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Cuban Music

Cuban music is exceptionally popular and easily recognized around the globe. The music of Cuba is comprised of numerous genres and styles and has a very long and interesting history that includes African and Spanish influences as well as American, Latin-American, and European styles of music.

One of the most famous aspects of Cuban music is its unique ability to inspire new styles of dance. Dance is the very heart and soul of Cuban music’s appeal, and “the son” is certainly the dance at the center of it all. This unique Creole style of dance finds its roots in late 1800’s Cuba along the hills on the island’s eastern side. The dance is almost equally African and Spanish in its origins and has been the basis of virtually all of the Cuban styles and rhythms of dance that have come since.

One of the most famous dances to originate from “the son” is the salsa. More formally known as Casino, Cuban Salsa blends Son Montuno and dance influences from Mambo, Danzon, Guaguanco, and many other types of folkloric dancing from Afro-Cuban styles. Dancing Casino, or dancing salsa, is a common expression of Cuban social culture, and Latin Americans revere the style as a part of both their cultural and social activities. The style became popularized on the island near the end of the 50’s as musicians such as Klimax and Los Van Van began using quicker and more upbeat musical arrangements.

When the nueva trova movement became popular in the 1960’s, it was Cuba’s young intellectuals and their unique world views who used the movement as a reflection of changing political and social ideologies, with artists like Pablo Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez turning the style into a household name.

One of the biggest events in Cuban musical culture both on the island and abroad was the creation of Buena Vista Social Club in 1997. The recording featured a veritable who’s who of Cuban musicians, featuring the likes of Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer and has sold millions of copies around the globe.

Other forms of dance and music that are famous throughout Cuba include the bolero, the chachacha, the danzon, the guaracha, and the rumba.

Cuban Literature

Recorded Cuban literature dates as far back as 1605 to a poem titled Espejo de Paciencia written by Silvestre de Balboa. The epic poem told the tale of the struggle between a French pirate and a bishop from Spain and, although it is now valued only for its history, it was quite an esteemed and prestigious work during its time.

It is in the early 19th century that Cuban literature really began to emerge as its own unique style of writing. The turning point for Cuba literature is regarded to have come with the lyrical poetic works of Jose Maria Heredia (1803-1839), with his famed Oda al Niagara and En el teocalli de Chobula being considered the start to the Spanish Romanticism style of writing.

During this time, most of the major Cuban literature produced was themed around such issues as slavery, the desegregation of the races in Creole society, and colonialism. The genre saw a few notable writers, including Cirilo Villaverde (1812-1894) and Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda (1814-1873). Villaverde’s work, Cecilia Valdes, is largely considered to be one of Cuban literature’s most important pieces.

By far, the most famous writer in Cuban literature and the one with the most influence is Jose Marti (1853-1895). Working as a journalist, essayist, political theorist, a poet, and a revolutionary philosopher, his work prominently utilized such themes as democracy, freedom, and liberty. He wrote a number of unique pieces, including children’s magazines, poems, a novel, letters, poems, and essays, with children’s books such as The Golden Age, or La Edad de Oro, being by far the most famous and widely read.

His book of poetry, Ismaelillo, was written for his son. The work is largely considered as a guide to being a parent and a father. The poems in the work describe the anguish that Marti felt during his exile, when he and his son were separated.

His book Versos Sencilios describes Marti’s strong love of Cuba and his adoration for nature, as well as his deep-seated feelings about injustice and the high importance he placed on friendship. Many of his most famous poems are found in this book due to the very personal way in which he wrote about his feelings and experiences, and such works have helped Marti gain renown as one of the Spanish American Modernismo literary movement’s biggest contributors.

By the 1920’s and 30’s, the Afrocubanismo movement helped propel Cuba and its literature in the direction of Afro-Cuban culture. The literature of this time period is definably Cuban in every respect, blending the African roots of the island’s inhabitants seamlessly with their distinctly Cuban creativity and style. Nicolas Guillen (1902-1989), Cuba’s National Poet, is certainly regarded as the most famous writer of the movement, with his book of son poetry, Motivos de Son (1930) commonly regarded as his finest work.

