In the U.S., our images of Cuba tend to be eye-popping visuals — colorfully-dressed Cubanos sporting Churchill-size cigars, chromed and creaking 1950’s-era American automobiles, aesthetically-crumbling Colonial Spanish architecture.
What you can’t see in pictures, and what’s best experienced in person, is the soft feel of the tropic air, the smells of cooking and the tang of the sea, and beneath it all, the thrumming of music and rhythm that are the heartbeat of the island.
There are many dichotomies in this country — age and beauty, poverty and pride — but the most striking of all is a restrictive political system that exalts the most liberating practices of all — music and dance.
Last year I had the excellent good fortune to visit Cuba with my honey, two of our friends, and a couple handfuls of jazz-loving Seattle-ites, on a people-to-people tour sponsored by Seattle public radio station KPLU and the small-group tour company, Earthbound Expeditions.
While the “oooooh” factor of traveling to this formerly-forbidden island played its part, the real allure for me was the opportunity to hear, see and feel the music — Latin Jazz, Afro-Cuban, Salsa. Music that was made for dancing, musicians to marvel at.
I wasn’t disappointed — in that too-short week, I had at least four of the top-ten musical experiences of my life — and another handful that enriched not just my travel, but life experience as well.
But first, we had to get there.
Traveling to Cuba legally from the U.S. is still trickier than just jumping on a plane, but restrictions are easing rapidly. The first cruise ship from America docked in Havana Harbor just last month, and commercial flights from America could start as early as this summer.
Of course, I like to think that we personally had something to do with all of this. We booked our trip in September of 2014, months before President Obama announced “a new course in relations” with the island country.
By the time we set foot on Cuban soil in late January, 2015, the first of the commerce restrictions had been lifted — you could bring back with you up to $100 of cigars and rum. (I returned with $97.25 worth of both.)
Our journey from Seattle began in Miami, where we had a couple of wickedly fun days in that most money of cities (and which will get a blog of its own).
The evening before departure, we met our fellow travelers at the Miami Airport Crowne Plaza for an orientation with our hosts, KPLU’s Music Director Nick Francis and Engagement Manager Ben Wyatt, and Earthbound Expeditions’ Brooke Drury.
Our “Man in Havana” — guide, guru and all-around good-guy, Bob Bath, gave us a detailed accounting of what to expect every step of the way, from the cattle call at the airport to the 15% penalty for exchanging U.S. dollars.
Bob hipped us to pay-as-you-go toilet paper, told us to “just forget about internet,” and warned us what tourist scams to beware of (“kissy ladies,” black-market cigars, fake souvenir license plates). He distributed our visas, precious documents which would not only let us into, but also get us out of Cuba.
Needless to say, neither of us really slept that night. We were going to that Disneyland for adults — Fantasyland, Adventureland, Pirates of the Caribbean — only with real rum and real guns (and unfortunately, as we witnessed, pay-as-you-go princesses).
Early the next morning, we bussed to the airport, waddling after Bob like baby ducks through various queues and lines and groups. And then we were in the tightly-packed World Atlantic Charter, making what amounted to a half-hour puddle jump.
And then we were there.
While Bob’s orientation had prepared us for worst-case scenarios, we flowed smoothly through immigration, baggage claim, and out into the warm but cloudy afternoon, all stretching for a glimpse of the first vintage Chevy.
We met our man on the ground, guide Frank Alpizar, a graduate of foreign languages from the University of Havana, who shepherded us onto our Chinese-manufactured bus, and who provided both official and “off-the-record” insight into Cuban history, culture, and the lives of everyday Cubans.
The two-dozen of us would be in his — and our excellent bus driver Jose Luiz’s — hands for the next week. As American visitors (not tourists — this is a cultural exchange) our government mandates that we tick off the “educational” boxes. Our itinerary would be taking us to schools, museums, cultural institutions and at least one state-run restaurant per day.
Our first stop was the Plaza de la Revolucion, where we marveled at the massive monument to Cuban National hero, José Marti. Then it was on to a bus tour of Centro Habana and a walking tour of Habana Vieja. In “Old Havana” we explored narrow cobblestone streets, ogled historic buildings, and breathed in the electric street life of Cuba’s most populous city.
We poked our heads into Café Taberna, the venue where the Buena Vista Social Club performances first began, and where the current version of that storied musical group plays nightly to crowds of tourists.
And because taking care of Americans apparently includes lots of feeding, we had the first of many, many, MANY meals, lunch at the state-run restaurant Santo Angel.
