Writer Mike Fisher (second from left) performing the song “Chan Chan” with son band, Trîo Ensueño, at La Bodeguita del Medio restaurant in Santiago de Cuba. Video by Liz Beddall.
Pull on a loose thread of Cuba’s interwoven musical genres, and you’ll unravel a history of farmer’s folk songs, gut-punch drumming, romantic ballads, old religious rites and seductive urban rhythms. Travelling from the capital of Havana—which celebrates its 500th anniversary in November—east to Santiago de Cuba, I journeyed from today’s music into the country’s earliest sounds. You can discover Cuba’s history—feel it rush through your body—by exploring its centuries-old music.
Cuba’s Worldwide Influence
Cuba has been exporting its musical styles and dances to other countries for centuries. Before the Cuban Revolution, rumba, son—the most popular Cuban music genre in the 20th century, and arguably the oldest form in the nation—conga, Afro-Cuban jazz, mambo, cha-cha-chá and bolero—a hit in Nashville—were already being heard and played on foreign shores.
A red telephone booth, standing like an exclamation point at Avenida 23 in Havana, is the entrance to La Zorra Y El Cuervo—The Fox and the Crow—the city’s premier, subterranean home of live jazz. Sax player Michel Herrera and his band are taking the club on a joyride. Herrera, in a powder-blue jacket and Nike sneakers with red swoosh, jumps up and down on his toes, sax wailing, like he could blow through the ceiling at any moment. The snare drum sounds like a syncopated alarm clock. Everyone is bobbing to its beat. Beside my table, a man with a jaunty cap chomps on an unlit cigar, right hand undulating as if he is conducting.
While the root of its sound is much, much older, Afro-Cuban jazz hinges on rhythms that reach back to the 1500s, when Africans were enslaved on the island (Cuba outlawed slavery in 1886). Herrera is an heir to this musical tradition, having earned his chops in Cuba’s respected music schools. When he plays a catchy riff and beckons everyone to sing, we do. It’s something I encounter throughout my trip. Cuban musicians urge audience participation, whether it’s to dance, sing or clap. Call-and-response is encoded in Cuba’s music like birdsong.
The Habana Café
Singer Carlos Kalunga (left) and trumpet player Luis Alemany (right) performing at The Habana Café in Havana. Video by Mike Fisher.
The Habana Café in Havana has a 1940s Cessna plane hanging from its ceiling, but this is no museum. Beyond the slick ambience, you’ll discover top performers, including singer Carlos Kalunga and trumpet player Luis Alemany, both tied to the famed Buena Vista Social Club that blew the doors open to Cuban music in the 1990s. When a dancer motions me onto the stage, I don’t question it and hustle up there.
At El Turquino nightclub on the lofty 25th floor of the Tryp Habana Libre hotel, the dance floor is the main draw. The city spreads out below and twinkles while the audience sips rum and Cokes, but it’s the musicians, Maikel Dinza & Soneros de la Juventud, who have complete command over our attention. Dinza is clad in a black vest and pants and a dress shirt, working us like a tuxedoed magician. His spell is salsa, and the dance floor churns.
Salsa is rooted in eastern Cuba, but it jumped to Havana, morphed in the United States and, by the 1970s, became a buzzword for Cuban-influenced dance music. Its more contemporary cousin, timba, combines funk with rumba and other dance music—the kind Dinza and his bandmates are igniting tonight.
We’re dancing atop history. In 1958, the hotel was the Habana Hilton. In 1960, after the Cuban Revolution, it was expropriated by the government and named Habana Libre. Fidel Castro established his first offices on a floor below the nightclub.
Mix African and Spanish musical ingredients and you get rumba, a rhythm and dance that gained prominence in the early 1930s. Experience Havana’s top rumba spectacle with a visit to the Callejón de Hamel alley in the Centro Habana neighbourhood on Sundays, where surrealistic and abstract Cuban art collide in mind-bending murals. The all-women group Rumba Morena lays down entrancing beats to summon ancient deities.
Two members of Rumba Morena in Callejón de Hamel alley in Havana. Video by Mike Fisher.
The Gigantería Theatre Group
An elegant lady towers above as she glides on stilts, legs stretching with each long stride, through the square. She’s one of The Gigantería theatre group—paid by the city to dance and play music in the centre of Old Havana. As she sways past, a six-person band moves like a centipede beside her, banging drums as a trumpet blares to the balconies above. On every corner, the potential for a beat and a burst of energy is possible in Havana.
Say “Guantánamo,” and most people think about Guantánamo Bay and its U.S. naval base. The bay is about 15-kilometres away from the city of Guantánamo, which was founded in 1797 in the country’s easternmost province and was fertile ground for the earliest Cuban music. It’s here in a small performance space in the Loma del Chivo neighbourhood where a poised young woman, strings of black and green beads knotted around her neck, pulls me up to dance. I lurch like a wide-eyed, wooden marionette, my hand knotted in hers, trying to keep up. The ferocious beating of conga drums drives us around the yellow room. Welcome to the music and dance of Tumba francesa.
A Tumba francesa performance in Guantánamo by the Santa Catalina de Ricci Pompadour society. Video by Mike Fisher.
The African slaves of French settlers, who came to Cuba from Haiti near the end of the 18th century, imitated European ballroom courtliness with dances like these, scored by urgent and persistent drumming. In Guantánamo, the Santa Catalina de Ricci Pompadour society does regular performances.
At Casa de Changüí in Guantánamo, a band plays and explains the history of music in Cuba’s east. While the indigenous Taino practised a kind of religious song and dance, the changüí genre began in the 1800s with a singer, bongo, Spanish guitar, marímbula—a wooden box with metal strips that are plucked—and the güiro, a percussion instrument. Today, the instruments used and musical styles vary. Folk dance music—that’s the feel of changüí.
The band Universales del Son playing son and changüí music at Casa de Changüí in Guantánamo.Video by Mike Fisher
The band Son de Buena Fe playing at the Casa de la Trova Pepe Sanchez in Santiago de Cuba, home of traditional son music. Video by Mike Fisher.
The night heat from the open-air balcony seeps into the performance room at Casa de la Trova Pepe Sanchez, where two outrageously talented dancers in purple costumes do an extended bend in front of the band playing son music, prompting iPhones in the audience to pop up like antennae.
This performance and dance hall in Santiago de Cuba, the country’s first capital until 1593, is a cradle of son, historically the most popular form of Cuban music and dance, melding Spanish and African influences. The genre gained traction in the late 19th century, jumped to Havana and still thrives with its characteristic pulse, known as the anticipated bass.
The next day, at La Bodeguita del Medio restaurant, where patrons scrawl their names onto its blue wall, I reach peak joy when Trío Ensueño, a signature son band with a regular gig here, allows me to join them and play guitar for a loping version of “Chan Chan.”
When visiting Cuba, you don’t necessarily need to know how to play an instrument or even know the song. When the time comes, you just need to play along.
[This story appears in the February 2019 issue of WestJet Magazine]