Rapping About the Cuban Music Scene

February 16
Dateline: Murelando District

Rum aficionados contend that certain blends of rum go best with certain brands of cigars. And, of course, high quality rum calls for higher prices. The rum masters of the island age their product from 2 to 100 years. The most expensive bottle of rum on display at the museum had been aged for 80 years and cost $1,700.

After our rum visit, we headed to the Murelando Community Art Project, where local artists have been working for 11 years to transform the area into a living neighborhood of art.

Our guide was MC Mario, a young Havana rap artist. “Here it is about community and it is about the children,” Mario said. “We have classes in art and we teach them the music.”

“Let me tell you something of my personal life. I lost my mother at 17. I was doing bad things. I ended up in jail. When I got out, I found my neighborhood was full of murals and I decided to stay and help. Now I represent Murelando.

After we viewed the art projects, Mario and his several of his fellow community members and young  acolytes gathered all of us together for an impromptu musical jam and dance session. The percussive instruments, so prevalent in all forms of Cuban music, ranged from the wooden sticks I was handed a make-shift percussion set with cowbell, cymbal, and triangle attached to a partial bike frame.

“Enjoy our music. Enjoy our culture. We do and we want you to do, too,” Mario said before launching into another salsa-beat original rap.

On our way back to the hotel, I asked our guide Hilary about the Cuban rap scene. On one of her trips to the island, she had photographed rappers in Havana for a musical article on the underground art form. Obviously, rap, with its political implications, is subject to government censorship. All rap artists are ordered to join a musical collective. That way, if one of the members steps out of line, the entire collective can be punished. But Hilary said the movement is growing. All musicians are in Cuba receive free studio time to make CDs which they can they sell.  In fact, parents encourage the youngsters to pursue careers in art or music since they are among the most lucrative and valued jobs on on the island. The government allows rappers to take advantage of that free studio time. “It was too popular with the young people to ban,” Hilary said. “So they are leaning to live with it.”

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order

Lunch with a Close Companion of Castro

Naty Revuelta with Judy and Me

February 16
Dateline: Downtown Havana

On the bus on the way to the National Museum of Fine Arts, our writer-in-residence Tom Miller teased a special guest at lunch. Of course, we all wanted to know who it would be. “I haven’t finalized the details yet. But I think you’ll be surprised and really pleased,” Miller said.

So with that bit of speculation in our minds, we began our guided tour of the museum’s massive collection. Of course, there are paintings by Cuban masters such as Wilfredo Lam and Amelia Peleaz. There are also artistic calls for La Revolucion such as El Alba (The Sunrise) which depicts faceless worker trudging unhappily to a belching factory. In the modern section, there was an interactive Punch and Judy-like display where you could create your own history with figures of Che, Jose Marti, Simon Bolivar, Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, V. I. Lenin, and many others.

Outside, Miller revealed that our special guest would be Naty Revuelta, Fidel Castro’s mistress and fighting companion during the 1950s and the mother of his only-known daughter. Miller said Naty, which she liked to be called, would not speak to the group, but would allow two of us to join her at her table. Or course, I wanted to do just that, but held back to see if others would want that honor. When no one came forward, I readily volunteered and so found myself in a Havana restaurant sitting next to someone who had once known Fidel Castro perhaps as well as he can be known by anyone.

Miller had laid down some strict guidelines for what was appropriate for discussion and mandated that I couldn’t take notes nor ask anything about Castro unless Naty brought it up first. On first meeting Naty, now in her mid 80s, I quickly discovered that I was in the presence of a lady who exudes a sense of specialness in speech, dress, and manner. She is, as I told Miller later, a woman both “classy and classic.”

Born into a wealthy Cuban family, Naty said she had an interesting raising. “I had a grandfather who was English and was very proper and I had a grandfather who was Spanish and was very emotional. I learned about both worlds,” she said.

Naty spent four years at a boarding school in Philadelphia, then two years in college in DC. We talked briefly about both those places: what they were like then and what they are like now.

“You know, I was 22 years old when I met Fidel,” Naty interjected. “It was an interesting time.” I waited for more, but she shifted into a narrative about the daughter she shared with Castro.

The daughter had fled to the United States from the island in 1960. It would be 24 years before UNESCO set up a meeting allowing Naty to see her in America. She showed me a picture of that meeting she always carries with her.

She then shifted back to earlier Cuban years. “Batista was not good for the people,” Naty said. “I was not a party member, but I was working for the party when I met Fidel. I am 6 months older than him.”

Although we then chatted about other matters, I knew from previous reading her current stand on the Cuban leader. She doesn’t say outright that Castro has failed to follow through on promises of democracy. Instead, she names his successes and commends his bravery in facing both Cuban and U.S. opposition. Castro, she says, will be remembered as ” a man who tried very hard. Some love him more, some love him less.”

