Havana, Cuba and the local musicians

Paul Morrison shuns the beach resorts to seek out the real Cuba

3 mins

Antonio clutched at his heart as his eyes fluttered and the impassioned words left his quivering lips. In a breathless moment his life hung by a thread, and his head sunk slowly towards his chest. Then the silence was broken by Valdo’s strike at the guitar strings, and Antonio looked up once more to commence the final chorus. This was love, this was death, this was life in all its glory... And just another lunchtime in Cuba.

The bar of Santiago’s Casa de la Trova was smaller than my living room, its pink walls covered in graffiti and posters of past stars. There were only three tables and the other two were empty. But the troubadours played like maestros before an adoring crowd.

I felt humbled by their talent, for they were not mere bar crooners, but masterful musicians. The boleros that Antonio delivered spoke of passion and bravado that lifted the soul, whilst in the streets outside the real life of Cuba continued without remorse. Ration books and shortages tell the tale of a country where the average monthly wage is around US$10. Here is a nation economically isolated, yet in other ways rich beyond valuation.

The cocktail of cultures that has Iberian, African and a dash of Native American blood in its veins has produced a country with an identity all of its own. Its people have resisted both Spanish and US attempts at domination, but since the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba has been out on its own, and the ‘special years’ that followed have seen the fragile economy teeter on the brink of collapse. It’s as if this maverick island subsists on a diet of music that lifts the people above their quiet desperation.

Valdo took lead vocal for a spirited rendition of Hasta Siempre (‘Forever’) – one of many ballads to Che Guevara that hint at the origins of Cuba’s current predicament. By all political logic, Cuba should be just another a Caribbean island, dependent on the economic patronage of the USA for its unequal prosperity.

But Cuba’s history ran a different course. The 1959 revolution that Fidel Castro’s band of guerrillas initiated shocked the world with its success, and the iconic leader has defied four decades of efforts to depose him by his powerful neighbour. The USA’s response throughout has been to enforce an economic embargo, which makes it all the more impressive that Cuba still boasts a level of literacy and primary health care that would be the envy of New Labour.

Welcoming the US blockade

It may sound heartless, but after just a few days in Cuba I was beginning to welcome the US blockade. Imagine a city without the crass commercialism that seems to blight almost every capital. No McDonald’s, no Dunkin’ Donuts and no coach loads of tourists disgorging onto the streets for a tussle with the local hawkers. It’s a city with no major drugs problem, and the menace on the streets of Havana seems restricted to a certain Graham Greene novel.

I watched my first sunrise in Havana from the roof of the Ambos Mundos hotel, in the heart of the old city. It was in this hotel that Ernest Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea. I doubt if the scene has changed that much since he checked out.

Old Havana is a living, breathing piece of history, a city that was once the jewel in Spain’s imperial crown. I gazed out towards the distant horizon, where the clouds were giving way to a steady stream of grey smoke belching forth from the oil refineries.

A darkened haze floated towards me in the morning sunlight, drifting over the old town, settling on its pantiled roofs and tidy squares, and imparting a faint pungent odour of the 20th century in a city that otherwise seemed frozen in the past. And as the sun rose in the heavens on another splendid day in Cuba, I was thoroughly charmed.

At street level Old Havana is joy to stroll around, past open doorways revealing colourful courtyards, whilst snatches of music float down the cobbled streets. The spectre of ‘redevelopment’ that has torn the hearts out of many old cities never made it to Cuba, so the magnificent old colonial architecture has mostly survived, albeit peeling and crumbling and in need of repair. It’s a pattern repeated in Cuba’s other two UN World Heritage sites – Santiago de Cuba and the sublime town of Trinidad – where economic stagnation, rather than far-sighted conservation ideology, have spared them the blight of shopping centres and office blocks.

In a country where more people ride bicycles than drive cars, the threat of an historic building being demolished to make way for a multi-storey car-park was always going to be slight. Now these untouched remnants of the past offer the possibility of great wealth for the future, and the funds that now come their way are for restoration instead of replacement.

It’s not just the buildings that hark back to another age. One rainy afternoon in Havana I was drawn by a peculiar sound, and before I knew it I was beckoned into a workshop centred around an old hand-operated printing press, made in the USA half a century ago.

The slight but muscular frame of the old black man who operated the press shone in the light of the single bulb that lit this tableau like an old master’s painting. He pulled and released the lever in a fluid motion, drawing and withdrawing the sheets of paper one at a time in a carefully timed action that preserved his fingers and impacted neat columns of figures on the page.

I looked closer at the result

The headings indicated output against targets, with percentage achievement for the past five years. I imagined that this report had been printed this way, on this machine, since the days when Che Guevara set the quotas.

