Because I wrote the following for Frank's APA, the Amateur Press Association for people who like music, I have rather focussed on musical aspects of my Cuban holiday. Discussion of other matters may take place at some future date.
One thing that is striking about Cuba – or tourist Cuba – is how musical it is. You do not really have to go out looking for music. It is pretty much everywhere, and it is a poor sort of café or bar that does not have a band bashing out something approximating to the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack album. Even when we got a steam train out to visit a former sugar plantation we found ourselves joined by guitar-playing busker (who helpfully finished each song with "¡Ay, applauso!").
We had heard from previous travellers to Cuba that 'Guantanamera' is one song that tourists hear morning, noon, and night; one friend mentioned a band who stopped whatever they were playing and switched to it when they saw him entering where they were playing. However, the passage of time seems to have put this song into something of a decline. We did hear it, sure, but far less frequently than certain other tunes. The single most-played tune in Cuba is easily 'Chan Chan' (known to millions as that-track-from-the-Buena-Vista-Social-Club). Almost every band we saw played that at least once. In second place was probably 'The Girl From Ipanema' – not obviously a Cuban classic, but one that the kind of bands we saw could play well. And in third place, bizarrely, were instrumental renditions of 'My Way'.
It is easy to scoff at Cuban music's clichés, but the bands we heard playing in bars and cafés were almost always of the very highest standard. Given that their economic model is getting their listeners to buy CDs of their music or to just donate them a convertible peso or two, these guys must, in Cuban terms, be rolling in cash (this is after all a country where brain surgeons earn the equivalent of €35 a month and supplement their incomes by waiting tables). The money to be made in music maybe has the effect of ensuring a reasonably high standard, as there must always be loads of people looking to get some of that tourist dollar – if you are not good enough, someone else will be. I gather it is also tightly regulated by the authorities; in this area at least, socialism ensures high standards.
The best music I came across in Cuba broke a bit from the Buena Vista stereotype. This was the house band in El Palenque de los Congos Reales. This venue is in the olde towne of Trinidad, and it focuses is on the country's extensive musical links with the Congo. Here we were treated to an enjoyable song and dance show. I particularly like the bits where the dancers seemed to be impersonating Santeria deities or folkloric characters of some kind. Although the music was very different, we were put rather in mind of the brilliant Ethiopian musical show at the Hotel Ghion in Addis Ababa.
My second favourite musical experience would probably be when we were having a mojito in the Hotel Nacional (Havana's archetypal big pre-revolutionary hotel, the one that was set up by Meyer Lansky and which seems to have photos of the entire cast of Family Business up on the walls) when a band came and asked us did we want them to play us some tunes. It seemed churlish to refuse, so they treated us to 'The Girl From Ipanema' and another track before selling us a CD and moving on. Their music was from broadly the same world as the typical Buena Vista Knock-off outfit, but they had an air of culture and refinement that went well with the location in which they were playing.
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