What’s Happening with Alternative Culture in Cuba?


Rotilla Festival in 2010

HAVANA TIMES, July 31 — If one were to believe in some theory of malicious omniscience, they could easily demonstrate this by observing the development of alternative culture in Cuba.

Over and over again there emerge efforts seeking to fill an obvious void.  They appear with the force and vigor of a counterculture suffocated by the officialism of government institutions.  Yet over and over again these efforts are weakened…and they dissolve.

It’s true that this can also happen spontaneously.  All groups confront conflicts that can lead them to collapsing from within.  But if we observe carefully, we’ll see that such disintegration doesn’t always have an internal basis.

In the opinion of many people, the force that’s currently clamping down on Festival Rotilla (an alternative music event held every summer at Jibacoa Beach and that has caused the rage among Cuban youth) is the same force that demolished the Alamar Rap Festival several years ago.

Festival de Rap Cubano.

Both events were created by independent producers; both unleashed tremendous popular enthusiasm; both wound up achieving international acclaim; and both were “taken over” at their height by a government “institution” (an abstract term that opportunely avoids any direct imputation).

A similar fate was experienced by the multidisciplinary group OMNI, also from the sprawling Alamar housing project community.  During the tenth anniversary of their “Poesia sin Fin” (Poetry without End) festival, they were notified that the event was canceled.

It didn’t matter how much had be invested in terms of time, resources or activities to promote the event.  It didn’t matter how much tedium this community has suffered, relegated to disregard and indifference on the eastern periphery of the city.  It didn’t matter what the public’s opinion was or that there was a shortage of autonomous culture; and it certainly it didn’t matter that the few official events that were provided were artificial (and infrequent) machinations that failed quench the thirst for even simple entertainment.

After the onslaught 

As one gets closer to each case in investigating the history of these “dissolutions,” the causes of disintegration become more confusing.  This is especially because there comes into play a factor that’s inherent in the human condition: egotism.

Let’s take the Alamar Rap Festival for example.  When the state-sponsored Asociacion Hermanos Saiz (AHS) intervened in the event, they offered rappers the chance to become “legalized,” as well as the opportunity to travel to the United States – the “hip hop mecca.”  Grupo Uno, the original organizer of the event, up to that moment hadn’t been able to secure pay for their rappers (not even their own members of the organizing committee were paid).  Similarly, they couldn’t guarantee trips abroad nor did they have an independent recording agency, as does AHS.  Therefore it was not surprising that the rappers allied with the new administrator or that the dismemberment of the festival was quick and without apparent bloodletting.

Peña de "Los Chicharos no se ablandan"

What was sad was that at the time of the change in control over the festival, it had already attracted foreign journalists as well as the singer Harry Belafonte and the actor Danny Glover, who were impressed by the strength of Cuban hip hop.  The two artists had already come to Cuba and interviewed several rappers; there was already a group of US activists (“Black August”) who supported the event; a jam-packed Alamar Amphitheater had already roared with enthusiasm at the end of summer, and there had already begun rapping sessions every month because the annual event had not been enough to channel all the power of that art form.

Now what were the benefits of the change in control? Let’s see:

– The “Agencia Cubana de Rap” (the Cuban Rap Agency) was created, though it falls well short of meeting the demands of Cuban rappers.

– There appeared Revista Movimiento (Movement Magazine), which is almost a ghost publication for its sporadic editions; and what’s even worse, it doesn’t represent even a third of the hip hop movement in Cuba.

– The Rap Symposium arose, which doesn’t take place in the outlying Alamar projects but instead is held in the downtown Vedado district, where it carries with it a subtle and bitter trail of defeat for those of the periphery by those of the center.

– The “Puños Arriba” (Fists Up) event emerged, which was not created in Alamar and therefore made local residents feel (once again) the limitation of its being (in addition to an aborted urban initiative) the mutilation of an identity they had already established.  At the time of the debacle in other municipalities, Alamar was being called “Rap City.”

The invisible chain 

Festival de Rap Cubano.

The current strategy to derail the Rotilla phenomenon (again) provides an opportunity to apply the “divide and conquer” maxim with all effectiveness.

DJs have been offered the chance to be “professionals,” something which every performance artist dreams about, making the detonation once again seem internal.

With Rotilla, though, the reaction of the producers wasn’t a mild protest.  Matraka Productions made public a statement in which it charged the Ministry of Culture of hijacking the event.  In addition, it warned that it would pursue legal action to recover its festival, aided by laws pertaining to royalties and intellectual property.