The technique known as lo real maravilloso used magical realism to help explore Latin American culture and history’s more fantastic qualities. Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980) is considered one of the first to use the technique, with his 1949 work The Kingdom of This World, or El Reino de Este Mundo, about the 18th century Haitian revolution showing distinct Afro-Cuban influences. Other works by Carpentier, including El Siglo de las Luces and Los Pasos Perdidos remaining some of the highest regarded Latin American literary works.

The work known as Paradisio, by Jose Lezama Lima (1910-1976) created great scandal within Cuba in the post-Revolution period. The novel explored the theme of homosexual relationships. Lima himself was largely a poet and is considered to be among the main forces behind Cuban literature’s criollismo movement during the 1940’s and 50’s.

The genre of literature known as testimonial literature actually has its roots in Cuba, where its master, Miguel Barnet (b. 1940) wrote the 1966 masterpiece Biografia de un Cimarron.

There have been many other noteworthy Cuban literary figures throughout the island’s history, including Guillermo Cabrera Infante (b. 1929), whose work Tres Tristes Tigres explored the nightlife of Havana during the dictatorship of Batista, as well as Dulce Maria Lovnaz (1902-1997) who, despite publishing only the novel Jardin, is largely considered one of the precursors of the magical realism genre.

Cuba's Painting

Cuba has been home to a number of talented and famous artists throughout its history, particularly in the time period from 1900 to 1975. Of course, as our Cuba cultural travel guides can tell you, the history of Cuban painting extends back much farther.

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, Cuban art was dominated by religious paintings and portraits. This time period saw the rise of artists such as Juan del Rio (1748-?), Vincente Escobar (1762-1834), and Jose Nicolas de la Escalera (1734-1833).

In 1818, a world renowned French painter by the name of Jean Baptiste Vermay (1786-1833) was appointed as the first director of the new Academy of Fine Arts " San Alejandro" which influenced all artistry production in Cuba until the 1920's.

During the 19th century, primary trends in academic style landscape painting were realism, commonly seen in works by artists such as Guillermo Collazo (1850-1896) and Valentin Sanz Carta (1849-1896), and romanticism such as that displayed in the works of Jose Joaquin Tejada (1867-1943) and Esteban Chartrand (1840-1883).

Two of Cuba’s most renowned painters, Armando Menocal (1863-1942) and Leopoldo Romanach (1862-1951) served the Academy of San Alejandro for half a century, contributing to emerging painting styles and mentoring new generations of painters.

In the early 20th century, Cuban artists began to embrace European modernism and the avant-garde artistic movement began to take off, as much of the art from this time period seen in Cuba’s museum tours reflects.

During this period, Cuba saw the creation of famous works such as1938’s Los Guajiros- Eduardo Abela’s (1889-1965) work idealizing the notion of both the Cuban countryside and the peasant. Works such as Gitana Tropical, created by Victor Manuel (1867-1969) showcase modernism as a theme in Cuban art, with this work being widely renowned as the beginning of the trend. This period also saw the rise to fame of artists such as Amelia Pelaez (1896-1968), Fidelio Ponce de Leon (1895-1949), Carlos Enriquez (1900-1957), and Marcelo Pogolotti (1902-1988).

The art of the 1940’s and 50’s saw Cuban artists working towards expressing their unique Cuban identities and art became much more individualistic. It was this era that saw the rise of the man who is still largely considered Cuba’s most popular and famed painter, Wifredo Lam (1902-1982).

Lam considered the famed artist Pablo Picasso among his closest friends and was introduced to the style of art known as surrealism from Andre Breton. For his own style, Lam seamlessly blended African masks, surrealism, and synthetic Cubism to create a unique but quintessentially Cuban vision.

Another famed artist of this time period is Rene Portocarrero (19112-1985), whose colorful paintings make use of imagery with a Cuban baroque theme. Mariano Rodriguez also belongs to this generation, and his early Gallos series, produced during the 1940’s showcases the influences of popular Mexican muralists of the time.

The Cuban Revolution helped promote visual arts throughout Cuba. As a result, the premiere National Arts School was established in 1962. 1976 saw the founding of the Higher Institute of Art, while 1984 saw the establishment of the famous Havana Art Biennial.

Pop art also made its way to the island in the 1960’s, with Raul Martinez (1927-1995) gaining fame for his colorful portraits of Cuban leaders and political figures like Che Guevara, and Jose Marti.

