The birth of Cuban culture had its origins from three principal roots: first, the indigenous peoples whose ethnic legacy was drastically reduced by the impact of Spanish conquest and colonization. For that reason, Spanish and African roots are the two most important ones for Cuban ethnicity. The Spanish roots came about from the migration coming from the metropolis and this, to a greater or lesser degree, has remained throughout our history. During the first centuries of colonization, groups coming from the Kingdom of Castile prevailed, mainly from southern Spain. Other important groups from the Canary Islands, Galicia and Catalonia were also added.
The African roots left a distinctive mark on the formation process of Cuban culture. African peoples came from different ethnics groups (Yoruba, Mandingas, Congo, Carabali, Bantu). Under conditions of slavery they were thrown together in the plantations thus producing new cultural associations among the African communities. The process of syncretism (merging) among the slaves and their masters started at the very same plantations, before the abolition of slavery was decreed. As a result, a culture totally different from the original roots was created. Within the present definition of Cuban culture, the above mentioned roots are the basis of the popular traditions, culture and religions.
Music is, undoubtedly, the artistic expression which has most influenced the Cuban personality. It is said that in the Island, people sing while talking, dance while walking and woo with the lyrics of a song. The evolution process of music has been the swiftest and strongest. The Habanera, born out of the Danza and Contradanza, influenced the appearance of the Argentinian tango and other South American tunes. Recent research assert that in Manuel Saumell’s (known as the Nationalist) Contradanza, one could already find the Habanera tempo. The first part of La Tedesco, for example, is practically the form that the Danzón would later acquire, and even the Guajira song was outlined in many of his compositions.
The Son and the Bolero came to Havana from the Eastern provinces, particularly Santiago de Cuba. The Bolero appeared at the beginning of the 19th century with great composers such as Alberto Villalón and Sindo Garay, highly influenced by Pepe Sánchez (who wrote Tristezas in 1883).
Though most famous songs of the old trova where boleros, composers such as Orlando de la Rosa and Isolina Carrillo also stood out and left one of the most sublime legacy of all times with the bolero Dos Gardenias.
The Son Montuno dates from the second half of the 19th century. The Matamoros Trio begins its long and successful career in 1925 in Santiago de Cuba. This Trio left some of the Cuban classical songs such as Son de la Loma, Mariposita de Primavera, and Lágrimas Negras. The golden age of the Son came shortly after with the appearance of dozens of sextets and septets, some of which recorded for big American record companies. The first Son exponents where followed by Arsenio Rodríguez, Miguelito Cuní, Félix Chapotín, and Roberto Faz, while Danzón and Charanga orchestras such as Arcano y sus Maravillas, La Sensación, La Aragón, and others provided the music for parties in the Capital, during the 1940’s and 1950’s. In 1950, Enrique Jorrín composes the first Cha-cha-cha, La Engañadora, and in 1952, Pérez Prado composes his first Mambo.
The Son reaches its second stage of splendor during the 1950’s, with the appearance of Benny Moré, a self-taught musician from Cienfuegos who years later would win himself the “Rhythm’s Greatest” title. The composer and singer, revitalizes the traditional Son by giving the Son Montuno a Jazz Band rhythm. Benny Moré is the Cuban musician who influenced most the evolution process of the Cuban and Caribbean music.
The triumph of the Revolution meant a superior qualitative change in Cuban music, by socializing and universalizing knowledge with the creation of Art Schools and Institutions, and a comprehensive policy aimed at extolling the values of our national culture
In 1970, the popular dancing music orchestra Van Van came into being, with a very local and modern sonority. Later on, the Son gave its structure to Salsa that also incorporates Caribbean rhythms and sonority from Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Rican communities in New York. The Cuban Salsa, widely known in almost all countries around the world, has its peak in the late 80’s and early 90’s, with the experience of orchestras such as Van Van, Adalberto Alvarez, and NG La Banda, and the upsurge of new orchestras such as Paulo FG y su elite, among others, enjoying great musical success till today.
Painting is the most genuine of the country’s plastic arts. Its evolution could not follow a coherent development path as its first expressions, drawn in caves by native inhabitants were interrupted with the disappearance of the native population. With the conquest and evangelization, a religious kind of painting related to catholic liturgy prevailed. It will not be till the 19th century, with the establishment of the San Alejandro Academy (1818), that a local painting developed, mostly directed to pleasing the European taste of the Cuban bourgeoisie.
