The Art of Music in Cuba
By: Ilsa Rodríguez / Photos by Prensa Latina
Known worldwide for its innovative teaching methods, its achievements in sports, and its outstanding physicians, Cuba also is conspicuous for its culture and especially for its music. Cuban music reaches everywhere on the planet and is the public’s choice in places far removed from this small Caribbean nation.
This distinction dates back many years and is the result of both demanding academic preparation and the natural talent of musicians, some of whom never had access to a specialized school for lack of the necessary resources. However, by dint of perseverance this latter group reached leading positions and worldwide importance, such as was the case with singer Benny Moré and Dámaso Pérez, a.k.a. “King of Mambo”, among others.
This aptitude of many Cubans for musical performance or composition was enhanced when, in the 1960s, the revolutionary government decided to create a national system of art schools.
The idea was to establish a multidisciplinary centre that would have four disciplines: Ballet, Music, Drama and Visual Arts, and in 1965, it was completed with the teaching of Modern and Folk Dancing.
Before the establishment of these teaching centres – known by the Spanish acronym ENA (National Art School) – the most prestigious musical education centre in Cuba was the Havana Municipal Conservatory, created in 1909. It had a distinguished faculty as well as students who later became teachers.
Conservatories were also important in the training of famous Cuban musicians, such as jazz pianist and composer Jesús (Chucho) Valdés. Last February, at age 69, Chucho won his eighth Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album for his CD “Chucho’s Steps”.
Today’s Amadeo Roldán Conservatory, formerly the Municipal Conservatory, held the country’s highest professional ranking until ENA emerged in March 1962. They shared this position until 1976 when the Higher Institute of the Arts (ISA) emerged with three departments: Music, Visual Arts and Performing Arts to raise Cuban artistic education to the university level. Later, the department of Audiovisual Media Arts was incorporated.
ISA’s music faculty teaches composition, musicology, conducting (orchestra and chorale), and sound directing, as well as tres (a uniquely Cuban 3-course, 6-string guitar), lute, piano, violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, trumpet and trombone. This City of the Arts, as ISA is known for its location in a beautiful architectural facility on the outskirts of Havana, has graduated musicians of the calibre of Zenaida Castro Romeu, José Luis Cortés, Adalberto Álvarez, and many others.
Castro Romeo was the first woman to graduate in orchestra conducting in Cuba. In 1993, she founded the Camerata Romeu, a women-only string ensemble. This group has earned numerous national and international recognitions.
ENA graduate José Luis Cortés is a renowned flautist, composer, arranger and musical producer. In 1988, together with other outstanding musicians, he founded the popular Nueva Generación (N.G. or New Generation) orchestra. More than 20 years later, this group – a Cuban music classic – continues to be popular with the public. Another great who graduated from the Schools of Art, where he studied the bassoon, is Adalberto Álvarez. Known as El Caballero del Son (The Gentleman of Son – son being a Cuban music style that forms the core of salsa), he is considered the most versatile Cuban sonero (player of son) in the Latin American music ambit of the last three decades. A composer, arranger, pianist and singer, Adalberto is also known on the Island for promoting popular dance and for the recuperation of spaces for this activity.
Every year, hundreds of graduates from the Schools of Art and the National Art Institute are incorporated into new musical projects of all kinds. Some move to orchestras and others to groups that continue to uphold Cuba’s prestige in music in the world, where the country’s quality, tradition and diversity continue to be recognized.