On May 1, Cubans usually celebrate International Workers Day on the streets, flocking to open spaces throughout the country, with hundreds of thousands convening in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución. This year, a country in confinement due to the pandemic will join in an 8 am national anthem sing-along and applaud essential workers from their windows and balconies.
There’s also a new anthem with a rumba beat for Cuba’s May Day: “Vivir Para Vencer,” by singer/songwriter Arnaldo Rodríguez, who recorded the song in a Havana studio with a group that includes conga players and conservatory symphony musicians wearing face masks. The song’s title and solidarity message can be taken as both patriotic – alluding both to the Revolutionary slogan “venceremos” (“we shall triumph”) and the current fight to beat COVID-19.
Also on the holiday program is the a cappella group Vocal Sampling. A performance by the must-see group, who play their “instruments” with their voices, will be broadcast on Cuban TV and radio, as well on the Ministry of Culture’s YouTube channel and the Cuban Music Institute’s Facebook page.
Such concerts have become a daily event, as comfort and inspiration in “times in which music is indispensable to feed the spirit and ignite hope,” as workers at the State-owned Havana venue Casa de la Música declared on social media. The pandemic has worsened an already fragile economic situation on the island, exacerbated by U.S. sanctions against Cuba tightened by the Trump administration, which now threaten the arrival of medical supplies and humanitarian aid.
While missions of Cuban doctors have been flying to other countries to support foreign health systems, Cuba itself is on lockdown, which began March 20, when, with just over 20 confirmed coronavirus cases, many workers began doing their jobs from home. Those have included musicians, who almost immediately began participating in the initiatives organized by the Ministry, the Music Institute and Cuban record label Egrem offering the program of concerts staged in artists homes and cultural centers in Havana and Santiago de Cuba.
A variety of televised music classes are also broadcast every morning on television. And like others around the world, Cuban artists have been staging their own shows from their homes via social media. Others, like the young big band Orquesta Faílde in Matanzas, are also broadcast live on local radio to reach the many Cubans who do not have access to Internet.
For audiences outside of Cuba, the country’s live-streaming video offering, revved up by the stay at home order, is providing access to performances by a panorama of artists, many who are not well known to foreigners.
Performers have ranged from the rock group Zeus, to jazz percussionist Degnis Bofill, hip hop duo La Reyna y la Real and idiosyncratic folk singer Fernando Becquer. Watch performances here.
Omara Portuondo, who is six months away from her 90th birthday, has been particularly active on line, collaborating performing classic boleros like “Gracias a La Vida” and “Contigo en la Distancia,” whose lyrics now are even more emotional.
Other Cuban musicians have come together for an online festival, “Tuntruntu Pa´tu Casa.”
In a video recorded in his Havana home, Cimafunk covered Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me.” The Cuban funk artist also released a new song with Aymee Nuviola and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who both live in South Florida.
Dance group Havana D’Primera recorded their coronavirus song, “Quiero Verte Otra Vez,” accompanied by a video with footage of some of the world’s best quarantine dancing, and a message for people all over Latin America to shelter at home.
Cuban icons Los Van Van, on the other hand, have released a new video celebrating the joy of longed-for Havana street life.