OFFICIAL VOICE OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF CUBA CENTRAL COMMITTEE
Children are taught to play the tres, laúd, guitar, and minor percussion, the basic accompanying instruments in Cuban punto. Photo: Yisel Martínez García

“I’m an improviser and I enjoy it because it is a very artistic, spontaneous, and original way of communicating and expressing what I feel. Since I was little I saw my grandmother write décimas (improvised stanzas of ten octameter verse lines). I would learn them and sing them with her, but I didn’t have any knowledge on the subject. I did not know it was a décima, sung or improvised, but one day I came to the workshop,” Adriana Fajardo Pérez tells me as she greets her companions from the repentismo (the art of singing improvised decimas) workshop in Mayabeque, one of the many that exist in the country.

She is joined by Susel, Anthony, María Carla, and 12 other children. It seems a very diverse group. Some wear fashionable caps and pants, tennis shoes and T-shirts. Others walk in heels and even appear to be wearing makeup. Ronny starts playing the laúd and Claudia sings a tonada (tunes or melodies sung to recite décimas). Everyone is attentive and they no longer seem so different from each other. They are, like the dresses that hang at the end of the patio, all white with red ribbons.

The atmosphere is friendly. Adriana explains that this was how she came to learn about repentismo, with many friends and a teacher who made her fall in love with this art form. “In the workshop I have discovered that I have a gift, which will always be a part of my life and allows me to prove who I am,” she adds.

The Specialized Workshops on repentismo for children arose in 2000 and their main promoter was repentista (repentismo performer) Alexis Díaz Pimienta. From the beginning, the aim has been to maintain the vitality of Cuban punto (rural poetry and music, consisting of a tune or melody over which a person sings an improvised or learned stanza of ten octameter verse lines, with a rhyming scheme), a tradition that identifies the island.

“In the early years, the workshops didn’t exist in all provinces, but today we have 108 throughout the country. The strongest territories in this practice are Las Tunas, Mayabeque, and Pinar del Río, while the string instrument or musical accompaniment workshops exist in four provinces: Artemisa, Mayabeque, Sancti Spíritus and Las Tunas,” explains Yenisledy González García, a specialist for the Specialized Workshops on repentismo and musical accompaniment, affiliated with the Ibero-American Center for the Décima and Improvised Verse.

ARE PEOPLE BORN OR MADE REPENTISTAS?

The tradition is Almost always passed down from one’s grandfather, states Anthony Mauri Gacita, another of the children in the workshop. “He taught me décimas and one day he brought me here, they enrolled me, and since then here I am. Repentismo is part of my life. I practice everyday. It is satisfying when you see that you have advanced a lot in the field that you enjoy; moreover people applaud you and that fills you with joy.”

In the workshops, children learn about the structure of the décima, develop their knowledge of linguistics, and expand their vocabulary. Photo: Yisel Martínez García

Any child who wishes to do so can participate in the workshops. Children are encouraged to join at all schools, and the classes usually take place every Saturday, for two hours. Local Casas de Cultura are the sites par excellence for these workshops. In them, children learn about the structure of the décima, develop their knowledge of linguistics and expand their vocabulary. If they are sufficiently motivated, they can become repentistas, tonadistas (tonada performer), writers and researchers.

It is more difficult to find children interested in the string instrument workshops, explains Yenisledy, because they must have a keen interest in music. In these classes, children are taught to play the tres, laúd, guitar, and minor percussion, the basic accompanying instruments in Cuban punto.

“The goal is to attain child repentistas, but it doesn’t always happen that way. I believe that the child carries the gift inside. In the workshop, he or she discovers it, develops it and perfects it. Many do not finish the course but even with those who leave, something interesting happens; when they arrive at school and are taught the subject of Spanish Language, they already have a broad knowledge of the language.”

The children are also motivated by the plan of activities in which they are included at the Casas de Cultura of each province. Meanwhile, the Ibero-American Center for the Décima and Improvised Verse holds seminars for children and teachers, and national gatherings.

“It’s a complex task because it is carried out for the whole country and often material resources are limited, but it is a responsibility, and everyone who works here assumes it, above all with love of the tradition,” Yenisledy notes.

THE PRESENCE OF A TRADITION

Susel Pérez Pérez began in the workshops at first interested in the tonadas, but today she is also playing the tres.

“I listened to my grandfather, who is an improvised poet, play the tres, and my father, who is not a professional, since I was little. There has always been music in my house and it has filled my home with life. I had always been afraid to get on stage. I started in the specialized workshops on repentismo and today I am practicing and doing the best I can. I would like to be a professional in the future and defend this beautiful genre,” she explains.

“Today, the tradition in Cuba is strong and well represented by youth and this rising talent pool of children. Today’s young practitioners, like me, are the result of the children’s repentismo workshops. I think the training is different. The most long-lived poets did not have the opportunity to have a workshop, a teacher to guide them, teach them literary devices, they learned everything empirically. Today we are fortunate to have these workshops,” Yenisledy stresses.

More than 1,000 children across the country are currently participating in the Specialized Workshops on repentismo and musical accompaniment. This idea that has been consolidated in the country over 18 years, sustains the tradition of Cuban punto, recently declared Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

One of the UNESCO requirements to be declared heritage is the continuity of the art form, Gladys Collazo Usallán, president of the National Council of Cultural Heritage, told Granma International.

“Something that can disappear over time is not declared heritage; it is done when its continuity is guaranteed and the Cuban punto is something that is there. Achieving this declaration means a lot, especially for practitioners and bearers. We always say that it is a celebration and an important recognition for those for whom this is a way of life, and who include it in their work or who, after a day’s work, gather to celebrate their rural festivites, which are already part of our identity,” she adds.

“The teacher told us later that Cuban punto was declared Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which for us always has to be an intangible heritage of the soul and treasured from within,” recalls Adriana when asked about the declaration.

“Cuban punto deserves to be valued from the musical point of view and from the quality of the poetry that is improvised. It is not necessary to have string instruments to speak of repentismo. It is a sentiment that accompanies the strings and an art that identifies us,” she tells me just before finishing the class. Perhaps her response is very elaborate for her age, but these are the skills acquired by children who, like her, enjoy improvisation, repentismo, and Cuban punto.

There is nothing left hanging at the end of the patio; the white dresses with red ribbons are now accompanied by guitar, laúd and tres. Everyone is ready to start the guateque (country celebration in which puntos are sung).