They don’t make heroes like Che anymore. Ernesto Guevara (just as well his nickname took precedent) was an asthmatic doctor from Argentina, who was drawn to the struggle against imperialism in Latin America. It was a calling that led him around the continent, and eventually to the companionship of Fidel Castro and his band of rebels. That such a small and ill-equipped group of individuals were able to initiate an uprising that deposed the corrupt government of Cuba is a fact that still manages to impress.

Regardless of your opinions of the government that followed, the story of the Cuban revolution is a remarkable tale of the oppressed overcoming impossible odds. Afterwards Che traded his gun for a pen and spent several years in government, including taking on the role of Minister of Industry. But it was hardly his forte, and in 1965 he left Cuba to join rebels in the Congo. Two years later, at the age of 39, his dramatic life was ended by a covert execution when he was captured in Bolivia, and although it took another three decades to locate his body, El Comandante’s place was guaranteed in Latin American history.

I’m usually bored rigid by museums, but the Che Guevara room in Havana’s Museum of the Revolution was a little bit different. It wasn’t so much the press cuttings and formal displays, but the odd collection of artifacts that brought the whole thing to life.

What seemed at first like relics from another century, on closer inspection began to resemble the kind of useless memorabilia you might find in my loft. A shirt worn by one guerrilla bore the tag Lord Arthur in the collar. I wore a shirt like that when I was shuffling about awkwardly in teenage discos. In another case I found a membership card – who’d have thought that a movement so daring would consider issuing cards to its revolutionaries as if they had joined the local wine appreciation circle?

Elsewhere I spotted an early photograph of a clean-shaven Fidel, sporting a distinct double chin.

I wondered if that was why he grew a beard

This odd jumble of artifacts brought home to me how fresh these events must be in so many Cuban’s minds, and for many the struggle has never really ended. Slogans adorn walls and billboards around the country, shouting defiance of US imperialism and proclaiming the merits of ‘revolution through work’. It would be too easy to dismiss these as just political rhetoric, for the US blockade and continued belligerance has served only to reinforce the nation’s sense of a being a worthy David battling a corrupt Goliath.

That the Cuban brand of communism fails to conform to the model that fell apart in Eastern Europe reflects a recurring theme of uniqueness on an island that defies all attempts to be pigeonholed. The blend of cultures that fused Latin melody and African rhythms to make salsa is just one example of how the country’s ethnic mix has yielded many new and distinct creations.

Take religion – during my visit preparations were underway for the visit of the Pope, and there were many pundits predicting this event to be a catalyst for dramatic change. But Juan Pablo II was coming to a supposedly atheist country that already has its fair share of religious passion – from the deities of the revolution, to a characteristic cocktail of spiritual faith.

In a doorway in the old town of Trinidad was a sight that caught my eye. At first glance I took the house for a craft shop – a black doll clothed in a frilly white dress, sat in a rocking chair. I peered inside to a room whose whitewashed walls sported an array of blue symbols painted on them. The doll was no toy, and the open doorway was the entrance to an altogether different view of Cuba. A tall black man with a cigar in his hand beckoned me inside, and in a soft, baritone voice introduced himself and explained what I was looking at.

“Es animista,” said Israel, as he gestured around the room. Santería is a peculiarly Cuban blend of African animist beliefs with Catholic symbolism. A fusion of Spanish doctrine and more ancient customs that the slaves brought with them. Christian saints have even been embraced as deities into a veritable salsa of religions.

Israel, the santero, beckoned me to follow into another room that looked out onto a small courtyard where a young pig lay sleeping. Against one wall of the room was a statue of the Virgin – but my eyes were drawn to a corner where a strange collection of items lay arranged on a white-clothed table. A wooden cross stood behind a earthenware jar that was covered in a lace cloth. Before the jar stood five glass tumblers of water, a horse’s tail and a hollowed-out stone bowl.

Sensing my confusion, Israel took the cigar from his mouth, rested it on one of the tumblers, and lifted a lid off the jar. Inside were a number of smooth, round pebbles, which Israel told me represented the saints. He picked out a pebble and held it before me. “Santa Barbara,” he declared, before dropping it into one of the tumblers. Such cryptic symbolism, I thought, until I recalled the Catholic ceremonies of my childhood, where a goblet of wine and wafers of bread carried similarly unlikely meanings – though I don’t recall Father Bennet resting his Marlboro on the altar during communion.

Outside the cobbled streets of Trinidad seemed like the set from a spaghetti western. Proud horseman strutted about on their shiny mounts, old women sat in rocking chairs and, on the hillside, children tugged at kites in the breeze. But the midday sun was too much for this Englishman, and so I joined a sane dog sitting in the shade by the main square.

“Hey, compadre! Cigar?” The familiar refrain came from a doorway opposite. Cuban’s have got wise to two abundant commodities in their rush to join in the enterprise culture and make dollars from foreigners.

I’d learned to deal with this one very quickly

“No fumo!” I responded with a smile. I don’t smoke.

