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Cuban Music Lesson: Zarzuela

Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

By Jack Tomas

I was a theater major in college but I was hardly ever in any of the musicals at school. The reason is mainly due to the fact that I can neither sing nor dance. Now, before you start in on, “How can you be Cuban and not be able to dance?”, I’m just going to say: 1) Stop stereotyping and 2) Leave me alone! It’s a huge source of pain. Anyway, we Cubans have had a longstanding tradition of musical theater called la zarzuela.

Zarzuela comes to Cuba from Spain. This musical form arose in the 1600’s in Madrid. While the king sat on his golden throne built from stolen Inca gold, he was entertained by this new form of entertainment. It was first performed in el Palacio De Zarzuela, hence the name. The Spanish colonists brought it over to their conquered countries as a little piece of home. In Cuba, Mexico, and the Philippines, zarzuela is still widely performed. As opposed to grand opera, zarzuela was considered a “low” form of musical theater. Zarzuela dealt with the problems of everyday people and not guys making deals with Satan or fat ladies singing about Valhalla. It was sort of like Gilbert and Sullivan, but with less modern major generaling. In Cuba, zarzuela really caught on during the 19th century. These zarzuelas dealt with the issues of Spanish colonial exploitation, nationalistic pride, revolution, and race relations. In the early 20th century, the great Ernesto Lecuona wrote some of the best zarzuelas. Lecuona was deeply involved in the Afrocubanismo movement that sought to reconnect Cubans to their African cultural traditions. His zarzuelas often dealt with the place of the mulatta in Cuban society, how she was caught between the two worlds of black and white. The great Rita Montaner starred in many of his productions.

Today, zarzuela is still popular in Cuba. When I was in Havana in 2009, I saw that there was an annual zarzuela festival at the Cuban national opera house. Since 1959, a lot of zarzuelas have dealt with the Cuban revolution and communism and all that crap. Imagine going to the theater to see some guy with too much makeup and a fake beard playing a singing Fidel Castro. I’ll wait until a Lecuona zarzuela is playing, thank you very much.

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