In the words of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, “the spirit of internationalism is a traditional quality of the Cubans”. Nevertheless, Cuba’s abilities to pursue international cultural exposure and collaborations have been curbed by for the past 60 years due the U.S. Embargo on the country. Despite its continuously active domestic music scene, Cuba’s international cultural exchanges remained few and sporadic in a globalised world, continuously shrinking due to increased internet access and international travel. Opportunities for Cuban artists to participate in the international music and cultural flows had been further deterred by the limited internet access and infrastructure in the country, and the high costs associated with its use. Cuba remained a partial outsider to the on-the-spot digital cultural collaborations and exchanges, which take place amongst artists and between artists and audiences elsewhere.
In December 2018, the national telecommunications operator ETECSA introduced mobile data, which gave Cubans internet access on their mobile phones without the need to connect wirelessly. Even if still at costs prohibitive to most of the population, the desire for connectivity prevailed, and artists and musicians became regular users of mobile internet to promote their projects and learn about the work of artists in other locations. Beyond the improved ease of connectivity, the changes driven by the access to mobile data became most significantly obvious some fifteen months later, during the spring of 2020 and the lockdown caused by the global Covid19 pandemic.
I came across the Tunturuntu pa’ tu Casa festival (loosely translated as “get out/ go away home”) on Facebook. The oxymoron connects with the Covid19 lockdown guidelines urging citizens across the globe to stay at home rather than mingle in public places. Set up in June 2019, Tunturuntu is a solely online platform, dedicated to promoting Cuban culture. Inspired by the Quédate en Casa (“Stay at Home”) festival run on national TV by the Cuban Music Institute, Tunturuntu pa’ tu Casa is the first purely digital festival dedicated to Cuban culture. Even though it lasted for only four weeks, it brought Cuban music to the stream of international cultural flows spurred by the pandemic and lockdown in real time. The festival showcased performances of up-and-coming as well as popular Cuban musicians and DJs primarily from the island, and few from abroad. It also included some non-Cuban artists connected to the music scene in Havana. The festival further had cooking and cocktail-making classes offered by gourmet chefs and bartenders in Havana as well as photography expositions.
Cuba already has established festivals. Festival Internacional Jazz Plaza has been taking place for decades and is considered a recurring reunion for jazz lovers. Newer festivals such as the Havana World Music Festival, Festival de la Salsa and Fiesta del Tambor have also achieved great attendance and continuity. All these events have become institutionalised in Cuba’s music scene. At the same time, foreign attendance of the events remains somewhat limited. In the 2019 Jazz Plaza Fest, the foreign audiences which I came across consisted of retired North Americans coming to one concert as part of their Cuba trip itinerary, and a university group of jazz students from the U.S. While foreign artists perform at the festivals, audiences remain largely Cuban.
Due to its digital nature, however, Tunturuntu pa’ tu Casa had an immediate international exposure and attendance, especially taking into consideration that internet access is easier, faster and cheaper pretty much anywhere in the world bar Cuba. The festival aimed to bring attention to the work of artists from Cuba to the rest of the world and to the artistic profession, which has been greatly affected by the pandemic. At the same time, it wanted to reassure audiences that artists are still there for them during this period of lockdown and social isolation. DJ Yasel Berroa from Havana shared the tremendous happiness he felt when he did his set in late March. He received warm feedback from international listeners who were grateful for the music coming live from the island, transporting them to Cuba and helping them forget about their feelings of imprisonment. He also believes that as a result of the festival, more people will visit Cuba to experience its music and culture. U.S.-based Cuban pianist Dayramir Gonzalez thought the festival was a great success aimed at exposing the work of young and established Cuban musicians to new audiences outside the island, reaching the public in their homes and on mobile devices. He really enjoyed performing live on Facebook for the event.
Both artists see the introduction of the internet as a transformative moment in the life of Cuban artists. Access to digital music and being up to date with the activities of the rest of the world has become part of the daily life of artists in Cuba. There is no need to bring international music on hard devices into the island anymore as Cubans already have digital access to it at the same time as the rest of us. Audiences abroad are also learning about the work of Cuban artists faster and without having previous knowledge or experience of the island and its culture. Mobile internet access is further bringing Cuban music and artists to the global cultural flows in real time. As musicians from all around the world were livestreaming their performances and Lady Gaga’s One World: Together at Home was taking place, so were Cubans performing for the first time in their careers from their own sitting rooms from Playa to Cotorro as a response to the shared experience of the ongoing global Covid19 pandemic.
There is a lingering feeling of anticipation now that the festival has finished about the next events to be organised by Tunturuntu. DJ Yasel Berroa feels all artists who participated in the events should meet in person and perform together as a follow up. It will be a good continuation of what has already been achieved by the festival. With the introduction of the internet and mobile data, Cuba’s Iron Curtain has been pulled even more open. Havana’s music scene now forms part of the international flows of culture beyond the circulation of salsa and son music and teachers. Tunturuntu’s online approach might just transform the platform into an international digital institution of Cuban culture.