lifeblood: listlogs: 1999v01n083-news


ig-news-digest          tuesday, may 18 1999          volume 02 : number 083


today's subjects:
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  [ig-news] new notes from amy    [claudine lapsky <claudine@ukonline.co.uk>]


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date: mon, 17 may 1999 20:23:48 +0100
from: claudine lapsky <claudine@ukonline.co.uk>
subject: [ig-news] new notes from amy


[sherlyn's note: this message was originally sent to the indigo
girls mailing list at netspace.org.]

hi everyone!


i was tipped off from the daemon newsletter, but there are finally some new
notes from amy at the daemon site!  it's pretty long, but really
interesting, as they're journal entries from amy's recent trip to cuba.
there are also some photos too which are at the site:


http://www.daemonrecords.com/beta/about/about.html


in march of 1999, the indigo girls were invited to participate in a
song-writing workshop and cultural exchange program in havana, cuba, called
music bridges. this program hopes to transcend political barriers through
art. although we were specifically instructed to approach this journey with
an apolitical attitude, i could not help but see the trip as an opportunity
to look deeper into the effects of u.s. policies in cuba. i found that it is
not possible to be in cuba as a u.s. citizen and not acknowledge the
political implications of. these are some of my observations and are not
intended to reflect or encompass all of cuba or it's political situation.
although i had a full experience, it was actually very limited by time and
geography. i was only in cuba for a week and did not travel outside of
havana. i encourage everyone to discover cuba for themselves and to learn
more about u.s. cuba relations.

    3-21-99


met at miami international. we were picked up at our arrival gate and
shuttled to a special holding area to wait for our charter. our bags were
retrieved and put on the plane-i didn't have to lift a hand...hmmm. the
escalator down to our gate was guarded by the police, i am not sure at this
point who or what they were guarding. the first faces i saw were gladys
knight and bonnie raitt. me'shell ndegeocello is here as well as pete buck
and a seemingly endless list spanning musical genres, ages, and color. (burt
bacharach arrived later. he seemed like a nice enough guy and, as we all
know, he is the king of bird chattering pop, but when he wasn't floating
around havana on a yacht, he was going two hours over on studio time.) the
host of the tour-alan roy scott-gave a speech explaining that this is the
first trip to cuba of its kind and that we should behave ourselves and not
be snotty american tourists demanding our way-we are to be good ambassadors.
he failed to warn us against the "we are the world syndrome" and the trap of
"american self importance." the two guys seated behind me on the bus to
havana failed the good ambassador test and made bigoted comments the whole
way into town.


there are two currencies in cuba-the cuban peso and the u.s. dollar. i guess
this is one way to get u.s. trade without actually trading. evidently there
were so many dollars coming though that they had to start recognizing them.
the u.s. embargo is absolutely absurd. the resulting two currency system has
created a war time black-market and an economic apartheid. although the u.s.
is not the only source of technology and products, we have levied our
economic might against other countries and corporations who might trade with
cuba. my hero jesse helms created this famous set of oppressive rules in the
helms-burton act. we have all heard the stories of old american cars from
the pre-revolution 50's and 60's in need of parts and the unavailability of
certain american medicines, but the far reaching effects of the embargo seem
impossible to illustrate with any degree of graphic accuracy. there is a
profound lack of materialism in cuba and it is hard to suss out what is the
result of the embargo and what is the result of communism.


people outside of cuba have a tendency to either demonize or romanticize
cuba (i am certainly guilty of the latter), but most cubans i talked to
simultaneously spoke of their love and hate of the system, leaving me in a
constant state of confusion. cuba is a country of extremes. the positive
extreme is represented by super-high literacy rates, free and equal access
to food, clothing, shelter, education, and health care, and a strong sense
of community and culture; the negative is represented by repressive rules
(especially in times of economic hardship such as these-havana is literally
crumbling down), a ruling elite class (what's new), and lack of capitalist
competition creates a certain blandness in some areas such as the service
industries. cuba's poverty is not necessarily a result of communism. i will
always romanticize the revolution-the "peasant rebellion"-and i got goose
skin when i saw the monument to jose marti and the big metal sculpture of
che gueverra's profile. while the heart of the revolution is beautiful and
noble, i seek to humanize this place in my own mind.


the hotel nacional, where we are staying, is a beautiful art deco structure
that was built by americans before the revolution. in its heyday, it was
bustling with celebrities and world leaders. it is still the fanciest in
havana but there's no way they could recapture the pre-revolution glamour,
simply because cuba is so poor. the malecon, which runs beside the ocean in
front of the motel plays host to late night strollers and lovers. the
florida keys are only 90 miles away, but it might as well be another world.
to think that a country can be so close and so off limits...who are we to
say how they should run their country? what are we so afraid of? i wonder if
we have to wait until the cold war generation passes to be rid of this
paranoia. when i look outside my window, the old american cars give me a
sense of being frozen in time; but then i remember that it isn't nostalgia
that keeps things this way.

