April 6, 2014
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Julia Cooke's The Other Side of Paradise is a keenly told and detailed portrait of modern Cuba, as told through the lives of its younger citizens.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"Cooke introduces a world that somehow makes sense in its lack of reason, as understood by American readers. An excellent taste of Cuba today, without tourist plans or political agenda."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura visited New York in February, on tour for the new translation of his latest novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs. In an interview, he was asked about his great passion for music. When he responded, in addition to discussing how music is the great passion of his entire country, he said "one of the large political issues in Cuba in recent years is that we have a president who doesn't know how to dance." Raúl Castro's left feet notwithstanding, music's importance to Cuba can't be understated. Rhythm pervades every step of every path through Havana.
A couple of the chapters of my book, which follows a handful of young Cubans through the choppy waters of post-Fidel, pre-Whatever-Comes-Next Havana, deal directly with music: I spent time with a group of young punk rockers, and profiled an up-and-coming jazz pianist. But really, music thrummed everywhere, buzzing around conversation and over my reporting. It was in scene at drag clubs, jam sessions, and intimate house parties. It hummed behind the curtain, too. The drummer who rehearsed outside on a stoop to catch a breeze; the beats that wafted through open windows; the routine gigs I went to with the family I lived with, and the friends I made over the years I spent there.
"Estremécete" — by Los Llopis: The first time I went to Cuba on a reporting trip — to report on hard rock in Havana in my early twenties — I broke my nose in a stickball game. I also learned, on that trip, how American-style rock n' roll actually entered Latin America via Cuba through Los Llopis' Elvis covers translated into Spanish, and that hard rockers of the aughts claimed their inheritance gleefully.
"All the Young Punks" — by The Clash: "All The Young Punks" was the initial title for my book. One chapter focuses on a group of teenage anarchists who cited lyrics by The Clash to tell me why they were neither working nor in school. Yet when I expressed my adoration of Joe Strummer, it was clear that they didn't know who he was. That unique combination of innocence and cynicism mixed with isolation and determination is emblematic of their generation. The Clash, and this song in particular, captures the gritty, exuberant, aimless frustration at the status quo that floats through young Havana today.
"The Tourist" — from Mala in Cuba: This song is so much like walking down the streets of Havana's tourist corridor, listening to something techno-y on headphones, overhearing Cuban trios playing local classics—but sharpened. British DJ Gilles Peterson spends a lot of time in Havana and has, with his Brownswood Recordings label, done great fusion work in Cuba, including this.
"A Mi Mama Me Lo Contó" — by Gente de Zona: The Cuban government outlawed reggaeton on the radio a few years back over its filthy lyrics, causing a minor media storm about censorship and the generational war that's being waged in Cuba between the reggaeton-loving, perreando young people and the mannered, danzón-dancing oldsters in power. This group is ragingly important in Havana — when I ran into the lead singer at a club one night, my usually-cool friends were breathless with excitement and waited in line to get pictures taken with him — and this song plays everywhere from taxis to apartments to cell phones to clubs. Everywhere but government radio.
"Cuba" — Los Aldeanos with Silvito "El Libre": Also not fans of reggaeton: underground rappers Los Aldeanos. With their explicitly political lyrics and a documentary that inspired public censorship when it was released a few years back, they say that reggaeton distracts Cubans from their problems. I love the specificity of this song, how they name-drop every emblematic experience of life in Cuba, bitter and sweet.
"Clandestino" — by Roberto Fonseca: The best part about music in Havana is that local musicians who play sold-out shows abroad do intimate regular gigs in the city, like Fonseca's Monday night Jazz Café set. Jazz Café is always meat-locker cold and cigar-smoky and the décor is right out of Miami Vice, but then, you sit in a crowd of thirty or so people at bistro tables and sip your rum a few meters from the band and none of it matters.
"Solta O Frango" — by Bonde do Role: I listened to this album endlessly when I lived for a spell in the cacophony of Centro Habana, one of Havana's most dynamic neighborhoods. It's a tight slam of architectural relics and street vendors and cars rattling through potholes and kids playing ball, which this song channels with perfection.
"Una Palabra" — by Carlos Varela: One of the first times I went out at night in Havana, when I studied there in college, I wound up at four or five a.m. in a plaza with a dozen Cubans, among whom was nueva trova singer Carlos Varela. Someone handed him a guitar and he played a few songs, impromptu, in the iron chairs of a shut-down restaurant's patio, the music bouncing off the cobblestones, all of us drunk, tired, and happy. The moment was perfect, and listening to him today is like traveling back toward it.
"Gozando en la Habana" — by Charanga Habanera: This song was on every DJ's setlist when I lived in Havana. Dance floors filled every time the intro horn line sounded at any party. The last words of the chorus emerged like a mantra, que bola shouted with arms in the air in mock confusion, even if it was hollered by people who would soon be, like the unhappy protagonist of the song, in Miami.
"Vete de Mi" — by Bebo Valdés y Diego "El Cigala:" I never saw Bebo Valdés play (he lived in Sweden) but his piano, its peaks and valleys and the melodrama of the vocals, feels like sitting in one of the smoky jazz clubs of Havana, astounded.
"Ser de Sol" — by Descemer Bueno with Israel Rojas: I have a deep soft spot for nueva trova pop star Descemer Bueno, as well as Rojas' duo Buena Fe and their (yes, cheesy; yes, wonderful) harmonies. One of the amazing things about Havana is how much free, live music is provided, especially to students, even by pop stars. When I left sociology class one afternoon in college, I saw, as I walked out to the university steps, that a stage had been set up at the bottom. Buena Fe pulled up in a van, and we watched them from the quad, Old Havana dominoing out in sepia tones behind them, everyone dancing, everyone, at least for the brief moment, happy.
Julia Cooke and The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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