New Books | Music between Cuba and West Africa

In this essay from a book edited by Adrien Delmas, Giulia Bonacci and Kali Argyriadis, Elina Djebbari discusses musical exchanges between newly independent states and communist countries.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from “Cultural Diplomacy in the Cold War: Musical Dialogues Between Cuba and West Africa, 1960-1970” by Elina Djebbari in Cuba and Africa, 1959-1994: Writing an Alternative Atlantic History (Wits University Press, 2020), edited by Adrien Delmas, Giulia Bonacci and Kali Argyriadis.

One Saturday evening in January 2015 in Cotonou, Benin, the Malian musician Boncana Maïga arrived on the stage at the grand finale of the second Benin International Salsa Festival. After words of praise from the festival organisers to introduce their guest of honour to the audience, Maïga ceremoniously displayed the transverse flute he was about to play. He accompanied the gesture with an account explaining that this very flute was presented to him as a gift by the Cuban government during his music studies in Havana in the mid-1960s.

By making the flute the symbol of his high-level musical training that led him to developing a successful international career, the Malian musician showed how much he had benefitted from the cultural exchanges established between Mali and Cuba in the context of a postcolonial diplomatic rapprochement. Moreover, the eloquent gesture of showing off the flute and the accompanying words indicated not only how much this experience had shaped him as an accomplished musician but that it was also still very vivid in his memory more than 50 years later. 

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The intertwinement of the musician’s personal journey and the political interests fostered during the Cold War era between Cuba and Mali features at the core of this chapter. It explores the political, musical and interpersonal relationships revealed by the criss-crossing of Malian and Cuban musicians across the postcolonial Atlantic. It therefore sheds light on the cultural exchanges initiated between Cuba and newly independent African countries throughout the 1960s and 1970s. 

During the Cold War, numerous African countries adopted a socialist policy at their independence in the 1960s. This was the case of the Republic of Mali, which became independent from France on 22 September 1960. Such anti-imperialist positioning led to the development of privileged relationships with other socialist countries worldwide. In addition to offering an ideological and political model opposed to Western imperialism, these new economic and political partnerships also took the form of cultural exchanges.

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USSR, China, North Korea and Cuba became Mali’s main partners in the realm of culture. The cultural exchanges consisted mainly of sending Malian students and civil servants abroad for training; building cultural infrastructure; organising cultural events; and reciprocally facilitating tours of national artistic ensembles. For instance, Malian choreographers were sent to Moscow, youth managers to China and North Korea, while musicians were trained in Cuba. 

In the context of the new political alliances fostered during the Cold War (such as the Non-Aligned Movement), Cuba developed a foreign cultural policy towards African countries. Within this framework, Cuba signed several cultural conventions with different African countries: with Egypt and Guinea in 1960; with Ghana, Mali and Algeria in 1964; and with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone and Tanzania in 1974. The Mali-Cuba cultural convention signed on 14 January 1964 stipulated that one of its purposes was to “develop the cultural relations in the realm of science, culture and art between the two countries in the interest of strengthening the friendship and mutual comprehension between Cuban and Malian people”. 

Music, decolonisation and cultural diplomacy in the Cold War 

Cultural diplomacy is conceived of as a means of “soft power”, that is a way to establish and sustain the influence of a given political, social and cultural model abroad. In the era of the Cold War, cultural outreach was seen as an index of state power and prosperity. As Lisa Davenport puts it, “culture itself became a measure of a nation’s wealth and power”. Many cultural initiatives became the forum where such issues were conveyed under the guise of a debate of ideas. The Congress for Cultural Freedom, largely supported covertly by the CIA from 1950 onwards, is an example of the way artists and intellectuals were brought to take a stand against Soviet communism in the name of culture and freedom of thought.

The Congress had more than 30 branches all over the world and was particularly active in Western Europe and the Americas. In another example, the Congress of Black Writers and Artists held in Paris in 1956 was seen as an intellectual follow-up to the Bandung Conference of 1955, that is, a means for Non-Aligned Movement stakeholders to be active as well at the cultural level in order to support their political positioning. Although the issues at stake regarding the cultural Cold War have been addressed by scholars in the case of Europe, North and Latin America, their implications for Africa remain to be fully investigated. 

The African continent was indeed a field where Cold War tensions arose, especially in the situation of decolonisation struggles. Several bilateral cultural conventions were signed at the time between African countries and socialist countries elsewhere: the USSR with Egypt in 1957 for example; and Cuba with a number of West African countries.

