Cuban rhythms

Cuban rhythms
From Cuba to Congo  and back again

In one week in July this year, two of the greatest personalities of world music died. Both were Cuban and both were heroes of their people, even as they represented two wholly disparate strands of Cuban society.

The first to die was Compay Segundo, aged 95. In a music industry dominated by teen bands and the quest for the next young starlet, Compay Segundo was a refreshing anomaly. A musician all his life, he did not become famous until in his nineties as the spiritual leader and charismatic soul of the worldwide phenomenon, the Buena Vista Social Club. When he was interviewed recently, he said: ‘The flowers of life come to everyone. One has to be ready not to miss them. Mine arrived after I was 90.’

As leader of the veteran musicians he became a cult figure, even starring in an acclaimed documentary about the group. It was the reward for a man who had known no other life than making music, even inventing his own guitar—the seven-stringed ‘armonica’—because he found normal guitars too restricting for the mellifluous Cuban son rhythms and melodies that filled his head. He also wrote the song ‘Chan Chan’, which became Buena Vista Social Club’s unofficial anthem. This grandson of a freed slave lived a life of excess and was loved all the more for his abilities as a raconteur, for his role as a ‘great connoisseur of female energy’, and for his panama hats always tilted at a rakish angle.

For Compay Segundo music and the good life it engendered were everything and when he spoke about politics it was with his customary wit. Ry Cooder, who helped spark the Buena Vista success story, asked him about politics in the late 1990s. His reply was simple. ‘Politics? This new guy is good. The 1930s were rough. That’s when we had the really bad times.’

Within days of Compay Segundo’s death, Cuban music suffered another loss. Celia Cruz was less known than Compay Segundo outside the Spanish-speaking world, but was nonetheless the undisputed queen of salsa, more responsible than anyone for the genre’s popularity—a Latin-American Aretha Franklin or Ella Fitzgerald.

Unlike Compay Segundo, Celia Cruz didn’t like the ‘new guy’, Fidel Castro, and fled Cuba in 1959. She never returned to her homeland. Instead she forged a career playing the memories of the large Cuban exile population, who were drawn to her in part for her strong anti-Castro stance.

Her popularity also derived from an astonishing repertoire which filled more than 70 albums and won countless awards. Alongside her extraordinary voice, she will be remembered for her flamboyance, her wigs and costumes and her trademark cry of ‘azucar!’ (sugar).

The success of these two old masters is remarkable only for the fact that it took so long. The English-speaking world was, in this respect, light years behind everyone else in discovering Cuban music and its pioneers. In Africa, Cuban songs carried back to the continent by returned slaves fused with the rhythms that their ancestors had taken on the reverse journey.

If there is one enduring external influence on the rich world of African music, it is the music of Cuba. From big Congolese sounds and the rumba guitar of the Congolese legend Franco to the salsa strains of Africando or Orchestre Baobab from Senegal, the legacy of musicians like Compay Segundo and Celia Cruz goes well beyond the better known products of their later years. There is now a rich discography of collaborations between Congolese and Cuban musicians whose names—Papa Noel, Papi Oviedo, Adan Pedroso—are legend yet largely unknown to a wider audience. The world has been listening to them since long before their music reached the West.

When I was in a bar in Cameroon in 2000, they played Buena Vista’s ‘Chan Chan’ and everyone rose as one to dance. Compay Segundo would have liked that.

It is impossible to fill the hole left by these two masters whose music spanned generations and continents. It is fortunate that they have left behind a collection of albums to match the breadth of their legacy.

Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent.

Children at war
conflict in Liberia

Liberia’s armed conflict between government forces and two rebel groups—Liberians United for Reconciliation & Democracy (LURD) and the splinter Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL)—has had a profound and lasting impact on the country’s population. Liberia’s previous war from 1989 to 1996 and Sierra Leone’s 1991–1999 war had a particular impact on children. Boys as young as seven were engaged as combatants and girls aged from ten were abducted or recruited by armed forces as sex and/or domestic slaves. The current war will continue to affect generations of Liberians.

This latest conflict began in 1999 when the LURD rebel group surfaced in Liberia’s north-east. It is made up of opponents of Charles Taylor’s successful 1989–1996 rebel campaign against Liberia’s
United States-backed Samuel Doe government and was largely financed from sources in Guinea and Sierra Leone.

