“Even though this culture is of African origin, even though it is hundreds of years old, it is still very much alive here in Oriente." --- Roberto Sánchez Vigñot

Roberto Sánchez Vigñot
Director, Cutumba Folkloric Ensemble

How has the government supported your work over the years?

Roberto Sánchez - From the beginning in 1959 the government began to take steps towards fomenting a cultural revolution as a big part of the Cuban Revolution. One important step, for example, was the campaign against illiteracy which began in the early 1960s. At that time, there was a lot of North American cultural influence in Cuba, more so than that coming from Europe. For sure, we had pretty strong relations with the United States, even a naval base nearby. Overall there were strong political and economic ties to the U.S. This was the time of the emergence of rock-n-roll, a lot of manifestations of U.S. culture here. And Cuban culture that had always been here, exemplified by the son, the mambo, the chachachá, the danzón - these were being relegated by our youth to a status below that of the twist, rock-n-roll or rhythm and blues. They were loving a lot of the stuff coming out of the States, which, don't get me wrong, is very rich in content, but which was relegating Cuban culture to a lower level. The bolero, the danzón, the guaracha - all of these existed. Almost by accident I was able to dance all of these, plus rock-n-roll. But also rumba, because I lived in a traditional neighborhood, where we had the conga, the rumba, the Tumba Francesa. We had things like that in our poorer neighborhoods, things which you would not see "downtown." And in the mass media, forget it. Our culture was not being propagated to our own people.

The Revolution intelligently began to support the recovery of such traditions of Cuban culture. In the countryside and in the cities throughout the country a big movement arose to support popular culture, to support festivals organized by professionals and amateurs, to support the rejuvenation of Cuban folklore. This was not done at the expense of classical music and other cultural manifestations which had been the domain of the elite. But rather it re-enforced, complete with economic backing, many forms of popular culture. Subsidies were provided so that cultural workers had salaries, so that poor people had training, so that we had adequate transportation as well as access to the media in order to bring to life this culture which had been asleep. All this has been impacted during the Special Period, but we continue this work.



Before we get to that, Cuba entered into a long and involved relationships with several African countries in the 1970s, notably Angola. Was there a growth of influence coming out of Africa on Cuban culture at that time?


    Roberto Sánchez - There was a lot of cultural exchange, but in reality Cuban culture rests on a very strong and well-defined basis, to the point that there was not that much influence per se. Cuba had a lot to do with what was going on in Angola, we supported Angola in the war, a lot of Angolan students came here to study. We have had a lot of Cubans go over there.

Has the group had the opportunity to travel to Africa?

Roberto Sánchez - No, never. We've been to Europe, various parts of Latin America, but never to Africa. We have studied a lot of aspects of African culture, always looking for our antecedents from where we come, especially of Benin, the Dahomeyan influences, etc. We need to know the characteristics of each region, of different religions. But this has been done through study. Some of us were able to go because we were involved in the war in Angola. But the influence has not been that great, because we have a very solid base here in our work. There have been some instances of influence, but nothing very definitive in terms of our repertoire.


You started to speak a little earlier about the impacts of the Special Period.

Roberto Sánchez - We have felt a lot of impacts. Costumes, material for construction of instruments - it has become a lot tighter in terms being able to obtain such things. But with or without the Special Period, the cultural base and underpinnings of our work were and remain solid. Our culture is strong within all of us and that is what really stimulates our work. The people who, due to current conditions, do not have a drum, play boxes or even table tops, or a chair. They dance wherever. Cuban music is coming out on top throughout the world right now. Our son, salsa, and Afro-Cuban forms are influencing everyone around the world.


Have the hardships made you stronger?

Roberto Sánchez - Definitely. Such things have obliged us to do the impossible, to carry our work to more and more profound levels. They have made us socially and culturally richer. We may not be rich economically, but we sure are culturally, spiritually, and socially. In this moment, we are living with our hearts, but it's important to be able to do that, too.


What has been the role of the Cuban arts schools in your work?

Roberto Sánchez - In the first place, the Arts Schools were an accomplishment of the Revolution, and from the beginning they included Cuban folkloric music and dance as a part of the curricula. People from existent folkloric ensembles at that time became some of the first Professors of folkloric music and dance at the Schools. As time went by we began to make technical advances as our dancers

    became more technically proficient through study at the ENA (Escuela Nacional de Arte or National Art School in Havana) or in various other schools. The ensemble began to really build up its capacity, because we did not have our own school in those days. But the students would study and then return with a high level of technical capacity. They still had to learn a lot about the particular forms of the culture here, but this was an important exchange with others throughout the island. We provided a lot of knowledge about our thing here in Oriente, and our dancers increased their technical skills.

Do most of the people in the ensemble today come from the Santiago and Guantánamo region?

Roberto Sánchez - Yes, and in fact there is no one from Havana in the group. Afro-Haitian cultural expression is specific to here, and is not broadly known, that is, known well, in other parts of the island. In Camagüey there is some knowledge of it. But even in Holguín there is little local knowledge of it. In Ciego de Ávila they dance country. In Santa Clara something else. In Matanzas, Yorubá and Congo. In Havana, Yorubá, Congo and whatever.

