Tracking Down Havana’s Music Scene
Cuba has wonderful music; Salsa, Son (Cuba’s country music), Meringue, Jazz and others, but you have to look hard, particularly if you want to dance. Most clubs have “shows” which take up the better part of the evening with jugglers (from the Bulgarian School), love ballads, poems and even mock wedding ceremonies while you sit there waiting for the end, so you can boogie on out to the dance floor. Forget trying to get a Cuban woman out on the dance floor when the show is in progress. Mine ran out the door screaming when I even suggested that we head for the empty floor.
The danger lies in Cuba’s music education system that trains virtually all of the cabaret performers. Cuba has a really good music education system, in part due to a lack of resources for more technical training programs that require a lot of hardware. Music can be taught with a few aging instruments and a classroom. The problem is that the more developed the music education system, the worse the cabaret music. Let me explain.
Music professors, whether they be Americans or Cubans, don’t get their tickets punched by playing or composing simple music with a strong beat. Professors get off on experimental rhythms, complex cutting edge compositions that are hard to listen to, and impossible to follow on the dance floor. Have you ever heard Country music played in a music conservatory? Maybe that’s why they call them conservatories (because the music is so conservative).
Now the good music in Cuba is Cuba’s country music, namely the Son, Huasteco, Salsa and Meringue (imported from the Dominican Republic where it was the country music of that country). But to find it, you have to look hard in Havana.
Gundala left her German boyfriend and we took off together
The best place to start is on Calle Obispo (Bishop Street) in Old Havana. Start at La Floridita (Hemingway’s Old Hangout) and walk one block south to the Bar Monserrate. Serving both a Cuban and tourist clientele, the Monserrate has two alternating bands, which play alternating days from two in the afternoon until ten at night. Although both groups are staffed by graduates of the National Music School, they play traditional music and mercifully, don’t have “shows”.
My favorite is “Son Asi,” a group that is mostly African-Cubans ranging from their early twenties to their late fifties. They play music from Eastern Cuba, the kind that made the “Buena Vista Social Club” famous in Europe.
Another nice thing about the Monserrate is the prices. A beer costs $1.50 and a light tuna fish and vegetables dish costs $2.50.
A French girl parties with the band at Bar Monserrate
After the Monserrate, a walk down Calle Obispo headed east will lead the listener to two or three more bars with the same format. As Bishop Street is pedestrian only, it’s a nice walk, and the shops are interesting, as is the Hotel Floridito, recently restored to turn-of-the-century opulence. But don’t go in the bar expecting to dance because they have a show.
Another favorite is Sofia, a hamburger joint in Vedado at La Rampa and M Street. An open-air eatery that sells pizza, steak sandwiches and lots of beer, the Sofia has a two to ten band daily. Like the Monserrate, it has no cover charge, and good music.
For late night music fun, I like the Salon Rosada at the Tropical in Marianao (say it beautifully Mah – Ree – Ah – Nah – Oh). Ordinary Cubans can get it by paying $.25 U.S., but foreigners pay $10 and sit on a special balcony. Looking out over the crowd of hundreds of young Cubans all decked out in their Saturday night best; the viewer is treated to some of the best music on the planet. Last time I was there, a Cuban girl group, “Azucar Negra (Black Sugar)” sang Salsa tunes accompanied by a twenty piece band that included a bank of electric violins. Next to Slim’s Y Ki Ki in Opelousas, Louisiana and Bajo El Cielo de Jalisco in Mexico City, the Salon Rosada is my favorite Saturday night place on earth.
Another place that has good music sometimes, is the Casa La Amistad at El Paseo and 17th in Vedado. Here you have to be careful. On Tuesday nights they have what they call, “Traditional Cuban Music,” which can be compositions played by music school types, but on Saturday nights they get down with Salsa. You have to call and ask about ten questions, then call back and ask ten more to get a good answer. First of all, Cubans are very eager to please foreigners and not particularly indebted to the truth, so if you ask about a “Show” they will almost say yes. Ask many times, what kind of music they play and if you can dance throughout the evening. Again, “can dance” will be difficult to communicate. Like, yes, you can dance on the L.A. freeway at rush hour, but is it recommended, and are you likely to find a partner, no.
Places to avoid are the big clubs in the tourist hotels. They all have huge cover charges and the bigger the hotel, the longer the show. Club Havana (Hotel Melia) is the absolute worst. There is a fifteen-dollar cover charge, the waiters cheat you on the change and I sat there one night for two hours watching trapeze artists on big wheel bicycles followed by a comedian, while our group wanted to dance.
Even the Cubans say the Club Havana is a “circus.”