Anything you can do I can do better: Cuban county music traditions
One of the most memorable experiences I had when I first moved to Havana – almost 20 years ago now – was to live next door to one of Cuba’s most famous country musicians. They specialized in the creolised song tradition known as punto guajira – a poetic improvisation which features the 10-line stanza form known as the decima . The most popular form of decima is the controversia (argument in rhyme) where pairs of singers battle it out to make points about whatever: each other, nature, politics or their neighbourhood – accompanied by clave and plucked stringed instruments. Ned Sublette (writer of the seminal volume Cuba and its Music; From the First Drums to the Mambo) reminds us that the tradition of controversia traces back not only ‘’…to the entry of Spain into the New World’’ but ‘’…farther back, to poetic duals in Arabic before the birth of Islam’’. So we’re talking history here.
The performers aren’t usually singers so be prepared for some very out-of-tune renditions
Controversia is still practiced and enjoyed in many country areas but is also watched by millions each Saturday evening on the country music programme, Palmas y Canas. Performers aren’t normally singers so be prepared for some very out-of-tune renditions but it’s the poetry that’s centre stage here and the most agile rhyming elicits hearty applause from the audience. You might not understand the verbal acrobatics but you’ll still get a good hang of the style and enjoy everyone else’s enjoyment. It’s a strong part of Cuban culture that receives almost no outside attention – so why not be the first to dig in.
- CIDMUC: Calle G, #505, Vedado, Havana.
- IBERO-AMERICAN DECIMA CENTRE: Calle A, #608, Vedado.