me about the sensitivities and the inroads of part of universal culture I was denied access to while growing up. My childhood coincided with the time in which all music in English and everything that seemed “ideologically” suspicious was prohibited. Thus, Camacho’s explanations about the internal workings of the rock and music industry are for me indispensable to understand that ineluctable component of modern culture. Disco Ciudad allows me to make sense of a lot of contemporary myths – both Cuban and international – that refer us to American film and TV culture and to Anglo-Saxon rock and pop. To ignore that cultural legacy would make me somewhat uneducated. Such ignorance is more dangerous than not knowing about the misfortunes of Madame Bovary, for it distances me from my contemporaries.

At ten in the morning, I switch to Radio Enciclopedia, a Cuban radio station that airs only instrumental music. They claim to be a “radio station for all of life’s moments”, and I think they’re right, for there’s no way to tell one moment of the day from another just by listening to these people. At all hours, their “decaffeinated” versions of pop music and the soft voices of the hosts – only women – relax listeners and surround the public with walls of musical cotton candy. There’s no better station one can listen to while standing in line somewhere.

I can’t take this station for very long, though. At eleven in the morning, I switch back to Radio Ciudad, to tune in to the music program with the widest audience in Cuba: Disco Fiesta 98. “On your feet, on your feet,” the host harangues and the rhythm takes hold of my body. The program only airs dance music, mostly Caribbean genres (from son to ballenato), pop, fusion and some higher quality reggaeton. From time to time, an artist goes on the air to promote a newly released song or, better, a full album that will be available at CD stands in less than a week. The hosts also send out greeting to those who tune in through their phones or via text messages.

At around noon, Disco Fiesta 98 informs listeners about upcoming performances (not limiting themselves to Havana or dance music). They boast of having the “the most comprehensive musical listing on Cuban radio.” They report on anything from tours of Cuba’s symphonic orchestra to the program at Havana’s Yellow Submarine club (the mecca of Havana rock), through concerts at squares and theaters around Cuba.

At one in the afternoon, I switch back to Radio Enciclopedia, one of the few stations – in addition to Radio Reloj – free from the propagandistic torture of the National Radio News. I stay tuned until three or four in the afternoon.

At four, the program A proposito begins to air in Radio Metropolitana. Their musical selection includes novel songs from Alamar’s hip hop movement – with unflinching indictments of racism in Cuba – or by cult artists and Caribbean and American reggae singers that deal with surprisingly familiar issues. It’s two hours of African-Caribbean music, performed by artists of all colors, intertwined with thoughts about the legacy of this culture in Cuban history.

Suddenly, Cuba’s history is filled with anarchist trade union leaders, women who go on strike, black intellectuals, Masonic and Catholic conspirators. A proposito’s specialty is rescuing those bits of history that reveal the complexity of our culture, today so male-dominated, Marxist, and whitened by the official discourse.

Near the end of the day, if I run out to get some bread or buy something at the ration store, I listen to fragments of Rapsodia Latina, a music program aired by Radio Ciudad that plays Caribbean music (from 5:30 to 6:30 pm). Later comes Sala Master, half an hour of rock brought to us by Radio Metropolitana, for those who didn’t get their fill with Camacho in the morning.

And that’s it for the radio, because I then have to bathe the kid, have supper with the family, read the kid a bedtime story and do a series of other things that do not mix well with headphones and isolation.

I am something of a prodigal child when it comes to the radio. My relationship with the radio dates back nearly a quarter of a century (I feel old just typing those words). I was a teenager in the 1990s, when the economic crisis in Cuba prompted many to tune in to the radio again at home. Since power cuts made watching TV almost impossible, the radio, operated with carefully stored alkaline batteries, or by connecting the device to a car or motorcycle battery, became the most reliable option.

At some point back then, the Brazilian soap opera Vale Todo arrived in Cuba. Cuban audiences went wild over the convoluted script (they say that it was the first time since La esclava Isaura, another popular soap, that men began to watch soaps), the excellent performances and the discontinuity forced on people by the power cuts (which heightened people’s excitement over the dramatic surprises).

In response to this last circumstance, something no one at the offices of O Globo (the soap’s production company) probably ever imagined, Radio Rebelde aired summaries of each chapter in the morning, so that we would not get home without knowing about the antagonist’s latest evil deed or the umpteenth life-defying challenge overcome by the main character.

Radio days devoid of innocence or electricity. Radio days that today return to me…through a cell phone.

2 thoughts on “My Cuban Radio Dial

  • Thanks for the review of your listening habits! I listen to some of these stations (Reloj, Radio Musical Nacional, Radio Enciclopedia, Radio Taino, Radio Progreso, Radio Rebelde, etc.), but others don’t seem to be available on-line, and I must wait ’til my next visit.
    I agree on your assessment of Radio Enciclopedia. My idea of hell would be to have to listen to it 24/7 (sort of like Sartre’s “No Exit”!) Only worse would be to have to listen to “New Age” or “Space Music”! Actually, I enjoy the reassuring tick-tock, tick-tock, and dat-dat-dat of Radio Reloj, which I find more relaxing than Enciclopedia’s mellow music; besides, Radio Reloj seems to employ a lot of senior citizens, like myself, and I find that by listening to them I can actually improve my Spanish. At least to my taste, I find the best music for relaxation is “La Esquina de Jazz,” and much of the classical programing, on Radio Musical Nacional. That station even has a program in which listeners call in with psychological problems, and the locotores then play classical pieces which they think will calm, or benefit, them!

  • Wouldn’t it be nice if it was possible to access international radio stations. But by doing so, Cubans would know the truth – and in a socialist society the truth is unacceptable. The Castro regime is about power and control over the people. Freedom of access to information would endanger Socialismo!
    Viva Fidel !
    Viva Raul !
    Viva los Castros !
    Que controla toda y todos !

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