3-22-99


this morning we had the song-writing lottery. we put all the cuban names in
one hat and all the non-cuban names in the other. at first the non-cuban hat
was called the american hat (which seemed perfectly typical for
self-centered americans). the director drew two names out of each hat to
designate the first writing groups. each group is to write and record at
least one song over the next two days. the oddest thing happened...emily and
i were chosen together. i didn't know if it was a set up or what but i
gladly accepted it as a gift, the reality being that emily and i don't ever
actually write together. at first we were put with this guy named equis
(x)-a rap artist-but he traded off with someone so he could be with
me'shell. at first my feelings were bruised and i was disappointed because i
liked the idea of working with a rapper, but i realized that he is a big fan
of hers and felt okay about it. the two cubans in our group ended up being
luis de la cruz and yosvany terry. they are both very talented. all of the
cuban musicians who are participating are the cream of the crop of cuba. i
will say, though, that the cuban side was sorely lacking in women. if it
weren't for the diligence of jeff cohen, a songwriter from bmi who invited
most of the women (among them joan osborne, lisa loeb, and us), the
non-cuban female contingent would be lacking as well. in the end there were
more male than female lead players on both sides.


  indigo girls with bolsa negra
  a good friend of mine, giacomo, came over from guatemala. we met down in
chiapas, mexico, where he came to my rescue and acted as a translator.
giacomo was also in great demand at our writing sessions in cuba. luis
doesn't speak english and my spanish stinks! when luis first came into my
room, we were the only two there ; we just started playing because we
couldn't speak to each other. well, its sort of true about music being a
universal language...of course this only goes so far with me and cuban
music...i could barely keep up. emily's arrival helped a lot. she seems to
understand the structure of this music pretty well. we ended up working on a
blues/rock/cuban style song. luis is kind of "street" and a rocker. yosvany,
a virtuoso of many instruments, showed up late and we were well into the
song, but his arrival helped us to settle on a structure. the idea is to
each write our own verse and put it all together tomorrow.


some say that the hotel is bugged and that there are cameras everywhere, so
the cubans seem very careful about what they say and do. many of the
musicians seemed uncomfortable with political questions. no system of
government is good unless people are free to speak uncensored.


i ran today by the ocean towards old havana. all the magnificent spanish
colonial buildings are falling down into dust and there is no money to fix
them. some of the more tourist-oriented sections of old havana are being
propped up, but the amount of rebuilding that needs to be done is beyond
comprehension. the emissions from polluting cars along with the unchecked
industrial smog really take getting used to. i felt sick to my stomach after
every run-like a hot august day on the los angeles freeway. i would love to
see the cuban mountains and countryside.


when walking around havana i get the sense of fidel desperately trying to
hold on to his vision, becoming more like a dictator and scared of losing
control of his people who are holding on by the skin of their teeth. the
cuban spirit is unmatched. they have education and culture but also have
their freedom constantly challenged. to remain true to a vision of community
pride and involvement, this is a trick for anyone. luis, my collaborating
partner says that in truth, he wouldn't want to be anywhere else.


tonight i am tired and disoriented but i am pledging to get out and see more
tomorrow. i have got to learn to speak spanish...the language barrier really
wears me down.

  lazaro and el negro perform in the common are of the santeria commuinity
  3-23-99
i am not sleeping much at night.
i went running by the ocean again today on the smog infested malecon. i saw
lots of school kids (mostly boys) wearing skimpy bathing suits, playing a
sort of game that involved diving off the wall as the waves washed in. most
of the kids i see here are very lean, but in an athletic way rather than a
malnourished way. of course, one does get the feeling after being here a few
days that food is pretty scarce.


while i was running many guys would make cat-calls and say things in spanish
to me. my inability to understand the language made it hard to know how to
react but my general feeling is that this is some universal rudeness on the
part of the male species. it's hard to be a woman in a foreign country;
sexual context is always the lowest common denominator. giacomo says that it
is "the latin way"...we often discuss this issue of cross cultural
oppression. the men over here say that the women love it....hmmm...that's
what they say in the states, too. i have also been told that the lack of
sexual boundaries is due to the heat. i understood some of this as we jammed
earlier tonight in luis's band rehearsal space. emily and i with a bunch of
sweaty shirtless guys packed into a small room, making music. i felt the
allure and infectiousness of cuban culture-the african rhythms and the
spanish melodies. i felt the erotic energy as the percussion section rose to
a climax, everyone was dancing and all ideas of self seemed to escape us. we
worked on a song of mine just for fun called "compromise." it took on this
cuban-punk vibe that we all were digging. the other song that we are writing
together is coming along , but luis is the only one who has finished his
lyrics.


