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CULTURAL HERITAGE AND TRADITIONS
"I am an honest man
From where the palm tree grows
And before I die I wish
To fling my verses from my soul.
I come from everywhere
And I am going toward everywhere…"*
Ajiaco is a traditional Cuban stew of vegetables, roots and meats, originally cooked by the indigenous Taíno people, long before the Spanish arrived.
Cuban ethnologist, Fernando Ortiz, used ajiaco as a metaphor for Cuba's cultural and ethnic mix: the ingredients do not 'melt' but contribute individually with their distinctive flavours.
Elements of the indigenous culture are most distinct in Cuban home cooking such as corn tamales; while the island merits no less than eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as so much Spanish colonial architecture has survived spectacularly intact; but the richest ajiaco is found in music and dance.
Ortiz described Son, the most recognisably Cuban music, promoted worldwide by the Buena Vista Social Club, as "a love affair between the African drum and the Spanish guitar".
In the 17th and 18th centuries when thousands of slaves were transported from West Africa, the Spanish rulers kept tribes together in order to encourage rivalry and as a result the slaves were able to preserve their animist religious beliefs under cover of Catholicism, linking saints to their orisha gods. This practice came to be known as Santería, now the most popular religion in Cuba and also permanently entrenched in contemporary Cuban culture, regardless of individual beliefs: whether in direct references to the orishas in everyday language, or allegories to them in the poetry of Nicolas Guillén, the art of Wilfredo Lam or the films of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea.
The complex rhythms and dances performed as worship to the orishas evolved with European influences (whether colonisers, visiting traders or sailors) into rumba, danzón and most famously formed the basis of the son in the early 20th century.
The heavy US involvement in all Cuban affairs 1902-1959 meant much migration between the two countries, especially poor Cuban musicians and artists looking for a living in the US, while jazz, rock, Hollywood, modernism and much more found their way to Cuba.
Thanks to Miguel Matamoros, Arsenio Rodriguez, Benny Moré and Enrique Jorrín, mambo and chachacha were born and taken to the US which paved the way for salsa to develop in New York in the 1960s with 100% Cuban son and rumba roots mixed with jazz.
The socialist revolution in 1959 brought sweeping changes, not least to the way in which culture was produced, taught and distributed.
Cultural policies included major investment and innovations to "create the conditions that will permit every artistic, literary, scientific or any other kind of talent be developed" for all Cubans.
The film institute ICAIC was founded along with many other cultural and sport institutions and Afro-Cuban art forms received state support for the first time.
Hundreds of Casas de la Cultura were opened all over the country bringing culture to the masses, cinema and theatre were taken into remote rural areas along with the national literacy campaign. Cuban culture became known for its experimentalism, inventiveness and excellence.
In this way the many distinct flavours of Cuban culture have continued to absorb new influences, to innovate and to inspire the world.
* Excerpt: 'Yo soy un hombre sincero' from 'Versos Sencillios' José Martí (1853-1895), Cuba. Adapted into the popular song 'Guantanamera' by Joseito Fernandez Diaz.