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Cuba Libre – Highball or High Hope?

Saturday, September 25th, 2010

This week’s Free Ride takes me to Miami (I’m actually flying there today), where Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine inspires us to come on baby shake your body do the conga. . . But today’s Ride takes us several years past the Sound Machine and into Estefan’s successful solo career. The Cuban-American’s eighth studio album, Gloria! featured a song of hope for her country of origin (where I’m flying tomorrow for a month-long visit), titled Cuba Libre. The lyrics speak to her longing:

the soul of my people will be with me forever
you’re hard to forget, though we’re apart,
you live in my heart
quiero mi Cuba libre
(i want my Cuba free)
pa que la gente pueda
(so that the people can)
pa que mi gente pueda bailar
(so that the people can dance)

The Cuban expatriate sound machine in Miami cranks out a steady beat of this longing to free the country from Fidel’s grip. Gloria Estefan has reason to be a central voice in that sound machine, as her father was bodyguard to the dictator, Fulgencio Batista, before his overthrow. She, like many, has a heavy investment in a return to the pre-revolution days of Cuba as Las Vegas south.

While her song resonates with many Cuban Americans, one thing about her lyric strikes me as discordant with the reality of life there. She sings that she wishes her country could be free so that the people can dance. I’ve been to Cuba 7 or 8 times, and if I’ve learned anything about life there, it’s that the people never stopped dancing. I’ve never met a Cuban who wasn’t an expert at salsa. I remember vividly the first time (of many) that they tried to teach me the steps. First some kids got out a boom box and demonstrated how “easy” it is. No luck. Then some teenagers tried their hand (and feet) at teaching. No luck. Then some young adults, and then some middle aged folk. It was approaching midnight, and the laughter got louder and louder as we did our best, only to find our white-ness prohibiting us from fully getting the rhythm. They finally pulled out their ace, going into a back bedroom and waking up grandma. Out came an older woman, a bit overweight, wearing her bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, and she eased into the salsa as easy as taking her next breath, watched our efforts to mimic, joined in the laughter, and we called it a night.

While I have still not learned to master the salsa, I have learned this about Cuba: no amount of restrictions on political freedom has been enough to stop them from dancing. No amount of social and economic control has been enough to control the vibrancy of their spirits. I’m not romanticizing their situation. As they say over and over, no es facil. It’s not easy. Life is hard. They can rarely talk openly without fear or reprisal. They struggle to make ends meet (when we asked them how the global economic crash affected them, they smiled and said it couldn’t affect an economy that has been crashed for decades). But every group I’ve ever taken has come away with this observation and question – how is that people who are so poor relative to us can be so much richer in spirit? The richness is in their blood, like the salsa. Maybe on one of these trips, hopefully this one, I will be able to hear the Sound Machine’s lines and know exactly what they mean: I know you can’t control yourself any longer feel the rhythm of the music getting stronger. For now, I’ll share in Gloria Estefan’s oracion:

i pray that the rain will bathe you in freedom
only music and laughter
be heard on the breeze
and forever after our dance will continue
and i will at last get to see you again

As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. I’ll continue posting on the Free Ride blog whenever I get access to the www there in Cuba.



  • September 29, 2010 at 6:11 am

    Good post, Stan. Hope your trip is going well. Been listening to the first Buena Vista Social Club CD the last few days. I’d forgotten how infectious Cuban music is. Enjoy your stay there.

    Comment by Mark Bumgardner

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