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“Buenos dias. No hablo español.” Auditory Experiences of Cuban culture

By Kanika Varma, University of Victoria

As part of the University of Victoria’s Cuba Ethnographic Field School: Contrapunteo, I had the opportunity to attend the CASCA conference 2018 as a participant and live in Cuba for a month with the Uvic field school students and staff.

Cuba is sound; it pulls you in. Every morning I woke up to the sounds of vegetable vendors walking up and down the streets, children laughing, pedestrians, bikes, pigeons, AC’s, construction work and so on. People were busy in Cuba. One of my first nights in Havana, staying in a downtown hostel, I was woken up by women chatting on the bottom floor and vendors yelling in bellowing voices on the street. I felt the energy in the room, like it was morning and I should get up. By living in Cuba, I learnt there is a difference between learning about Cuba and being able to feel Cuba through the senses. As an undergraduate in Anthropology I’d been told many times the importance of participant observation and fieldwork, but I didn’t realize how to use my full sensory experiences into my research until I came to Cuba. In a conversation with Carlos Domínguez (a Cuban scholar), I learnt about his research method of ‘interpret anthropology’[i], doing anthropology of the everyday, and writing about what you eat, what you do, what you see, and what you hear. I’ve attempted here to make sense of all I learnt.

As part of the field school we watched a number of Cuban dance groups and bands. The dance styles varied from traditional to modern dance, and with each performance we saw a different side of the country. On a trip to watch the the Kiriba y Nengnon, a traditional dancing style preserved in the evergreen forests of Baracoa’s El Güirito community, we witnessed the rhythmic and humble dance. The preservation of the dance and music shows the importance of passing this tradition down. Listening to the music, I felt like I was listening to the past. In contrast to this the dancers of Babul (Aand the contemporary ballet dancers in Guantanamo offered a view into modern Cuba. The ballet piece they performed was moving even as a foreigner, and made me feel from the weight of Cuba’s independence struggle to political tensions today. After seeing their performance, I was blown away by their dedication, strength and talent. And to hear how they train and the recognition they get, I was able to empathize on a deeper level for the work they do.  The phrase ‘no es facil’ which is used at the end of a conversational complaint to say ‘it’s not that easy’ and the phrase ‘la vida es una lucha, no es facil’ (Holdbraad 366) which means ‘life is a struggle’ were more understandable after seeing their performance. The arts have always been a way to represent emotion, struggle, situation and history as we know it, and thus a good way to see how people see their own struggle. It occurred to me that life will always go on, and the easiest way to find out how people live in the conditions they live in is to seek out that which gives life to people: the arts.

In comparison to the small town of Victoria in Canada where I stay, Santiago de Cuba was beautifully exhilarating. But it was in the short trips we made to Playa Maguana or Sierra Maestra that I realized how nice the silence is. I asked Maurice (one of the team leaders and our unofficial Cuba guide) why Cuba was struggling so much when they were rich in biodiversity. I asked questions that are far too complicated to answer with a language barrier. But we got into politics; we talked about the embargo and Cuba’s socialist government. We discussed why agricultural production cannot suddenly be increased because the machinery needed to do that isn’t up to date. It’s hard to transport things across the country because the roads need to be constructed better and the vehicles themselves have to be upgraded. The political, economic and social systems work but the systems like any have flaws. This is hard to understand but we understood the problems better by taking bus trips to remote areas and experiencing the frustration of travelling within Cuba. It was experiencing these things that really drove in the fact that things are different in Cuba.

My sensory experience of Cuba is what I will most strongly remember. I felt comforted by Vilima’s home food, I felt better after listening to live bands, I felt stronger walking on the roads of Santiago after living there for a month. While talking to other students in the field school I realized that sound does have a huge impact on our mood and that in turn has an impact on our ability to understand the space. A large part of this field school has been witnessing through listening and participating. A full engagement with the topics presented only happened by acknowledging how confusing things were sometimes. I remember Cuba most strongly through my sensory experiences, I miss the food, music, cool evenings by the ocean, and the long drives through Sierra Maestra.

Bibliography

Holbraad, Martin. 2004. “Revolución o muerte: Self- sacrifice and the Ontology of Cuban Revolution”. Ethnos 79 (3): 356-387.

[i] According to Carlos Domínguez Interpret Anthropology is interpreting and understanding daily life and the life of those around him to explain Cuban culture.

 

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