The Academy was established by the Economic Association of Friends of teh Country, and its first Director was Jean Bautiste Vermay, a painter of French origin. Towards the 1880’s, a new trend in Cuban painting emerges, with landscape as its main theme. The most relevant painters of this period are Esteban Chartrand y Valentín Sanz Carta. A local customs kind of painting, will have as its most interesting expression, the works of the Basque Víctor Patricio de Landaluze. However, academicism continued to prevail in plastic arts.
The avant-garde reaction of the 1920’s brought about a new momentum in Cuban painting. The modernist movement had its first and most important exhibition in 1927, under the auspices of Avance magazine. Eduardo Abela, Víctor Manuel, Antonio Gattorno, and Carlos Enríquez, among others, were the pioneers of Cuban avant-garde.
The Modernist Movement consolidated itself in the following years, as shown by the First Exhibition of Modern Art that took place in 1937. Young artists already showed a new momentum in Cuban arts to be materialized in the so-called Havana School during the 1940’s. René Portocarrero, Amelia Pélaez , and Mariano Rodríguez are representatives of this movement.
In 1942, Wifredo Lam returns to Cuba after a long stay in Europe and a workshop experience with Pablo Picasso. In 1943, Lam paints La Jungla, the work which would immortalize him and that was bought by the New York Museum of Modern Arts.
With the triumph of the Revolution, the plastic movement was strengthened with the establishment of the National School of Plastic Arts in 1962. Talented painters like Raúl Martínez and Antonia Eiriz became professors at this School. Some years later, in 1976, the Plastic Arts Faculty of the Higher Institute of Arts was founded.
Works by artists such as Roberto Fabelo, Zaida del Río, Tomás Sánchez, Manuel Mendive, and Nelson Domínguez, have become the most important heritage of recent decades. The names of young artists like José Bedia, Kcho, and Flavio Garciandía, who lead the new path in plastic arts, must also be added.
In the last thirty years, Cuban painting has shown a great capacity to assimilate the most important influences of international art with a creative sense, while assuming a stand of criticism in their themes, to continue defending the traits of Cuban identity.
It could be said that Cuba is an island that has never stopped bearing poets. . The first versified work, Espejo de Paciencia, dates from the year 1608 and was written in Puerto Príncipe Villa by Silvestre de Balboa, from the Canary Islands. The first play by a Cuban play writer that we know of was written in the first half of the 18th century, towards 1733: El Príncipe jardinero y Fingido Cloridano (The Gardener Prince and Fingido Cloridano) by Havana Captain Santiago de Pita.
In 1790, with the Papel Periódico de La Habana (Havana Journal Paper) the Cuban bourgeoisie conquers an important space. Manuel de Zequeiro (1760-1846) and Manuel Justo Ruvalcaba (1769-1805), are considered the most representative poets of the 18th century. Both poets slowly develop a sense of Cubanhood in their love and delight for the land’s wealth, extolling the pineapple, the mamey and other tropical fruits in their poems.
It is in the 19th century that the great poets are born and Cuban poetry tradition begins to consolidate. Beautiful and deep poems by Julián del Casal, Plácido, El Cucalambé, Juan Clemente Zenea, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, Juana Borrero, José Jacinto Milanés, Luisa Pérez de Zambrana, José María Heredia, and José Martí, leave a mark of exquisite poetry which though romantic, in some cases went beyond the limits of feelings to offer poems of full commitment. José Martí, Cuba’s National Hero, managed to combine the skill of his creative writing with his leadership in the Cuban war of Independence.
The first great novel, Cecilia Valdés, was written in the 19th century by Cirilo Villaverde, and constitutes a vital legacy Other important novel writers are Ramón Meza and Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda.
The 20st century poetry, restless for its diversity of styles, like the century itself, rose with poets like José Zacarías Tallet, Regino Pedroso, Emilio Ballagas, Regino Botti, Nicolás Guillen, Carilda Oliver, Virgilio Pinera, José Lezama Lima, Roberto Fernández Retamar, Nancy Morejón, Antón Arrufat, Elíseo Diego (Juan Rulfo Award for his works), Cintio Vitier, Fina García Marrúz, Mirta Aguirre, Pablo Armando Fernández, Ángel Augier, y Dulce María Loynaz (Cervantes Academy Award). Novel had a swift development during this century, with writers that won international awards. Thus the novel library of this century increases its collection with the works of Miguel de Carrión, José Soler Puig, Dulce María Loynaz, Severo Sarduy, Miguel Barnet, Senel Paz, Pablo Armando Fernández, Luis Rogelio Nogueras, Virgilio Pinera, José Lezama Lima y Alejo Carpentier (Cervantes Academy Award).
