Sunday, March 26, 2006

The evolution and potential of Cuban music

This is from my paper on the origins of Cuban music and what makes it so powerful. I wrote this as part of the Cuba GATE course, so this has nothing to do with Fuqua as such, except that I got this opportunity to explore Cuban music while I am here! To all the music lovers out there...

As we sat outside at a plush restaurant in Havana one sunny afternoon, three musicians, wearing colorful Hawaii-style shirts, started playing what struck me as traditional Cuban songs. What caught my immediate attention was the simplicity of the music. With two guitars and a pair of maracas (1) and use of vocal harmonics, they were able to convey a variety and depth that makes Cuban music so enticing. After listening to a few songs, there was no mistaking their talent. Needless to say, when the lead singer approached our table with a CD, I grabbed my opportunity and bought their recording for ten pesos. As I was exiting the restaurant, I proudly showed the new addition to my collection to our tour guide and he congratulated me at making a good selection. Little did I imagine that this local album would become one of the most precious items in my collection.

One week later, I took the help of a new singer friend, and burrowed through numerous Cuban CDs, looking for authentic Cuban music that could tell a story about Cuban music as it evolved, and I bought music albums covering Jazz, Trova and Son Cubano (2). Long after we returned from our trip, the music I heard in Cuba was ringing in my ears and these albums became part of my regular hearing. It is one of the richest forms of music I have come across. This tiny island boasts of a tradition of music that is old and cross-continental. The roots of Cuban music is in Europe and Africa. Cuba was a Spanish colony for many centuries and like America, imported a lot of African people as slaves. Both these cultures brought music with them and along with Jazz music from America in the early 20th century, formed what is the Cuban music of today.

The African influence in Cuban music is primarily in three important ways: the singing style, the percussions and the musical form. The African singing was nasal and was the case for a long time and became one of the characteristics of Afro-Cuban music. Later on, it became embedded in the form of vocal harmonics and in portions in modern day Cuban songs. The second significant impact that was also clearly observable was the unique use of percussions. Like many eastern music forms such as Arabic and Indian music, percussions and rhythm form an integral part of melody in Cuban music. The African slaves lacked string and wind instruments and necessity being the mother of invention in this case, the African slaves made innovative use of percussion instruments to form their melodies. This was further enhanced by clever use of syncopation (3). Finally, with respect to the form of the Afro-Cuban music, the typical structure of a Cuban song is based on a call and an answer. The vocalist starts a song by a call to the people of the village and the people answer him or her.

With increasing integration of Spanish invaders into the Cuban society, string and wind instruments became more available and the spirit of the Cuban people took the form of melodies in these instruments. The work of slaves in the sugarcane farms in Cuba parallels the work on cotton fields by the slaves in America and the birth of blues music. The Cuban slaves were well-fed because work on sugarcane farms required energy and strength, but it was a tiring job, much like work on cotton fields in the middle of the day. This fueled creativity and the Cubans took to Spanish instruments, and this is one of the most discernible portions of what we know as Cuban music today.

However, in the modern day, what makes Cuban music even more interesting is the Jazz influence from America. This was the final and one of the most important influences in the formation of today’s Cubano music. Today in Cuba, you can find Jazz that is significantly more melodic, like that of José Miguel Crego (4), but what is even more interesting is that the typical Latin American salsa and rumba rhythms are interrupted by Jazz-like formations. A classic example of this interesting feature is the mixing of solo piano or trumpet from time to time into what is largely Latin American rhythms of Maraca (5).

The American trade embargo on Cuba has significant ramifications for Cuban music. America has traditionally been the most influential market when it comes to music and cinema. Though many of the rock n’ roll bands of the 60s came from the United Kingdom, their success was considered complete only when they made a mark in the US market. The embargo, which is nearing 50 years, has essentially kept Cuban music out from this mix, and considering the pace of innovation in music in the last half a century, the face of music today would have been very different. On the other hand, much of the Latin American music is only picking up now and Cuba can still play a significant role in this very interesting evolution.

