Cuba’s got rhythm. Being a race made up of African, Spanish, Latin American, Cajun & indigenous Caribbean blood, that is hardly surprising.
Think reggae meets flamenco meets jazz meets gospel meets tribal meets Latin and you start to get the picture.
Modern Cuba has its roots mixed in with the Spanish colonialists and the slaves they brought from West Africa to work the sugar and tobacco plantations.
Traditions such as song & religion were the main things that gave the Africans hope, joy & dignity to help deal with the injustice, hard toil & sorrow.
On my recent visit to Cuba I witnessed music & dance in abundance. I will quickly skip over my disastrous salsa lesson to concentrate on the good stuff!
Every town and city has three very important social venues – the church of course and then the casa de la musica & casa de la trova – trova being the name given to Cuba’s distinctive musical style.
Santiago is known as the Cuban capital of music with Avenida de las Américas their answer to New Orleans’ awesome Bourbon Street. It was here that we had our first tastes of that which gets Cubans moving.
First up was the free Sunday evening concert in the main square opposite the cathedral. A 30 piece orchestra of brass, woodwind, strings and percussion. High quality too.
Next up a stroll down Avenida de las Américas with its buskers and more formal quintets who were playing outside restaurants to entertain/entice diners, musical statues and finally on to the casa de la musica.
It was here that we saw our first son band. Son is Cuba’s signature musical dish, a fusion of jazz, soul and bossa-nova best served with mojitos & energetic salsa.
The evening started slowly with a vintage couple – he in shiny suit, white shoes and panama, she in red velvet dress and bright red bow in her hair. They were in their eighties but still had the rhythm and sophistication despite their seniority.
After a couple of numbers they made way for the athletic youngsters who jived, twirled and stomped through some high-energy routines. Their dance told stories too of love, betrayal and reconciliation.
Wonderful entertainment despite the horrid ‘let’s grab a spectator so they can swing their hips’ routine that finished the evening. Sourpuss I know!
Whilst in Santiago we also visited the compact but interesting Carnival Museum. The displays were very good but our main reason to visit was the 4pm dance show.
We took our seats early in the museum courtyard and witnessed the musicians, dancers and actors warming up, putting on make-up and getting dressed. Off came the jeans and on went the flowing skirt or silk pantaloons as we all desperately tried to avert eyes away from underwear and toned skin!
The show lasted a good 45 minutes and was brilliant. Girls whirling like dervishes, knife wielding muscle men trying to assert their aggressive authority, a chorus singing with gospel gusto and percussionists hitting a furious beat.
The show was based on folklore, of hard labours, of unrequited love and the jealousy of the spurned. It was great, but sadly again marred by spectators such as myself being dragged up to dance very badly. My partner was most put out when I ignored her fluttering eyelashes and declined to purchase a CD of the show (allegedly).
I have too many of those ‘bought on the spur of the high’ CDs that are never played in a home environment.
In addition to Santiago we visited Baracoa, Trinidad de Cuba, Camagüey, Santa Clara, Bayamo, Cienfuegos and Bayamo. Music was a constant throughout as we visited more casas, restaurants, bars and viewed street performers.
We finished up back in Havana with two musical highlights, the Buena Vista Social Club and the Vixen & Crow Jazz Club.
BVSC was made famous by the film directed by Wim Wenders and released in 1999 telling the story of the club and its musicians. American guitarist Ry Cooder had helped revive the group in the ’90s and bring them into the international spotlight and this led to sufficient interest & funding to shoot the musical documentary film.
The club was set up in the 1940s as an antidote to Batista’s corrupt regime that had kept most of the population in poverty. It attracted fantastic musicians and wildly appreciative audiences. It also became a meeting place for those disillusioned with the regime and was shut down by Batista’s cronies when word got out about the dissenting voices.
Post revolutionary Cuba saw the club revived where it once again throbbed to brilliant musical protagonists and crowds now purely in a celebratory mood.
It spawned many legends, most notably Ruben Gonzalez, Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo of ‘Guantanamera’ fame, who was still performing right up until his death aged 95.
Today the venue is more geared towards catering for foreigners. The thing that remains the same is the standard of the music.
Top performers one and all, many are over eighty and have been performing there since the fifties.
We were shown to our seats and drinks appeared at regular intervals brought to us by efficient waitresses. The €35 entrance fee included two cocktails with mijotos being the choice of most.
We were treated to a Basseyesque chanteuse in flowing dress and brightly coloured headscarf and a guy who had a huge dash of Cab Calloway or Larry Graham about him in his white suit and panama. The horn section were brilliant as was the bass & guitar.
We also had a hostess who was a spitting image of Jennifer Lopes, “welcome to the Buena Vista Social Cloob, home of legends here to entertain you.” She was not fibbing.
Half way through the band went through the crowd to ask which nations were represented. Each time a country was called out they then displayed the flag of the nation in question and performed 20 seconds of a tune synonymous with the country. We had Hey Jude for the UK!
The whole of the Americas was represented, as was most of Western Europe. Not sure how our Dutch companion enjoyed ‘There was an old windmill in old Amsterdam’ as their entry mind!
The highlight was probably the very frail looking trumpeter in his late eighties. He could still blast out a forceful yet still melodic tune. As I sat right by the walkway by which the alternate performers reached the stage, I had plenty of high fives and handshakes with the approachable stars of the show.
The evening was great fun and I will almost excuse them the audience participation conga at the end!
Next night we found ourselves queuing in the light rain for the famous La Zorra y El Cuervo (Vixen & Crow) Jazz Club, a stones throw from Hotel Nacional in Vedado district.
We entered through a London phone box and managed to secure a table near the stage. This was the type of jazz club that I love, in a basement and slightly dingy. The jazz was really excellent too, a quartet of bass, trumpet, sax and percussion doing Miles Davis and John Coltrane covers and some of their own compositions.
We woofed down our two rum cocktails included in the 10 CUC cover charge and then bought a couple more for a more than fitting last night of a fabulous trip to Cuba.
I have posted a video compilation of some of the music and dance on you tube, which you can view by clicking on Cuban Music & Dance.
I have a medium size La Zorra y El Cuervo Jazz Club t-shirt to give away. Just view the youtube video and comment on this blog for a chance to win it.