Jazz won the fight against Castroism

My memory, which is worth millions of pesos and is subversive, remembers it with a luxury of details. There was the triumph of “the bearded ones” in the Sierra Maestra, and then everything, except for communist ideas, started to be forbidden… even jazz, but not for its musical chords, of course.

Nicolas Reinoso in Spain in 2008. Photo: Tania Díaz Castro
Nicolas Reinoso in Spain in 2008. Photo: Tania Díaz Castro

The Castro brothers saw jazz, not only as black music or the return of the music of the savages but as something much worse: a product of the Afro-American culture, of that brutal North that Castro supposedly hated so much. Cuba yes, Yankees, no… that motto we have all learned so well.

Once it was forbidden to listen to jazz in Cuba, the descendants of those who loved it since its appearance in Louisiana had to listen to it secretly, in their houses on low volume. The Castro police, without a doubt, would not have missed it if it were any louder. I do not exaggerate.

The victims of this story were some of our best musicians; true masters of improvisation, and new styles of Latin jazz: Nicolás Reinoso, Paquito de Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, just to name a few. But today, as it has been for several decades, a plethora of these talents live in exile in free countries to continue with this manifestation of so much creative power. They left because they loved jazz more than themselves, and, perhaps, more than the place where they were born. Against this, Castro said, “there is no spectacle, indeed, more heinous than that of servile talents”.

Gradually that was reversed and today, jazz can be enjoyed on Cuban soil. This year, the celebrations of the VI International Day of Jazz, declared by UNESCO in 2011, culminated at the Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso of Havana. There were, however, considerable absences of some of the most famous Cuban jazz musicians: the exiles.

In the exclusive rooms, a strange audience yawned at the cameras, their enthusiasm was scarce and the explanation, simple: the entrance to that part of the room was for VIP invitations only. The best of the crowd was somewhere else: in the stands, or better, outside the theater, by the statue of José Martí in the Central Park of Havana, where they installed giant screens for the town.

There are still people who remember Paquito, the young boy who was already a child prodigy at the age of five, pupil of his father, and who surprised those who heard him play the clarinet. Also Nicolás Reinoso, who was committed to making jazz more free and creative amidst the lack of political freedom suffered by his country, with his Afro-Cuban group in Las Cañitas at Hotel Habana Libre, or at the Johnny’s Dream Nightclub in the neighborhood of La Puntilla. Sandoval, also, with his magic trumpet, which shook the hardest of hearts with emotion.

The people who remember, the elderly, are the greatest victims of this sad history. They are the ones who suffered the most absurd political apartheid simply because of their musical vocation. They are also the ones who should have been the audience and special guests of that event of international renown. They are the ones who would have felt more than satisfied to see that jazz had won the fight against Castroism.

TaniaDiazCastroReciente

Tania Díaz Castro (*1939) is co-founder of National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba. For over two decades she was reporter for official magazines. In 1980's she spent 18 months in jail for joining Human Rights Party.