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Popular, yet banned, songs in Cuba

Categories: Caribbean, Latin America, Cuba, Censorship, History, Music, The Bridge, Striking the wrong notes

Screenshot of Willy Chirino in the music video Nuestro Día (ya viene llegando)/YouTube [1].

More than three decades have passed since the song Nuestro Día: Ya viene llegando (“Our Day is Coming”) composed by Willy Chirino [2] in the early 90s was released in the Cuban public sphere, becoming not only the musical symbol of the Cuban exile but also of a whole Cuban generation fed up with the economic and social crisis on the island. I will never forget how I had to flee from the police when, as a teenager in the 90s, we were caught listening to Ya viene llegando on a tape recorder of that time.

The song, announcing a possible end of the Cuban government, was released after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's main ally [3] for decades. Meanwhile, the economic crisis was worsening, triggering the exodus of balseros [4] and the mass protests of the Maleconazo [5] of 1994.

The song from Chirino's 1991 Oxígeno album, became a hit at the time. The almost-disappeared music cassettes made their way [6] into parties or family celebrations where they were played.

Willy Chirino was born in Cuba in 1947 but emigrated to Miami at the age of 14. He is considered one of the artistic icons of the Cuban exile community in the U.S., along with Gloria Estefan [7] and the late Celia Cruz [8], as well as Arturo Sandoval [9] and Paquito D'Rivera [10].

In 2012, Cuban radio stations reported [11] that they received authorization to play the music of 50 artists who were, in fact, banned, but Chirino explained [12] to BBC Mundo two years later that “[His] music to a certain extent is still banned in Cuba, because it is not broadcasted on the radio or on television.” This year, after the Cuban protests of July 11 [13], Willy Chirino released a new song titled “Que se vayan ya [14]” (“Let them go now”)

Ya vienen llegando tells the story of Willy Chirino's own experience as a Cuban exile in the U.S. and unveils the drama of exile, the difficulties involved in adapting to U.S. culture and language. He became the symbol of a generation marked by emigration to the U.S. and the search for new opportunities.

In the midst of the endless blackouts that plagued the country in the 1990s, listening to that autobiographical song had become an escape for millions of Cubans who lived in fear of being discovered by the police or being fired from their jobs for listening to music considered subversive.

I listened to it for the first time in the recreational cultural center of my hometown Crucecita in 1996 at a time when I was a fan of rap and hip hop. In those days I wandered the streets with other young people of my generation with a tape recorder seeking any corner where we could dance and breakdance. One afternoon, a friend handed me a copy of the song; we were listening to it with the volume as low as possible, rehearsing our dances. A friend of mine happened to turn up the volume when suddenly a police car drove by and they got out of the car. We ran away and hid at a friend's house. No one told on us and no one found us that afternoon.

Listening to the song for the first time was a discovery for me at a time when food was scarce in my house. I couldn't bear to come home from school and see my grandmother cooking with firewood because of the energy crisis of the nineties. The impact of the song was enormous because it conveyed a message of hope, that someday we would reach freedom by escaping to the U.S., a nation that was receiving balseros at that time.

Something similar is happening today with the song of a new generation, Patria y Vida [15], by Cuban rappers and singers Yotuel, Gente De Zona, Descemer Bueno, Maykel Osorbo and El Funky. Many of us young people whisper the title of this song in our peers’ ears as a sign that we identify with a free Cuba, when we meet in informal spaces to chat, and in text messages where we claim Patria y vida (“Fatherland and life”) as a slogan that put to the grave Fidel Castro's Patria o muerte (“Fatherland or death”) that has been imposed on us for decades. The present and future of Cuba is Patria y vida.

This article was written by an anonymous author in Cuba, using the pseudonym Luis Rodríguez.