FIFTEEN: EAST OF HAVANA

Post a two to three paragraph review of the film East of Havana here.

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  1. The East of Havana film is a take on the artistic collective, El Cartel, and its members, Mikki, Magyori, and Soandry. It is in support of artistic expression despite state suppression. Baker’s review of the film encourages the audience to rethink the authenticity of their music given the premise that their revolutionary image granted them a degree of popularity. It is indisputable, however, that Cuban expression suffers due to state censorship. The reviewer is more interested in exposing the conflictory grey areas of revolutionary music in Cuba. Notably, the artistic collective have had radio, television, and major concert opportunities, so they are apparently not as underground as they present. The argument here is that revolutionary artistic groups are not so revolutionary at all as they still rely on the systems they appear to rebel against to the extent that they can have some degree of popularity. After viewing the film, it is my opinion that arguing whether a group is revolutionary is about as productive as arguing whether a group is authentic. Of course there is a degree of passion and originality in music just as a mode of self-expression, and yet this always interacts with the political circumstances the group emerges in. However, I appreciated the reviewer’s perspective on the film because it is important to continue to explore these distinctions at least so that the viewer recalls the many conflicts inherent to expression under state censorship.

    This reminded me somewhat of bards in the USSR, because what began as a covert social practice became more popular with time, until some were even celebrated by the state to some extent. Although bardic song is almost unquestionably an original and authentic practice, its popularization resulted in the production of some very complacent and not at all revolutionary material. Therefore, it really becomes impossible to demarcate the revolutionary and authentic from the inauthentic and entirely propagandized or commodified. Yet, exploring the question is still important.

  2. Summary of class Monday May 10th

    Monday’s class centered on issues of censorship in music. We started out by looking at Geoffrey Baker’s argument and the pros and cons of censorship in music. What is the problem with underground music? We discussed the irony of the fact that the effort to heavily censor music by the government actually made certain music more popular. These underground bands didn’t have as much exposure, but they were still supported by government institutions. We also talked about how the internet opened up a lot of doors for musicians who didn’t previously have a network to support them.

    I thought it was interesting the lack of fear present in Cuban musicians who were going against the government, especially in contrast to the Russian and Chinese examples. In several instances, the government seemed to give-in to these needs expressed by the people.

    We talked about another type of music that was censored – reggaetón. One of the most influential figures in this genre was Elvis Manuel. He was an explicitly a-political underground musician who died in 2008 on a raft trying to travel to Florida. One would think that music that is a-political would be less censored than music with a revolutionary message. However, his music was censored a lot more than others. It’s to the government’s benefit that people are involved in politics, so this music, which is just for dancing, was more suppressed.

    We returned to the idea of amateurs and professionals that has been a theme throughout this class, and especially this unit. Although the empresas were there to support artists, they just became an agency of taxation and it became more lucrative to be an amateur than a professional. This was for two main reasons: 1.) without the taxes, “amateur” musicians could put their music out on the black market and make money for it, 2.) the image of music that was “underground” or “revolutionary” actually made it more popular. To be censored by the government meant that you were real. Especially in genres such as rap, hip-hop etc, censorship was a sign of authenticity.

    During the second half of class we watched the beginning of the film “East of Havana.” The film talked about Rap Cubano in the neighborhoods east of Havana in the 90s. It also showed the poverty was present after the Soviet Union stopped giving them aid.

  3. The film also linked the poverty of the Special Period with the inception of Rap Cubano. If we agree with Baker’s main point, I think it’s interesting that the Cuban government and its position as a censor is essential to the existence of Cuban rap and hip-hop, when these genres originated from an embarrassing time when the government was scrambling to support its people. The government knowingly sustains these art forms which were born of its own failings. Compare this to Nueva Trova for instance which came straight out of the revolution and in many ways embodied that revolutionary fervor of 1959, yet was met with harsh, unhelpful censorship by the state simply because the songs were debating the same issues that were being debated in government.

  4. I found East of Havana to be an interesting analysis of making music in Cuba now that these larger artistic programs seems to have dwindled in their scope. It was also interesting that Rap and Hip Hop were being looked at, considering the ways in which the evaluations to enter state sponsored-music programs and the plantilla system were traditionally slanted in the favor of more classically trained musicians as opposed to popular (largely afro-cuban) forms. I think the film did a nice job of portraying the music that this group was making as a-political as opposed to the article on another documentary that portrayed underground musicians as inherently political in their messages. This has been an ongoing trend that we have seen in each unit, the music being made outside of state programs is usually taken by the capitalist world as being revolutionary and rebellious in nature. We have also seen again and again that this is not necessarily true. This is just one of the currents that have spread from unit to unit and I think it also comes back to the Moore introduction we read in the first week. because it is all based on the notion that there is more freedom in one system than in the other and we have had fruitful discussion as to wether or not this is even true.

  5. Baker’s article on Underground music in Cuba was interesting to read after reading the entirety of Moore. It was good to get another prospective, and Baker also contradicted some of the statements that Moore made about underground music. Baker brought up an interesting point that the censorship of certain forms of music was not actually detrimental to the bands – instead at times it aided them. This idea also makes a lot of sense, as once something is forbidden it becomes more enticing. In addition, Baker wrote about the economic implications – production of underground music is much cheaper, and the underground musicians didn’t require as much pay. Ironically, some underground musicians became even more famous than their professional counterparts. In some cases, the professional musicians opened for the amateurs. Baker wrote mostly about rap artists, and so the documentary East of Havana was interesting to watch afterwards.

  6. East of Havana was awesome, I really enjoyed the film. Personally, I was surprised by how much Spanish I remembered and could understand. Seeing the young artists practice and their ambition was really cool. Seeing this film was much better than the National Geographic doc we watched in class. East of Havana didn’t fetishize Cuba and Cuban people, which was really cool. If I wrong and it did it wasn’t immediately noticeable to me unlike the NG documentary. I really hope those artists and many other Cuban artists have a chance to make it big in and outside of Cuba. Cuba seems to be swarming with musical talent and I hope that they get more opportunities.
    This may be a stretch but because the rappers were producing their music on older machines I was reminded of “Rock on Bones” or the Ukrainian rock bands. Their DIY style of creating music was similar to the Cuban musicians in the film.

  7. I enjoyed the East of Havana film, and thought it gave a nice voice to the themes of censorship/state sanctioned/amateur discussions that have been some of the themes of this class as well as some of the discussions I believe I will take away the most from. There is something inherently seductive about the idea of underground/amateur music making, DIY in all the sense of the term. I think there is also a tendency for western audiences to be drawn to these themes, almost showing a support of anti censorship and championing the “authentic” musician. This film certainly utilized these themes in its production but I thought gave a worthwhile and truthful image into the lives of these musicians, who really weren’t all that concerned with the government sort of catching them, which turned some of these stereotypes on their heads which was nice. The film also went into some of the more poignant individual realities of the cuban state and its economic and political struggles and the real effect it had on these people as people and in turn on them as musicians. I think it can be hard to grasp these concepts in talking about “socialist music” as a large category, or just reading about them. Nevertheless, I am continuously intrigued by the socialist states sort of ambiguous hold on censorship that we have seen manifested in a different style in each of our case studies, and that is only further given an example in this film.

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