Located in a graceful Colonial building on the Plaza Vieja, a World Heritage site framed by mansions of the formerly wealthy, Santo Angel’s service was slow, but the welcome drinks were welcome, and the food was quite good. But it was the music that made the meal.
A quartet of young girls — clarinet, bassoon, and percussion — entertained us shyly with classical and traditional Cuban music for the next hour, their delicate renderings setting the tone for what was to come.
We left for our hotel with the sweet refrains of “Besame Mucho” — the first of at least a dozen versions we would hear — curling behind us like the smoke of a Monte Cristo.
Then we were whisked off once again, to our home-away for the next four nights — the Hotel Nacional. It wasn’t hard to imagine the decadent goings-on from eras past, especially after we had seconds on our welcome mojitos.
By then, we were bushed, and already several rum drinks over our usual quota of none, so we were happy to ride the lift to our second floor room (a location that would come into play later). A placard outside our room told us it had been slept in by Francisco Repilado, a Cuban singer integral to the Buena Vista Social Club. A musical portent?
That evening we dined at the first of many paladars — privately-run restaurants that are nearly always the best dining option — usually in a family home, and with friendlier service and more lovingly-prepared food than the usual “institutional” fare. I’ll talk more about Paladar L’Atelier and other paladars I recommend in a few weeks.
After sating ourselves with garlic chicken, Ropa Vieja and lobster, (and yes, more mojitos), we were ready for a soft landing in our comfy hotel bed. But there seemed to be a bit of a loud party happening on the patio below, just outside our window. I was about to dig out my always-handy earplugs, but wait, was that…opera?
We were being serenaded by a lovely pas-de-duet from the lawn below — the hotel’s free evening entertainment. My ever-adventurous paramour saw that our windows opened out onto the roof above the veranda, and pulled me out so that we could furtively watch the gorgeous young performers as they treated us to a range of popular arias and duets.
And then the party really got started.
Following up the sweet but sedate cocktail-hour classical was a hot-cha all female salsa group dressed in pink, whose music and moves gave us our second and even third wind (once I got over the fear of being arrested and thrown in a Cuban jail).
Closing out the tropical evening with our own private dance concert, the palm trees above, the ocean below — we weren’t just in Havana, we were in heaven.
Art, music and magic
The next morning we packed into then packed in the hotel’s stadium-sized buffet breakfast, before packing into the bus for a day of touring. Our first stop was a too-brief visit to the Cemetery of Christopher Columbus, and then to Gaudi-esque wonderland of Fusterlandia.
After seeing the sculptural beauty in the cemetery, and the creative ingenuity of Fusterlandia, it was fitting that our next stop was Cuba’s premier school of arts, the Instituto Superior de Arte.
Built on the grounds of a pre-Revolution country club, and employing innovative architectural techniques and flowing forms, the Instituto was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003.
We visited the ceramics school, and were treated to an impromptu guitar recital by a young music student.
Our dinner that evening was in the finest of the state-run restaurants we visited, the Cafe del Oriente, where we were well-entertained by a talented trio, Alma and Harmonio (which translates to “soul and harmony).
I was fortunate to be seated next to KPLU’s Nick Francis, and immediately imposed myself on him for insight on the evolution of Latin jazz — something that didn’t really come around until the late 1940’s, when Dizzie Gillespie married the Mambo to the Bebop.
Nick recommended an excellent book, “Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo,” as a primer on the development of music in the most dynamic island in the New World. (NOTE – this is an affiliate link! If you choose to purchase through my affiliate page, I’ll receive a small percentage of the sale, but you won’t pay a penny more.)
A number of us were “jazzed” to have an evening of music, and thought about making an excursion to Cafe Taberna for the nightly gathering of the Buena Vista Social Club.
But guide Frank gave us what turned out to be a better steer — another iteration of BVSC (its original and new members playing at numerous venues around Havana on any given night) — at Palacio des Artesanias.
There, in the courtyard of an 18th-century mansion, we swigged frosty mojitos under the stars, and danced in our chairs to rousing Cuban “Son” music. That is, until the dance cuties — professional dancers that typically accompany the live performers — pulled my beau up for some salsa. Soon the rest of our group was out on the floor, giving it their all — while I recorded everything for future blackmail purposes.
A creaky old Opel was our carriage home. While we would have welcomed more lawn music, we were grateful for a quiet night from the patio below and danced away into dreamland….
