Issue 235 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Arts Review

Cultural currents

Why Fidel learnt to salsa

Ibrahim Ferrer and Pio Leyva perform in Buena Vista Social Club In the first of a new column Mike Gonzalez asks what makes Cuban culture so fashionable

The most popular social event at this year's Labour Party conference was the Cuba Solidarity Campaign's Salsa Night. Presumably it was the only occasion when delegates were allowed to move to the left. Salsa classes are booming among the middle classes--Cuba has become the rhythm of the month. Clive James spent an hour looking for ice cream in Havana in a recent television documentary, and Cuban tourism is booming.

The new Cubamania has its symbolic figures--a group of elderly Cuban musicians who have suddenly been rediscovered after years of neglect in Cuba itself. The Buena Vista Social Club, produced by Ry Cooder in Havana, was one Of 1997's most successful albums. The same group--Ruben Gonzalez, Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo and the rest--have reshuffled themselves into the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Nueva Trova Santaguera, among others. At nearly 72, Ferrer has his own fast selling album, and Ruben Gonzalez, well over 80 has fingers that can play like George Shearing or Art Tatum. Two new films on the circuit follow the Buena Vista and Nueva Trova groups on their recent tours. In fact the 'grandfathers of salsa', as people call them, seem to be on almost permanent tour--they're all appearing in Britain over the next month.

For Fidel Castro and the Cuban regime this is a godsend. His government has staked everything on tourism, the major source of foreign currency. The advantage of this new enthusiasm for salsa dancing is that for the most part the dance lovers know very little about Cuban realities. The Sunday supplements are full of pictures of the beautiful centre of Old Havana. There are no photos of the streets a few blocks away that are falling apart. Clive James's audience loves all that business about old Cadillacs held together with string, and 1950s hotels where George Raft and Frank Sinatra met the Mafia at cocktail hour. They don't know or care very much about the US government's 40 year siege of the island, still less about the fact that Castro runs a repressive state there that speaks of socialism with a forked tongue.

And here's the irony. Nothing so clearly illustrates the contradictions of Cuba's history since 1959 as the history of its music. In the 1950s Havana was a haven for US tourists looking for cheap sex and gambling. The music they listened to in New York was often played by Cuban musicians. Oscar Hijuelos told their story in his fine novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Tito Puente, Desi Arnaz and Machito played with Dizzy Gillespie and produced Latin jazz, a wonderfully creative meeting of Afro-Cuban rhythm and bebop. Ruben Gonzalez learned his piano playing trade in these times. Cuba even invented its own kind of cool jazz--they called it 'feeling'.

After the revolution of 1959 the Castro government began to impose its own kind of cultural expression. The old 1950s jazz and swing were frowned on--and the musicians, like Ruben Gonzalez and most of the Buena Vista Social Club, were given menial jobs. Some musicians left for the US. Ruben stayed, and didn't play piano again until Ry Cooder turned up unannounced in Havana in 1996.

In New York, meanwhile, a new kind of music was born--a mix of Latin rhythms, brought together by the Fania record company, called salsa. Many of its first and best exponents were Cuban exiles, but it grew and developed outside Cuba--any kind of contact between Cuba and the US was forbidden, even the flow of musicians which had nurtured North America's jazz scene for 30 years.

In 1999 everybody's Cuban. But it isn't based on solidarity--it's just another fashion, and it brings the mass of Cubans very little. A few thousand people earn dollars by driving taxis or selling their bodies with tacit government approval. A few old houses in Havana are rebuilt with foreign money, and plush buses drive tourists to Varadero beach, where they can salsa all night. But ordinary Cubans still wait for hours for the occasional slow, noisy bus or queue all day for an ice cream they could buy instantly if they had dollars. A lot of government officials have opened (illegal) restaurants and guest houses, while along the highways giant government posters bearing the face of Che Guevara urge people to greater sacrifice in the name of the revolution.

