Volume 11, December 2019
The Downbeat Bites the Dust: Learning and Teaching Bass Grooves in Cuban Popular Music

by Sarah Lahasky

5. Musical Education and Pedagogy in Cuba

Though entrance is highly competitive, Cubans have several options for post-secondary music training through schools, such as the Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA), the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), and the Conservatorio Amadeo Roldán (Moore 2001: 160). Moore suggests that "almost all bandleaders involved in popular music since the 1970s received free, high-quality training" at these institutions (160). In turn, the widespread formal music training among popular music performers had a significant effect on proceeding styles, such as timba in the early 1990s. Moore explains that "the technical skills acquired . . . as well as [the formally trained students'] expanded understanding of harmony, theory, and musical form, have contributed to the development of a surprisingly sophisticated and virtuosic pop tradition in recent years" (160). Although popular music performers were trained in music schools, they learned exclusively Western classical music in their studies through the 1980s, as popular music was not seen as worthy of study in institutions of higher education (160). In fact, Moore states that "the overall tendency at the ENA and ISA was to discourage students from playing popular music, even in their spare time" (161). Caridad Zaldivia, the bassist for the Camerata Romeu, confirmed that popular music styles were not a part of the music academy in Cuba. However, she mentioned that students are taught improvisation techniques in the conservatory today, which would suggest that popular music styles have been incorporated to some extent in more recent years (Zaldivia 2018c, personal communication). While Zaldivia believes that Cuban music institutions are still focused solely on Western classical music styles, it seems that popular music styles are now possible to learn in a more formal way. José Hermida, the department chair and bass professor at ENA, has developed a teaching methodology for his conservatory students that are interested in learning popular music. By using a variety of teaching method books, which I discuss later, Hermida's teaching approach is closely related to that of the Western classical tradition, with listening exercises, scales and arpeggios, historical context lessons, among other techniques (Hermida 2018a, personal communication). This Western approach makes sense in the context of music training in Cuban conservatories. Hermida explained that although some students learn popular music styles at ENA, Western classical music is the primary focus of all students in the school. Students who want to make a career out of popular music typically must study Western music first, and with their music degree, they are then able to receive a contract for a job in other genres and styles. Hermida said that there are a few exceptions today where self-taught popular musicians rise to fame before receiving a classical music degree, but aside from these few cases, it is very difficult to find work without having proof of prior Western training (Hermida 2018b, personal communication).

Although Western classically-trained musicians in the United States may have little exposure to popular Cuban music styles, it does not seem that Cuban classical musicians experience the same unfamiliarity with popular dance music despite their Western classical focus in the conservatories. For example, Caridad Zaldivia began as a classical double bassist. She started her career by playing in the Teatro Musical (which no longer exists), and then moved to playing for the opera. Her next position was with the Orquesta Sinfónica de Matanzas, before making the switch to popular music with an all-women quartet playing popular dance styles in bars, hotels, etc. Zaldivia did not enjoy the late nights and logistical difficulties of transporting her bass across town after dark, so she accepted the position in the Camerata Romeu and has been playing for them for the past twenty years. Although it would appear that her switch from the Matanzas symphony to the bar gigs was a drastic one, Zaldivia explained that she had been exposed to popular Cuban music styles from the beginning of her career. In the opera and musical theater orchestras, Zaldivia played various zarzuelas and musicals from Cuba with popular dance styles and rhythms incorporated in the scores. The Matanzas symphony also often played arrangements of danzones as part of various events, so she was already accustomed to the rhythms and styles of Cuban dance music before switching to the quartet (Zaldivia 2018a, personal communication).