Today, fiction is most developed among young writers. Names such as Alberto Garrido y Ronaldo Menéndez (both winners of the Casa de las Américas Award), are an example of the eloquent vitality Cuban literature enjoys.
Though the first film shot in Cuba –Simulacro de un incendio (Fire Drill) – was in 1897, and despite the fact that during the Republic more than 80 feature films were shot, it was not until the triumph of the Revolution that conditions were provided for the establishment of a film industry that would promote the development of domestic films.
The creation in 1959 of the Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC) (Cuban Institute of Film Art and Industry) meant a radical change for moving image creators. In 1960, the Cuban Film Magazine was founded, sponsored by ICAIC, providing wide dissemination of the theoretical and creative practice. That same year, the first feature film: Historias de la Revolución (Stories of the Revolution), by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea saw its premiere..
Also in 1960, Julio García Espinosa had the premiere of Cuba Baila (Cuba dances). In this first stage, called by critics “the golden age of the Cuban cinema”, the most important films were: La muerte de un burócrata (The Death of a Burocrat) (1966) and Memorias del subdesarrollo (Memoirs of Underdevelopment) (1968), by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea; Lucía (1968), by Humberto Solas; and La primera carga al machete (The first machete charge)(1969), by Manuel Octavio Gómez.
The exceptional work of Santiago Alvarez as documentary makr, revealed his individual virtuosity through almost forty years of continuos work, and the premiere of such important documentaries as Ciclón (Hurricane) (1963; Hanoi, martes 13 (Hanoi, Tuesday 13th) (1967), and 79 Primaveras (79 Springs) (1969).
Feature films such as Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s La última cena (The Last Supper)(1976) and Los sobrevivientes (Survivors);(1978) Manuel Octavio Gómez’s Ustedes tienen la palabra (You have the floor) ((1973), Manuel Pérez’s El hombre de Maisinicú (The Man from Maisinicú) (1973), Sara Gómez’s De cierta manera (To a certain extent) (1974), Octavio Cortazar’s El Brigadista (The Brigade Member)(1976); Pastor Vega’s Retrato de Teresa (Teresa’s Portrait) (1979), and Humberto Solas’ Un día de noviembre (A November Day), were filmed during the 70’s-
From the 80’s, we find great films such as Orlando Rojas’ Papeles secundarios (Supporting roles) (1989) and Clandestinos (Clandestine)(1987), Enrique Pineda Barnet’s La bella del Alhambra (The Beauty at the Alhambra Theater)(1989),Humberto Solas’ Cecilia (1981) and Un hombre de éxito (A Succesful Man)(1985), Fernando Pérez’s Una novia para David (A girlfriend for David) (1987), and Juan Carlos Tabío’s Plaff (1989), as well as the successful animated film Vampiros en La Habana (Vampires in Havana)(1985), by Frank Padrón.
In the film making panorama of the 90’s, films like Hello, Hemingway (1990), by Fernando Pérez; María Antonia (1990), by Sergio Giral; El siglo de las luces (The Age of Enlightenment) (1992), by Humberto Solas; Adorables mentiras (Adorable Lies) (1991), by Gerardo Chijona, Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) (1993), by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío; La ola (The Wave)(1996) by Enrique Alvárez; Pon tu pensamiento en mi (Think about me)(1993) and Amor vertical (Vertical Love)(1996), by Arturo Soto, deserve special mention.
Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) has been the most successful movie in the Cuban film history. An Oscar Award nominee for best foreign film, it allowed Cuba to penetrate the world film market. The film La vida es silbar (Life is just whistling), by Fernando Pérez, received the Havana Latin American Film Festival First Award. Many of the abovementioned films received many national and international awards during the decades in which they were made.
Cuba has also been magnificently reflected in photography. On April 5, 1840, the Havana Journal El Noticioso y Lucero, carried the news of the arrival in Cuba –a month earlier-- of the first photographic device which had been damaged during transportation.
The owner of the innovation, Pedro Téllez de Girón, took the first photo –of which there is written reference—from a balcony in the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. It seems the photo was lost or was ruined with the passing of time. At the beginning of the War of Independence, photographer José Gómez de la Carrera made a great contribution with his photographic reports of the war, paving the way for contemporary photo-journalism and setting a model hardly surpassed.
