Radio days and nights

A glance (or listening) to today’s Cuban radio.

By Roberto Méndez Martínez






During a great deal of the last month of October I had to stay in bed due to one of those viruses whose name is not defined but that attack each centimetre of the body and even the spirit, forcing us to abandon almost all intellectual work. To try to palliate the tedium I again did something I had almost forgotten about: listening to the radio for several consecutive hours. The experience was rather contradictory: the reencounter with certain stations and spaces awoke in me at times nostalgia, at others made me discover the surprising anachronism of some proposals that seem to inhabit in a world where time has stopped.

I’ll never forget when during my childhood in Camagüey I visited for the first time a local radio station or when a while later I was taken to Radiocentro to attend the recording of a comedy and musical programme with public. They are emotions that mix with others that are a bit more recent, like having been interviewed by OrlandoCastellanos in Radio Havana Cuba or climbing the steep stairs of Radio Camagüey during the afternoon to record a weekly commentary on cultural matters of which I never knew if anyone listened to it.


But my debt to radio has more remote reasons. If I go back to the memories of the first years of my life, how would I have been able to discover the voices of Elena Burke, BarbaritoDiez or the Aragón orchestra if it hadn’t been because they resounded on the radio of my home or in the diverse houses in the neighbourhood? And also, how would I have learned to appreciate concert music if it hadn’t been for the CMBF station that my father always kept the dial set on the blue radio he had by his bed? Because of its continuous presence I not only discovered the Strauss waltzes and the Offenback cancan, but also great musical monuments like Handel’s Messiah oratorio and Mozart’sconcerts for piano and orchestra, not forgetting those strange works from medieval Europe or from India which Spanish musicologist Antonio Quevedo broadcast and commented on his Saturday afternoon programmes: “The music not usually heard in concerts.”


Many of us who grew up listening to those episodes of Leonardo Moncada or the truculent adventures of the characters of “La fleche de cobre” know what the familiar taste of the radio is. When years later I saw the film by Woody Allen, “Radio Days” (1987), I understood that that passion could be shared by other intellectuals in diverse parts of the world. What that young man felt for the jazz broadcasts was similar to what attracted me to other music or dramatic spaces.


When in 1922 Luis Casas Romero, the very Cuban author of “El mambí,” broadcasted from his home in the centre of Havana, through his 2LC station, the nine o’clock cannon blast, a weather bulletin and some music, perhaps he was not aware that he was introducing into Cuban homes a familiar presence, a daily company that was going to combine information, music and even drama. Some will claim that, since then, not all has been high culture and well-channelled entertainment, that the media has been full of clichés and silly things. It is true, but those mistakes are not exclusive to radio since they are shared by other media, from the press and television to cinema.


The recent experience had bittersweet results for me. The hours a devoted to CMBF made it possible for me to discover that the station had tried to update its language with participation segments, contests, a Sunday programme for children and that it has been able to keep alive spaces that already have existed for several years, not just the old “La opera” and “Teatro de la opera,” hosted by the already legendary Angel VázquezMillares, but also “Allegro,” a programme in charge of writer and art critic Jorge Yglesias, where the good selection of the works is on a par with the rigour of the commentaries, not forgetting that small jewel that is “La esquina del jazz,” broadcast at 11 pm as the last option of a day, where the exceptional voices of Miriam Ramos and José Corrales take us by the hand to the New Orleans of the heroic days of the hot jazz as well as to the most recent experiences in South Africa, with an enviable professionalism.


Passing through the dial also led me to a much younger station: Habana Radio, the voice of the Office of the City Historian. The first thing that attracts attention in it is the high professional level of its work teams, where there are not only media technicians, but also a great many intellectuals in fields such as literature, arts, medicine, technical sciences. They are different from other stations in the polished language, in the making of the programmes, in the interviews’ audaciousness, which do not shy away from the thorny opinions about institutions and official policies and the creations of Cubans who reside abroad can even be made visible and together with this, the variety and quality of the musical selection they offer can be accredited, combining the cultured and the popular, without allowing vulgarities: Silvio Rodríguez and MaríaBetania, LiubaMaríaHevia and OmaraPortuondo, Miriam Ramos and Aldo LópezGavilán can be found on its waves, without this preventing it from going back to the old charangadanzones or the last generation African music.


However, my return to Radio Progreso, specifically to “Alegrías de sobremesa,” was disappointing. One of the humour spaces with the longest trajectory on radio is today a veritable ruin. It becomes evident that the loss throughout the years of its principal figures: Edwin Fernández, José Antonio Rivero and more recently Martha Jiménez Oropesa, have been – outside all commonplace – irreplaceable. The talents of Aurora Basnuevo and Mario Limonta try to keep alive a few minutes of aged humour, which at times border on the vulgar and the librettos already lack the wealth from some years back, when in a few minutes they could maintain a comedy of mix-ups derived from daily life situations. Perhaps it’s time to bid farewell to that already emblematic noon programmeto the benefit of more current proposals.


My findings around those days toured all the scale that can go from the extreme novelty to ferocious conservatism. I was surprised to discover that one of the old programmes dedicated to health education, “Pornuestroscampos y ciudades,” a means considered effective to reach the most isolated places of the archipelago’s geography and promote vaccination campaigns, breast feeding or food hygiene, can dedicate a series to questions related to gender and sexuality, which does not elude still controversial issues like pansexuality, on the other extreme; I discovered a radio soap opera – during the privileged hours for housewives of 11 am – where an orphan of mysterious origin, turned into a Cinderella by the woman who raised her, is discovered by a theatre impresario who immediately takes her on an international tour and…. Such occurrences, which delighted so many listeners during the times of “El collar de lagrimas,” the endless radio soap opera by José Sánchez Arcilla and were then spellbound by the inevitable Félix B. Caignet, now seem out of place, but there is no doubt that such a proposal has its passionate followers.


That is our radio, the unequal vehicle which can contain the select space and the resounding nonsense. But, even if some false prophets have repeatedly announced its death among us, in my opinion neither television, nor the “weekly package” nor any other invention seriously threatens it. There will always be housewives, retirees, the sick, night guards or simple insomniacs who give in to its suggestions. It cannot be expected for it to be something perfect, since perfection is almost unreachable for a daily and all-consuming work, but rather to encourage continuous renovation, the one that inspires its best products. (2015)

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