The other common commodity is a far older trade, though one only recently a familiar sight on this island. They refer to prostitutes as ‘jineteras’ – literally ‘jockeys’ – and the rides they are taking can earn them more in an hour that most Cubans will take home in a month. In the Havana bars I could sense a pecking order – the well-dressed, sophisticated girls targeting the more affluent traveller, whilst the backpackers were preyed upon by the hot-pants and boob-tube gangs.

For myself, I had my eye on far more alluring models of Cuban glamour, which have become ironic icons of this time-warped island.

Chevrolets, Cadillacs, Buicks, Oldsmobiles and even Morris Minors. Pristine, lovingly tended, gleaming and magnificent. Cuba is like a working car museum, specialising in the 1950s. Like insects trapped in amber, these remnants of the heady pre-revolutionary days recall another era. There may be a shortage of petrol, the engines might be held together by faith, and few, if any, of the headlights work. But when they take to the road these works of art on wheels move with grace.

The Ladas and Skodas parked outside the hotels offered taxi-rides anywhere in the city, but Jorge’s battered old blue ’51 Ford was much more what I had in mind for an afternoon exploring Havana. It’s a car that would have cruised the streets in the days when Mafia mobsters and hedonistic Hollywood stars made this duty-free sin-city their haven. Now it limps along thanks to Jorge’s tender touch.

“I fix it myself,” he proudly declared. Nothing on the dashboard worked, but the engine purred just fine and I was happy.

We drove out to the tranquil house where Hemingway made his home, and then along to the fortress where Che Guevara set up his headquarters. But I wasn’t too concerned with the sights – just sitting back in the huge seats as we drove around the city in this little piece of history was fun enough. And Jorge was my insight into young Cuban culture.

“What music do you like?” I asked him, searching for a recommendation for the top salsa group in town.

“The Beatles!” he declared.

Out of town the propulsion is mostly four-legged. Even on the main highway I saw bullock carts in the fast lane, and the taxi service in towns such as Pinar del Rio is mostly horse-drawn.

Such is the shortage of public transport that picking up hitchhikers is compulsory for state-owned vehicles – and you don’t have to stick out your thumb to catch a ride. At major intersections a uniformed man with a clipboard will take your name before ushering you to wait in line. He will flag down a vehicle and see you aboard – though don’t expect a comfortable ride. People are sometimes wedged into the back of old Russian trucks like livestock heading to market, each of them standing, with only the pressure of other bodies keeping them upright as they rattle along.

The countryside is the truly untouched Cuba, and it was the country people, the compañeros, who swelled Castro’s army of the disaffected and swept into the cities to wrest control from the government forces. Whilst Che Guevara marshalled the forces on Havana, Castro focussed on the southeastern city of Santiago de Cuba, and it was here, from a balcony in the main square, that he proclaimed victory on New Year’s day 1959.

Today the square is a sleepy centrepiece, flanked by some of the finest buildings in the country. Santiago has a different feel to its northwestern counterpart, for this is a hotter, moodier city, that basks in a sultry heat. The geographic and cultural distance has also made for an intercity rivalry familiar throughout the world.

In Havana my guide, Paco, had a clear opinion on the people of Santiago de Cuba. “They don’t work down there – they just play dominoes all day.” I heard the contrary opinion in a bar in Santiago: Joaquin had a rather more cryptic way of dismissing his western compatriots. “They’re like Italians,” he declared, as if the meaning was obvious.

The pace was certainly more relaxed in the southern city, but this was also a poorer part of Cuba. The shops seemed even more bare, the ‘peso’ store promised ‘variedadas’ (variety) which consisted of an odd selection of commodities displayed under glass like exhibits in a museum – from toilet rolls to bicycle parts, with a great vat of hydrochloric acid for household cleaning fluid. But for all the problems, the music was still present, with an authenticity that cut to the heart.

One haunting night in Santiago, when the glow from windows lit the streets like spotlights on a stage, I followed a distant sound to a shining doorway. The clapping and voices teased me inside to the little hall, where chairs were set out for assembly, but just a dozen people sat scattered in attendance.

On the floor before them a small band of octogenerians were setting the room alight with a sound that they conjured from God knows where. An eight-piece with seven centuries of talent between them – the tres player tripped his skinny fingers over the guitar-type instrument that seemed older than himself, beside a thin brown man who played the congas with a vengeance. A wrinkled mulatto shook the maracas in time with his bones, whilst the ebony-skinned singer shuffled and smiled and flirted with the women. And the band played as one in a glorious swirling motion. Cuban music is a diabolically magnificent affair; if it leaves you cold then you must be dead already. And even then a decent rumba would probably get your toes twitching.

When the music stopped the aged musicians all paused for precious breath, as if the spell of youth had been broken. The singer sat down and the tres player leant on the wall, whilst the others rested on each other for support. Until the beat began again and they were young once more, swept away in an ageless celebration of lust and love and life. In Cuba life may be hard, but at least it has a soundtrack.

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