Two Weeks in Cuba

Monday May 16, 2011

I arrived in Cuba in early morning, flying out of Miami. Nerves wracked a little at Havana airport when I couldn’t find my visa and the consequent run-in with the officianados….but all ended up OK.

My earliest impression finds me pleasantly surprised with the state of Old Havana I’d been led to believe it was much more decrepit than it is but this is relative: after spending so much time in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro, old Havana doesn’t look all that bad, and much of it is glorious. There are many many intact blocks where you won’t find a building less than 150 years old and of course there are many dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. In the last 20 years, since its designation as a World Heritage site, the rehabilitation has accelerated.

Traveling with the cultural group Cubanola has given our group of 12 inroads to some fine music, art and ambience. Yesterday we went to the studios of the National record label Egrem for an afternoon concert by the Septeto Habanero, one of the first bands to record Cuban Son. This is of course a ghost band, and I don’t know if any of today’s members is tied to the original group, but the afternoon was splendid, a good, funky scene. The night before I’d hit the legendary Hemingway-affiliated tourist joint La Bodeguita del Medio, to hear a quartet that balanced the act of playing for tourists and providing good music very nicely I thought. So I felt my first two encounters with Cuban music were good solid, if somewhat predictable ones.

The next day we drove to the suburbs, to a music school in Guanabacoa, to hear the eminent pianist Peruchin. I soon found out he was the great-nephew of another pianist named Peruchin, one whose discs I’d been hipped to by Jon Cleary. He played some ferocious polyrhythmic stuff, and had his students (including his daughter) come up and demonstrate some concepts. After 20 minutes or so I sat in and played two solos as well: Ignacio Cervantes’ “No Me Tocques” and a Maple Leaf Rag with a lot of Cubanisms thrown in. To end the show a large “kid band”, The “Van Vancitos” (modelled after Los Van Van, the fantabulous Cuban band of the 80s and 90s) come up and played and danced us into some kind of frenzy.

After lunch we drove even further into the suburbs to hear Jorge Pacheco, a 25-year-old young lion of the jazz piano world. He and his trio were technically mind-boggling, much-inspired by Keith Jarrett and much over-my-head much of the time. On the way back he picked up a historian-friend of the tour leader Arianna, Luciana, and she showed us revolutionary sites, old mafia hotels, fortresses, and neighborhoods both swanky (like Vedado) and slummy. I had only seen old Havana until today so this was eye-opening.

Wednesday, May 18

With the help of Ariana’s friend Miguel, who hailed a taxi and got us a “Cuban” rate, we cabbed to Le Maison nightclub in the Havana suburbs. Ariana was interested in seeing the timba singer Alain Daniel, and knew three of his sidemen as well (as did I; the bassist and drummer had been in the Jazz trio we’d seen that afternoon). It was freezing-cold in the nightclub, and I couldn’t help but think this was the nightclub saying “Look at us, we can afford a ridiculously high amount of AC, no problem.” Before the performance began we watched about an hour of videos on two large screens, mostly bachata and reggaeton, but also the Black Eyed Peas at the Super Bowl, music so bad it was almost incomprehensible.

This was a “timba lite” performance, lots of ballads and dancing not encouraged. Daniel was masterful at teasing and imploring his audience, and though it wasn’t really my kind of scene, I enjoyed it. The women present constituted the finest-looking assemblage of Creoles I’d ever encountered, and their dancing was….I think the technical term is “bootylicious.”

Thursday May 19

We hit some artists’ studios in the morning which were ho-hum. At night five of our group of 12 did what many tourists to Havana have done thru the ages, attended a show at the legendary Tropicana. It was $85 (Ariana subsidized us with $30, which eased the sting) for a two-hour survey of cha cha cha, mambo, rumba, danzon and other styles I didn’t recognize. I told Ariana it was great but a little Las Vegas-y and she said, well of course, the Vegas spectacles come from Cuba, having been transported by the mobsters who started in Havana and ended up in Vegas. I’d never considered that, and with good reason: I never go see shows like this.

Friday May 20

Our last day in Havana. We spent the afternoon at a beach about 15 miles outside of the city: white sand, turquoise water, no high-rise condos, and the Atlantic in a rough mood. I allowed it to boss me around a little then lay down for a snooze and some sweet dreams.

