(I asked Spencer to write this post, seeing that he visited Cuba during our time at Augsburg College. Here are some of his thoughts.)
What I remember most vividly is the poverty. There are two types of currency in Cuba, the regular Cuban peso, and the convertible cuban peso. At the time of my visit the convertible peso was worth exactly 1 US dollar. It was also worth about 25 regular cuban pesos. Walking through particularly impoverished areas, our guide informed us that many Cuban’s live on about 500 cuban pesos each month. I did the math: this is $20 a month, and less than $1 per day.
Though the trip was advertised as an experience of both music and culture, I was one of three music majors to participate. Music is different in Cuba, specifically the performance setting. There is an intimacy about it in which the performers interact heavily with the audience. What would embarrass many people accustomed to our culture was expected from theirs. If you have ever been to a gospel worship service, you will have already experienced this performer/audience ambiguity. It was with nervous gratification that I was invited to play with some groups we saw: a jazz combo, an all-female salsa band, and a mariachi band.
At first, it struck me as odd that all of the music was tremendously happy. I took this trip in January of 2012. Though I was only there for ten days, reflections upon return made sense of this phenomenon. Of COURSE the music is happy! Music serves culture, tending to it’s needs. Romantic Europe, less concerned about basic human needs, craved self-expression. But what good is Sturm und Drang when you are worried about eating? When you live on less than $1 each day, you rely on your art culture to foster happiness and unity within your struggling community. This often leads me to ponder: what does our contemporary music say about us?
I can’t say making this dish reminded me of the food. While in Havana, our group stayed at a hotel and had a buffet-style dinner every night. There was always rice, beans, and an assortment of other vegetables. Memories of Cuba, however, remind me of my tremendous good fortune and call me to approach a career in music as a humanitarian.
I must insist that you listen to the Buena Vista Social Club while celebrating Cuba. Here is one of my favorites to get you rolling.
- 1 15 -ounce can crushed tomatoes
- apple cider vinegar
- garlic, minced
- ground cumin
- 1 jalapeno pepper, thinly sliced (with seeds)
- Kosher salt
- 1 1/2 pounds skirt steak or flank steak
- 2 bell peppers (1 red, 1 green)
- 1 small onion
- chopped pimiento-stuffed green olives
- Cooked white rice, for serving
T: “I wish I had gotten plantains. I was expecting more flavor; poor recipe choice.”
S: “Tasted good but didn’t seem like an international dish. No different flavors.”
- The capital of Cuba is Havana
- The official language is Spanish
- It claimed independence from Spain in 1868
- While in Toledo, Ohio, Spencer was the music director and organist/pianist (and I in the choir) for Augsburg Lutheran Church. A parishioner of that church, Olga Goodwin, was originally from Cuba and was married to William Morgan, also known as the “Yankee Comandante.” Leaving his home in Toledo, he joined and led rebel armies that shaped the Cuban Revolution of the late 1950s. Read their captivating story here in the New Yorker, or click here to view the book