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Primary Sources for Musical Learning: Exploring the Cuban-American Musical Heritage of Emilio and Gloria Estefan–Diversity and Identity in “The Great Melting Pot”

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This post is by Carolyn Bennett, the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

This year, the Library of Congress celebrates the artistry of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, recipients of the 2019 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. The award ceremony and tribute concert will be broadcast Friday, May 3, 2019, at 9:00 p.m. ET on PBS.

Cuban-American music has a strong heritage that inspired the Estefans’ work. Exploring Cuban-American music through primary sources at the Library of Congress can lead students to exciting music and thoughtful inquiry about cultural identity. This will be the first of a two-part series exploring Cuban-American folk music at the Library of Congress.

The Melting Pot

Zora Neale Hurston advocated for the Works Progress Administration to fund an expedition to document folk life in Florida. Ask students to consider this quotation from her expedition proposal:

Recordings in Florida will be like backtracking a large part of the United States, Europe and Africa for these elements have been attracted here and brought a gift to Florida culture each in its own way. The drums throb: Africa by way of Cuba; Africa by way of the British West Indies; Africa by way of Haiti and Martinique; Africa by way of Central and South America. Old Spain speaks through many interpreters. Old England speaks through black, white and intermediate lips. Florida, the inner melting pot of the great melting pot — America.

Ask them:

  • What does it mean for Florida, and America, to be a “melting pot?”
  • Why does Hurston use the melting pot characterization as an argument for preserving folk music in Florida?
  • In your opinion, is your community a melting pot? Why or why not?

Folk Songs and Change

At the turn of the 20th century, many Cuban-Americans migrated from Key West to Ybor City, near Tampa, following cigar manufacturing jobs.  In this recording, Adelpha Pollato recalls her childhood in Key West as she sings Senora Santana. As students listen and learn to sing the song, invite them to analyze the lyrics, as translated in the recording transcript.

  • How might the lyrics relate to a community’s experiences of migration?
  • Do students have any life experiences that help them empathize with the child’s longing?

Finding Folklore:  Who? Where?

The WPA Florida Recordings preserve the voices of the elderly and very young; Bahamans, Cubans, Italians; voices across Florida’s diverse population. Pieces include children’s games, riddles, rhymes, stories, and songs of all sorts. One of the most unusual pieces is Coocoo Bobo, described in the study as “an imitation of a train by a deranged Cuban, Enrique Rodriguez.”

  • Why might folklorists seek out diverse people and art forms when documenting a community?
  • If the students’ community were to be studied today, what unique individuals or art forms should researchers seek to record?

Watch this space for a post exploring an exciting Cuban-American game and song as we anticipate the broadcast of the Gershwin Prize tribute concert.

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