The creative arts have always played a significant role in Cuban culture. From the highly-esteemed Cuban National Ballet and the plethora of art galleries and installations in Havana, to the many talented musicians who’ve gone on to become world-famous, Cuba truly is a lively place filled with artistic revelries. So if you’re heading over to the island country soon and want to learn more about its culture, we’ve curated the perfect guide for you.
Books to ignite your passion for Cuba
Dreaming in Cuban, by Cristina Garcia
A fiction novel set against the backdrop of the Cuban Revolution. It spans three generations of women in two different families, highlighting not only their differences (especially politically and geographically), but also what ties them together. It’s a bittersweet story that depicts the struggles and resilience of women in Cuba.
Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, by Carlos Eire
A memoir of a child during the time period when Fidel Castro overthrew Batista in 1959. Author Carlos Eire recounts his personal tale of life in Havana during Castro’s overtaking through 1962. The memoir also includes the harrowing account of the time Eire was airlifted, along with 14,000 other unaccompanied children, during Operation Peter Pan.
Cuba: A History, by Sergio Guerra-Vilaboy and Oscar Loyola-Vega
Beginning with the pre-Hispanic period and continuing through 2008, Cuba: A History offers a somewhat controversial historical viewpoint of Cuba. Both authors are professors at the University of Havana and this Pro-Revolution text is still widely used in the university today. Pro-Revolution view is a standard in university teaching in Cuba, especially as the state has been governed by the Communist Party of Cuba since 1959.
Get a visual taste of Cuba with these films
Fresa y Chocolate (1993), directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío
Fresa y Chocolate takes place in the world-famous restaurant La Guarida in Central Havana. It’s the story of two opposite people and how they come to love each other: one is gay, the other straight; one is a communist and the other is not. If the restaurant sounds familiar, it’s because it was also in the global spotlight a few years ago as the place where both Rihanna and Beyoncé ate when they visited Cuba. It’s also the only Cuban film to have ever been nominated for an Oscar.
Un Traductor (2018), directed by Rodrigo Barriuso and Sebastián Barriuso
A crowd favorite when it appeared at the International Film Festival in Havana in December of 2018, Un Traductor tells the story of a Russian professor assigned to work as a translator in a Cuban hospital for child victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The story is told against the backdrop of Cuba’s biggest economic depression (known as the Special Period), offering unique insight into the hardships of that time. Based on a true story of the parents of the film’s two directors, Rodrigo Barriuso and Sebastian Barriuso, you can find Un Traductor on Amazon Prime Video.
Give Me Future (2017), directed by Austin Peters
A documentary on musician Major Lazer guaranteed to give you all the feels! After President Obama visited Cuba in 2016, “global music sensation” Major Lazer went to Havana to put on a free show. This film documents how they got there, how the show was put together, and goes behind the scenes to explain the bureaucracies of the Cuban government. Learn about the resilience of the Cuban people and get glimpses of the concert that had 400,000 people in attendance. Find it on iTunes Movie.
Cuba and the Cameraman (2017), directed by Jon Alpert
This documentary by filmmaker Jon Alpert is just fascinating. He began to document life in Cuba during the early 1970s when the country seemed euphoric about its future with its new social programs being implemented. The film goes on until the early 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, which left Cuba in a huge economic depression, and then continues after Fidel Castro’s death. Alpert follows three families living both in Havana and the countryside, and tells the story of their optimism as well as their struggles – including what it means to feed an entire family on limited rations. The riveting documentary (with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) also offers up-close and personal footage of Fidel Castro. The film is currently on Netflix.
Tunes that will get you on your feet
*I grew up listening to Spanish oldies at home in Texas. My mom would play them loudly on Saturday mornings and that was my cue to get up and start cleaning the house. Even today, I still listen to Spanish oldies and some of the artists below can be found on my personal playlist.
Beny Moré is one of the most popular and talented Cuban musicians of all time. He was at the height of his career in the 1940s and 1950s, but you can still hear his music played throughout the island to this day.
Favorite songs: “Bonito y Sabroso” and “Que Bueno Baila Usted”
Celia Cruz is arguably the queen of salsa and one of the most (if not the most) popular Latin artists of the 20th century.
Top 3 favorite songs: “Quimbara,” “La Negra Tiene Tumbao,” and “La Vida Es Un Carnaval”
Celio Gonzalez was a singer from the Sonora Santanera (the group Celia Cruz was also part of).
Top 3 favorite songs: “Ajiaco Caliente,” “Malvado Proceder,” and “Besito de Coco”
Known as the king of the Mambo, Perez Prado was a huge sensation in the 1940s through the 1970s.
Favorite songs: “Mambo No. 5” and “Mambo Jambo”
Cubans don’t only listen to salsa! Here are a few of my favorite artists, some of whom I’ve had the pleasure of seeing play live – and they always put on a great performance.
Cimafunk’s Afro-Cuban music and funk fusion will have you up and ready to dance! Favorite song: “Me Voy”
Orishas is a hip hop group founded in 1999. They became the first rap group ever to address the issue of racial identity in Cuban society.
Favorite songs: “Represent,” “Bembe,” and “A Lo Cubano”
Yissy Garcia and Bandancha
Yissy is the drummer and leader of Bandancha. They fuse Latin jazz, funk, electronic, and Afro-Cuban music for a unique take on Cuba’s contemporary music.
Favorite songs: “Ultima Noticia”and “Universo”
What are your favorite music, films, and books on Cuba? Let me know in the comments!
This article contains affiliate links. We’re proud affiliates of these companies. If you use our links, we may earn a small commission at no additional cost to you.
Author: Rocio Yepez
Founder of Fisheye Journeys
It's not always easy to track down Rocio. She's always been a free spirit, but since her epic solo backpacking trip, she's been consuming life in rather large quantities! Four months of travel adventure in southeast Asia will do that to a person!
By trade, she's a lifestyle, portrait, and travel photographer. Fascinated by the give and take between people, she aims to capture that magic instant BETWEEN moments - the "passing" moments, where little is offered, but so much is revealed.
When she's not capturing life on film, she may be in acting class, at the bookstore, or engaged in a class to learn something completely new. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and a strong mind to earn tenure as a permanent student at community college. If you see her flat-footed, be sure to snap a picture, that's about as rare as seeing her in a bad mood. She's constantly moving, exploring, discovering, and growing.