Earlier this year MODEL appeared in the country’s south-east, backed by Côte d’Ivoire’s government as a means of forcing Taylor to re-deploy Liberian mercenaries engaged as rebels in Côte d’Ivoire’s own civil war.

Liberians anxiously await decisions over peacekeeping troop commitments from countries within the region and from the US. Meanwhile, conditions are getting worse. Recent rebel advances into the capital, Monrovia, followed the looting of internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps close to the city. This has forced hundreds of thousands of people into a city without water and sanitation—a
legacy of the 1989–1996 civil war.

I was last in Monrovia in July. Because of past and anticipated looting by armed forces from all sides, the UN’s World Food Program and non-government agencies had been unable to distribute food rations and non-food subsistence items for over a month. Soon after, however, they were able to take advantage of short lapses in the fighting to feed many of the city’s newly arrived IDPs.

Monrovia’s health services, provided almost exclusively by non-government agencies, are confronting a complex humanitarian emergency. An increasing number of cholera cases have been reported, and it is difficult to respond to these without safe access to the affected areas. Should these cases lead to large-scale outbreaks, humanitarian agencies will have little chance of providing assistance.

While reports have focused almost exclusively on Monrovia, widespread malnutrition is now likely to have enveloped the rest of Liberia. Tens of thousands of Liberians are trapped by the conflict in remote bush areas during what is now an extended hungry season, usually four months but now likely to be eight.

During the last six months the conflict has meant that farmers have been unable to plant and harvest crops and save excess harvest as seed for the following planting season.

In Liberia’s more remote areas, malnutrition is likely to be higher than in Monrovia due to poor harvests, poor mobility and the fact that humanitarian aid agencies cannot get to them. In the remote areas that aid agencies have been able to access before the conflict recently intensified, they witnessed very high malnutrition rates. During the last two months this situation will have worsened considerably.

Lastly, the political and military reality remains that Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone and Guinea have excess numbers of arms and an abundance of combatants eager to use them.

Many of these combatants have been immersed from childhood in a culture of violence. In Sierra Leone, southern Guinea, western Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia, a generation of boys and girls has grown up without the usual developmental experiences—play, education, livelihood security and the benefits of a caring

Instead, sudden displacement, family separation, recruitment and abduction into armed forces, sexual violence, exploitation and abuse and pressure to engage in transactional sex to sustain themselves have become the norm for the region’s children. A generation of boys has grown up understanding that the only way to deal with conflict is through violence. There will be repercussions for generations to come. 

Julian Smith has worked with Save the Children Fund (UK) as its Programme Director in Liberia and Côte D’Ivoire.

Keep on walking
Sr Helen Prejean

American nun Sr Helen Prejean, the author of Dead Man Walking, has witnessed the execution of several men on death row in Louisiana and is no stranger to human misery. But in Australia this week she was ‘bowled away’ when she learned of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and its indigenous people.

‘It is unspeakable,’ she said. So unspeakable that she has already begun ‘hatching’ a plan to return to Australia in September 2004 to do what she can to support asylum seekers in detention.

Sr Helen, a member of the Sisters of St Joseph of Medaille, has been lobbying against poverty and injustice since she first moved to St Thomas, a New Orleans housing project of poor black residents, in 1981. It was then she discovered that most people on death row were poor and was asked to write to death row inmate Patrick Sonnier. She became his spiritual adviser and walked with him to his execution. She has since supported several other condemned prisoners and the families of their victims.

Art, she believes, has an important role to play in bringing about change. Sr Helen’s book has inspired an opera as well as a movie. The State Opera of South Australia will perform Dead Man Walking in August—its first performance outside the United States, where it was a great success.

‘My job is to awaken people. Someone woke me up and we have to wake up the middle classes and the privileged. You have to work both sides of the bridge,’ she said. While careful not to criticise the Catholic clergy, she said leadership on social justice issues usually comes from the people, not the clergy or the Catholic Church hierarchy.

‘Church is the people. And leadership is where the gospel meets the poor. Leadership is where the poor are being ministered to and that is usually bottom up. I mean that is where Jesus came from.’ ?

Rosie Hoban is a freelance journalist.



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