Orange Alert

Cold War Harmony

Sydney Hutchinson to research relationship between East Germany and Cuba through music

Feb. 14, 2018, by Renee K. Gadoua

Sydney Hutchinson
Sydney Hutchinson

While Sydney Hutchinson walked around in Cuba during a 2001 visit, a song with lively rhythms caught her attention. “It sounded like awesome Cuban dance music,” she recalls. “When I had a chance to listen carefully, it was about how great Cuba’s agriculture program was. It wasn’t very subtle at all.”

Hutchinson is not surprised that Cuba, ruled by the Communist Party since 1959, still sometimes uses music to promote its ideology. She uses the ear of a musician (she plays piano and accordion, among other instruments) and the scholarly perspective of an ethnomusicologist to study the cultural context of such songs. Next year, she’ll look at different political uses of Cuban music while on an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation fellowship in Berlin, where she will research the Cold War-era relationship between East Germany and Cuba through music.

“I want to see how East German musicians and musicologists portrayed their socialist brethren in Cuba and vice versa, as well as how that affected Cuban-East German relations,” says Hutchinson, associate professor of music history and cultures in Syracuse’s Department of Art and Music Histories. “They were both socialist countries, so they were trying to make these common bonds. In fact, a number of prominent Cuban musicologists studied in the former East Germany. I suspect this relationship had lasting effects.”

She’ll listen to East German radio broadcasts at the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, a state museum that houses the Berlin Phonogram Archive. Hutchinson also was a Humboldt postdoctoral fellow at the Ethnological Museum before coming to Syracuse University in 2010. While on sabbatical, she will also examine press clippings at Berlin’s Ibero-American Institute, Europe’s largest library dedicated to Latin America, and music recordings at the German Music Archive in Leipzig.

After World War II, East Germany used both music and musicology to promote socialist values, even while a certain amount of creative freedom was permitted. Music was recorded on state labels, and the government oversaw the content of radio broadcasts. On the other side of the world, Cuba’s government also pushed an anti-capitalist, pro-socialist agenda through posters, speeches and music.

“A lot of Latin American music was circulated in East Germany,” Hutchinson says. “I’m interested in the legacy of these connections that were very important for 40 years.”

The role of art as socialist propaganda changed in 1989, where “rock musicians helped to break down the Berlin Wall.” Some credit Bruce Springsteen’s 1988 concert in Berlin, for example, with spurring rebellion that led to the fall of the wall.

Cuba was a playground for wealthy Americans before the Revolution, Hutchinson notes. There’s strong nostalgia for the days when American musicians, including Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole, socialized and played in Havana’s clubs and the music of the “Buena Vista Social Club” film and recordings embodied the sounds of the era. Post-revolution, though, music did not die–it flourished. “There’s this forgotten side of Cuban music,” she says. “Cuban music was hugely influential around the world before the revolution. But because of the U.S. embargo, for many years we didn’t have access to new Cuban sounds.”

Westerners remain interested in old-school Cuban music, while “Cuban musicians are making totally new, modern, amazing music,” she says. “This nostalgia really limits our understanding of Cuba and Cuban music. We’re still stuck in this Cold War view.”

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Robert M Enslin