The passing visitors are impressed--but ordinary Cubans know better. The Cuba you'll find at the Buena Vista Social Club is all elderly dancers and salsa bands, mojitos (rum with lemon and mint) and Ernest Hemingway. No one's likely to contradict it, since it's too dangerous to speak in Castro's Cuba. But dancing is allowed (except when it's headbanging to heavy metal, which was stamped on in the 1980s). It's strangely reminiscent of the US controlled Cuba of the 1950s that the revolution was supposed to have destroyed. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the young musicians who played in the bar of the Plaza Hotel have now been recalled, in their last years, to play for another foreign audience, oblivious to the sadness behind the music, but crazy for Latin rhythm.

This wave of enthusiasm has nothing to do with anti-imperialism--it's all 1950s retro and light exercise. Which is why, I imagine, it was so enthusiastically received at Tony's jamboree.


Theatre

A GENERATION LOST AND FOUND

Some Explicit Polaroids
by Mark Ravenhill
New Ambassadors Theatre, London

Pole of attraction

Vivid, darkly witty and confrontational, Mark Ravenhill's latest play exposes the futility at the heart of the clubbing generation, in an attempt to capture meaning in an epoch apparently devoid of class antagonism.
With a thudding soundtrack and an innovative use of image, film and sound, the play speaks directly to a media savvy and style conscious audience. The rolling backdrop provides stunning visual stimuli and a fast paced and effective solution to providing settings and scene changes. Three of the six characters are adorned with bright, beautiful and positively gay costumes, adding to the iconic nature of their parts. And who are these bright young things?
Two generations intermingle throughout the fast moving and explicit play: the younger are drug fuelled, fun loving narcissists, bent on a hedonistic trail of clubbing and fucking. They refuse to take life too seriously, thriving on trash culture, surviving on shallow relationships and pseudo new age self determinism until things fall apart.
Nadia, a young woman in a violent and self destructive relationship, is determined to inject happiness into her situation, a fatalism shared by her flatmate. He is a young Scot--this in itself an allusion to the fashionable nature of the Scottish accent since the film Trainspotting. Indeed, Tim is the character Irvine Welsh was not quick enough to create: gay, bleached hair, HIV positive and, until he commits a very modern suicide, determined to have fun.
He answers an internet ad and 'downloads' a Russian male prostitute, Victor. On meeting, both are determined to keep the relationship as devoid of meaning as possible--a trash love affair for a trash generation. The three together attempt to ride the wave of ecstasy. They are happy because they say they are happy.
The older generation, on the other hand, have lost the zeal of youth.
The narrative starts when a working class socialist, Nick, enters centre stage. Convicted in 1984 (a reference to both Orwell's novel and the miners' strike) for the attempted murder of Jonathan, the capitalist personified, he flounders in a world of phonecards and technical innovation.
More, he is bewildered by the lack of class struggle, of any debate about arms sales, Third World debt and exploitation. His former lover Helen, who had inspired his violent act with 'eat the rich' propaganda, has succumbed to the reformist method of tinkering with bus timetables and aspires to becoming a Labour MP. She has abandoned her principles, she admits, giving in to personal ambition.
To succeed, however, she must force the reconciliation between those old foes, the capitalist and the worker. Scarred in previous battles, the well heeled Jonathan nonetheless rises triumphant, bold, arrogant and yet confessing to missing the old fight. Nick may be tired and lost, but nonetheless retains a flicker of hatred in his eyes.
Some Explicit Polaroids is an exacting snapshot of modern Britain: it focuses on the exquisite pain suffered by the 1980s generation, choreographing a journey of discovery in which they finally abandon escapism. Dark humour and pessimism still persist in this play. Nonetheless, the depoliticisation of modern culture is roundly condemned, exposing postmodernism as a futile and inadequate response to the task of understanding contemporary society--this is the play's message.
What is evident is the disillusionment with shopping and fucking, with clubbing and more clubbing, the void felt by younger people and the increasing pressure we face. From personal friendship comes the necessity for meaning, from which springs vitriolic anger at the silent violence of capital.
Indeed, when the powerless and abused Nadia and the moneyed Jonathan meet, when the generations collide, the only answer to the deathly feeling of modern life that he can offer her is the mesmerising chaos of money racing across the globe, the free market (cue laughter from the audience). Juxtaposed to this, Nick's call for the big ideas, the grand narratives, of equality, of fighting back, are infinitely superior (and more warmly received).
Some Explicit Polaroids does not attempt to answer the big questions: what is refreshing is that it dares to ask them. In the words of Max Stafford-Clark, the director, it is 'a political play; it looks at the values people had 20 years ago and the absence of them now, and asks whether this is a loss or an improvement.'
It is very funny, visually powerful and can sustain scrutiny, not least because it succeeds in capturing the present despondency of an increasingly angry and desperate generation. And it proves that in the search for meaning, the 'old' ideas, namely socialism, are taking centre stage once more.
Bryan Masters


