Wednesday, March 1, 2017
March 1, 2017: CubanAmericanStudying: Three Artists, Three Generations
[On March 2nd, the great Cuban-American actor and entertainer Desi Arnaz would have celebrated his 100th birthday. So for Arnaz’s centennial, a series on a handful of Cuban-American figures and histories!]
On a trio of talented and influential Cuban American musical artists who also reflect their respective generations and periods.
1) Arturo Sandoval (born 1949): Sandoval, one of the 20th century’s most talented and influential jazz trumpeters and composers (and he’s still going strong into the 21st!), first became a force within the worlds of jazz and music while still in Cuba: he helped establish the Orquestra Cubana de Música Moderna in 1967 (when he was only 18), and began touring with his own band shortly thereafter; in 1982 he toured with the legendary trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and they began a close working and personal relationship. It while on a 1990 world tour with Gillespie that Sandoval defected to the U.S. embassy in Rome, beginning the Cuban American stage of his life and career that included his 1998 citizenship and his 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Although, again, he has continued to work prolifically in recent years, and although any figure this pioneering unquestionably transcends historical circumstances, Sandoval’s connections to both jazz and to Cold War Cuban and American dynamics embody the baby boom generation in many ways.
2) Gloria Estefan (born 1957): Although she was born only eight years after Sandoval (and left Cuba long before him, in 1960 as her family fled Castro’s revolution), I would nonetheless locate salsa and pop singer, songwriter, and superstar (and now businesswoman and entrepreneur) Estefan in a subsequent generation and artistic period. “Conga,” the 1985 song that launched Estefan and her band Miami Sound Machine (she had been singing with them since 1977, when they were known as Miami Latin Boys) into international superstardom, mixes Latino rhythms and influences with the legacy of disco and the currents of 80s pop, yielding a new sound that would make Estefan and the band into perennial chart-toppers for the rest of the decade. After Estefan went solo in 1991 with the album Into the Light, she continued to build on those interconnected musical and cultural influences over subsequent decades, moving back and forth between English and Spanish songs and albums in the process (and receiving her own Presidential Medal of Freedom, along with her husband and lifelong collaborator Emilio, in 2015). In all those ways, Estefan reflects the evolution of popular music and culture in and after the 1980s, an evolution that continues to shape our 21st century world in every way.
3) Pitbull (born 1981): Armando Christian Pérez, the Cuban-American rapper and producer known by his stage name Pitbull, is the only one of these three artists to be born in the United States; his parents had fled Cuba many years earlier, and he was born in Miami (a fact he includes in many, many songs). It is thus perhaps no coincidence that Pitbull has risen to musical prominence in the genre of rap, one of the most uniquely American musical genres; while it’s true that he frequently raps in Spanish as well as English, I would (as any reader of this blog likely knows) call that a distinctly American combination as well. So it’s certainly possible to say that Pitbull represents an overtly post-Cuban identity and generation, one where Cuba is of course a heritage but where the United States—not only geographically, but in its art and pop culture—is the central presence and influence. Yet at the same time, we AmericanStudiers know that identity, community, and culture are never that simple—and in this particular case, as all of this week’s posts will reflect, Miami in particular is a setting that over the last half century has come to be defined as fully by Cuba as by any influence. So Pitbull really reflects a new Cuban-American generation and community, one helping them and all of us move into the 21st century.
Next CubanAmericanStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Cuban American stories or histories you’d highlight?