“It's better to confront difficulties with a little bit of rumba in your life than to sit around and cry

or cut your wrists” - Pablo Menéndez
Pablo Menéndez
Guitarist and Bandleader

For a lot of people in the United States and around the world the thought of a U.S. citizen coming to Cuba to study and live as you did would seem unordinary to say the least. Tell us how this came about.

Pablo Menéndez - I believe that I had the good fortune that my mother, blues and folk singer Barbara Dane, was the first performer from the United States to defy the State Department ban on travel to Cuba in 1966 and come to perform in Cuba. Her concert tour was very widely publicized here as part of a government campaign to change the old fifties slogan of "¡Cuba Sí, Yanqui No!" to "¡Cuba Sí!" and the American people also "¡Sí!" and the Yankee government "¡No!" There was a big distinction between the two. At the end of her trip she was able to arrange for me to come study music here, originally for a year. I was actually here for three years before leaving for anyplace at all. I've been living here since then. I've been back to visit in the United States, and I have traveled all over the world as a Cuban musician. I have been living in Cuba as a U.S. resident of Cuba for over 30 years.


Cuba has musical traditions that no doubt contribute to the strength of its music industry. But something like 12,000 professional musicians is impressive for a small, underdeveloped country. Can you shed some light on why this is so?

Pablo Menéndez - One of the policies of the Cuban Revolution from the beginning was to spend a lot of money on the arts - not only subsidizing the education of artists but also then the job security or possibility of making it


as an artist without having to make any commercial concessions. Also, one of the most important things was maintaining very popular ticket prices so that performances by these different trained artists could be accessible, so that everybody in Cuba could enjoy them. I was thrown into the middle of this when I came at age 14. I was at the National Art School and it was a really exciting experience. The School was built on what used to be the grounds of the Country Club of Havana, an exclusive golf club for millionaires, mostly Americans in fact, around that neighborhood in Cubanacán. I had heard that Batista - the Dictator of Cuba before the Revolution - was too dark skinned to even be a member of the Club.

After the Revolution the Art School was built there after a lot of the millionaires had left for wherever they were going to be calling home after that. The mansions were turned into dormitories and scholarships were given out on the basis of talent to kids from all walks of life. The most outstanding thing to me was that peasants from dirt floor shacks and urban ghetto families all of a sudden had access to things like this. It was an amazing transformation of life. There was this very dynamic situation at that point. The first generations of graduates from that school are still today some of the most outstanding artists not only of Cuba but around the world because of this very dynamic situation that they were trained in.


Who were some of the people you attended school with?

Pablo Menéndez - Everybody from Emiliano Salvador to Humberto Pereira, who went on to be the leader of Ritmo Oriental. Humberto was also in my rock-n-roll band in those days - we used to play all the parties at the School. Arturo Sandoval, who is living in the United States now, is from my generation in school. Adalberto Alvarez for example, or José Luis Cortés - alias "El Tosco" - of NG La Banda. Joaquín Betancourt who has worked with Issac Delgado's band. The list could go on forever. Most of the outstanding jazz and popular musicians in Cuba of my generation came out of that explosion of creativity that there was at that time at the school.


Let's back-track a little bit because you spoke about music education as a piece of this...

Pablo Menéndez - Yeah, in two sentences - (laughs) because that one National School was the music school at the high school level, the only one at the time that I came down. But since that time one has been developed in each Province so that now there are 14 or 15 of them. Right here in the city of Havana there are four. And remember that I am not even touching on the University level arts schools or the night schools for musicians and artists which have also been established. There has just been more and more effort, money, and attention given to the project of training artists at as high a level as possible.


Could you give a little overview from your perspective of what is offered generally to youth in Cuba in terms of education?

Pablo Menéndez - Well, I have experienced the Cuban school system through high school, and then there's my son who also received a music education, and now I have a grandson who is just starting out his experience with Cuban schooling. The pre-revolutionary situation in Cuba - I guess everybody in the world knows this but most people in the United States don't - as in many Third World countries the situation here included a high functional illiteracy rate. At the beginning of the Revolution there was a literacy campaign where people who knew how to read and write went out into the countryside


and into the neighborhoods and made sure that as close as possible to 100% of the population began to learn how. In general, all sorts of schools - not only the art schools - were created, and education has been free ever since. You don't have to pay any tuition, not even to get University-level training. The access to vocational schools for things like music is based on exams used to determine your level of talent.