MALE ORDER

Unprotected Sex
by Patrick Jones
Sherman Theatre, Cardiff

Unprotected Sex is an emotional and hard hitting play which deals with the effects of the socialisation of young men into 'traditional' male roles.
The title refers to men, men who are expected to behave in a certain manner but have no protection from the consequences of this behaviour. The play features two 'valley boys' who both grow up to become severely emotionally scarred, but do so by reacting to what is expected from them to 'be a man' in different ways.
One, Gary, accepts all the male stereotyping and sets out to perfect it, by being the 'hardest at school', by bullying, and by eventually joining the army. The other, Denver, rejects it, gets bullied at school, and retreats to his bedroom where he collects newspaper clippings of wars and violence, and later considers suicide.
By the time their paths cross again, Gary has become a wreck, brutalised by the experience of war, particularly from the memory of the dead children he encountered. He deserts from the army to be with his pregnant wife. But he cannot break from his understanding of what a man should be, so he refuses to admit to anyone that he has walked out on the army and continues to 'act a soldier' in everyday life by wearing combat gear and building up his muscles.
This drive to 'be a man' and to be 'powerful' first leads him to brutalise his wife and then induces psychotic episodes which, of course, he won't face up to.
The third character in the play is Triste, Gary's wife. She too is confused about what is expected from her, from men and from relationships, but is beginning to question assumed roles--something Gary dislikes. However, Triste also has a secret. This secret is revealed in an emotionally charged final scene, where all the characters and the audience are forced to think about their concepts of masculinity and the consequences of those views.
In my opinion, Patrick's conclusion is rather weak, in that it suggests that men should counter the pressure of male stereotyping by looking towards a 'feminine' model 'Sing to me mothermale, sing to me across the swollen wounds of our lives, sing to me.' Nevertheless, the real success of the play lies in the fact that it raises the right questions and will touch the nerves of all those who have witnessed similar behaviour or, indeed, have behaved or do behave in similar macho ways.
Once again the audience was mainly young people, this time brought in as much by Patrick's reputation as through the Manic Street Preachers connection, and once again the play was enthusiastically received. The response to this and Patrick's previous play Everything Must Go clearly demonstrates that beyond the world of docusoaps and mainstream politics there is a new generation questioning all aspects of life and looking for answers.
Martin Chapman


