The Rebel Quintet – Cuba

The Rebel Quintet

It’s December 1956 in a remote part of Western Cuba and a group of 82 volunteer soldiers led by Fidel Castro have just been dispatched off of the coast from a leaking and overcrowded leisure yacht. Scrambling through a swamp and forced to abandon most of their weapons in the surrounding mangroves, they seek refuge in a sugar cane field where they lie down exhausted and try to figure out what they should do next. It’s a rude awakening. A few hours later the first hostile shots are fired into the air, a man falls dead and suddenly all around is chaos. In the confusion that follows the soldiers panic and become seperated. One, a 28-year-old Argentine doctor, uninitiated as yet to the brutalities of armed combat, is forced to make a break for it across open ground with little cover. Desperately he looks down at his feet for inspiration. In front of him lies his trusted medical kit and a box of ammunition abandoned by a fleeing colleague. He can’t possibly carry both items at once. Instead he has about five seconds in which to make a simple two-way choice.

A moment of history, a moment of infamy, a moment in which – according to many – a young and idealistic traveller called Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was transformed into the immortal and cold-blooded Che.

Jump forward in time nearly fifty years and I’m sitting in the secluded ambience of a rustic jungle lodge in the village of Santo Domingo nestled quietly in the depths of Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountains. On a small stage in front of me five old men are tuning up their battered instruments and talking in fast, heavily-accented Spanish. A plastic bottle of locally brewed Manzanilla rum is passed around between them whilst crackling away stage-right over an open fire, a large pig roasts on a spit as befits the local tradition. And then quite suddenly, without any formal introductions, the sound of a rapid guitar flurry interrupts the idle chatter and from somewhere in the shadows a wisened old singer strolls casually into the bare insect-filled light of the stage and clears his throat. There is a palpable sense that something magical is about to take place.

It’s hard to define the essence of what happens next. As the music breaks into its first frantic crescendo the hairs on the back of my neck involutarily start to stand on end and a cold rush of adrenalin courses through my body. I’m not the only transfixed observer. Over by the splintered wooden bar conversations are terminated, heads turn expectantly towards the light and a crowd of Dutch tourists on a table at the back gaze up from their plates with fresh curiosity. For some unfathomable reason, the singer and this group of aged, straw-hatted compatriots seem to have a taken a strange hold over everyone in the room. There is something classic, unaffected and real about them. They reach out across invisible boundaries and connect. They touch deep-rooted emotions and make you feel better. For a triumphant second we are undeniably theirs, lost in old memories, lost in the past, lost in one of those history-defining moments when young bearded men became heroes and revolutions were won.

Six hours later and I’m counting rum bottles at the bar with Reuben, lead singer of the legendary Rebel Quintet. Jovial, good natured and too humble by half he reclines in his chair, pulls out a half-smoked cigar and pats me on the back with the hand that once crossed palms with the immortal Che. “Que bola, compay?” he drawls in a typically animated Cuban-style greeting, before offering me a slug of his fatally concocted rum and calling over the rest of his friendly band of brothers for help. “El Quinteto”, as they are affectionately known by the natives in these parts, are still household names in Cuba. Formed sometime in the late 1950s at the start of the revolutionary war, they quickly became musical mascots to Castro’s tight group of rebel soldiers who had arrived tired and forlorn from their leaking leisure yacht with the naive intention of making a base in these inpenetrable mountains. Their history is a page from the annals of history itself.

“Fidel was pretty desperate back then”, recalls Omar, a local park warden, the next morning as we hitch a ride on a old Russian truck that takes us up the painfully steep road to the once infamous La Plata. “His band of rebel soldiers were weakened after the ambush in the sugar-cane field and now numbered little more than a dozen men. They had few weapons and little food. Che was injured and suffering from asthma. Somehow they needed to curry favour with the local peasants in order to survive.” I nod and cast an eye over the lush green mountainside as we motor ever upwards to the point where the road ends and a narrow trail begins. It was during one of these long and arduous searches that Fidel – whilst surveying the rough terrain surrounding Pico Turquino, Cuba’s highest mountain – fell, by chance, in with a local farmer named Medina. Medina was a godsend in the circumstances, a sympathetic coffee farmer who offered to lease both land and manpower to Fidel in return for a few brave political promises about social justice and agricultural reform. It wasn’t his only provision. Somewhere in the undeclared small-print Medina unwittingly ensured that his sons were also included into the colourful footnotes of twentieth century history. Recruited into the rebel army more for their musical prowess than their shooting skills, Medina’s teenage boys were given rough homemade guitars, old drumming implements and the rather unconventional brief to direct their fast and furious revolutionary songs over small loud-speakers, in an attempt to dispirit an already dispirited enemy. They called themselves The Rebel Quintet.

Descending from the truck and hiking a further three kilometres along a ridge and up through a spectacular cloud forest, Omar and I finally reach La Plata, the secre headquarters built on the land Medina leased to Fidel in 1957 to use as a base for his final decisive assault upon Bastista’s corrupt US-backed regime. A small, partially-obscured hut is all that marks the entrance these days, the guardhouse where Che once practiced his medical skills.

Behind it the triangular peak from which the mast of his inspired “Rebel Radio” broadcast music and propaganda for hundreds of miles around. Mesmorised we wander around the deserted exhibits – a small museum, a kitchen, Castro’s tiny command centre – trying hard to imagine the rebels in their natural environment, cornered and hopelessly outnumbered, fighting idealistically for their populist cause, not just with their guns – but with their musical instruments.

Sometimes we romanticise about the past and ruminate cynically about our present state. It’s an understandable contradiction. In Cuba the revolution triumphed, re-invented itself and fizzled out. Fidel, to many, went from saviour to hard-handed leader to exiled Napoleon reminiscing about what might have been from his self-imposed island prison. But somehow, as I take my place in the bar again to watch the Rebel Quintet tune up for another night of animated tourist entertainment in the village of Santo Domingo, I feel refreshingly free of these old and dogmatic political platitudes. They play for free without any amplification or sound effects. They play for up to six hours at a time fuelled by a lethal supply of Manzanilla rum. Their average age is now over 65.

The darkness closes in quickly on the deep tropical valley and the mosquitos descend in their droves to inhabit the thick rain-soaked foliage of the riverside lodge. I close my eyes, listen to the music and feel myself being quickly transported back in time.

December 1956, a chaotic scene in Western Cuba, a young Argentine doctor rushes desperately through asugar-cane field strafed with flying bullets.

And under his arm he carries – not a medical kit – but a box of ammunition.

The rest – as they say – is history.

If you go:
Trips to La Plata and the Sierra Maestra can be organised either independently or through a group holiday. The author travelled with Exodus UK (GAP Adventures) and stayed at Villa Santo Domingo run by Islazul (23) 42-5321. The La Plata visit can be organized on arrival or by phoning ahead. Cost including transport approx US$15.

Tourist info in Cuba is subject to change. It is advisable to re-check upon arrival.