When I was in school they had alongside regular high school studies a very full artistic training not only in the pure musical sense but also in music-related things. And there were a lot of what you would call in the U.S. extracurricular activities - making sure that we saw a lot of film, could get a chance to see ballet, see theater, and see different concerts and types of music. There was a general effort to make sure that we became specialists in the cultural field and in the artistic field, and in my case in music specifically. An interesting thing also was that since this was the National Art School we were classmates of people who were studying ballet or dance or theater or any of the technical crafts around performing arts, and also painters and sculptors - all of the arts. We were all thrown in together.


Once a student is accepted into a music program what kinds of study options does that student have?

Pablo Menéndez - This is something that in Cuba is always in constant development. When I came in 1966, the options, the things which were being stressed by the school, the general atmosphere of the country - all of these things were very different then now 30 years later. The whole situation - the social situation, the living situation, the live-in schools - was very different at that time. The general level of culture of the country, the general levels of education and of consciousness were different than they are now. And these have changed at least 10 times in those thirty years - every three or four years things seem to change, develop, deepen, whatever. I recently saw in Time magazine how here in Cuba "Soviet style" art schools or something like that "stressed classical music and frowned on popular music." This is one of these gross generalizations, misinterpretations or distortions of what has happened here that unfortunately surface pretty routinely in the U.S. press.

In the 1960s when they started out the schools, if you could study - say violin - for one year, you would already be on the technical level of most of the musicians who were in high paying bands that were very popular at the time. I'm talking about orquestas típicas or charangas that used three violins in each of them, and which were playing in nightclubs and cabarets and making a ton of money. So if you wanted a student to go past just one year and study - say - 11 years of violin and become a really great concert violinist and be able to play anything and not just repeat a folkloric formula or whatever the latest pop style was, then you had to find a way to impose restrictions so that people wouldn't just go the easy way and try to make money. So there was an attempt at that time to have kids stay in school until they graduated.

Folkloric music and pop music have always been widespread and popular in Cuba. Cuba is one of the countries at the center of one of the biggest mixtures of humanity in history - nationalities of Europe, nationalities of Africa thrown together in the Americas, with a dose of Arabs, a dose of Asians, the Native peoples of the Americas. So the dynamics of folk culture, of popular culture, the types of music you can hear when you walk around the streets of Cuba is amazing. During the 1960s, the literature and the level of development of popular music was not on the level that it is today. So all of the kids were told to try to get their training, but at the same time they all could play all sorts of Cuban popular music, and the training they received made them even better popular musicians as well.

So, a lot of us in those days didn't finish. Sometimes this depended on our individual living situations, for example where we could go when we weren't at school. If we were from some place way out in the other end of the island twenty hours away by bus, then we might make more of an effort to stay at the school. If we lived here in Havana then maybe it wasn't as important. Most of us didn't make it to graduation.

Sometimes it depended on our instrument. In my case, I was always into rock-n-roll and popular music. I get down here to school, my teacher says "O.K., now we're gonna study classical guitar" and I have a hard time fitting in. I didn't make it to the end of the classical guitar studies, and basically got kicked out due to my interests in the electric guitar. Well, I wasn't really "kicked out" but I didn't make it to the end.


What kinds of changes have you personally seen over the years at the Art School and how have these affected the options which students have?

Pablo Menéndez - This is amusing to me because I had the kinds of problems I had playing electric guitar in the first place. Years later the Directors of the school contacted me to be the first Professor of Electric Guitar in the new Electric Guitar Department. So I'm the head of the Electric Guitar Department at the same school right now.

There have been changes big and small. I remember that two or three years prior to being called to head the Guitar Department they were doing a few workshops on electric guitar and improvisation and some teacher friends contacted me to help out. I said, "Listen man, it's too hot. I won't go to be a teacher at that school until I can go in shorts and an undershirt or a tank top." And they told me, "Oh, teachers can't go like that." Well, later as a Professor I went in my tank top and shorts. Then, the first week I'm back there I am giving a class and the Vice-Principal comes running up and says "Hey, forget the class. Come down to the video room because we just got a new concert video of Pat Metheny and his band playing in the National Stadium in Santiago de Chile, and we're going to play the video now."

At the time I was a student in 1966-67, of course we didn't have video - the machines didn't exist. The few portable reel-to-reel audio tape decks we had were about the only major sources of information about music from the United States that we had at that time. Right now, I would say that young students at the National Art School have a lot of material difficulties, but they're very much in contact with whatever is going on in the world and the education is pretty up to date. Not every student will have the possibility of owning his own video player or color TV, or tape recorder, but there is definitely an effort to make those resources available. Right now we are still trying to figure out how to develop a computer department so that we can use software for music education. So you know what I say, things have developed a long way.


