If I were a better blogger, or at least a more prolific one, I would have alerted readers in the Buffalo area to a talk yesterday afternoon at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, as part of their ambitious exhibition/film/lecture series "Art on the Hyphen: Cuban-American Artists of Western New York State". But nope, I did't write a word about it here, and now it's just a memory. (Adding to the ephemeral nature of it all, in due time, the link above will cease to take you to the exhibition site.)
So here's a quick recap: US-born, Cuban-raised bandleader Pablo Menendez spoke on the history of Cuban music in a sorta-scattered, sorta-focused, very personal presentation packed with video clips. (Sample timeline entries:
1492--Europeans arrive first time in Cuba
1966--Pablo goes to Cuba to study for a year and stays there
1978--CBS signs Irakere)
Truth be told, I'm not much of a Cuban music afficianado. Yeah, sure, I've heard the same album every gringo has, and I enjoyed the accompanying movie, but it's hardly a "musical obsession" for me in the way that other stuff I write about here is. Also, any discussion about Cuba invariably baffles me, because the speakers always, always take an inflexible stand (either: the revolution was a sham! Castro is a dictator! or: the revolution was glorious! Do not believe what the American propaganda machine tells you!), and I've always suspected the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes. (Menendez is definitely in the latter camp, no doubt about it. So much for dialectics...) But I'm very open to learning more about the culture and the sound, for sure, and I'm happy I attended the lecture.
Two moments stood out for me. One was a clip of nueva trova singer-songwriter Carlos Varela performing a song about the I Ching in front of a rapturous crowd. The song and performance didn't do much for me, but I was struck by Menendez's note that Varela is influenced by people like Billy Joel and Elton John, which provoked an audience question: "What's Cuban about this?" Menendez's response--that Cuban music is as diverse and open to influence as any other--reminded me of Arto Lindsay pointing out something very similar about contemporary Brazilian music (which encompasses hiphop, metal, Top 40 pop, and lots of other stuff beyond outsiders' image of "authentic"/native sounds). Menendez suggested that expecting all Cuban performers to go the rumba/son/mambo route would be like assuming that "American" music is best performed in overalls with a banjo. (And maybe it is, but that's another story.)
The other memorable moment for me was one I really did enjoy on its own terms: a very slick (ie, technically impressive) music video by Equis Alfonso ("Alfonso X," named for Malcolm). Easily one of the most interesting MTV-style pieces I've seen in a long time, even if it will likely never be shown on MTV.
As a sidenote, the title for this blog entry comes from an album recorded in 1973 by Menendez's mother, folksinger Barbara Dane. I hadn't heard of her till today (and I just sampled some of her songs thanks to iTunes), but that gutsy album title does help to explain how a teenager from Oakland would end up moving to Cuba in the mid-60s, doesn't it?