For Pablo Menendez and many other Cuban musicians, there is little difference between political activism and music making.
In a Berkeley College Master’s Tea Wednesday, Menendez, director and lead guitarist of the Afro-Cuban fusion group Mezcla, spoke about his life as a Cuban musician from the United States. Although Menendez said he is first and foremost a Cuban musician, he said his music connects him to political activism because “music is the soul of the people.” Apart from his role as a musician, Menendez has also struggled to end the trade embargo enacted on Cuba in 1960 while dispelling beliefs that the nationalized Cuban media relentlessly censors its programming.
Born in Oakland, Calif., Menendez was raised on jazz, blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
“My mother, Barbara Dane, was a blues musician,” Menendez said. “She’s actually a really important name because she was the first musician to defy the State Department’s ban on [travel to] post-revolutionary Cuba.”
Having performed a great deal in Cuba, Menendez’s mother decided to send him to Cuba to study the guitar. He planned on staying in Cuba for only a year, but his curiosity in traditional Cuban musical styles kept him there.
“Most musicians in Cuba were interested in the newer, more American styles like rock, but I wanted to learn about the old stuff like rumba and tango,” Menendez said.
During the master’s tea, Menendez addressed issues surrounding Cuba’s national ownership of the media, attributing this public ownership to the dissemination of a wide variety of music. He said that since media is publicly owned, everyone has an equal opportunity to access it.
But Menendez said he understands that the Cuban government uses arts and culture in opportunistic ways. Rather than being subordinate to government, Menendez said he uses music’s influence to educate the masses as well as the government.
“The role of the artist is to educate and sophisticate the masses and the people in power,” he said.
Taking on this role of educator, Menendez works through song and through organizations like Witness for Peace — an international group that promotes the awareness of the policies of the United States and their effect on poverty throughout the world — to end the trade embargo between the United States and Cuba. Menendez said this embargo has destroyed Cuba economically and limits the circulation of music and culture.
“Who decided that Cuba is the enemy?” he asked.
Through video, Menendez showed examples of Cuban music that corresponds to this didactic role of the artist.
History professor Lillian Guerra said she appreciated Menendez’s talk and presentation, noting the importance of firsthand observation.
“There are a lot of Cuban musicians that we can’t see whose message is just as important, if not more so,” Guerra said.
While Melissa Garcia GRD ’09, an American studies graduate student, said she enjoyed the tea, she expressed discontent with the embargo that prevents a native Cuban musician from traveling to the United States to hold a similar talk.
“There’s a difference between learning about Cuban music and culture from an American national like Menendez and learning it from a native Cuban,” Garcia said.