Returning to the city we headed quickly to the Egrem studio performance space for a rumba performance by a group whose name I didn’t catch. Rumba in Cuba does not mean what we think of rumba (which we apply to Cuban Son and other things). It’s percussion (three congueros, clave, maybe cajon), singers and dancers, no horns or strings. This was visceral stuff, especially when the dancers got going; I’m unlikely to see this kind of thing again unless I return to Cuba.

Saturday May 21

An early morning flight to Santiago de Cuba, the Second City. Our new home, the Hotel de Las Americas, is not elegant like Havana’s Telegrafo, nor as centrally-located, but it does have a pool. We took a minute to settle in then walked about 10 minutes thru a neighborhood reminiscent of the Lower Garden District to a performance by the choir Orfeon Santiago. This could likely be my favorite group of the whole trip. They started with a classical piece whose Phrygian touches almost gave it a Medieval flavor, progressed thru contradanzas and later standards like “Guantanamera” and “El Manisero,” but smartly rearranged. It was incredibly suave and elegant, with just enough dancing and emoting (and the occasional clave).

That night we had a long walk to the Cathedral, with its Main Square (whether this qualifies as a Plaza de Armas in the New Orleans or Santiago de Compostela style I don’t know). There was a free concert by several groups, and Ariana specifically wanted to hear the last singer but we were whipped from the early morning flight. After viewing the spectacle from the rooftop of an adjacent hotel, we cabbed it back home.

Sunday May 22

Dance lesson! In fact I’d made it to age 53 1/2 without having taken a dance lesson, but when in Cuba of course you’re prone to do such a thing. Our instructors were charming and patient as hell, and I made it thru a few moves, but ultimately the turns did me in. Aside from my fingers I am actually quite clumsy and when I think of myself dancing I always remember Holden Caulfield’s line in “Catcher in the Rye”: “Dancing with her was like dancing with the Statue of Liberty.” That said, it was fun, and I’ve always believed that small doses of humiliation are not such a bad thing.

In the late afternoon we took a tour of Santiago, driving out to San Juan Hill and thinking about the Spanish-American War. I’m still trying to parse this one: were we helping our beleagured Cuban friends back in the 1890s or just grabbing land ripe for the picking? In any case, there’s a statue dedicated to the Yanks who died in the war (erected in 1927, when we still ran the country).

In the late, late afternoon we headed to a performance by a Tumba Francesa, one of only three such organizations which still perform some very curious dances: contradanzas by slaves in the style of their Haitian (or back then, San Domingan) masters who had emigrated from that island after the Haitian (Domingan) Revolution. It was wonderfully quaint, with very formal steps accompanied by humongous African drums. I KNOW I’ll never see this outside of Cuba.

At five we headed to a concert hall just down the hill from our hotel for a concert spectacular hosted by Cubadisc, the national record company. Clocking in at three hours, it was a bit of a bombardment, with every speaker between songs prattling on about what a great city for music Santiago de Cuba was, much like people in New Orleans do. The best moments were incredibly exciting, with 1200 people in the audience singing and dancing along with many of the numbers, in a manner of some shows I’ve seen in Rio. The last song was a 15-minute tribute to the Orishas, the gods of Santeria, each with their own dances. Pure rapture, and not in the Bible Belt sense.

Monday, May 23

After breakfast we drove 45 minutes to Palmas to attend a vodun (voodoo to us gringos) ceremony. I take this stuff seriously, as I have a friend who was convinced me he was indeed the victim of a curse while here years ago; Ariana assured me however that this would be an entirely benevolent experience. The presence of Haiti is strong in this part of the island; after the Haitian (Domingan) revolution thousands decamped across the water to settle here, and later on thousands of these settlers would relocate around 1810 to New Orleans, doubling the size of the city.

It was what you might imagine a voodoo ceremony to be: a dark hut with lots of totemic objects, chickens cackling, candles on the ground, the priest drinking rum and smoking a pipe. Having grown up Catholic with sanctified wine, votive candles and incense, this wasn´t much of a stretch for me. The ceremony lasted about 90 minutes and I though I was intrigued and happy to receive a blessing, the smoke and the heat were overwhelming by the end.

Afterwards we drove a mile or so then walked another mile across a river and up a muddy mountain path to a farm that this group had just started. We were in the process of planting avocado seedlings when a huge storm broke out. There was no shelter save a leaky lean-to, and even with some of our clan carrying umbrellas we all got drenched. This would have repercussions for me; I caught a cold which would nag me the rest of the trip and my iPhone would go on the fritz, refusing to recharge from time to time.

