Cuba: Rhythm shakes the blues

By Aaron Smale

Despite its political and economic isolation, Aaron Smale finds Cuba a nation with joyful music hard-wired into the souls of its people.

A street performer in Havana, Cuba. Photo / Aaron Smale
A street performer in Havana, Cuba. Photo / Aaron Smale

She had such tiny feet. Stepping delicately along the dusty streets of Centro Habana in turquoise jandals, you'd never guess those diminutive feet could conjure up a furious rhythmic intensity.

"Lissen... Can yoo hir et?" she said in a high, Nasal Cuban accent. I could. In the distance there was the throb of Afro-Cuban drumming emanating from somewhere out of sight. Off the main drag it seemed to be the only sound around, apart from the occasional Russian truck screaming past.

As we continued walking the drums got louder, a tatty brown door the source of the sound. We stepped down off the street into a room and my eyes were plunged into darkness. My pupils eventually dilated and four guys were sitting around an assortment of drums warming the skins and chain-smoking. Swanny greeted them all with a kiss on the side of the cheek.

Her perfect teeth and dark eyes would sparkle when she smiled, but now she was dancing her expression darkened into a brooding study of intensity.

With black shoes that had a slightly high, square heel she would rap out her intentions on a circle of plywood laid on a tiled floor that had seen better days.

She'd cue the drummers in with a crackling flurry of heels and then a burst of Congo-derived drumming would lock into time with the Andalusian rhythms reverberating off the concrete walls and ceilings, the ruffled hem of her skirt whipped about like a matador's cape.

The effect was hypnotic - like a runaway train of rhythms, bass congos interplaying with higher-pitched drums until you could almost hear them talk and the maelstrom of flamenco heels cutting through it all and pulling it all together, hand-clapping adding to the syncopation. It was a musical melting pot at full Caribbean heat with the two basic ingredients of Cuban music, African and Spanish, at their most raw.

"Music is so essential to the Cuban character that you can't disentangle it from the history of the nation," says Ned Sublette in his epic book on Cuban music, Cuba and its Music: from the first drums to the Mambo, the first in a projected two-volume project that is as much about the island nation's volatile history as it is about the music that accompanied it.

"The history of Cuban music," he says, "is one of cultural collisions, of voluntary and forced migrations, of religions and revolutions."

Sublette goes on to argue convincingly that Cuban music influenced American music more heavily than is recognised through a long dance with New Orleans and the conduit of the Mississippi. Then the 1959 revolution happened and with it the beginning of Cuban music's isolation from the world.

That hermetically sealed status leaked a little with the worldwide success of the Buena Vista Social Club, helped by Ry Cooder.

In Cuba itself the result is that every restaurant house band now claims some tenuous connection with the club, either an ex-member or a cousin's uncle who knows one, and most of the music you hear is the result of an odd collusion between communism, capitalism and a benign black market.

The bands are employed by the socialist state to play in state-owned restaurants to make capitalist dollars from capitalist tourists. The street market is happy to join in with CDs of the group's music offered for hard cash during the breaks in the performances.

The music offered in tourist restaurants and bars as a result is is good, but served up in a form designed to make it palatable to visitors. A good measure of its real value is when you see Cubans themselves stop to look through windows and listen, invisibly excluded from the tourist bubble, where the price of a beer is equivalent to a week's wages for an average Cuban.

If it was really good they spontaneously break into a dance on the footpath, like the labourers I saw outside one restaurant in the old city of Havana.

Outside this orbit, finding musical fare can be a little hit and miss. One jazz club recommended by a tourist guidebook in a more down-at-heel suburb was abandoned when I turned up on a Friday night.

The best musical experiences in Cuba are often the unexpected and the music was what consistently cheered me up.

A country run down by political and economic isolation can become a bit of a grind thanks to the constant attentions of hustlers offering an endless supply of cigars, hookers or taxi rides. But just when you get sick of it all, you walk around a corner and catch the rhythms of some band spilling down the street. The best of it is simply Cubans jamming, playing for their own amusement.

