Tag Archives: Elina Djebbari

The Moving Blog

Dispatches from the field Week 3: Dr Elina Djebbari in Havana

Oshun, ‘la muchacha francesa’, and her ‘Maravillas de Mali!’: 1st – 7th December 2014

As usual, what was planned barely happened and each day brought its share of surprises.

This week I chased up pending meetings, I came back to places I already visited and I continued to explore some new ones. I went to the headquarters of OSPAAAL (Organización de Solidaridad de los Pueblos de África, Asia y América Latina), Museo de la Danza, Universidad de la Habana and Instituto Superior de Arte. The latter, Che Guevara’s project, was quite amazing: the atmosphere was filled with sounds made by young music students who were training everywhere in and around the Facultad de Música. Creativity, inspiration and labour were palpable, and I really enjoyed this experience.

Photo 1 - Instituto Superior de Arte
Instituto Superior de Arte

Photo 2 - Young student rehearsing, Facultad de Musica
Young music student rehearsing outdoors

After coming back for the third time to the Instituto Cubano Radio y Televisión (ICRT), I could finally start the long process of asking for the authorisation for consulting their archives, both for my own research project and other Modern Moves interests. I really hope that it will yield something tangible.

Like every week I came back again at EGREM studio to try to obtain something there, but even if I got a few little new things, it is not really what I was hoping for… Each time I met other people there, they seem to be aware of who I am and what I am looking for since when I start explaining, they interrupt me by this kind of comment ‘¡Si, la muchacha francesa, Las Maravillas de Mali!’

Well, as it is written on a little piece of wood in the ‘casa particular’ where I am staying: ‘Todas las personas que visitan esta casa nos dan mucha alegría, unas cuando llegan y otras cuando se van…’ – ‘All people who visit this house give us joy, some when they arrive, others when they leave’ —, I think that EGREM studio and some other places where I keep coming will be relieved to see me leaving their premises! However, I know that some people acknowledged my ‘obstinación y perseverancia’ and they really tried to help me in my quest.

I also returned to the national archives and national library, and dealing with sudden interruptions of service due to untimely fumigation, electricity or water cut, or other unexpected problems, I managed to collect interesting documents, like the telegrams exchanged by Ministerio de relaciones exteriores and African countries at the time of their achievement of independence.

I am also working on finding documents for other Modern Moves purposes but it seems that, like everywhere else, the topic of couple dance has been less explored than the music linked to these forms.

Photo 3 - Books at Biblioteca nacional
Books at Biblioteca nacional

Speaking of which, I diversified my discovery of Cuban music and dance landscape by exploring new places. I was advised to go to Teatro Brecht for a Latin jazz, rock and funk event; I danced salsa, merengue and rueda de casino in ‘al fresco’ places or during live concerts of the new generations of mythical orchestras Conjunto Chappottin and Conjunto Arsenio Rodriguez; I went to nightclubs where I could definitely not deny that the Cuban way of dancing reggaeton is extremely far from how I learned it in Paris. As I was told, it is considered here as a couple dance, and indeed it is, with the difference that they don’t face each other.

Rock, funk and Latin jazz at Teatro Brecht
Rock, funk and Latin jazz at Teatro Brecht
Conjunto Chappottin
Conjunto Chappottin











Another interesting thing I saw in nightclubs and other places: at some points the crowd moves together with the same steps on various kind of electronic-like music and the steps they do, labeled under the name of ‘discoteca’ for which I could know so far, correspond exactly to what I learnt as kuduro when I was in Mali. In front of this manifestation of globalisation on the dancefloor, I would really like to find out more about the circulation network of such dance moves which are differently interpreted worldwide despite their shared kinetic basis.

I also attended a santeria ceremony and it was really impressive to see the initiated respond to the songs and rhythms played on the bata drums, how the crowd does certain things at specific times, all being expressed through gestures, dance moves and songs.

Photo 6- Bata drums played in the honor of Chango
Bata drums played in honour of Chango

Later in the week, I watched a show made in honour of the orishas by a group of female drummers, singers and dancers. Through a completely different setting and with the representation of some orishas, it was interesting to see how Afro-Cuban religious items are used and mixed in a contemporary dance performance.

Photo 7 - Oshun
Photo 8- Obini Bata
the group of female drummers Obini Bata

I set up classes of different Cuban dance genres for next week, and I am now about to start with danzon and danzonete!

The Moving Blog

Dispatches from the field Week 1: Dr Elina Djebbari, Havana

First week in Havana: Rumbero’s shoulders and hurricane season
23rd November 2014

On Monday 17th of November, I landed in Havana after a ten hours flight from Paris. I finally exited the airport after a 3 hours wait stuck at the border, which seemed completely normal to the customs officers: when I asked them what the problem was, I only got the answer ‘¡Estamos en Cuba!’.