Miller and my fellow traveler Dennis excused themselves from the table and I found myself alone with Naty. Suddenly, she began choking on a piece of prosciutto. A vision flashed before my eyes. I would try to save the choking Naty and be unsuccessful. Castro would be outraged. I would find myself in a Cuban prison. The New York Times lead article would be headlined, “Castro Claims American Agent Kills Mistress; Calls for Death by Firing Squad.” However, a sip of wine cured Naty of her choking and we resumed our talking until Miller returned, signaling the end of lunch.

I thanked Naty for her conversation and asked if she would pose for a picture with Judy and me. Ever gracious, she complied. “Did my husband talk too much?” Judy asked. “No he was the a perfect lunch companion,” Naty replied.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order 

Thank You, My Good Frenemies

February 15
Dateline: Callejon de Hamel y Jaminitas

As we prepared to get off the bus and stroll the art district of the Callejon de Hamel, our Cuban guide Luis issued his version of that traveler’s warning heard round the world:: “Open your eyes really well, but keep your purses and wallets really tight. It is safe, but I have to warn you about this.”

Luis’ warning made me pause for reflection. Since arriving in Havana, I had never once felt unsafe or even uncomfortable. We had walked big streets and back streets. We had walked in guided groups and Judy and I had explored on our own. We had encountered some children asking for money, but all the adults requesting money had offered something in return – a quick sketch, a cigar, a roll of nuts. We had encountered some military presence at government sites, but had seen few police. Of course, as there would be in any city, there is crime in Havana. But punishment is swift and it is severe. Apparently, that serves as a deterrent, at least as far as outside visitors are concerned.

At the beginning of Hamel street, we met our local guide, Elias, who gave new meaning to the term constant patter. He looked like a cross between the actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jack Black. Dressed in jeans and a vintage biker T-shirt and with a green and brown band tied around his head, Elias greeted us. “I welcome my wonderful enemies from the United States. You are my good frenemies,’ Elias said, his face breaking into the widest of grins.

For the next hour, Elias regaled us with tales of art and mysticism as we walked past the colorful murals and crowded art stalls. “These murals are from local artist Salvador Gonzalez. He is a crazy guy, but he is a most famous artist,” Elias said.

Elias said most of the people in this section of Havana believed in the power of Orishas, a religious tradition originating in Africa and somewhat related to the Cuban practice of Santeria in which spirits are invoked. “It is a very practical religion,” Elias said, twirling an unlit cigar through his fingers. “It gives you hope of solving your problems in your life, not in death. It says you should be in communication with natural forces by using natural forces.”

“You were born with your Orisha; you don’t choose your Orisha. You use it to fulfill your proper destiny,” he added. “Some people look at this as witchcraft. But it is not witchcraft; it is a good religion. Cuba is closed-minded about many things, but it is open-minded when it comes to religion.”

As others broke from the group to check out the art for sale, Elias and I kept talking. Or rather I kept asking questions and Elias kept answering them. “I can see you are a seeker,” Elias said, beckoning me to come with him into a stall containing books, many of them on Cuba and religion. “I have read many of these,” he said. “I will recommend some to you and you can read them when you get home.”

After we returned to the street, Elias said, “You are now one of my special frenemies. We will seal our new friendship with this.” Reaching into his pocket, he produced a hand-rolled cigar, which he then handed me. “There are many good cigars in Cuba, but this is not one of them,” he said. “But you are now my friend and I want you to have it.”

Soon, the rest of our group gathered and it was time to take in the African-influenced drum and rhumba dance street show. “Thank you, my good frenemies. We have now all traded with the enemy” Elias said, riffing on our National Geographic guide Tom Miller’s book title as his way of leaving us.”

Following our Hamel visit, we headed to lunch on the 33rd floor of a downtown Cuban hotel. The food was good (I was really begining to disbelieve this story that you couldn’t find good food in Cuba) but the views of Havana were magnificent. The entire dining room was lined with windows which made for some pretty spectacular photos for the photo buffs among us.

After lunch we traveled to the Jaimanitas district on the outskirts of Havana and the workshop of renowned ceramic artist Jose Fuster, who has been called the Picasso of the Caribbean. It can be truly said that Fuster has covered a lot of ground with his art.  Roofs, walls, doorways and benches, stretching for blocks around the epicenter of his studio enclave, are adorned with his brightly colored sculptures and mosaics : mermaids, fish, palm trees, roosters and Santería saints, as well as quotations from Alejo Carpentier, Onelio Jorge Cardoso, and Ernest Hemingway. More than 80 neighbors have allowed Fuster to use their homes as his canvas.

On the way back to the Melia Cohiba, we were given a choice. Tonight, we could go to Havana’s most spectacular nightclub, the Tropicana, which is the one symbol of pre-revolutionary Cuba that was not allowed to die. First opened on New Year’s Eve 1939  (exactly 20 years before the successful conclusion of the Communist Revolution),  the Tropicana is still world-famous for its flamboyant cabaret routines highlighted by showgirls’ extravagant costumes that hide very little. Having been to Las Vegas (which owes a great debt to pre-revolutionary Cuba) many times, we opted for dinner on our own and more Havana street exploring.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order

A Day of the Dead

After breakfast, we traveled to the Colon (Columbus) Cemetery to explore the vast and remarkable necropolis, which was laid out in 1871 and now consists of  about 125 acres of ornate statuary and mausoleums. Many of Cuba’s most prominent citizens are buried here, including three ex-presidents and several heroes and heroines of the Revolution.

