There are few places in the world adored by percussionists quite as much as Cuba. ‘They don’t need us’ was the way we saw it, having arrived in Havana to find, perhaps even more so than expected, an abundance of top class musicians on every street corner. We felt inexplicably lucky to be heading to the capital to perform at a large-scale event, and what could be more Cuban than playing at Havana’s annual cigar festival?
It’s fair to say they really had pulled out all the stops for the festival’s grand finale, which would involve our drumming show and about twenty other impressive music and dance acts, spread out over a five-hour period during which guests would also consume an extravagant multi-coursed meal, lashings of wine and at least six different types of liquor (this we deduced from the number of differently shaped glasses at each place on one of the 130 tables). In rehearsals we prepared for the room to be completely filled with the cigar smoke of 1300 guests, and so rehearsed with so much dry ice on the stage that it was impossible to see the steps – fortunately the cigar smoke didn’t blind us as this had, but undoubtedly toughened up our throats and lungs forever. Most of the performance groups were from Cuba, and spanned a huge variety of traditions inspired by the likes of Spanish flamenco, African singing and dance, and modern Cuban music. Every time the house orchestra-cum-Cuban-big-band played it sounded like someone had pressed ‘play’ on a slick recording. The finale of the entire night’s entertainment came from none other than Gloria Gaynor, whose set we enjoyed out front, singing ‘I Will Survive’ at the tops of our voices and delighting in the zealous dance moves of the dedicated brass section.
The days after the gig gave us some rare time off to explore, and our first taxi ride set entertainment levels on a high. Whistling along the main coastal road towards central Havana in an old beaten-up blue Lada, the sea sprayed violently up above the rocks, dashing across the road and repeatedly leaving a trail of salt across the windscreen. Due to a lack of screenwash and working wipers, the driver soon realised this left him unable to see the road; he subsequently produced a sponge from the footwell and, at every traffic light stop, would jump out of the creaking driver’s door, leap around the front of the car and start hastily scrubbing the windscreen, and then, with just a second to spare, fling himself back around into the driver’s seat to restart the engine just as the lights turned green. It became nothing short of a game, in which our colleague in the front passenger seat also played a part, opening his window as far as possible while the car was moving, and leaning out of the car to scrub the other side – by this point it wasn’t worth pointing out that doing this didn’t actually aid the driver.
The Lada experience turned out to be far from out of the ordinary: as a result of the US trade embargo in the early 1960s (and continuing in the present day) which left Cubans with no choice but to keep old cars up and running, Havana’s roads are filled with an abundance of vintage cars. While we spent the afternoon ogling the parking bays of glossy Cadillacs just waiting to be loaded up with keen tourists, there was nothing quite as charming for me as a rusty old workhorse Lada, faithful and unpretentious as ever.
Though the cars have an indisputable charm, the embargo has affected more than just the roads: every fuel station we passed had a queue of cars waiting in line, supermarkets were shockingly stark with limited stock, WiFi was severely limited, and we got used to public toilets having no soap or toilet paper (though it was sometimes possible to get a sheet or two if you paid a woman by the door). On the other hand, many would champion the fact that there wasn’t a single high street shop in sight, no McDonalds (except for one at the infamous American base at Guantanamo), and no billboard advertising. It’s no wonder tourists have taken such an interest in this sunny socialist island which often presents itself with the untainted perfection of a filmset; however, the reality for Cubans is undeniably more complex.
As a result of one greedy mosquito, I ended up doing a bit of unplanned research into Cuba’s world-class medical system. Having feasted on my forehead in the middle of the first night, this unusually large insect had given me the swollen appearance of Sloth from The Goonies: not a great look in any case (sorry, Sloth), but even less so when you’re about to cake your face in sticky make-up and perform to 1300 people.
The journey to the medical room felt like some sort of fractured dream, whereby buildings are mysteriously connected and hidden rooms appear as if they had always been there. Our wonderful French-English-Spanish-speaking host led me from the hotel lobby down a corridor around the corner of the hotel bar, which connected to a mall and conference centre. At this point the entire building was being used by the delegates at the cigar festival, and so we passed slowly through a smoky haze, past sauntering men in suits who smoked fat cigars and drank rum like it was going out of fashion, while other men and women sold fancy wooden cabinets that I now know are called humidors for an unbelievable amount of money, and surrounding these were more shelves of cigars and glass cabinets displaying bottles of expensive rum. There were men sitting rolling cigars with huge dried tobacco leaves at special desks, and if you weren’t already holding a lit cigar then it seemed you weren’t given a thorough demonstration. On the wall hung a projector screen showing current events in the main lecture theatre, where even more smoking, drinking suited-up people placed bids on various cigar paraphernalia. Auctioning was a huge part of the action here, and the final piece auctioned off at the festival – a top quality humidor, the centre of all the attention at the gig we were playing – went for a whopping 2.5 million US dollars to two Chinese businessmen.
