Friday, February 12, 2010

Culturas Híbridas: from underground hip hop to avant-garde theater

Feb. 11, Culturas Híbridas: from underground hip hop to avant-garde theater

Where is the cultural underground in Havana? It seems like an overdetermined question, and the answers one finds are perhaps also overdetermined. The other night I put on my urban ethnographer’s hat and went with some friends to a hip hop concert by the “prohibited” and “underground” hip hop group “Los Aldeanos”. The concert was being held at a theme park all the way out near the airport. Rio Cristal had apparently been quite a beautiful park before the revolution, or so I was told by someone who lived a bourgeois life then, but now it seemed like a deserted museum to a theme park of fifty years ago.

The group set up beneath the diving board in front of a pool filled with only 2 feet of murky water. There were only about 30-40 young people, mostly Cuban, and a small smattering of foreign (gringo?) hip hop fans. Although I had been told that los Aldeanos had been prohibited by the government, there are apparently different levels of government censorship. They are allowed the play in public, even if their music is not recorded or played on radio or TV.

The fans, a racially mixed group, all seemed to know the lyrics, and they sang along with the group, pumping their hands in the air as a pair of gringas waded into the pool to dance. What seemed bizarre was the self-consciousness of their subversive status, as if it had become part of their image that they had to keep selling to their audience. We are los Aldeanos, “hip hop underground,” they belted from beneath the diving board.

The next night I continued my tour through alternative hip hop, and saw Las Krudas, a lesbian hip hop act, that was playing at a small, very smokey, divey club in Vedado. One of the Krudas now lives in California, but she was back, and they were performing again. The hip hop scene in Havana seems almost completely dominated by men, so it is that much more impressive for an all female, and explicitly feminist group to have gained such a following.

The lyrics of Las Krudas’ songs are overtly political, calling for a global revolution, declaring equality with men, and even one song glorifying fat women. The disjunction between the militant anti-machista feminism of las Krudas and the machista ambience of the club was striking. Before las Krudas sang, the dance floor filled with Cuban men, almost all black, dancing very tightly with white, foreign women. There were almost no Cuban women in the club, and the ones who were there were not dancing with the men, but sat with their boyfriend’s at tables. Feminism as discourse more than practice. One of the songs was about men and women being equal; everytime she sang “somos iguales” (we are equal), a Cuban man in the audience responded, “mentira” (lie).

Tonight I went to the Llaurado theater in Vedado to see a Chilean play called Neva. The play is set in St. Petersburg in 1905, on the eve of Russia’s 1905 revolution. Chekov’s wife, Olga, an actress, bemoans the death of her husband while she and two other actors keep reenacting the final moments of Chekov’s life. The actors kept slipping into and out of character, leaving the audience wondering where the acting ends and the “real” story begins. The staging was very minimal with one chair and a low orange light that came from something that looked like it was a heater around which the actors huddled to keep warm in the cold Russian winter.

The play climaxes with one of the actresses, who plays Chekov’s sister at one point, declaring that she hates the theater, and hates the public who goes to the theater. Why don’t they give their money to the poor instead of spending it on the theater. She calls on the other two actors to wake up and recognize that a revolution is about to happen. Chekov’s wife, Olga, wails that nothing ever changes, and nothing ever will. The other actress says she dreams of killing rich people, burning down estates and theaters, and assassinating generals. She finally shouts, “no habrá mas ricos” (there will be no more rich people). A long silence, and then one of the other actors says, “yeah, we will all be poor.” The audience laughs, because they don’t want to cry.

Tonight was the last show, and I waited in a long line two hours before the show to try to squeeze in at the last minute despite the fact that the show was sold out. And then once the doors opened, everyone seemed to be allowed in for 10 Cuban pesos (40 US cents). There were people sitting in the aisles on lawn chairs, two-abreast, and people standing several rows deep in the back. If there were such a thing as a fire code, this would certainly have been a major violation. The crowd, unlike the mostly black Cuban crowd at Las Krudas, was lighter-skinned Cubans, suggesting that after fifty years, cultural life is still somewhat segregated along racial lines in Cuba. And unlike the large presence of gringas at the hip hop show, this was an almost entirely Cuban audience.

My Cuban friend who saw the play earlier, left trembling. I’m not sure whether it was my hunger, dehydration, or what, but the play brought tears to my eyes. The glorious idea of a revolution that promised so much, that hoped to bring down the czar and eliminate all rich people, ended in nihilism and tragedy. “We will all be poor,” was the line that received the most laughs tonight. And at the end of the play, the heater emanating a dark orange glow, was turned to face the audience, and the stage went black.

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