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/ARTS WEEKLY/CUBA: Fascination with Argentine Culture Spans Generations

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Oct 27 2004 (IPS) - Carlos Gardel album covers, newspaper clippings and yellowed photographs once covered every inch of the walls in the narrow entryway on Havana’s Neptuno Street where someone had turned their home into a tango museum.

One day, in the early 1990s, with the economic crisis well underway, the memorabilia disappeared, and the soft strains of tango drifting from an old record player were replaced by the smell of pizza wafting from a privately-run fast food business.

The tango had moved a few doors down, and even though its new home was a bigger, more modern museum, the original venue lives on in the memories of nostalgic Havana residents.

There is no musical genre as much like the Argentine tango as the Cuban bolero, declared film critic Joel del Río at a recent seminar held in Havana, entitled Distant Signals: Argentine Contributions to Cuban Culture.

Some claim that the first country where the tango was danced was actually Cuba. Whether or not this is true, the quintessentially Argentine dance never really took root on the island, so rich in its own unique dance styles.

But the films, the music and even the cynical sense of humour of the South American nation have earned many loyal Cuban fans, and over successive generations.

Cubans now reaching middle age grew up watching films produced in Buenos Aires in the first half of the 20th century. For many, old movies from Mexico, the United States and Argentina were the only cinema they knew in their childhood.

“We all grew up believing that Libertad Lamarque was ‘America’s Sweetheart’, because that’s what our grandparents and parents told us,” recalled del Río.

Argentine-born Lamarque was one of the best-known tango singers of all time, as well as one of Latin America’s best-loved movie stars, appearing in more than 60 films.

Del Río believes that the classic Argentine movies broadcast almost daily on Cuban state television prepared the public for the emergence in the 1980s of Brazilian soap operas and the new school of Argentine cinema.

Eliseo Subiela, the director of films like Man Facing Southeast and Dark Side of the Heart, “probably has more fans in Cuba than in any other country,” and his work has influenced some of the island’s most celebrated filmmakers, like Fernando Pérez (Havana Suite), according to del Río.

As for music, tango arrived before and then along with the earliest Argentine cinema, and its melancholy strains seeped into the blood of a great many Cubans, making it the most popular non-Cuban musical genre on the island in the first decades of the 20th century.

Half a century later, the Argentine rock of singers like Charly García, Juan Carlos Baglietti and Fito Paéz made a similar impact on a new generation of Cubans.

In the early 1980s, once Argentina had emerged from the years of military dictatorship (1976-1983), the first groups of tourists from the South American nation began to arrive on the island.

“They were young leftists, who came to Cuba to learn about the country and the people, and by the end, they would practically give you the shirts off their backs. They went back to Buenos Aires empty handed, and among the things they left behind were the tapes they listened to in their Walkmans,” Cuban singer/songwriter Frank Delgado told IPS.

“Baglietto was the one who caught on most in Cuba,” he added.

This was how clandestine pirated copies of Argentine rock recordings began to circulate among young people in Cuba. It was a musical movement “that said things they didn’t say in tangos,” and it had an unquestionable impact on young Cuban musicians of the same and subsequent generations, including Santiago Feliú, Donato Poveda, Carlos Varela and Polito Ibañez, as well as Delgado himself.

The 1980s also brought the sophisticated humour of the Argentine comedy troupe Les Luthiers to the island, while dog-eared copies of Mafalda comic books, created by Argentina’s Joaquín “Quino” Lavado, passed from hand to hand, mostly among university students and intellectual circles.

Pirated cassette recordings of two 1984 performances by Les Luthiers became a veritable treasure at that time, and continue to be cherished by many Cubans, although they can now be downloaded from the Internet, noted Cuban humorist and scriptwriter Eduardo del Llano.

Argentina continues to be a major cultural presence in Cuba today. TV programmes from the South American country – ranging from dramatic series to sketch comedies to children’s shows – are among the most popular with Cuban viewers, while Argentine movies are consistently among the audience and jury favourites at the annual Havana International Film Festival.

Through culture, subsequent generations of Cubans have come to know an Argentina that is different from the one that their parents and grandparents knew, but the attraction still holds. As del Río noted, the geographic, andperhaps political, distance between the two countries has never been enough to keep their peoples apart, “because we have shared movies and tears.”

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