Cuban music largely served the local market all through the initial decades of the Cuban revolution in 1959. In the mid nineties, a phenomenon called the Buena Vista Social club came into being (6). It all started with Juan de Marcos González, who sought to bring together generations of Cuban and Afro-Cuban musicians and record an album (7). This was a huge success and Cuban music started getting recognition and acceptance all over the world. This was further fueled by the relaxation by Cuban government in the nineties to allow Cuban musicians to emigrate and spread the music outside. Today, musicians are increasingly traveling abroad in search for acceptance.

Musicians from outside world are also finding interest inside Cuba. The recent concert by Audioslave in Havana was a huge success and was attended by over 60,000 people. According to my singer friend who happened to sneak into the VIP section, it was loud and it stayed on in the minds of people for a long time. The concert a few months later by Air Supply was dull. It is little wonder that musicians wanting to sell inside Cuba will need to break into long established and extremely rich Cubano music culture.

The biggest barrier for outside music in entering Cuba, in my opinion, is overshadowing the essence and richness of the Cuban rhythm. This was more than evident in our interactions with Cuban people. We went to Havana clubs with a group of graduate students from the University of Havana. When a particularly popular hip-hop song started playing, one of the students turned to me and said, “I don’t like this song. The beat in this song is loud and boring and you just can’t dance to it, you know.” I understood immediately. It will take a whole lot more to move a Cuban to your rhythm.

(2) For more information on these forms, please read
(3) Syncopation: A shift of accent in a passage or composition that occurs when a normally weak beat is stressed.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Cuba GATE: Where I became a rock singer!

Shivesh singing 'sweet child of mine' with a band in Cuba!

Joanne helps with the bridge!

Opening the gates to Cuba

21 students went to Cuba over the spring break as part of the Global Academic Travel Experience (GATE) course at Fuqua. We spent about 8 days there, 6 in Havana and 2 in Varadero, a resort town. This is one trip that is going to stay on in my mind for a long time. Not only was it a very welcome break, it was also a trip where we learnt a lot and I personally learnt a lot about Cubans as well as Americans. The only two international students on this trip were me and a Japanese friend of mine. The trip was fantastic and I made some great friends in this trip. We have to submit a paper on our trip this week, elaborating general experiences, learning and observations as well as a specific topic of research, which in my case, is music.

As we reached Havana on a sunny afternoon, it immediately reminded me of Bombay, as I saw it in movies in the 1960s. We drove around the malecon, which looks identical to the Marine Drive in Bombay, with wide pavements and people sitting on the parapet wall separating the beautiful ocean from the city. It was not even close what I had expected, which was a backward city with narrow roads, age-old cars, visible poverty on the streets and generally dirty. Havana turned out to be a beautiful city with great historic structures and architectures, wide roads and generally, very clean. At places, the architecture was bizarre, telling tales of its turbulent past and influences from around the world.

One of the striking features of old Havana was the different color combinations of its buildings. No two buildings matched in color, but moreover, even the colors of windows and doors did not match the building color. So you would see an orange building with blue windows and doors and the building adjacent to it would be green in color. I wondered if this was because these buildings were from different era, or simply a matter of choice. I quickly learnt that it reflected the true nature of the Cuban culture, colorful, vibrant and full of contrast.

From there began our journey into one of the most vibrant countries I have visited and it reminded me again and again of India. Of course, Cuba holds a big mystery within due to its troubled relationship with US for almost half a century, and that only made it better as we tried digging to understand it. There are posters of Fidel Castro and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara almost everywhere, indicating that the government has a strong hold on businesses, media and many aspects of Cuban life. It's hard to draw a picture in mind of a country sitting at a five star hotel and traveling in luxury buses with the best guides, but many people have claimed that Cuba is stuck in a time warp. That would almost make anyone think that Cuba has stopped developing since 1959, when Fidel came to power. Is it true? How backward is Cuba, if at all?