Based on political alliances established through the Non-Aligned Movement and the Tricontinental conference held in Cuba in 1966, these cultural partnerships with African countries sustained anti-imperialist ideologies and intellectual movements in the context of the Cold War. The major Pan-African festivals of the 1960s and 1970s (Dakar 1966, Algiers 1969, Kinshasa 1974, Lagos 1977) formed diplomatic spaces where a symbolic staging of Cold War political rivalries and alliances could be performed. 

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In the field of cultural diplomacy, music and musicians have been involved in many diplomatic strategies aimed at developing foreign policies and international relations over different periods of time and between various stakeholders. A wealth of scholarly works have investigated, for instance, the US State Department’s cultural diplomacy during the Cold War, showing the key role of music, and especially jazz, in these international exchanges.

However, the musical exchanges developed between Cuba and Africa as well as, more broadly, Cuba’s involvement in Africa at the level of cultural diplomatic exchanges have not yet been explored at length. With regard to music, such programmes involved sending Cuban artists abroad as well as welcoming foreign artists and productions in Cuba. Interestingly, the development of cultural relations with foreign countries featured as an important point addressed at the first National Congress of Culture held in Havana in 1962: 

Todo espectáculo de artistas extranjeros será programación de especial atención para los organismos de masa y deberán lograrse llenos totales en esos presentaciones, tanto por el valor político de esa conducta como por el alto valor cultural y artístico que representa para nuestra masa, el contacto con los mejores artistas del extranjero, antiguo privilegio de la burguesía. 

[Every show by foreign artists will be a programme of special attention for mass organisations and they will have to be fully present on those occasions, both for the political value of that behaviour and for the high cultural and artistic value that represents for our mass the contact with the best artists from abroad, a former privilege of the bourgeoisie.]” 

This statement acknowledged both the “political” and “cultural and artistic” values that were attached to the welcoming of foreign artists in Cuba. It also presented their shows as a way to reclaim a “former privilege of the bourgeoisie”. Communist and anti-imperialist ideologies thus blended together to provide the masses with access to culture and art. 

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In cultural exchanges with Africa, Cuban political leaders drew on the history of the slave trade to enhance and legitimate the new political relationships with African countries. In various speeches and writings, Fidel Castro referred to the contribution of Africans to Cuban culture and to the sharing of “common blood”. As Hauke Dorsch comments on the education programmes established between Cuba and Mozambique, “ideas of an Afro-Atlantic connection” informed them. The reference to a shared history was an important trope in postcolonial cultural diplomacy between Cuba and Africa. 

Independently of these formal initiatives, Cuban music had already come to play a key role in cultural decolonisation in Africa. In 1960s Mali, rock, jazz, twist and Cuban music were the main sounds to which people danced in urban nightclubs. Music dance styles from the New World were so popular that “Latin American music came to be the soundtrack of the independence era”. Cuban music was already well established all over the continent during the era of colonisation.

Its spread was particularly facilitated in the 1930s and 1940s with the arrival of the GV series of 78rpm records that mainly brought Cuban son and son montuno to African ears. Cuban music considerably influenced the creation of many genres of modern African popular music, of which Congolese rumba is certainly the most renowned example. What the diplomatic exchanges fostered with Cuba did was to increase the popularity of Cuban music within the framework of processes of cultural decolonisation. 

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At a time of African independence and Cold War rivalry, Cuban music was deemed to be both modern and capable of offering a musical alternative to the Western music dance styles. It also accompanied a cosmopolitan lifestyle and social behaviour that appealed to the African urban youth. As Richard Shain remarks about the success of Cuban music in Senegal, “Cuban music provided a progressive alternative to both traditional African music and the hegemonic culture of the colonisers”, by “enacting an alternative modernity to the Europeanised models so prevalent in post-war Senegal”. 

Moreover, this music was not considered foreign but rather as a genre repatriated after centuries of slavery and colonisation, a development Shain identifies as “roots in reverse”. Numerous African musicians and dancers shared this assumption. Ato Quayson noticed how Ghanaian salseros in Accra “feel salsa is a return back home of something that was taken away from its source in the course of slavery”. Because of this, Cuban music could be included in the nationalist ideologies of the independence era. As Bob White points out, “the success of Afro-Cuban music was due in part to this structural ambiguity, which made it possible to function as a torch of authenticity for some and as a marker of cosmopolitan modernity for others”.

Indeed, this “musical cosmopolitanism” did not prevent the construction of postcolonial Africa’s national identities. Cuban sounds and instruments were actually incorporated into the repertoires played by national “modern orchestras” that flourished all over the continent. For newly independent African countries where strong cultural policies were established to support the nation-building process, the emphasis on “traditional” and local music dance practices could at the same time accommodate Cuban music as the marker of an aspirational cosmopolitan modernity.

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