At night we all gathered for dinner at the nearby restaurant Zun Zun. Those who had skipped the trip and missed the deluge delighted in their wisdom. Despite the aftereffects I´m not sorry I did it….it was fun slopping around in the mud like an eight-year-old.

Tuesday, May 24

Morning was spent at more art galleries. Once again I was nowhere near tempted to buy anything (one of the good things about living in a small space I suppose….I have to consider where I´d put anything I purchase).

The afternoon found us at a performance by the Conga de Hoyos, a Carnival percussion-plus- horn group that is the closest thing Cuba has to the New Orleans brass band tradition. The hornman alternated between clarinet, corneta chino (Chinese horn, a double-reed instrument) and alto sax, and played “El Manicero” and “La Comparsa,” among other tunes. With two guys banging on brake drums it was incredibly loud, and I can´t say I enjoyed the performance much, but of course it was instructive to see this brass band cousin.

Later in the afternoon we had our second dance lesson, and I was clumsy as before, though I still enjoyed it. Dinner was at the hotel across the street.

Wednesday, May 25

I´ve never been terribly interested in ballet or modern dance, but the performance we saw this morning of the Danza de Caribe troupe was outstanding. This 14-piece group presented us with about 45 minutes of their latest works-in-progress, starting with a blues-based set of dances that used Billy Holiday´s “Strange Fruit” and Donny Hathaway´s “A Song for You” (as well as Vangelis) for accompaniment. I have no vocabulary to describe what they did, but it seemed a mix of classic ballet moves and new inventions.

Afterwards the 75-year-old director, who looked like a little like Bill Cosby and spoke eloquent English, had a question-and-answer session. He demonstrated what he took from Martha Graham, and how he tweaked what he took. I was fascinated by the whole thing.

In the afternoon we went to a Santeria House for some serious conga playing and singing. We took part, with ablutions of seeds and coffee and such which were then thrown into a bowl to offer to the gods. Every single tune they played, and they played constantly, was in triple meter. I was fairly mesmerized by the whole scene, and one of the rhythms I will never forget, it was pounded so deep in my head.

We drove a few blocks to our third dance lesson, then returned to the Santeria House for a huge dinner of lobster, fish, rice, beans, beer, cake, fruit and coffee. Upon my return home I decided to go across the street to the Hotel Melia to use their internet services. There was a very nice quintet playing (bass, gutar, violin, maracas/clave and later piano). I had heard them from the internet room performing a lovely version of the Beatles´s ¨”Michelle” and decided to sit down and check them out. Two others from our group, Toni and Mary, joined me as we listened to a couple sets of wonderful four-part harmony. This type of thing doesn´t exist in New Orleans, I have to go to Brazil to hear it. It was the thousandth time on this trip I´d been reminded of Brazil. I sat in, playing solo and later with the maracas player. They enjoyed it, but of course they did: what musician doesn´t enjoy getting paid to listen?

Thursday, May 26

Trip winding down now, the last full day for the tour group; Ariana and I would stay another three days. In the morning we drove about 20 miles outside of the city to La Cobre Church to pay homage to La Virgen, who appeared here I don´t know when. We layed sunflowers at the altar and lit candles. It was a nice relaxed affair.

In the afternoon there was a dance lesson, but I skipped it as I was starting to feel the effects of the cold I´d caught. Afterwards, at six, I performed a 45-minute concert (Gottschalk, Lecuona, Cervantes, Joplin, Fats Domino) for our group and some Cuban friends at a local spinet. I can´t say I played especially well, but I´m glad I did it, it was important for me to play Cuban music in Cuba for the Cubans. As an unexpected surprise, a sax group, the Magic San Quartet, followed my set with three tunes, and invited me to jam with them on one tune, which I did, with little groove, I´m afraid. These guys sounded wonderful, though when they tried to “swing” it sounded odd, as it did every other time I´ve heard a Cuban try this. It was a nice final bit of music for the group to hear, showing the incredible finesse Cuba can bring to the table.

Because our tour group had packed in so much cultural activity, the final three days of the trip after they split and was my left to my own devices were a bit of a letdown. The cold I’d caught in the rainstorm leveled me on Friday, and I spent most of the day in bed (I found out later that getting sick on a visit here is pretty common; there are lots of bugs gringos aren’t used to). It wasn’t a total waste: I watched a lot of TV, something I only do on the road as I lack a functional telly at home. “Men In Black,” parts one and two, a young John Goodman in “King Ralph,” the bizarre TNT channel show “Charmed”: It’s good to soak in my culture once in a while, if only to know how important it is to escape most of it. The ads for luxury items (“Because your dog deserves the very best”) sounded very off-kilter in this third-world environment.

