Whatever the political and economic consequences of President Obama’s trip to Cuba this week, we’ve learnt a bit about him and the country he visited. We can also see that a whole lot hasn’t changed. Another thing that has evidentially remained unchanged – during that 20th Century “constant” of the Cold War conflict between the US and Cuba – is that the Caribbean nation remains enamoured, at every turn, with music. Scenes from a Major League Baseball exhibition game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays held yesterday morning show jubilation in the crowds whenever the band started up – which appeared to be every other minute. Rapturous and genuine applause even bloomed at the final notes of the Star Spangled Banner. Ahead of the game President Obama penned a short article explaining the significance and purpose of the match:
“That’s what this visit is about: remembering what we share, reflecting upon the barriers we’ve broken.”
This is of course must be framed as a uniquely American reflection on Cuba. Other countries, particular those in Africa, have not endorsed the isolationist policies of the US and remember different struggles. On the contrary Cuba has a rich history of cooperation in Africa where they attacked barriers from the same side. Nelson Mandela famously thanked Castro and the Cuban people for the “selfless” support received for the anti-apartheid movement. In many ways its was the “critical” intervention in the gradual and successful defeat of apartheid. Apartheid itself means “the state of being apart” when translated from Afrikaans. To be anti-apartheid is to show a willingness to come together. In this case it was for the advancement of the rights and liberties of people from the other side of the world.
It is a difficult truth for the US to digest, no less for Noble Peace Prize winner Obama. In an incredible exchange that just about everybody should watch, Mandela during his visit to the US in 1990 was challenged by Ken Adelman from the Institute of Contemporary Studies for his praise of the human rights advocacy of Gaddafi, Arafat and Castro. In his response, Mandela alludes to the comparatively lack of support the US government ever showed the ANC, which barely extended beyond rhetoric, in its fight for human rights in South Africa. With his ‘normalising’ speeches and actions in Cuba over the last few days Obama is trying to work his magic on a particularly prickly legacy of his predecessors; that all too often American diplomacy has failed to bring the world together. Utilising sport to correct this is not a new Cold War trick and indeed its going to take a whole lot of ballgames to convince some commentators that the US’s actions against Cuba ought to be laid to rest.
Sport and culture facilitates all sorts of diplomatic relations, though not always positive I hasten to add. This is no different in Mali. Its relations with South Africa for example have been nurtured through two recent projects: 1) the crucial assistance Mali received from South Africa when its ability to host the African Cup of Nations in 2002 looked in doubt and 2) the on-going South African-led Timbuktu manuscript restoration and preservation project. With Cuba, Mali shares its music. Historically, Mali had some Cold War ties with Cuba, but over the last century its music has bound its people together more closely – even if many of them may not have known it.
Sadly, in researching this article I couldn’t find direct evidence of Malian and Cuban official relations being nurtured though musical connections, though I’m sure I would eventually. In a visit to the country last year, it is reported that (the source is from the Cuban Communist Party) President of the National Assembly of Mali, Issaka Sidibé, “thanked Cuban authorities for their cooperation with his country in various spheres, including health, sport and education”. Advancing cultural exchange was high on the agenda also. The musical harmony between the two countries is captured in this week’s Song of The Week. It hints at that unquantifiable, allusive and often dismissed quality, the very existence of it and its transformative powers Obama is banking will take hold in Cuba. Like sport music has a common language. A set of rules recognised nearly everywhere. Toumani Diabate – who features in this week’s SOTW – explained how during the AfroCubism project the various musicians from Mali, Cuba and elsewhere:
“…cannot even speak together on stage…music has created its own language. It’s the music message, and I think the message is true to the audiences [and] to the world also at the same time.”
It provides hope that separated peoples – by the Straights of Florida or the Atlantic Ocean, by education or simply by the passage of time – can find common intrinsically human pursuits to strip away the polluting effects of titles, labels, ignorance and othering. In its place there is always a chance for peace, happiness and cooperation. But just a chance.
Sam Garbett is Public Affairs Coordinator for the Mali Development Group – www.malidg.org.uk.
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