Ra-ka-TAN, ra-ka-TANRA-ka-tan. This rhythm propels the members of the Cuban dance troupe Havana Rakatan as they mark tempo during rehearsals.
“ ‘Rakatan’ means rhythm, power and movement,” said Suzanne Walker, the show’s executive producer. “It comes from the noise of the dancers’ shoes on the floor when they dance.”
Walker described Havana Rakatan’s performance, which includes more than a dozen dancers and the son band Turquino, as a musical journey that showcases Cuba’s history of dance.
“I’m influenced by the magical rhythms of Cuba and, of course, its wonderful people,” said Nilda Guerra, a Cuban choreographer and director who founded the troupe in 2001.
The origins of these rhythms can be found in both Spain and Africa, according to Gino Castillo of Charleston, who plays jazz and Cuban music.
Castillo said music has played a crucial role in Cuban history. Through music, “you see the change of behavior of the people and culture,” he said.
The tug between Spanish and African influences stems directly from the more tragic chapters of Cuban history, according to Michael O’Brien, an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at College of Charleston.
“The history of Cuba is, like that of the United States, inextricable from its history of slavery and genocide,” O’Brien said. “In the musical genres of modern Cuba, you can hear the nation figuring out ... to what extent they think of themselves as culturally Spanish, and to what extent they want to recognize or embrace African cultural heritage as well.”
The upbeat and rhythmic sounds of Cuban music come largely from instruments such as congas, bongos, cowbells, timbales and the tres guitar, Castillo said. But American jazz also has been a major influence, which is why instruments such as pianos and saxophones can sometimes be heard as well.
The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, which began in 1960 and has recently been partially relaxed, meant the only way for Americans to experience Cuban music and dance had been through Cuban expatriates like Celia Cruz or Orishas, according to O’Brien. Similarly, artists on the island had difficulties traveling and performing in the United States, he said.
That held true for the dancers in Havana Rakatan, who were trained in what O’Brien described as esteemed arts schools. These schools, he said, have a reputation all over Latin America for being rigorous and for “producing musicians, dancers and artists of all sorts with a tremendous depth of technical ability.”
Although Havana Rakatan has been showcased internationally for 15 years, it made its U.S. debut only last year.
“I’m delighted that diplomatic relations between the countries are warming to the point where U.S. audiences will find it easier to experience firsthand some of this beautifully rich art,” O’Brien said.
Stephanie Jade Wong is a Goldring graduate student at Syracuse University.