What have been some of the impacts of the Special Period?

Pablo Menéndez - The Special Period and all the cutbacks have affected the possibility of a lot of things becoming reality. The Special Period in my particular field had a tremendous impact because during the years that Cuba was part of a system of mutual collaboration with eastern European countries for example you could say, "O.K., we're going to import so many bassoons or French horns, or oboes" because they were made by those countries and even though they are very expensive instruments they would be free to the students at the school.

    When we started the Electric Guitar Department there wasn't any five year plan because the eastern European countries had disappeared as such by the time the Department was developed. They would have in the past been able to sell some guitars or guitar strings or cables or amplifiers to us, but the fact was that there were tremendous cutbacks, so we had to start out with basically no equipment. One of the things right now which is a requisite to get study electric guitar in the school is that the student bring their own guitar. If not, you create some false illusions that the government and the school are not able to provide for right now.

What does it take for a student to get his or her hands on an electric guitar?

Pablo Menéndez - Well, in my case the school is a high school level so they are already graduates from an elementary level school. They are already among the top students and they have already shown that they have the level of talent in the field of popular music which points them in the direction of electric guitar, instead of playing classical or concert guitar. And then on the other hand, what I tell the leadership of the school is "Please, find kids who have a guitar," because it is very frustrating if you have to work with the acoustic guitar that the school is able to provide for them, and then you want to get into some material where you need an electric guitar for technical reasons to be able to learn that stuff and the school can't provide it for them, and the kid says "Well how are you going to test me on this if you can't provide me with one?" Then the kid says "Well, where can I buy one? I don't make enough money to buy one." It's a frustrating experience.

The school is always looking for ways to get enough money to meet such needs. There are some study programs set up where both amateur and professional musicians from the States have been coming down twice a year for two weeks and studying at the school with the different teachers of areas of Cuban music, and they bring down with them instruments or strings or cables or skins, and they also provide a source of income for the school which is invested in copy machines or whatever. The government has the same intent of providing education to students, but new ways have to be developed due to the existing situation.


What does the government expect of graduating students and of professional musicians?

Pablo Menéndez - Well, not all of this education is really free, because at the end of your education you are expected by law to spend three years in some way paying back the government. Paying back the government is kind of like paying off your student loan, except that it takes the form of working at a set salary the first year which goes up the

"We want our future generations to carry on" Santiago de Cuba

second and third, and then you are in the free market. But supposedly the priority is on music education, so that the musicians in their last years are given elements of how to be a good music teacher. For example, when my son graduated he went off to a province to be a music teacher. In his second year he was able to do something that brought him closer to home, then the third year he was only an hour away from home. He actually didn't finish his third year because he was by then already a professional musician.

The normal expectation of students after graduation is that they will go on as professional musicians. I know that there are some people who after graduating have gone into other fields, usually music-related fields, but it would be hard to imagine someone studying classical piano for eleven years and then deciding that they would rather be a taxi driver. But recently there have been a lot of problems because of all the changes in the Cuban economy. Some of the ways the economy has affected incentives in terms of pay levels for jobs have been absolutely chaotic in the past few years. Somebody can be a waiter, or a driver or a busboy in any of the tourist-related industries and may be making a whole lot more money than a highly skilled professional. In the music industry, too, some are making a hundred times more than others.


What kind of options are available to musicians?

Pablo Menéndez - I think a practical way of getting at this is through my personal experience. The first ten or so students that I graduated after four years - the ones that I first saw as teenage kids so I followed their careers a bit - one of them is working as a bass player at a tourist resort in Varadero. One is a tres player - the last time I saw him he was sitting in with an all-woman band. Two of them are some of the most outstanding jazz-fusion players anywhere in the world, and they're doing recording session work and playing in any number of bands throughout Cuba and the world because their talents are in such demand. In general, the better they are the more diverse the job market. Another is playing with one of the top rock bands, doing long stretches in Spain as well as all the national venues here in Cuba. One of them went back to his province, got married, and is working there so he can be closer to his home and his family, playing in bands in local cabarets and that sort of thing. He also has a solo thing he does on electric guitar, which is not that common - I'm sure that we will hear from him in the future.

That's not all ten of them, but it gives you an idea of the cross-section of possibilities. Somebody could get a job in the national radio and TV orchestra or be a recording artist. Salsa actually uses very little guitar, although there are some salsa bands which use electric guitar, so that might be an option, too.