The first specialized publication –Photographic Bulletin— was founded in 1882. The book La fotografía al alcance de todos (Photography accessible to all), was published in 1887 at Soler Alvarez’s printing house in Havana. The period starting with the beginning of the century and up to the 1930’s. was reflected by important photographers like Generoso Funcasta, López Ortiz, Martínez Milla, and Ernesto Ocaña, among others. It is a period where photography becomes very important for several journal publications. The works of Joaquín Blez, a photographer from a bourgeois family with a unique taste for portraits and nude pictures deserves special mention.
In the years prior to the triumph of the Revolution, the cameras of Constantino Arias and Moises Hernández, the photographic archives of the Diario de Cuba journal in Santiago, the Bohemia magazine and the Diario de la Marina journal in Havana, provide a complete visión of the agitated social process the island was undergoing. With the Revolution, another group of important photographers take the most disseminated photos in history. Photographers such as Alberto Díaz “Korda”, Raúl Corrales, Osvaldo Salas (who covered Fidel’s visit to New York in 1955), and Ernesto Fernández, are among the most famous during these decades.
In the post Revolution period was captured in the works of photographers such as "Marucha", "Mayito", and Roberto Salas. During the “First Cuban Culture Exhibition” held in 1966 under the auspices of Casa de las Americas, photography joined in the art concord.
The first “Cuban Photography Exhibition” was presented in Mexico in 1976, and it was so favorably received that the following year a “Cuban Photography History Exhibition” was organized in Mexico City. More recent photographers are basing their work on photographic production and photographers like Marta María Pérez, Rene Peña, Abigail González, Julio Larramendi, and Cirenaica Moreira, among others, outstand for the beauty and content of their works.
When the great Genovese Admiral Cristobal Colón saw from his ship “the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen”, Cuba’s population consisted of indigenous communities devoted to agriculture and pottery. Some of them used shells and seashells to fabricate such ítems as knives, containers, gouges, neckalces and even clothes made of such materials, both everyday clothes as well as ceremonial outfits. Other more advanced communities developed pottery, and the great amount of ítems as well as pieces found suggest it was a significant trade in the economic and cultural life of these communities.
They also worked on wood and basketry. Wood was used both for the construction of bohios and caneyes (sort of rudimentary huts roofed with palm leaves) as well as for building canoes they used for navigation. Their ability to carv wood can be seen on the cemíes, dujos and drums called atabales o mayohuacan. While traditional handicraft in most Central and South American countries still carry the mark of the fist inhabitants, in the case of Cuba it is difficult to establish probable links between the current traditional handicraft works and indigenous ones. This historic legacy os known through chronicles of the conquest and the work of archeologists and anthropologists.
African culture contributed with many elements to folk handicraft. Works done in seeds and ceramic are considered the most important ones. This was a handicraft that in order to preserve its original elements of cult or usefulness, had to find in the new tropical environment, new materials and textures to guarantee the continuance of traditions.
Today, most of the handicraft artists (some as an artistic expression others to sell souvenirs to tourists) are students or graduates from Art Schools, or persons with certain design or drawing knowledge.
Contemporary handicraft work includes pieces of practical use and there is an industry that provides the necessary raw material for it.
Julio César Garrido and Carlos Espinosa outstand for their works in leather and cedar for the tobacco industry. Their works were auctioned at the Habanos Congress in the year 2000. Worthy mention deserves artist and ceramist Alfredo Sosa Bravo, who received the National Plastic Arts Award in 1998 for his works, where ceramics has a privileged place.
The Spanish design, from the southern part of Spain, was adapted with design solutions since the very early stages, to satisfy the requirement of living under tropical weather conditions. We are talking of an architecture of wide large windows and balconies that made the house an open and communicative space. The use of elements such as window screens made of iron and vitrales (stained glass arch windows) to filter light and play color into the rooms would provide a peculiar shade. Wide open arcades in squares and main avenues made the famous writer Alejo Carpentier describe Havana as “the city of columns”. The rhythm of building’s facade with its brick red tiles and nicely turned wooden balusters in the balconies provide a contrast of color and texture.
During the 20th century the neoclassical style would give a touch of elegance to the architecture of the creole bourgeoisie. The Aldama Palace or the Cerro Avenue in Havana are an example of the highly artistic level of constructions.
Throughout the 20th century, different architectural influences could be seen in urban designs. The art noveau introduced by Catalan masters, eclecticism which became very fashionable, neo-historicism, and art deco which inaugurated the modern movement of a rationalist nature, turned our cities, particularly the city of Havana, in places of a high patrimonial value due to the coexistence of multiple styles making up an urban visual delight. The military fortress system of the city and the architecture of the country as a whole are of great interest for the foreign visitor.
