During my short stay in Cuba, I met so many vibrant Cubans that people from more developed countries started to seem like well-dressed corpses. One of the secrets to the seemingly boundless energy of many Cubans is their love of music and dance. Compay Segundo – the legendary guitarist, singer and key member of The Buena Vista Social Club only died recently. He was ninety-five and still performing concerts up until his death.
A friend and I joined a two week, small group tour of Cuba that took us around the island and gave us the opportunity to experience Cuban music and dance first hand. One of the highlights of the trip was Trinidad, a beautiful colonial town about five hours from Havana. Unlike Havana, the entry fees for Trinidad’s music venues aren’t too expensive for the locals. In Havana it’s common to see clubs with only tourists and prostitutes inside and a crowd of Cubans gathered around the entrance, listening to the music from a distance.
One of the problems with music in Cuba is that the songs from the Buena Vista Social Club are played over and over again. That’s what the tourists want to hear and so that’s what most bands play. But it’s still great to visit a country where you’re more likely to hear local music than Britney Spears piped in at you at every opportunity.
Early in the evening we went to one of the small music houses clustered around Trinidad’s main square. As we were waiting for the band to set up their instruments the town suffered a blackout. We were left in darkness save for the stars above. The Cubans were used to improvising though. Candles were rapidly produced and the musicians unplugged their speakers and started to play using only acoustic instruments. We were sitting in near darkness, enjoying the evening warmth and listening to wonderful music by master musicians. That was until the Alaskans in the audience were encouraged to join in on their banjos.
Three middle-aged men from Alaska had decided to bypass the American embargo and hoping to jam with the locals, had brought their instruments along with them. Many of the Cubans had never seen a banjo before and wanted to hear its music. The Alaskans played Black-Eyed Susie and a few similar songs that certainly made for an interesting change in the evening’s musical direction, but I was wishing the Cubans would resume playing.
When the Alaskans retired from the stage, the music once again took on a decidedly more Latin beat. Everyone was encouraged to join in the fun on the dance floor, but it’s hard not to develop an inferiority complex when compared to dancing Cubans. There were so many amazing dancers twisting, turning, spinning and gyrating in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible.
Our guide had organized an afternoon salsa lesson with a Cuban dancer for us. Our teacher had obviously dressed up for the occasion – she still had curlers in her hair. Perhaps the thought of trying to turn a bunch of awkward gringos into stylish Latin dancers was just too tiring for her. She ran us through a series of basic steps while constantly informing us we needed to wiggle our hips more energetically.
Still feeling less than confident in our mastery of Latin dance, after dinner we nevertheless ventured onto the dance floor with varying degrees of success. None of us could possibly have been mistaken for a local, but our out of time flailing didn’t cause too much laughter either. Then we went in search of some ice cream for a late night snack. Ice cream is wildly popular in Cuba – there’s even a Cuban movie called Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry & Chocolate). Ice cream bought from street vendors is ridiculously cheap. In contrast, ice cream served in tourist restaurants is often more than one hundred times more expensive! When we reached the nearby heladeria (ice-cream parlor) we found it had been transformed into a disco for the night. If there’s anything more popular in Cuba than ice cream it has to be dancing! One of the bouncers took pity on us and disappeared into the smoky darkness, returning a few moments later with a handful of little tubs of ice cream. Our cravings were satisfied and we took a leisurely stroll back to our apartments.
Santiago de Cuba can boast of being Cuba’s musical capital and has some of the liveliest music houses. One morning I was lucky enough to meet Eliades Ochoa, one of the members of The Buena Vista Social Club, outside the Casa de la Trova. He was wearing a black cowboy hat and leaning against an old car whilst smoking on a thick cigar.
In the evening our guide took us to a ceremony to celebrate the anniversary of one of his friends becoming a Santeria priest. Santeria is a mixture of Catholicism and African spirit worship and is Cuba’s main religion. Santeria priests wear only white. We packed into a small room filled with people dancing and chanting. It was incredibly hot and sweaty. A small shrine complete with human skull and covered with offerings of money and food lay in the corner of the room. One of the dancers drank some rum and then spat it out on the shrine – an offering to the spirits.
Old car in Trinidad
After this brief sojourn into the world of Cuba’s religion, we made our way to the Saturday night street party. Several streets had been blocked off and a small stage was set up in the middle of the road. A band was playing and thousands of people were dancing wildly – most of the dances were taking a slightly more erotic tone than, say, traditional ballroom dancing. In particular, there were lots of girls who seemed fond of doing the grind, turning their back on the man they were dancing with and then grinding their butt against his crotch. At one point in the night, a competition was held to see which girl could shake her hips the most. They got up onto the stage and took it in turns to gyrate wildly. Someone remarked that the girls were shaking so much he was surprised their buttocks didn’t fly off. That’s a memory that’s going to stay with me for a long time!