Tag Archives: fieldwork in Cuba

The Moving Blog

Final Dispatch from the Field: Dr Elina Djebbari between Havana and Ouagadougou

‘Africa habla en mi’ (Africa speaks in me): 8th-13th November 2014

My last week in Havana reflected the usual double-life ‘routine’ of my fieldwork– with research in the archives during the day and research in music and dance places at night.

I spent most of my days during the week in Archivo nacional and Biblioteca nacional and by increasing the work around what I was supposed to be limited to, I managed to access some nonpublic documents issued by different Ministries — and of course, these were the most interesting ones, like the cultural agreements established by Cuba with African countries between 1964 and 1975.

Photo 1- Cultural conventions
Cultural agreements between Cuba and African nations

I continued to look for what could be of interest for Modern Moves as well and collected more documents about couple dance genres, some of which should provide enriching information about the Cuban political involvement in supporting these popular music dance forms.

Photo 2- Centenario del danzon
Centenario del danzon

As for the nighttime, I organised private dance classes in various Cuban dance genres, from danzon and danzonete to son and salsa via chachacha, mambo, rumba and ‘yoruba’ (orisha-related dances). In so doing, I was able to feel in my body a kind of continuity from danzon to son to salsa, even if I was trying carefully to not recreate a pre-established genealogy outlined in the official history of Cuban music and dance. Despite these precautions, the observations I made in the field helped me to understand how what is now globally known as ‘salsa’ could emerge from all the various Cuban dance genres, and as I discussed with Ananya during her visit this weekend to Paris, even a link between reggaeton dance and guaguanco can be felt from this perspective.

Photo 3 - Rumba at Callejon de Hamel[1]
Guaguanco at Callejon de Hamel

These specific Cuban dance forms help us to rethink the notion of couple dance itself, as they are undoubtedly couple dance with the exception that other parts of the body play the role of linking the two dance partners together. And the Afro-Cuban dance genres I experienced in both their social and staged settings helped me to understand how the Afro kinetic heritage has been uniquely reshaped in Cuba. Despite the knowledge and practice of West African dance I already have, I was really challenged when it comes to learn rumba and orisha- related dances, as the apprehension of the rhythm and how you coordinate your feet and your arms and how you basically move on sometimes a quite slow tempo were completely new for me.

Photo 4 - On the way for a rumba event
En route to a rumba event

Besides these dance classes, I continued to enjoy music and dance events Cuba has to offer on a daily basis. Among others, I was invited to a private event called ‘toque de santo’ celebrating a Santeria birthday of a young woman recently initiated under the patronage of Yemaya. Ironically, even if I in a way dedicated my life to understand the social power of music and dance, I am always amazed to witness and be part of this kind of phenomenon.

Photo 5- Altar for Yemaya[1]
Altar for Yemaya

As for a global overview of this month of fieldwork in Cuba, it was both hard and enjoyable, and I feel happy to be able to say: ‘I did it!’. For a first-time Cuban experience, I think I did my utmost, dealing with the no-other option than speaking Spanish (which as a result quickly improved!) among other fieldwork difficulties. Despite the fact that I did not find some specific documents I was looking for, I followed every trail and the clues I dug out, and I collected findings that were very interesting in any case. I will now be now able to return more equipped to face a potential other fieldwork trip, my notebook and pockets full of numbers of new friends!

Photo 6[2]
fruits of fieldwork labours!

Stretching my limits through this enriching experience and learning every day a bit more about the complexity of multi-faceted Cuban society, I am now about to leave for the other side of the ‘Black Atlantic’ to go to Burkina Faso after a quick stopover in Paris. Keeping in mind all the different kinds of references to Africa I encountered in Cuba, from the most discreet to the most tangible, like the message written on the t-shirt worn by the drummer of Conjunto Chappottin ‘Africa habla en mi’, I am sure that the Cuban experience will allow me to perceive differently this forthcoming African trip.

The time has come to close here this last dispatch from the field, on the eve of this new adventure, let’s go!

Photo 7- Africa habla en mi[1]
‘Africa habla en mi’

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!