Decoding the journey of the Afro Cuban music movement
By Zuko Komisa
It is the period between 1789 to 1820, Cuba, a dark period throughout the world. The island of Cuba which is the same size as Benin imported more than 800,000 Africans to be sold as slaves, an amount double the US transatlantic slave trade. Like many countries, free labor was used to build a Cuba, this period was not met lightly by natives in Cuba, who saw this ‘blackening’ of their nation as a stain on their identity.
There were many calls during the 1800s for the abolishment of slave trade, with natives refusing to see Afro-Cubans as part of the Cuban nation. Cosa de negros, or “something Blacks do.” was the label given to artistic and religious expression to a point that saw laws against gatherings involving percussion and dancing being passed. Slavery was only abolished in 1886, but the Afro-Cuban culture continued to be suppressed. Despite this rich history, Afro-Cubans continued to be disenfranchised politically, facing discrimination and segregation in housing, social life and the workplace.
At the forefront of this story of Afro-Cuban music was the Buena Vista Social Club, a place that had a massive influence in the Afro-Cuban music movement, a meeting place that made it seamless for the convergence of cultures. The slave trade and constant movement of African away from their land did not completely wipe out their culture, you can see traces of generational transfer of knowledge. A close examination of the Afro-Cuban families from Havana, the capital of Cuba, and one notices a cultural preservation that sees communities share the knowledge of their traditions, dances, songs and worship practices of ancient African spiritual rituals.
With African culture that inevitably infiltrated the country’s practices, there is also meeting of European Catholicism and the Yoruba and Ifá practices brought to the island by enslaved Africans. Some of the iconic Afro Cuban songs throughout history have explored various themes of poverty, revolution and social justice. In many of the cities in Cuba you will see clear evidence of symbols of African resistance and freedom, which commemorates slave uprisings on the island.
The Afro- Cuban music movement was also magnified in the post-revolutionary period of Fidel Castro who wanted to push national identity as the only identity, leading Castro to successful launch of an anti-racism campaign in 1959. This led to the improvement of the literacy rate, and saw many Black Cubans entering the workforce as doctors, lawyers, and engineers in the 1980’s. To-date even the South African government sends students to train as doctors in Cuba.
Today African influences can be found everywhere. They also maintain in everyday Cuban cuisine which is remnant of a people once divided and now united. The synergy is seen from religion to art and food, the cultural elements are part of a flourishing new identity. There is an optimism among Afro Cubans that remains inspiring while it continues to be seen in the music, a window into a people that were brought together by ‘accidents’ of the past.