Art in Cuba

By Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 17, 2000

SANTIAGO, Cuba –– First in an occasional series

From down the street it sounds like a house party. There are lots of noisy comings and goings, there's free and easy laughter lubricated by a touch of rum, and most of all there's music, all-day music, the blend of sweet and savory known as Cuban son. People are dancing, singing with the band, drumming on their chairs, high-fiving. Nobody's in a hurry. There's no telling when the party will end.

It turns out, though, that this isn't a party at all. It's a government program.

Just off the central plaza of this historic city, Cuba's second-largest, lies the Casa de la Trova, a unique cultural institution dedicated to the preservation--and celebration--of the country's rich musical heritage.

There are similar cultural centers--each also called Casa de la Trova--in other provincial capitals. But the one here, in the city most associated with Cuba's musical and cultural roots, is special enough to be an object of musical pilgrimage. "Paul McCartney was here once," boasted Wilfredo Acosta, who drops by the Casa de la Trova most afternoons. "Oscar D'Leon was here, too."

The program is simple: Every day, from 11 in the morning until it seems time to stop, musical groups take to the tiny stage at one end of the Casa's narrow performance hall. There is room for a small audience--tourists are charged $2 admission, Cubans the equivalent of a few cents--and space is kept clear in front of the stage for people to dance when the spirit moves.

Each day, a different lineup is scheduled. A group plays for 45 minutes--it's not supposed to go longer, even if the audience is really into it--and then makes way for the next.

But that makes things sound much more formal than they really are. In fact, schedules are loose and audience participation is encouraged.

One recent afternoon, a group called Sones de Oriente was first up. After a while, a trumpeter from a group scheduled later came up to sit in on a few numbers. A woman who had spent the whole set dancing in front of the stage (partnered by a courtly and limber old man) suddenly felt the urge to sing, and so the bandleader handed her the microphone and she belted out a number, to wild applause. Meanwhile, a tourist from Holland named Jerry played congas, pulling off a hot and imaginative solo that earned respect from this toughest of audiences.

If you can't play, goes the unspoken rule, don't try it here. If you can, then show us what you can do.

The institution has two aims--to keep alive Cuba's traditional music forms, and to help them pass from the old masters to young musicians who otherwise might drift away toward genres like hip-hop and techno.

Indeed, as Sones de Oriente played, a trio of young men--one with an earring, one in dark shades, one wearing a ghetto-fabulous gold chain--sat in rapt attention, awaiting their turn onstage.

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