Cuba Part 1. Havana

For many, the night only begins at FAC; it continues with a visit to Havana’s many musical venues. A rich vein of music runs through Cuban soil, beyond the better-known artists and genres exported to mainstream US media. Historically, the Cuban sound has been associated with son – an Afro-Cuban, folk-like musical genre originating with the advent of slavery in the Caribbean. Son originated and evolved from the music of different African tribes, who collectively incorporated European and indigenous elements and instruments in the characteristic sound. Related African diaspora spread their culture and music over other areas of the Spanish Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, Panama, Dominican Republic, exerting a palpable cultural influence – it is said that in the mid-1800s, there were three times more black musicians than there were white musicians in Cuba. Over time, son cubano remixed and developed into a precursor of Cuban music.

Son evolved into and merged with guajira and guaracha, two of the best known variations of traditional Cuban music. Guajira (of guajira guantanamera fame) is a predominantly acoustic musical form which evokes nostalgia for bucolic life. Nonetheless, though derived from punto Cubano, guajira was initially popularised in Spain and adopted by flamenco musicians, exemplifying how Cuban-origin musical styles can intercalate and in turn influence that of the colonial population. Guaracha, a much more up-tempo and audacious genre, is said to have originated from the brothels and bars of underground Havana. In its time, the lyrics often satirised current events and news, contrasting with the slower and more traditional boleros and canciones. These pre-revolutionary musical forms have seen a recent renaissance through groups such as Buena Vista Social Club, whose world tour and accompanied life stories (which turned into the eponymous film) led to a revived interest in traditional Cuban and Latin American music during its “golden age” in the early 20th century.

One of the genres Cuba, and Havana in particular, is best known for is jazz. Interestingly, Afro-Cuban jazz first grew out of Cuban emigrants in jazz hotbeds such as New York City and New Orleans. Before relations between the USA and Cuba cooled, musicians would travel between the jazz mecca of New Orleans and Havana to perform, leading to the development of the habanera (literally from Havana) rhythm. Many Cuban bands began to become established among the New York City jazz scene. Meanwhile, in Cuba however, particularly post-revolution, jazz was seen as an “imperialist, American” musical genre, making experimentation of mixing Afro-Cuban and traditional jazz more difficult. With bands such as Irakere, the use of folkloric drums and rhythms was introduced, influencing and inspiring the unique Cuban clave of jazz that is more widespread today.

Undoubtedly, Cuban jazz still possesses some mystical and underground qualities, as evidenced by our visit to La Zorra y El Cuervo, perhaps the most famous jazz performance venue in Havana, marked by a red English phone booth through which we entered the club. Loitering by the entrance were locals, cigarette in hand. Descending the sticky staircase, it was difficult to ignore the crowds already gathered before the band had made it to the too-close-for-comfort stage; the low ceilings only intensified the claustrophobia. One mojito down and a band takes the stage – a seemingly up and coming band. The din in the crowd died down – one of the few places in Havana where conversation is ceded to the venue. The drummer, in particular, grabbed my attention as his spiky hair would bob in and out of the pink-tinted spotlight, sweat dripping onto the drum set, else flung into the light as his head rocked back. No easy-listening coffee shop “jazz” was absorbed that night – just the four band members, engrossed in their composition.

While jazz may be, in itself, a less dance-heavy genre, Cuban-style salsa is comparably much more involved. In Cuba, salsa is often referred to as Casino, tracing its roots to partner-based dances originating from Son. Casino is notable in the understanding and use of improvised and spontaneous movements, often in the form of flirtatious sexual interplay, under the cultural backdrop of men being “macho” and having to attract attention and women being more feminine. Even in its salsa, the Afro-Caribbean culture permeated through the gyrations and movements.  

A few (necessary) drinks down, we braved the salsa dance floor in Club 1830, an open-air seaside dancefloor bookending the Malecon. Our attempts to initiate “salsa” ended in embarrassment as the language barrier and presumption that the men would be able to lead the dance proved to be too challenging to overcome. There was no doubt, however, that the dancefloor was brimming with a tense energy, tempting even those with less experience to grab a partner and sway to the Latin beat. The dancefloor soon morphed into a circle (la rueda), with one experienced cantante calling out dance moves, prompting the women of the rueda to glide from partner to partner in stunning synchronisation. Smartly, we eschewed the rueda and instead allowed the flowing salsa and salty Havana sea breeze whisk us into the night.

Even music, one of the cultural bedrocks of Cuba, could not escape the unforgiving grasp of politics. Since the days of son, the integration of African culture into Cuban music had been seen as immoral relative to the forcibly imported Christian values. Associations such as Club Atenas sought to curb the spread of son in an attempt to better integrate Cubans of African descent into mainstream Cuban society. Until the Revolution, various Cuban genres had been periodically banned or sanctioned. After the Revolution, the embargo and economic sanctions meant that many overseas artists could not return home – and those who stayed rarely had sufficient resources – guitar strings, reeds, recording equipment – to thrive or preserve Cuban music. Nationalisation of recording studios, too, imposed a soft censorship on artists, restricting unbridled creativity.

Yet, despite all the complications of politics, Cuban music still thrives today. The Latin influence on mainstream Western popular music is stronger than ever, and Cuban artists thrive inside and outside of Cuba. This is perhaps the silver lining on Cuba’s horizon. Behind the poverty, crumbling infrastructure, and political instability, is a creative and hungry generation ready to emerge from its shackles. This is what makes Havana so beautiful and appealing. Behind the slowly disintegrating colonial and socialist façade is a thrilling and sexy city, flaunting glimpses of a former glory while a distinct Latin personality emerges. Some say that travelling to Havana is like travelling back in time because nothing really changes here. It seems to me, nonetheless, that change, however slowly and imperceptibly, is arriving.

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