Appearing out of the other side of the smoky hall, we were directed down some stairs, towards a long dimly-lit basement corridor, dotted with unmarked wooden doors, except for the dentist which was signposted by a picture of a single tooth. After a lot of confused wandering, we stopped by the final door on the left, unmarked, and knocked. Nobody answered so, after a few futile knocks, we reluctantly let ourselves in. Inside was a small room with blank walls and some old faded sofas on which sat two elderly Cuban men, silently transfixed on a very old and large TV in the corner, which was blasting out Spanish network news in a sensationalist fashion. We turned to the door on the left and were greeted by two women, one a nurse and one a doctor. Some conversations took place in fast Spanish (all of my book-learnt grammar really was failing me now) and I was directed to sit back on the remaining sofa, where the nurse came and placed a wet cloth on my forehead and told me to tilt my head back. I waited in this position for half an hour or so; the two old men still said nothing, their eyes ceaselessly fixed on the television. I was eventually called through to the doctor’s room, where another Spanish conversation took place to which the conclusion was something along the lines of ‘This antihistamine medicine you’re already taking… it’s okay, but look, it’s the biggest party of the year tonight and, well, you can’t drink alcohol with this. So don’t take anymore medicine until tomorrow.’ Following this exchange I was led into a third room next door, where I sat on a hospital bed and the nurse dowsed my forehead in an anonymous gel, and told me to come back for more if the swelling didn’t go down. This was the sort of no-nonsense healthcare I could relate to – a stellar reputation worldwide, yet still a strict duty to prioritise the party.
After a Saturday spent indulging in touristic Havana and some of the most artistic nightlife at Fabrico De Arte Cubano, Sunday was a time for delving deeper into local musical delights. We spent the hot afternoon on Callejón de Hamel – a flamboyant alley in the heart of residential Centro Havana, the walls of which are covered in colourful murals, political messages and poetry, amongst bathtubs, hand pumps and other household items reused as sculptures and street furniture. Here we found a lively mix of locals and visitors indulging in Afro-Cuban music and dance, just as they do every Sunday from noon onwards: the place is a shrine to rumba and its spiritual roots in Regla de Ocha or Santería, and the energy of the musicians and dancers, who bash out a deafening clave for hours or shake their hips with a frenetic intensity, is absolutely unstoppable.
After a solid few hours of dancing and sweating in the midday sun, it was time to move on, by which point the second performance of the afternoon was in full swing – an all-female percussion group, now part of a rapidly changing tradition in Havana (see Vicky Jassey’s insightful ethnographic study on the growing community of female participants in the batá drumming tradition with its roots in the ritual practice of Santería). Upon leaving, we were invited into the main house in the compound, where there was a public bar and restaurant, and our temporary guide began telling us about the way Cubans have reused old materials to build so many of the things they use today. (See article ‘Technological Disobedience: How Cubans Manipulate Everyday Technologies‘)
Afterwards we stopped by a tiny record shop to see what recorded gems we could pick up. The shop consisted of one wall of old used records and a small desk, where one man sat – this appeared to be the front room of his house. As with all payments here, it seemed, whatever note you handed him was the price. I walked away with two playable records for 10 pesos (that’s in CUC, the currency most commonly used by visitors, compared with Cuban Peso or CUP, used by locals) – not bad, I thought, at least compared to my friend who had got just one scratched-up record for the same price.
Wandering through the streets of old Centro Havana, we looked up in awe at the beautiful balconies of Spanish colonial buildings, once so grand and opulent, now largely crumbling and faded but still intriguing as ever. There hung colourful laundry and hanging baskets blooming with flowers, and out came the occasional elderly man or woman to wave back at us, proudly acknowledging our curiosity. Down in the shadowy streets between these old buildings were vendors selling fruit and veg from trailers, kids kicking footballs, and old Cadillacs parked on the curb, as if planted there just to complete the cinematic aesthetic.
We ambled slowly towards EGREM Studios, the home of Cuba’s national record label, which could be found through an inconspicuous doorway in yet another quiet and unassuming street. Inside was a bar and, through another doorway, a room filled with cafe tables and chairs and a small stage. It didn’t take long to realise there wouldn’t be many tourists attending this event, and for this we were thankful, even if locals didn’t seem to take particularly well to the fact we’d taken the best table and had therefore bagged ourselves front row seats for the entire evening. This had happened only because we had arrived at the time we believed the event to be starting, which turned out to be an hour or two before it actually did. Local fans of rumba music gradually poured in as the time passed, and we entertained ourselves by ordering multiple rounds of rum and coke at the bar. When the music began we became quickly aware just how participatory it could be, and held ourselves awkwardly in our seats, not yet having had enough rum to let go. The percussionists and singers on the stage were in full swing, much like the rumba we had seen earlier that afternoon out on the street, and a male and female dancer in striking costumes dominated the floor in front of us. At regular intervals an enthusiastic audience member would jump up and attach a peso note to the dancer, usually tucking it just under the brim of his hat as they danced momentarily in unison. When a member of our group was approached by the hypnotic hips of the same dancer, he offered his sunglasses, and off they went, never to be worn by the same man again. As the music got louder, the dancing more energetic and the audience more involved, the rum and coke also went down faster, and by the end of a completely transformative evening of rumba we were up and dancing with all of the Cuban-like energy we could muster – arms in the air, hips shaking, gyrating wildly on thin air. ‘Spectaculario!’ shouted the previously-surly barmaid, who had since been ingratiated into our front-row group. We like to think it was the transformative nature of the music that had led us to this point of completely succumbing to its rhythm, but then again it may also have been the rum.
It’s strange, to be looking back on this time now, when a large portion of the world is on lockdown due to a global pandemic. It suddenly seems more significant than ever to be looking back fondly on these times when world travel was something we were often close to taking for granted; when playing gigs at large events was part of the everyday; when social gatherings with music and dancing and mixing closely with people you didn’t even know was second nature, and was integral to the culture we were so fortunate to be exploring. In the coming months there are no gigs, no trips, no travel, no social events, and as a result of that, no work. We’re learning to appreciate home while we can – after all, we’re here for a longer period of time than we have been since the beginning of our careers – and reminiscing about all of those experiences that have made up a fundamental part of our music-making lives. The next time we can meet in the streets of Havana to dance and drink and sing, we’ll never forget how lucky we are.