Saturday I felt well enough to walk downtown to the historic center, about 2 miles. At the Place Marti, I saw an extraordinary thing: a gigantic mechanical music player, a cross between a pipe organ and a hurdy-gurdy, made in Paris in the 1890s (I was told later that it was a “cafe organ”). It was both gas-powered and hand-cranked, and accompanying it were five percussionists! I was riveted. After tipping one of the sidemen I asked for a danzon; the contraption-player pulled out not a piano roll but a book which unfolded at one end and re-folded at the other. Totally cool.

I entered the Cathedral for the first time. After sitting for five minutes I was approached by Pedro, who identified himself as a musician and we chatted. I let him take me on a short tour of the city; part of this involved my playing a Petrov grand piano (the nicest piano I found in Cuba); he seemed really uninterested in what I played. Eventually we went to a cultural center that he liked, and when I feared the whole thing would stretch on an on, I thanked him for his time and offered him $5 (or actually cucs -kooks- as the money foreigners use in Cuba is called). He said he needed $10 for his sick daughter. So I gave him $10. I started walking back to the Cathedral. Didn’t I have more money for something or other? I gave him $3.

This type of thing is one of the big downsides of visiting here. The hustle is relentless. When I was with the group I felt free to ignore most of the come-ons, but one on one I find it much harder. I’m guilted easily on this front.

I headed back to the hotel for lunch with Raul, one of our guides, but he didn’t show (I later found out his wife was sick). So I watched more TV. At night, after it cooled off, I headed back downtown to where I’d heard there were two clubs near each other with decent music. The first had a band onstage, but since there was no audience, they weren’t playing. The second said the music would start shortly. I paid my three cucs and headed in. It was freezing cold, and 30 minutes went by with no tunes. I left, saying I’d come back when the music started, and they agreed. After a 20-minute lollygag I returned and heard a pretty decent group playing what I would call basic salsa. The trumpet player wasn’t quite making it, but the keyboardist was ferocious and the rest were fine. Still, it was nothing extraordinary so after 30 minutes of shivering I headed home. Only 13 days in Cuba and I was already getting blase.

Sunday was my last full day. At 1 in the afternoon Ariana and I headed to the elegant house of Aurelio, a local DJ and music historian. Our purpose was to burn some CDs. I was looking specifically for a women’s vocal group from the 30s called Anacaona, but would settle for Benny More or Arsenio Rodriguuez. He had no Anacaona, but some More, and dumped a lot of stuff into my laptop that I trust I will dig when I get around to it. Even better perhaps, I laid on him my 10-CD set of Brazilian Compilations; he said Brazilian music is hard to come by in Cuba, which is a real shame. Well he’s set for a while, I’ll tell you.

After returning to the hotel I washed up and walked downtown again. Pedro, the insistent fellow from yesterday, had told me of a rumba session at a club called Artex, and I thought that would be a great way to end the trip. When I arrived however, there was not rumba but a six-piece band playing 60s pop! Nothing I could identify, but it had a Petula Clarke vibe to it. I was disappointed, but it sounded so funny to hear this that I had to laugh too. After a while the band switched to pretty average Cuban grooves and I split. I walked to the Cathedral and struck out a conversation with two young Brits, inviting them to have a drink with me at the nearby Hotel Granda. They were travelling all over the island on a three-week fling, and having a blast. Eventually a deaf magician, Tony, came up and began an act that we all enjoyed thoroughly (I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff). Here was a hustle, but a very charming hustle. I also don’t feel I’m being hustled if someone who’s put in hundreds of hours at his trade does the spieling. After the Brits left, we talked (he lip-read fluently) about his life; I’m glad I met him. It was raining, so I taxied home from the square, one of my few rides in one the gigantic 50s American cars you see here.

Monday, our last day, very very lazy. I considered walking downtown but instead just walked to Zun Zun for a great lunch before cabbing to the airport with Ariana at 5. Will I get back here? I’m not sure. It sure would be great to return as a working musician. And I’m certainly glad I came now. It was an itch that had to be scratched….and for the moment there aren’t any places I’m dying to visit, imagine that.


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