Tracing the musical history of Santiago and all of eastern Cuba is like finding a treasure chest in which the traditional roots of the music still shine like gold nuggets.
Rodolfo Vaillant, head of the city’s musician’s union, says the traditional music became the source for most of the Latin music that we hear today.
“The music in Santiago has within it an element called sincopa,” he says. “This beat defines the music and is the basis of son, bolero, changui, nengon and jiriva. It’s a complete body of music that one learns in this sincopa.”
And he tries to explain the rhythm. “Pa, pa-paah, pa-papa, pa, pa.”
Vaillant says the styles—especially bolero and son--are thriving today because they “were born” in Santiago. And son, he says, “is the patrimony of the people,” by which he means the shared musical heritage.
The preservation of the bolero is a good example of the government’s role in preserving music traditions.
There’s a government-owned restaurant, Patio del Bolero, dedicated to performance of the bolero, part of a chain of three restaurants in Cuba that feature this music.
Tamara Blanco, the producer at the restaurant says all the restaurants in the chain “respond economically to the central plan.”
“There’s a business that issues contracts,” she says. “This restaurant belongs to a government business called “Palmares.” It’s charged with paying all the artists.”
She says the government also foots the bill for the yearly festivals for trova and bolero that bring tourists from all over the world.
“The traditional music has been preserved. It won’t die,” says Rosa Cabrera, who sings with the group ‘Voces Latinas.’ “It will live on because it’s rich and beautiful, and it’s spread over the entire world.”
Cabrera has been singing in the trova style for 20 years at a club in downtown Santiago.
In late July, with Carnival at a fever pitch, the traditional music is in the air day and night. Nothing seems to stop the music.
Yet the restaurants and the clubs and the shopping streets are seeing fewer tourists these days. Many of the clubs and attractions are empty. The money that came in on US cruise ships dried up quickly in April 2018 when the US government banned cruise ship visits to the island.
And some people worry about what might happen if the mighty power to the north—"Yuma,” they call the United States--succeeds in its regime change strategy in Venezuela, which is the source of the oil that supplies the power plants and fills the tanks of those old wrecks that rumble around the city.
Music may be food for the Cuban people, as one official put it, but the people still need real food.