THANKS FOR THE MEMORY

Remember This
by Stephen Poliakoff
Royal National Theatre, London

Rick sees the past disappearing before his eyes

We record everything but remember nothing, says one of the characters in Remember This. Those who saw Poliakoff's television series Shooting the Past, about the threatened closure of a historical photo library, will recognise some of the same issues. There is the concern to keep up with and understand technological change but also to use technology for the benefit of humanity; the urge to maintain a memory of our history rather than see it erased by 'progress'; a dislike of the impersonal workings of the market.
The play's main character is Rick a failed inventor and entrepreneur who claims the dubious honour of being the first person to have taken wedding videos. But when he looks back at his collection he finds the past is disappearing as the videos wipe out images, replacing them with fuzzy white lines. Rick's discovery doesn't only apply to his personal collection; when he visits a Swiss video archive he sees that modern historical footage is being destroyed as well. We see Thatcher leaving Downing Street and being swallowed in a white haze. The same happens to those tearing down the Berlin Wall.
The major weakness of this play is its plot, which doesn't quite hang together. Rick hopes to make money from this discovery, but it is not clear why anyone should pay him for the information. The personal plot is also weak. He is attracted to his fiancee's sister, Hannah--who is the embodiment of managerialism and the market--but in the end marries Victoria, who is apparently a dizzy blonde, knowing nothing, although she in fact understands a great deal. The implication of the play's ending is that it is better to know nothing--a very different conclusion from Shooting the Past.
However, it is also an interesting and thought provoking play. There are swipes at the market and private medicine. And the attempt to understand the role technological change plays in our lives sets it apart from many modern plays which just deal in superficial relationships. Unfortunately, the sum of the parts is less a dramatic and compelling theatrical experience, more a fruitful and diverse discussion which comes to no obvious conclusion.
Lindsey German


Film

LIFE AT THE CROSSROADS

Ratcatcher
Dir: Lynne Ramsay

Ratcatcher

Lynne Ramsay's debut feature, Ratcatcher, belongs to Scottish cinema's finest tradition: a subjective naturalism found in The Bill Douglas Trilogy, Gregory's Girl and Small Faces. This is a tradition that doesn't hold to some idea of absolute realism, but instead looks for actual locations and local, inexperienced or non-professional actors, and then twists the realist expectations through viewing events from a young person's perspective. On this occasion it's that of 12 year old James, played by William Eadie. Here the setting is a Glasgow housing estate so real and vivid in its poverty that, according to the press notes, it's now due for demolition. It is nevertheless, for the purposes of the film, also a place capable of incorporating fantasy touches. Ramsay's artificiality isn't that of Trainspotting and others' need to simplify people's lives; if anything it's the other way round: she wants to capture a pre-teen wistfulness as vividly as she can. In one sequence Jame's neighbour watches his pet mouse air balloon to the moon. Ramsay follows its journey into outer space, illustrating beautifully the presence of an inner life.
But Ramsay is no less interested in real life--as witnessed by an event used to see the tale in context: the lengthy refuse workers' strike of the mid-1970s, its factual basis aided and abetted by BBC news archival footage. It's such an event--a very specific moment in time--that allows Ramsay to play up the filth and grime without saying such grubbiness is part and parcel of the characters' lives. 'I grew up in that environment and you don't think, "Oh it's really grim",' Ramsay says.
Nor is it necessarily grim for the film's central character. Or, rather, the area's bleakness is often less present in James's mind than his own guilty feelings towards the death of his best friend. James is responsible for pushing his friend into a canal, and James watched him drown. And it is of course through James's eyes that we witness many of the film's events, and through his increased sensitivity and awareness we come to feel this most complex rite of passage.
His is a life at the crossroads. With his best friend dead, his family perhaps about to move to a new housing estate, and the garbage piling up apocalyptically, James finds refuge in idealising this future dream home: Ramsay films the fields out behind this new housing scheme in the manner of a painting. James also escapes from his guilty thoughts and feelings by falling for 14 year old Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen). Margaret Anne may give her body to any teenage boy in the district, but it's James who finds his way into her soul. In one memorable scene Ramsay films the pair of them sharing a bath together. It ranks with the most moving moments in Scottish cinema.
But James's falling in love contains within it an emotional paradox: how can he feel so touched by another human being and leave himself untouched by his friend's death? This is the sort of dilemma worthy of an adult crisis; Ramsay instead places it at the heart of a 'children's film' and leaves the viewer to decide whether what Ramsay has shown us is reason enough for James to take his own life or whether we've witnessed adequate hope and redemption for James to carry on.
Tony McKibbin


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