For the majority of the Rotilla public, more eager for freedoms based merely on entertainment, maybe the change in control didn’t mean a whole lot.  If the festival stays, it will generate the same garbage that the environmentalist already complain about, but people will be able to dance, drink, and go crazy… there’s no doubt that egotism continues to be an inevitable and effective accomplice.

The lack of unity prompted an external attack that discovered fissures that we allowed do damage.  We are experts in pursuing our own individual interests, it doesn’t matter how much we uproot as long as we feel safe.

On the other hand, history is reinvented not only in altering the past but with the petulance of the next generations, which constitutes a useful system of recycling.  Old losers don’t inspire respect in us.  We think (once again) that they were ineffective, that their time has passed, that we will in fact know what to do.  This goes on until we slam into the wall that we’ve allowed to be erected in our unconsciousness, and another generation comes to rub it into us with their confidence that an alternative is possible, that it’s realizable…

How many links does this long chain have?  In the past there were projects like “Paideia,” an effort aimed at cultural autonomy.  It was designed by a group of writers and shared with the majority of the artistic and intellectual community in Havana in the 1980s.

According to the writer Reina Maria Rodriguez, “Paideia” was for the ancient Greeks the base of education that would make an individual a person apt for exercising their civic duties.  The initiative “almost” had a television program, but it was never aired and its tapes “were lost.”  What indeed was not lost was an instantaneous repercussion in the form of official and personal paranoia, as its members were accused of attempting to create a political party.

Peña de Rap Los Chícharos no se ablandan

So, as I begin to pull on the invisible chain, I wonder: how many links have been lost, buried in the dust of oblivion (forced)?  What happened to “Arte Calle” (the “Street Art” project)?  It was a kind of “alternative standard bearer,” an initiative born in Alamar but that was stripped to the bone?  The very word “alternative” is beginning to sound like something forbidden, prohibited.

The links begin to encircle us, to suffocate us.  The Gibara Festival of Low-Budget Cinema was branded “counter-revolutionary” and censored.  The event “Poetry without End” (whose organizers have yet to surrender) is carried out only in homes because the group is forbidden to present in any of the country’s institutions.

The newly born rap series “Los Chicharos no se ablandan” (Peas don’t soften), an initiative of “Este Industrial” (East Industrial) that initially arose from the Alamar Cultural Center, is now being carried out from the house of one of its coordinators.  Why? Because they censored the rapper Escuadron Patriota, the group Los Aldeanos.  Because they requested the resumes of the authors or the lyrics they would sing.  Because this is an institution that doesn’t collaborate, instead it obstructs…

Any rapper can tell you about some concert that was suddenly canceled (who cares about the time spent on rehearsals, the production expenses, the public’s desire…).  Independent producers are complaining about harassment.

Paradoxically, the East Havana Office of Culture has a poster on which it persists in affirming that part of its mission is: “To respond to the public’s demands, to satisfy the spiritual needs of this population and to educate with aesthetic tastes adjusted to our society’s current imperatives.”


3 thoughts on “What’s Happening with Alternative Culture in Cuba?

  • I think that once the ‘alternative culture’ gets big enough it’s impossible to remain the same… as the big media guys will try to swallow you. I always think of Pink Floyd, once regarded in their early years as ‘so underground that even the worms had to look down to see them’. When they finally ‘made it’ with The Dark Side of the Moon, they just couldn’t be ‘alternative’ anymore.

  • This is the way the system works. Back in the mid seventies I was part of a theater group that had certain success with a play with music that draw the attention of the people of Havana Vieja an Central Havana which was our main public. There was nothing political in that play, just songs, music, sketches and jokes dealing with daily live situacions. Lines to see the show, that was free, started forming around 6 p.m. The show run for months with full houses in a black box theater donated by the Commerce Workers Union constructed in out of use store behind the store Fin de Siglo. The “companeros” from the Cultural Minister of central Havana came to see the show and they said that because it was so good they will send the show on tours around the Havana province. They closed the space with the excused that they needed it for worker’s meetings and never send as to any tours. The group disintegrated and the effort to bring theater to the area was canceled. My opinion is that there is a state police against any public activities that are not oriented by the PCC. In other words nothing will change until that group of people are out of power.

  • VIMEO : ROTILLA DOCUMENTAL” – Cuba’s Independent Music Festival -” (english subtitles)

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