The bouncing Cuban rhythms have an almost swing jazz feel to them, often accompanied by the jangling Tres guitar with its odd arrangement of strings that fuses Spanish folk inflections with West-African stringed traditions. Listen hard enough and there's a melancholic tinge that has its origins in the Arabic music that spread with the Moors along North Africa and into the Iberian peninsula. Cuban versions of rap and reggae have sprung up, hardly surprising when rhythm is hard-wired into Cuban genes.

One morning I walked into the lobby of my hotel and heard an absolute din outside. Stepping out the front door I found a rumba party rolling down the street, complete with street theatre on stilts and several drums.

An old black man was leading the musical melange with a Chinese oboe, an instrument whose reedy timbre sounded something akin to what an Indian snake-charmer might play. He was wearing a brocaded jacket and hat like some West African king. You knew it was the genuine musical article because black kids were scampering along, gyrating and thrusting with an abandon that would make Elvis blush.

I never did work out what the purpose of the performance was - I figured out that Cubans don't need an excuse to make music - but the finale was outside the Ambos Mundos, the hotel where Ernest Hemingway was a regular guest and room 511 is now a literary shrine for tourists.

This highlight was overtaken by Swanny and her drumming friends. Every evening she was part of a flamenco dance company that performed in a tourist restaurant in Habana Vieja. The get together with the drummers was an after-hours jam session.

They toyed around with various rhythms that would sometimes fall apart with the speed they were travelling at, like a '56 Chevy rattling to a halt after running out of gas. Then Swanny cracked out a more sedate rhythm and the drummers eased into a languid pace that slowly picked up before snapping into a high-velocity race, belting along at a frenetic tempo until they found the finish together and stopped, a final heel crack punctuating the end before they burst into laughter.

As we walked back along the way we had arrived I thanked her. She shrugged and smiled. "Thiz iz Kooba," she said. She was absolutely right.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Get a visa before you go. The Cuban Embassy in Wellington is contactable at (04) 472 3748 or embajada@xtra.co.nz.

Because of the US trade blockade it's a long trip getting to Havana. You can fly via South America but the most regular route is flying to LA, then down to Mexico and then across to Havana via Cancun. This means the price of the flight is fairly steep compared to other destinations. End-to-end the trip can take up to 50 hours including transits.

Getting around: There's always a "taksee" available whether it's pedal power, an old Lada or a horse and cart. There are official and unofficial taxis. The unofficial ones are usually slightly cheaper and when you arrive at a bus station late at night they'll always be there. Don't pay more than 25 convertibles to get from the airport to the centre of Havana.

Between cities the Viazul buses are a good option. You can often book these from your hotel.

Where to stay: You can book all your hotels at cubaism.com and quite a few other things besides. It's a UK-based company and I found them helpful and reliable. At hotels you'll pay slightly more if you arrive unannounced.

The other accommodation option is Casa Particular which basically offers homestays.

Music: Music isn't hard to find in Cuba. It might sound trite, but follow your ears. While there are musical venues recommended by guidebooks, the musical attractions in Cuba are fluid and the best experiences will often turn out to be the unexpected ones. You won't have to go far as most restaurants and bars in the Havana Vieja (the old city) have a house band of some description. Get talking to locals or hotel staff to find out more about what's on offer outside the tourist traps. But be wary of hustlers.

Currency: The currency is a little confusing. There's two currencies running side by side, the Cuban peso and the convertible peso. The convertible is roughly the equivalent to a US dollar and is around 20 times that of a Cuban peso. As a foreigner you'll be using convertibles (although a few pesos are handy for pizzas). You can withdraw cash from the international banks that are easy to find. Avoid taking US dollars as the fee to convert them is higher.

Further information: Websites worth looking at include: cubagrouptour.com, an Australian-based company that organises group tours to Cuba many of which incorporate music events; venturenz.co.nz, a New Zealand-based company that takes group tours to Cuba with a leader fluent in Spanish; captivatingcuba.com, a UK-based company specialising in trips to Cuba; cubaism.com, good for independent travellers who want to organise their own trip.

Aaron Smale paid his own way to Cuba.

- NZ Herald

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