But the cemetery is also the final resting place (well, almost the final resting place, more on that later) of common residents of Havana. As many as 40 funerals a day occur at the site, a fact supported by the steady stream of taxis and small buses filled with mourners we saw as we wandered through the grounds.

The cemetery was named after Christopher Columbus. But our cemetery guide, Andres, said the name provokes some humor with the Cuban people. “He (Columbus) said he discovered us, but we were already here when he arrived,” Andres said.

Many of the monuments are decorated with symbols. One of the most common is the bat, long considered an omen of good luck in Cuban folklore. Trumpets are also popular. “The trumpets are supposed to blow when all the souls are recovered,” Andres said. “I hope we all hear the trumpets.”

After the Communist Revolution, Andres said the Cuban people joked that the cemetery “was the only place you could have private property.” However, even that “property” was only temporary. If you wanted to be buried in Cemetario Colon, your body would only rest there for 2 years. Then your bones would be excavated and cremated, making space for more burials.

Despite all the dignitaries and notables buried in the cemetery, the most popular grave site belongs to Amelie Goyre de Hoz, who died during childbirth in 1901. The fresh-flowers-daily covered grave is crowded with childless women who come to ask for good fortune by knocking on the tomb three times and then walking away backwards.  

Andres invited all the women in our party to participate. Judy began to step forward until one of our traveling friends,  looking directly at me, said to my wife “You are already taking care of one big child.” Smiling, Judy turned and walked away.

To follow our Cuban trip in chronological order

A Night of Love Under a Havana Moon

February 14:
Dateline: Old Havana

Arriving back at the Melia Cohiba, we had about 2 hours of free time before we were to leave for dinner in old town Havana. Judy and I decided to explore the neighborhood near our hotel, In addition to sightseeing, we were on a mission – my camera battery had decided to die while we were at Las Terrazas and so I needed a replacement. In most countries, no problem. In Cuba, with 50 years of an American embargo, big problem.

Striking out in the gift shop of our own hotel, we decided to try the Riviera Hotel next door. No luck on the battery (we would never find one in our entire Cuba stay), but I did use my Spanglish to make our 1st art purchase, an intricate nautical wood carving of swimming fish.

Next we headed out to explore the back streets. We saw children, many in uniform, returning home from school. The younger ones were escorted by their parents. The older ones chatted. Not a cell phone or MP3 player in sight. We did however come across a trio of teenagers singing a Cuban pop song loudly in Spanish.

We ducked into a corner grocery store. The shelves weren’t bare, but they definitely weren’t well stocked. We were surprised to see a couple of American brand names on the canned goods, but learned later that they had been rerouted from other countries that Cuba has trade relations with.

We saw several destroyed houses, visual proof that more than 3 Havana structures a day are crumbling away. In the driveways and the streets, one of the main late afternoon activities appeared to be careful car washing. We stopped and perused some of the merchandise at the on-the-porch home stores that the Cuban government now permits.

We arrived back at the hotel just in time to board the bus for dinner. On the way there, we drove for a while next to the Malecon which was packed with thousands of people, most of them couples, out to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Dinner was scheduled at El Patio, an outdoor restaurant in Cathedral Square. The ancient square. The historic Cathedral. A band for dancing. The Cuban love of passion and romance. The Havana moon. It made for a once-in-a-life-time Valentine’s Day dinner.

And speaking of dancing, while most of our party headed back to the Melia Cohiba after dining, Judy and I joined 1 other couple for a 2nd late night of Cuban salsa instruction at Jennifer’s home. Jennifer and her mother, Paula, practice Santeria, a system of beliefs that merges the Yoruba religion (which was brought to the New World and Cuba by enslaved West Africans sent to the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations) with Roman Catholic and Native American traditions. I had read about the misunderstood religion and wanted to take a picture of the decorated altar in Paula’s living room. She said I could, but since I would capturing some of the spirit of the shrine, I would have to leave something personal behind. So now there is a Santeria altar in Havana that includes my pen.

As for my dance movements, I thought I had vastly improved. And I believed Jennifer confirmed that when she said “I’ve never seen such dancing as yours.” Our Cuban guide Luis had joined us for the evening. After watching me engage in a particular  difficult routine (you had to salsa while moving around in a small square), Luis shook his head. “Dave, my friend, you give all us men all over the world a bad reputation for dancing. You should not be doing this.” But I think Luis was just jealous of my unique moves. In my mind, I was already well on my way to becoming the Cuban King of Salsa.

To follow our Cuban trip in chronological order