the rehearsal space that we used today (which is very nice) is provided by
the state for luis's band-bolsa negra. it seems that musicians are supplied
with some basic needs and extensive training but in return they play for
next to nothing (luis makes $5 for a show). we met two guys who are with
some sort of ministry that is in charge of producing shows for the state.
they seemed to hang around the rehearsal space making sure that the bands
have what they need. the musical/recording equipment used in cuba is mostly
substandard and very limited. nice instruments are appreciated and coveted
in a way that american rock stars can't understand. luis did not own an
acoustic guitar, yosvany did not own a keyboard.


musicians and artists are treated relatively well in cuba. my theory is the
"fidel's coffee theory"-everyone in cuba drinks coffee one way and it's
probably the same way that fidel drinks his. it's a metaphor for the
material side of life in cuba, which is mostly bland, minimal, and
non-experimental. cubans express their individualism through art, music, and
sports. the culture here is so deep and so revered-your art reflects who you
are and takes on more significance and respect in this environment as
opposed to the commercialism that co-opts music in a more materialistic
(read: capitalist) setting.


3-24-99
we had a new lottery today. it was sad to leave our dynamic duo-luis and
yosvany terry-behind, but we all felt that it would be in the spirit of
things to throw our names back into the pool. emily was paired with ray
guerra and one of the lowenstein twins. ray is a true virtuoso on the guitar
and has played with such latin american greats as silvio rodriguez. i ended
up with four collaborators-fernando bequer, harold payne (nice guy, speaks
great spanish), gary burr, and alfonso (i didn't catch his last name). gary
and harold are from a very different school of song-writing then i am. they
also seem more familiar with the process of collaboration. fernando struck
me the most with his eccentric punkesque/avant-garde cuban music. he was
also likely to go into a vintage 50's cuban/american nightclub vocal
style-imitating the las vegas greats that, in turn, imitated his forebears.
fernando was not as animated during our session but at the end we abandoned
our song to listen to him play.


i find writing with others to be hard. lyrics often end up being clichéd.
the subject matter of this team's particular song was a love affair between
a cuban and an american, and the ocean that separates the two (everyone
wrote about the damn ocean...jeez ...even me...). the song was a little too
"straight " for me which was partly my fault since i had to be late for the
session. in the midst of the session, some sexist remarks were made ("i like
to try the word bitch after every line to see if its a good line," said
gary) and our group would of been better off without them. but my
introduction to fernando becquer made this session a worthwhile experience.


before our rehearsal session, documentary film-maker haskell wexler and
musicologist/documentor greg landau took me and emily to a house of santeria
in old havana. they were hoping to show some of the culture outside of the
walls of the hotel nacional. i can't say enough good things about these two
radical documentarians. greg was influenced by his father-saul landau,
another film maker-and has spent most of his life helping to illuminate the
obscure folk traditions and music from places of political upheaval and
disenfranchisement. he speaks fluent spanish and has spent a lot of time in
cuba. he also spoke a little about his experiences in nicaragua working with
a sandinista band. his work is very important, he rescues songs and rhythms
from obscurity, much the way that alan lomax did, but he also fights the
good fight. haskell is an older gentleman who came up through the activism
of labor politics, opposing mccarthyism, civil rights, etc. he is
reminiscent of pete seeger-handsome and distinguished, with a lot of
charisma and style.


the house we went to is in the old slave quarters of havana. greg's wife had
lived with the families we visited, so they were actually all friends with
greg. the homes are like a maze of connected tunnels and rooms-like a little
secret neighborhood. you feel as if you are underground and in another
world. there is a open air common area where people are doing everything
from hair styling to laundry. i am assuming that most of the people in the
maze of rooms are participants in the santeria tradition. the "mother" of
the house, felicia, invited us in to visit. felicia said that her mother had
been a slave and had died with a brand on her leg. the tradition of santeria
came directly from africa. the religion focuses on the worship of yoruba
deities these deities represent forces of nature. the catholic saints became
attached to specific deities of santeria over time-a by-product of having to
disguise their religion. santeria people will tell you that catholicism
really has nothing to do with this faith-the saints/deities are not persons
but rather forces. it seems over time as the religion has become "legal" to
practice they have hung onto and become comfortable with some of the
hybridization of catholicism and santeria. felicia told a story: during the
time of slavery, when the practice of santeria was illegal, the people would
gather five stones and each stone would be possessed by a deity. they would
place the stones around a specific type of tree and dance. the master
believed the dance was for him, but it was really for the deities. this is
one way they would disguise their rituals-the self centered masters would
never guess that the music, rhythms, and dancing were all tied in with their
slave's faith .