The 1970’s gave birth to the works of a few famous artists, including Manuel Mendive (b. 1944), Flavio Garciandia (b.1954), Nelson Dominguez (b. 1947), and Tomas Sanchez (b. 1948).

In the 1980’s, conceptual art started to emerge throughout Cuba, and numerous generations of Cuban artists started to come together. This led to the creation of numerous alternative groups, such as ArteCalle, Hacer, Grupo Provisiona, 4X4, Sano y Sabroso, and Pure.

Strain between the institutional system and many artists created friction near the later part of the decade, however, with many artists either permanently or temporarily making an exodus to places like the United States, Mexico, and Venezuala.

In the 1990’s, performance art became a popular means of artistic expression, with names such as Tania Bruguera (b. 1968) and Carlos Garaicoa (b. 1967) becoming a big part of the art scene.

Art from this decade highlights the unique and diverse views of Cubans regarding both The Revolution as well as the impact of the embargo enacted by the United States. Metaphors are commonly used to highlight the isolation of Cuba as well as incipient racism, shortages, and the tragedy surrounding the rafters or balseros.

This period has seen the rise of artists such as Abel Barroso (b. 1971), Alexix Leyva, or Kcho (b. 1970) and Tonel, or Antonio Eligio Fernandez (b. 1958).

Cuban Cuisine

African, Spanish, Indigenous, and many other cultures have roots and influences in Cuban cuisine. The island’s national dish, a stew made with pork, beef, or poultry as well as a variety of root vegetables, is known as ajiaco. Far from the only famed Cuban dish, other delicacies in Cuba include fried green plantains, lechon (roast pork), moros y cristianos (black beans and rice), roast chicken and tamales, picadillo a la habanera (made with ground beef and tomato sauce), and many others. Light sauces are typically used when cooking Cuban meat dishes, while bay leaves, cumin, oregano, onion, and garlic are primary spices.

Cuban Sports

Since the Revolution the Cuban government has invested heavily in the promotion of sports in the country. In 1961, just two years after the triumph of the Revolution, the National Institute of Sport, Physical Education, and Recreation (INDER) was created. This is the governing branch of all sport and recreation in Cuba. In 1991 Cuba hosted the Pan-American Games. The island placed first in those games with a total of 265 medals.

Baseball is considered to be the national sport, and the sport which most Cubans are passionate about. Even before the Spanish conquest the Taino Indians played a similar game called "batos". The sport was officially introduced to the island in the 1860s by Cubans who studied in the United States and American sailors who ported in the country. The sport quickly spread across the island nation.

The national baseball team of Cuba is easily the best in Latin America and one of the best in the world. Every province in the country has its own baseball team while Havana City has two and the municipality of the Isla de la Juventud has another. This means there are a total of 16 baseball teams in the national baseball league. The sports season begins in early autumn and culminates with national finals in May. The sporting league is similar to the basketball league in the US where the best of the Eastern conference meets the best of the Western conference in the finals which are played as the best of a series of seven games.

Boxing is the sport that Cuba has enjoyed the most success in on the international stage. From 1968 in Mexico City to Beijing 2008, Cubans have participated in nine Olympic tournaments, winning thirty-two gold medals, fifteen silver medals, and eight bronze medals for a total of fifty-five, a number unmatched by any country. Cuba is also the only country that can boast of two three-time Olympic Champions: Teofilo Stevenson (1972, 1976, and 1980) and Felix Savon (1992, 1996, and 2000).

Of the 99,000 athletes in Cuba currently, 19,000 are boxers, including 81 of Olympic competence, even though only 12 make the Olympic team.

Because all sports in Cuba are operated on an amateur basis, Cuban boxers do not participate in lucrative professional boxing bouts.

Cuba also has a great history in track and field sports. The first Olympic success in this sport by Cuba came in 1964 in Toyko when Enrique Figuerola won silver the Men’s 100 metre sprint. Cuba continued to provide top contributors to this sport in the international arena, with the likes of Alberto Juantorena Danger dominating this sport in Cuba during the 1970’s. In addition to setting two new world records, he won gold for Cuba at Montreal in 1976 in the 400m and 800m. In the 1990’s, there were three names that came to the forefront of this sport in Cuba. They are, Iván Pedroso, Ana Fidelia Quiroz and Javier Sotomayor.

Basketball, volleyball and soccer are also popular in Cuba.
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