This first week has been dedicated to one of the main focuses of this research trip, finding in the archives tracks of a group of musicians from Mali who came to Havana around 1964 to learn afro-Cuban music in the frame of the cultural relationships developed between Cuba and African socialist countries during the Cold War.

Las Maravillas de Mali[2]
Las Maravillas de Mali – Biblioteca Nacional

My strategy being to start with the biggest institutions to the smallest ones, I began my week by going to the national archives and the national library. Unfortunately, none of them seems to have documents useful to my quest and as nothing is digitized, it does not facilitate the work!

Photo 2 - Archives search at Biblioteca Nacional
archives search at Biblioteca Nacional

I continued with the institutions dedicated to music in Cuba, and believe me, they are a lot! When you are used to doing fieldwork, you are not surprised to be sent from place to place, but it remains unfortunate, even if all these places are in your fieldwork list! But you also know by experience that even if you do not get anything the first time, nothing prevents you to come back later and maybe be luckier next time!

After having visited these different places: Instituto Cubano de la Musica, Centro de investigaciones y desarollo de la musica cubana, old and new EGREM studios (EGREM: Empresa de Grabaciones y Ediciones Musicales), Centro de investigaciones de politica international, Embassies of Guinea and Mali, I have to admit that, regarding my primary quest, my first week is not very encouraging. Indeed, I am mostly received by this kind of answer: “Musicos de Mali, aqui en Habana?! No hay nada!”… Well, I am pretty sure there is something somewhere and I am determined to find it out! I am sorry people, you will see my face again I’m afraid!

The positive thing is that the evocation of ‘Las Maravillas de Mali’ sounds however not so unfamiliar to some other people I met. An old man at studio Egrem recalled the group, even the colors of the cover of their disc recorded in 1967, and although he told me that there was nothing in the EGREM archives, I got from him the promise to look for some tracks again next week. Thanks to him, I got an interview with a lady who also has known of them as she was married with an Ivorian music producer involved in the musical relation Cuba-West Africa in the 1970s. I will also have to return to the Malian and Guinean embassies to follow up the seeds I sowed there.

Apart the visits to these institutions, I am also trying to encounter the Cuban salsa scene. If someone was looking at me from the outside, he could see a white European woman wandering around Havana’s streets at night, following the sounds coming from places hidden from sight, accepting to follow some complete strangers who suddenly decide to become her guide. In so doing, I got my first salsa dances in the street the day after my arrival and I went to a very nice salsa place in Vedado called La Gruta, which does not appear in the travel guides. There I danced Cuban salsa of course and also a bit of bachata, and I watched the quite long show animated by different groups of dancers. I experienced another salsa night at La Casa de la Musica and today I am about to attend Los Van Van’s concert in a place called La Tropical and I am very excited to see them ‘en vivo’!

Among the numerous activities I did this week, I think that what struck me the most is certainly the rumba performance I experienced for the first time at El Jelengue with a group called ‘Rumberos de Cuba’. With such a name, no doubt about what it was! Even though I had previously watched rumba videos on Youtube, it was completely different to be in it, to feel the involvement of singers, drummers, dancers and spectators. It was undoubtedly ‘fuerte’ as the lady sitting next to me was exclaiming regularly! I had never seen so many shoulder undulations and shakings, in every kind of position, so fast and during such long sequences!

Photo 3 - Rumba performance
Rumba performance

During this first week, I tried to understand how things work here, how a foreigner in general and a lone white woman in particular could deal with the basic aspects of life. I feel now able to pursue my research and hopefully be more successful next week. Nothing new about this since ethnographic fieldwork is indeed also like that: being alone in an unfamiliar country without any of your usual means of communication, looking for something nobody (or almost) cares about, getting lost by trying to find a place for which the address you have is something like ‘calle 3ra e/ 10 y 12’ or ‘calle 13 e/ M y N’ or again – this one was hell: ‘calle 36-A, e. 7ma y 5ta’; drinking cocktails with potential informants in which, unfortunately, the proportions are more rum than anything else! Indeed, forget about your previous European experiences of Cuba Libre or Mojito– how they do it here is like this: ¾ of the glass is filled with rum and the remaining quarter with ice and the rest of the ingredients, and this is when you have said: please not too much! ☺
Photo 4 - Conga chairs
Sitting on conga chairs: only in Cuba?!

Despite some postcards clichés that you cannot avoid, the old American cars and the women with a huge cigar at their mouth, violent rains due to the hurricane season unexpectedly mark this first week in Havana… As an interesting resonance, the undulations of the Rumbero’s shoulders and the thunder rolls of Cuban tropical storms welcome my first week in Havana! (Chango ‘ta veni– adds Ananya!!)
Photo 5 - Old American car
Photo 5: Car in Havana