We met government officials, businessmen, intellectuals, artists, scientists and local people. Perhaps the most insightful meeting we had was with a professor and editor of a magazine called Temas (Themes). This magazine is one of the avenues of expression for people and for them to discuss important issues in the society. The professor talked to us about Civil Society and what constitutes civil society. Churches, NGOs, media, unions etc., all come together to form civil society, which works with the state to guide the society to the right direction. As he spoke about Temas and the largely Marxist concepts of intellectuals engaging other intellectuals in debate to come to a decision for the common good, I couldn't help but think about Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. My understanding of socialism is very limited, but I learnt an alternative way of governance. Cuba today reminded me of India in the 80s, when I was a boy, saw the only news channel run by the government, co-operative societies for crops production, huge barriers to entrepreneurship through licenses and virtually non-existent MNCs or MNCs that came as JVs. So is Cuba stuck in a time-warp? Yes, but the time-warp is in not nearly as remote period as we think. The fall of the soviet union was a big blow to the Cuban economy, and marks the failure of socialism and communism all over the world. It is no coincidence that countries like India opened up their economies and started a slow, but marked movement towards globalization in the 1990s. Cuba started doing the same in 1993 in their so-called 'Special Period'; the main difference is that it is still trying to keep both sides alive in its parallel economies of two currencies, one for tourism (convertible peso) and one for domestic industry.

For an average American entering Cuba today, the policies might seem so different that it will be easy to say that Fidel has betrayed Cuba. Has Fidel betrayed Cuba? He is a dictator, no doubt, but if you look a little deeper, Cuba has problems quite similar to India. I keep coming back to India because I see so many parallels that I am almost certain that most of Cuba's problems have hardly anything to do with the totalitarian regime, and more due to an age-old failed system of economy and governance, socialist policies and communism. In the face of capitalism and globalization, these systems did not stand a chance, and in my opinion, will be wiped out of the face of the planet.

So what did Fidel do right? Definitely couple of things in my opinion. Cuba has a modest infrastructure, has a stellar literacy rate (97%), which beats even the US and is supposed to have great healthcare. These are not mean achievements considering a strong embargo and antagonism from the neighboring US. We visited a biotechnology research center in Havana and the gentleman we met there was one of the most bright and humorous person I have come across. He introduced us to the various researches being done in a string of facilities across the country. In a country that is run by intellectuals, this comes as little surprise. Soviet Union had cutting edge research establishments and India, thanks to its Nehruvian socialism of 50s and 60s, also boasts of world class research and teaching establishments like the IITs, IIMs, IISc, BARC and many more. Cuba is no different. These are direct consequences of intellectuals running your country. It is still a completely different issue if this is sustainable or even fair to you as a citizen.

US slapped a trade and travel embargo on Cuba in the year 1962 and the embargo is still in effect. As it stands today, only three countries voted against the U.N. resolution calling for the US to end the Embargo, The Marshall Islands, Israel, and the US of course. During the Cold War era, US and Cuba had a fallout and in the age of strong polarization, Cuba became a Russian ally. As is often the case with politics, there is no point in discussing who was right, who was wrong, or even what was cause and what was effect. Did alienation from US led Cuba towards USSR or did the communist policies of Cuba led US to take strong actions against it? I don't know the answer, but what matters today is that the embargo does not make sense. However, I can understand that US cannot lift the embargo from Cuba without losing face. During the last 4 decades, US has built an image of Cuba as a country drowned in troubles due to the dictatorial and totalitarian oppression. Of course, if I might say so carelessly, dictatorship comes with its fair share of oppression, but from what we have learnt in this trip, Fidel doesn't seem to have squeezed his people to pocket money for himself.

There is significant discontent with the archaic policies of Fidel, but there doesn't seem to be a very concerted dissident activity in Cuba, just small groups spread here and there. Given these dynamics, everyone seems to be waiting to see what will happen after Fidel. Fidel has appointed his brother as the Vice President, who can constitutionally take charge after the President, but only time will tell what happens. The US will play a large role (wanted or unwanted) most certainly in the decision and will probably get a good excuse (or valid reason, depending on your perspective) to lift the embargo. What will it mean for Cuba? How is the embargo affecting Cuba today?

US likes to say that the embargo is successful and that it is cornering the Cuban government. In reality, that's hardly the case and Cuba has almost rest of the world to play with. Of course, not having a huge market such as US for tourism and trade means a lot for a small country like Cuba, but it certainly didn't topple any governments in the past and is certainly not going to in the near future.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Saturday, March 04, 2006

More 'stuff' (& end of term 3)

I have so many things that I have been thinking to write about that I didn't really have a better title. Of course, it has been a busy time, with term 3 'n all. There are courses, elections, interviews, fellows programs, spring break, GATE trips, and then some more stuff.