The Cabaña Fortress --the biggest in America-- is located in the capital of the country, as well as the Castillo de la Real Fuerza (the Royal Force Castle), the first bastion castle in the continent. The Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro (Castle of the Three Kings from the Hill) and the Castillo de la Punta (La Punta Castle) –both in Havana; the Castillo del Jagua (Jagua Castle), in Cienfuegos; San Pedro de la Roca (in Santiago de Cuba); and the Matachín Fortress (in Baracoa) can also be visited. Cuba also has two cities that have been declared heritage of humanity because of its high architectural preservation value: Old Havana and Trinidad.
The West Indies stamps were common for Cuba and Puerto Rico till 1876, but since June 1873, due to smuggling of currency between Cuba and Puerto Rico, the latter’s stamps were sealed again with a signature.
By 1887, each colony had its own stamp as members of the General Union of Post Offices, today the International Postal Union. In 1860 lithographic stamps were printed for the first time in Cuba, the first one with the image of Elizabeth II and the second with the Spanish Official Post Office. These stamps circulated in the island together with those printed in Spain.
During the neo-colonial republic many stamps were issued to pay homage to important personalities who had taken part in the war of independence against Spain or in the cultural field, as well as other stamps commemorating important political and social events.
In 1877 a stamp with the image of Alfonso XII replacing the title “ultramar” (overseas) with the name of “Cuba” was issued. In 1890, the first postage stamp with the image of Alfonso XIII and the name “Isla de Cuba” (Island of Cuba) was issued. During the Ten Year War, the mambises established their own mail service and printed two editions both with the coat of arms of the republic. With the intervention of the United States, the stamps were overprinted in horizontal five postage stamps strips and were printed in five different editions. Later on, the subject of stamps becomes rather illustrative than documentary, and some alternated between poetic and ironic subjects.
In 1930, on the occasion of the inauguration of the national airline, a 10 cent stamp was issued.
On January 28, 1959, a commemorative postage stamp, with water mark D and perforation was issued, to celebrate the triumph of the revolution. In 1960, a series overprinting the “Centenary of the Stamp” was issued and sold at the price of 20 cents. Important series were issued in the following years. In 1967, with an edition of 125 000 stamps in water mark F and perforation, with five paintings of the National Museum was issued; in 1973, a series with perforation 12 on Cuban colonial cartography was issued; in 1975, with an edition of 786,000 stamps with perforation 12, six postage stamps with the first series of endemic birds were issued; in 1976, with an edition of 886,000 stamps, with the second series on endemic birds was issued; In 1976, an 89 x 99mm perforation 13 stamp to commemorate the 5th National Philatelic Exhibition was issued; in 1978 stamps perforation 12, with an edition of 666,000 stamps were issued with the flowers of the National Botanic Garden, and that same year, with an edition of 635,000 stamps, perforation 12, the Cuban Painters series dedicated its postage stamps to Amelia Pelaez.
The events organized in the island as well as the high value of prívate and public collections showing the history if the Cuban postage stamp, have won Cuban philately international prestige.
Cuban rum is made out of sugar cane molasses. The aging process is done naturally, in barrels made of white oak, cooled by the humidity and warmth of the island’s climate.
The most internationally prestigious rum is Havana Club, founded in 1878, and has several lines: Silver Dry, Anejo 3 años, (3 years) Añejo 5 años, (5 years) Añejo 7 años (7 years), and Añejo Reserva (Añejo Reserve). Añejo 7 años is the favorite and it is drunk on the rocks or in strike.
The most typical cocktails are Mojito, a cocktail American writer Ernest Hemingway used to drink at La Bodeguita del Medio, and today it has almost become a myth to drink Mojito there; the Daiquirí, a refreshing drink under the tropical heat drunk at El Floridita; and the traditional Cubalibre and Havana Special.
To prepare a Mojito you mix a teaspoon of sugar, the juice of half a lemmon, and a branch of yerbabuena (mint leaf) with small ice cubes. Add 4cl. of white Havana Club rum, soda water and stir.
National Holidays in Cuba are:
- January 1st, Triumph of the Revolution
- May 1st – May Day or Labor Day
- July 25, 26, and 27 – National Rebelliousness Days (Anniversary of the Assault on the Moncada Garrison)
- October 10 – Beginning of the War of Independence (the day when Carlos manuel de Cespedes liberated his slaves, the first slave owner to do so)
- December 25 – Christmas