The Fox and the Crow
I’m not saying this is exactly how it happened, but our perhaps our hosts were spying on our dancing adventures, because our scheduled trip to an elementary school was cancelled and replaced with…salsa lessons.
We spent two fun and sweaty hours under the tutelage of Susmarie Martinez — the “best salsa instructor in Cuba” — where we were taught the basics of Cuban Salsa, Mambo, Cha Cha and Merengue.
I learned just enough to know that I need many more lessons before I should grace any floor other than the one in my living room.
After our lunch at Paladar Decameron de Lunes, we did visit a school — the music conservatory Conservatorio Guillermo Tomas Bouffartigue.
There, we were treated to recitals by children ranging from eight to eighteen, culminating in a piano rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” delivered by a soon-to-be-graduate on a tinny old baby grand.
His song selection was a sincere message to us visiting Americans, as we all could imagine a world where we lived as one with our closest southern neighbor.
The rest of the day and dinner was on our own, but we all tagged along with Nick later that evening, for he was heading into a deep, dark basement of flaming hot jazz at La Zorra y El Cuervo.
One of Havana’s top jazz clubs (and within easy walking distance of the Hotel Nacional), a small cover of about $10 (which included two drinks) put us right at the feet of that night’s performers, Yanet Valdés & Sus Invitados.
The quintet — vocalist Valdes, pianist Alejandro Palladaria (who was the arranger and de facto bandleader), sax, bass and drums — well, why we this group isn’t touring the world and winning boatloads of Grammys is a culture crime, something that hopefully will change as our trade relationship with Cuba continues to evolve. (In fact, we did learn that the saxophonist was a Grammy winner — but you’ll not find any trace of him or the rest of the group on the interwebs.)
In between songs, Valdes said to us,
“Music does so much, brings us all together. What our governments are trying to do, we’ve been doing all along.”
This is before they launched into a quasi-cryptic Latin version of Miles Davis’ “‘Round Midnight” that will be the way I’ll forever hear the song. And well ’round midnight — more like 1:30 AM — is the time we skipped home.
Welcome to the Hotel California?
Wednesday was a morning with Hemingway (which is going to get a post of its own), the afternoon at the Museum of the Revolution, then a walk along the Malecon and through the side streets of Centro Habana before hailing a Cocotaxi back to our hotel.
We all had a light evening meal at the lovely Paladar Ivan Justo, then were free to venture as we saw fit.
I was itching to explore Calle Obispo, a pedestrian thoroughfare which was reputed to have mucho musica.
We passed one promising venue after another, open-air 18th & 19th century buildings with various groups playing inside. But we could feel the energy — and see the crowd — gathered midway down the block, and that was our stop for the night.
Tradiçion Habanera, a six-ish member group, (sometimes they were five and sometimes seven, depending on what they were playing), scooped us in with irresistable African rhythms and salsa moves. We managed to snag some empty chairs right in front, which was either brilliant or regrettable, depending on whose shoes you were in.
As was par for the course with the musicians we saw, short sets of songs were interspersed with breaks to hawk $10 CDs. I added to my collection that night, but would have been wiser to keep my opinion of their track-list to myself.
#1 on the list was my least-favorite song of all time, Hotel California.
“Ugh, ” I groaned. Throughout our trip we were subjected to more versions of the American pop-music “anthem” than I’d ever voluntarily listened to in my life (and I swear I’m an Eagles fan).
And we were about to hear it one more time — though I didn’t recognize its lyrical guitar intro until I was pulled up to dance to it by maracas man.
Truthfully, it was a pretty great rendition of the song, which now I can listen to with a new ear. And thanks to the previous day’s salsa lessons, it was more memorable than humiliating. Except that now there’s blackmail video on me.
It was a quintessential Cuba moment, and our last night in Havana for a few days. The next morning, we were off to Cienfuegos and Trinidad, which would have their own musical flavors.
Cuban music is unique among Latin music, and if you are interested in learning more about its origins and evolution, I highly recommend Ned Sublette’s extraordinary 2007 book, “Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo.” (AFFILIATE LINK)
More than a dissertation on Cuban music, it’s a fascinating history lesson of the relationship between Southern Spain and Coastal Africa, all within the context of music.
Reaching back to the singing slave women of the Phoenicians, the religious chants of the Visigoths, the musical poetry of Islam, and the rhythms of Africa, it provides a framework from which to view all the music of the New World, as focused through its most vibrant lens — Cuba.