this house is special for many reasons, one of them being the dance and
percussion that is taught here. two masters of drumming-pancho quinto and
octavio-live in this community. while they are not well known in the
mainstream world, drummers come from miles around to learn the traditions
from them. felicia has five sons and a daughter. all her sons play the drum,
i gathered her daughter was musical as well because you can't really
practice this tradition with out the music. we were shown a special african
(yoruba) drum called a bata . only men are allowed to play it because of the
spirit that is inside it. i asked felicia if women also had some special
privileges or responsibilities, but she wouldn't answer and kept evading my
question. however her daughter, santica, the resident feminist did wish to
talk about it. she said that women were really the ones in
charge...hmmm...i've heard that one before...buts its really the same old
story-the delicate balance between oppression and cultural tradition.

3-25-99
we went back to the santeria house the next day to hear the drummers. the
whole neighborhood gathered in the common area to dance and to listen while
pancho quinto's band played. they play music in a crazy combination of
rhumba, mexican, american folk, cuban, and african traditions. the singers,
lazardo and el negro, had a touch of lounge "camp" in their act . they were
dressed to the nines in leisurely clothes. all the songs were sung a
cappella to the drums. michael franti, of the group spearhead, did some rap
over the drum beats. it was nice to see the merging of traditions-or
reuniting might be a more accurate word for it. lazardo and el negro tried
to teach us to sing "cotton fields back home" in their style, but we
couldn't quite get it. i wanted to try some of our melodies and words over
their beats, but they didn't offer. either we failed the test or as women we
were assumed into a backseat role. michael has a strong connection with cuba
and he became sort of an ambassador from our group.


the band performed a song, written by santica (felicia's daughter), that the
whole neighborhood seemed to know (the song was about the black-market that
has gone on in their community the men trading in liquor, cigars, etc.) and
the police coming to get them. some of the lyrics were sung in slang to hide
the meaning of the song. the neighborhood was described as a "smoky cave."
santica wrote a verse or two about the men as "hustlers" which i guess
wasn't so flattering , so they censor them out when they sing it. even
though she wrote the song, santica did not sing a verse, but only joined in
on the choruses. there are so many occurrences and omissions that scream
sexism but once again its not in my cultural context.


my girlfriend jennifer and i hung around the artist market for awhile, where
we were approached by a cuban male prostitute/escort, called a jinetero. we
were looking lost and he came over and made some suggestions for places to
dine. he tried to hire himself out to us. as soon as i caught on that he
intended to accompany us the rest of the night i thanked him for his help
and informed him that we were on a private date. these cubans for hire are
very persistent and plentiful. given the right situation, i imagine an
escorted night could be fun. before he left us to our own devices he did
talk a bit about "his cuba." he didn't like the system at all and said that
he would like to get out where he could have something more to work towards.
he hated the idea of working all his life with nothing material to show for
it. i told him that a lot of impoverished americans feel this way too, and
when they get old they can sometimes fall through the cracks of our system
and have no institutions or family to take care of them. i guess the idea of
cuba is that the people all take care of each other in one way or another
and old people are respected. still there doesn't appear to be much outside
incentive to compete or rise above in your career unless its an artistic
profession. there is obvious natural competition in both sports and the
arts, but professions such as teaching or medicine are invested with an
aversion towards competition (which is not such a bad thing). i like living
in the u.s., but i could stand a more socialist and caring government.


after eating some really bad food at a top notch "tourist" restaurant, my
beautiful girlfriend jennifer and i headed home on the exhaust-ridden
malecon. we came upon two men setting out on styrofoam rafts for an unknown
destination. our imaginations went wild as these two men lowered their raft
over the wall into the water. they climbed in after their boats with fins on
and bags in hand. as they paddled away, they waved an apparent good-bye to
their friends sitting on the wall. the little lights of their cigarettes
glowing in the night, floated slowly away. of course, we thought they were
headed to florida, but they were only going fishing. for one thing this
would be the wrong part of the coast to leave from and also the success rate
of rafting to florida is pretty low these days.


to be continued next month.


enjoy!


claudine

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