Cuba: A Cultural History, by Alan West-Durán

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

Alan West-Durán, Cuba: A Cultural History. London: Reaktion Books, 2017. vi + 288 pp. (Cloth £ 18.00)

The island of Cuba has produced an astonishing variety of cultural expressions over its modern history. One finds world-class ballet companies coexisting with a hermetic men-only secret society with origins in the margins of the Cross River in Nigeria; in the nineteenth century Cuban authors helped to launch Latin American poetic modernismo; in the twentieth Cuban radio gave rise to the hemisphere-wide phenomena of the radionovela and the telenovela; music from the island, in particular complex forms like the son cubano and its derivatives such as the mambo, acquired a global reach in the twentieth century; Cuban movies, novels, and the visual arts have been at the vanguard of Latin American artistic manifestations in those genres for the past 100 years. And so on. And so on.

Thus it takes a formidable background in all areas of culture, and no small amount of intellectual courage, to synthesize in one book this complex and varied national culture. But this is what Alan West-Durán has attempted to do. His cultural history of Cuba can be seen as either a small encyclopedic treatise, or several books in one. Or both. As he points out in the introduction, his book takes an unusual approach because it is neither a chronological historical narrative nor a traditional genre-based history of culture. Rather, he navigates through the rich tapestry of Cuban culture in order to make sense of the island’s history.

His approach is a novel combination of analysis and creative reflection. Thus we learn about José Martí’s poetics in dialog with Julián del Casal’s aesthetics. Similarly, West-Durán teaches the reader about the anthropological methods of Lydia Cabrera’s studies of Afro-Cuban traditions by contrasting them with those of her mentor Fernando Ortiz. His approach is particularly strong when evaluating the work of Cuba’s great writers of the recent past such as José Lezama Lima, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and Severo Sarduy.

West-Durán treats the subject of Afro-Cuban religions (Regla de Ocha, Palo Monte, and Abakuá) with particular sensitivity and detail. He effectively excavates the relationship between these religious expressions and the musical genres that are connected with them—the traditional rumba and more recently the exuberant timba music and dance style.

As West-Durán tells the cultural tale by way of artists, events, and debates, we learn quite a bit about Cuba’s political history, especially concerning the revolution against the Machado government in the 1930s and the origins of the 1959 Revolution. Two items in particular stood out for me: on the one hand, West-Durán’s grasp of the tremendous upsurge in artistic activity promoted by the revolutionary government in the 1960s, and on the other his extensive exploration of the theoretical, political, and social contradictions that have emerged between art and politics during revolutionary epochs in the Soviet Union and Cuba and the unresolved relationship between art and socialism. In that sense his analysis of the controversies surrounding the periodical Lunes de Revolución and Heberto Padilla’s poetry offers much food for thought.

West-Durán also presents an interesting analysis of Cuban hip-hop which highlights the religious components of the genre in its Cuban manifestation as well as its significance in terms of the rise of Black pride and consciousness in the island.

Taken as a whole the book confirms what Fernando Ortiz proclaimed decades ago—that Cuban culture is best understood as a complex, rich, and flavorful mixture, a powerful and tasty ajiaco, as a local stew is called.

Not afraid to venture beyond history and the arts, West-Durán treats us, in the concluding section of the book, to a sociologically grounded exploration of what the future of Cuba might portend in terms of an economic model to be followed. He compares possible Cuban approaches to twenty-first-century socialism with those that developed in Russia, China, and Vietnam, suggesting that somehow clues to that future may be revealed not by political economy but in the verses of Cuba’s contemporary songs, and in the Yoruba-inspired proverbs common in quotidian parlance—in other words, in the island’s cultural expressions.

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