Term 3 is over, there is one more final exam on Monday. I wrote earlier about the courses, Operations, Managerial Accounting and Decision Modelling. We are done with MA and DM so far. MA was a subject that was extremely boring and at the same time, very useful for general managers. We learnt about cost accounting in an organization, which means how the many costs incurred by an organization are allocated to the different products that they produce and all the challenges associated with incentive schemes, transfer pricing, peer interactions etc. associated with it. Decision Models is an awesome subject, and you learn tools that help you make complex decisions and optimize your actions. Operations was operations, so throughput time, inventory, queuing etc. Both operations and DM had a particularly great course structure. Term 3 had some really useful courses for managers in general.

The elections for most clubs and positions are over. Pallavi and I stood for Music club and General Management Club (GMC), and lost both! :-( But we lost to worthy competitors and it was fun to sit and make the platforms for these elections and to think through ideas that we would have liked to implement next year. The experience itself is so great that I recommend that every student should stand for at least 1 presidency. It helps you think through a lot of stuff that were done last year and what could be done and improved next year. Anyway, so that was on elections. I have applied to couple of fellows program and have interviewed for career fellow. I am looking forward to those roles as they seem very interesting and something that can be quite satisfying to yourself.

There is not much to write about internship search and interviews, and while that might seem surprising, it's just that it's going on as a process on the side! The market is looking up from last year we are told and that does seem to be the case. Companies come and companies go, and you get excited about the role for couple of days as you research and you apply to the positions, then you give your interview and wait for results. There is nothing really much to write about it, if you know what I mean!

Spring break is coming up and I am going to Cuba!! The Global Academic Travel Experience (GATE) trips are a great way to explore new countries that you are interested in for whatever reason. This is one of the trips where every time I say I am going to Cuba on GATE, the standard response is, "Cuba!? Why Cuba?" The only way I can answer that is to point people towards the speech given by Steve Jobs of Apple at Stanford, "Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish" and his concept of 'connecting the dots'. Cuba seems like an interesting place, great music and a great way to learn another aspect of US foreign policies. I can't say what 'hard' stuff I have learnt, but I leave for Cuba on Tuesday and hope to have a great time there, meet some government representatives, business men and artists. Maybe this dot will connect somehow to my life and career in future.

One interesting thing that I wanted to cover was something called a 'plant tour' organized by GMC this term to help with the operations course. Some of us signed up to go and visit a manufacturing plant nearby and see how they apply the operations concepts we learnt in classroom in real life. The company we visited was Eaton, a car parts manufacturer and the experience was simply fantastic! We saw a small 'thing' called 'Lash adjuster' that goes into the car's engine and releases the right amount of fuel into the engine. We saw how two basic tubes were cut to size, the metal being ground and heat treated, and so many more small operations that led to final assembly of parts to make a part that's the size smaller than my palm and is supremely important to the working of a car. I can almost understand now why some people are so passionate about operations. It's so interesting to see a product coming out of an assembly line!

So that's the stuff that we have been up to here and it's been a very different term from the last two. I can't quite explain it, but for me, it was a cakewalk after term 2, though there are people who found term 2 quite alright (I don't know which planet they are from!! :-)) The fact that we are finally well settled into our lives and have made some friends also helps. But I have to put in the word that term 2 was stuff that ghost stories are made of! We were roaming the corridors of the school like a bunch of zombies and I thought about 'Snapshots from Hell' by Peter Robinson on more than one occasion. I still maintain that if you are a person who has not taken any kind of accounting course at all in life, take a basic book-keeping course before coming to Fuqua at least (I am not sure how it is in other schools, but something tells me they aren't going to be much more forgiving either! ;-)) You will be thankful for your decision many times over! 6-week accounting is your worst nightmare come true.

Anyway, I digressed, so let me come back to the topic. But oh right! We don't have a topic, do we? Well, so term 3 is over. I liked to say that we are a 'quarter of an MBA' at the end of term 2, but for the end of term 3, I don't have a fancy name; just that things are cruising along, term 3 was a little light on extra-curricular activities overall too. It was the old leadership's last term and I guess they were tired too. The new leadership is all set to take over the clubs in term 4, and the SYs have put their feet up (in all the sense of the phrase! :-)) I wonder how it will be next time this year! Sad, sad, sad...