    A lot of times artists from Havana come and take some courses here and then they leave and they do not hold on to the art. Why? Because the antecedents, the origins of the culture here are alive! There are still Haitian communities here. This is not the case for example in Havana - Yorubá communities simply do not exist there. In the last century they did, but they have disappeared. Here we have elders of 70 or 80 or even 100 years of age, who along with their children still participate in a variety of festivals and celebrations of Vodú and Gagá here in the mountains which surround Santiago and Guantánamo. These folks come down from the mountains and there is a pretty constant cultural exchange which goes on between such communities and those of us living in urban areas. Even though this culture is of African origin, even though it is hundreds of years old, it is still very much alive here in Oriente.

Do young people have the opportunity to study here nowadays or must they go to Havana to do so?

Roberto Sánchez - We have our own school now here in Santiago de Cuba. It's not operated by the Ministry of Education but is rather an internal school. Young people still do go to Havana in order to study. They are taught technical skills, based primarily on Yorubá traditions. Until very recently that was it, although now they do learn one of our dances, the Tumba Francesa. But in 1999 there will be a new school opening up right here in Santiago which will be much more focused on the culture of the region here.


We were talking earlier about the impacts of North American culture here in Cuba prior to the Revolution. Right now, clearly one can see the presence of the dollar. You can go to a nightclub in Havana or here and see that it is very difficult for many Cubans to have access to such things. Musicians and others in Havana are debating whether modern dance music - timba - is conforming more to the tastes of foreign tourists, that is, whether its development is being driven partially by such forces. With all of your history working here over 40 years, are you preoccupied by the growing impacts of North Americans and Europeans here?

Roberto Sánchez - We have some concerns about this, yes. Here in the discotheques all you hear is foreign music, with maybe a little salsa mixed in. And this is influencing a lot of our youth. Those that go to the discos are not dancing as much our son, not dancing as much rumba, things which we can claim as ours. In our cultural institutions yes we maintain these things. In dollar establishments they do not. In the home, in the barrio, there we maintain these things. In fact, it is the lack of access to dollars which is helping us a lot to maintain our culture. Because most folks cannot afford to go to downtown Santiago, they hang out in their houses and dance there, usually to our music.

But also, we are having a dialogue right now. People are listening to foreign music and they are listening to Cuban music. I don't believe that there is any danger. We always have to watch what is going on, to be careful about these things. Remember we live here. We are Cubans. Foreigners do not live here.


Does Cutumba do the majority of its performances for Cuban audiences?

Roberto Sánchez - We perform for both Cuban audiences and for foreigners. Probably most of the time in Santiago we perform for tourists, but when we perform outside of Santiago it is for Cubans.


Can the government still provide support for public performances?

Roberto Sánchez - Well, we are maintained by government subsidies - our salaries, our building and performance space here, everything is paid for by the government. As I mentioned, there are material shortages, but the support is still there both for us and many others - folkloric groups, musicians, even for amateur performing artists.


What is the role of Cutumba during Carnival here in Santiago de Cuba? Do you engage in anything special?

Roberto Sánchez - Sometimes we do. We have our own comparsa which performs at Carnival. But all of the members of the ensemble participate in


distinct comparsas as well, from their own barrios. They dance, or they play music, or they do the choreography. In Santiago there are twenty comparsas and paseos, not including those involving children. There are also six or seven congas. During the morning and the afternoon the children's comparsas are in the streets, and the adults come out at night.

But before Carnival here in Santiago we hold the Festival del Caribe, which is a very important celebration because people come together from all over the Caribbean, even from Mexico and Brazil, Colombia, including from all over Cuba. You can see everything - Vodú, Gagá, dance, music, everything.


This was previously the same thing as Carifesta which Cuba sometimes hosted in the 1970s?

Roberto Sánchez - It's different but with a similar concept. The celebration started up in 1980.


Do you have any special message for people in the United States?

Roberto Sánchez - Yes. We need more cultural exchange between us and people in the United States. Look, there are a lot of Cubans living in the United States, but they do not carry on Cuban culture the way it is here. They may lose it. They certainly commercialize it. Here, we maintain our Cuban roots, our cubanía. There has always been a tremendous amount of trade in cultural and musical influences between the U.S. and Cuba. Here at our school we get an increasing number of U.S. and Canadian students every year, and that is good because we cannot lose such ties.


Do you believe that ultimately this can be an exchange between equals?

Roberto Sánchez - Yes. We have some passing problems. But in reality the two peoples, who want this, to be able to travel and visit one another, have to be able to do this.


Is there anything that you would like to raise that I have not thus far, anything I have missed?

Roberto Sánchez - Our culture can be a very strange phenomenon. Cuba has such strong African influences, yet is so far from Africa that, to a certain point, it has nothing to do with Africa. Given the colonial penetration, you really have to look for the African influences. But they are there. Yorubá kings have come here. And now, over 100 years after emancipation, new things, new cultural manifestations continue to arise out of our reality.

© 1998 - Louis Head