I felt the heat of the Havana pavement on my bare feet as Yerdy, my dance partner, spun me into the arms of Dennis, the other man in our rueda or “wheel.” We are doing a style of Cuban salsa where two or more couples dance in unison. The moves are scripted and called out by a leader in the group; the couples rotate partners after each step. Dennis wrapped me up in a move called “Coca-Cola,” bringing my arms to his left shoulder then spinning me behind his back with a cross step and a slide back, returning me to Yerdy’s embrace and a move called the dile que no. I accented it with a tap of my bare left foot and a twist in my hips.
I discovered my love of dancing long before I ever saw the music-filled streets of Havana and Santiago de Cuba, where many of these beats were born. Dance is a language spoken without words and each exchange left me intoxicated with even more to say. Every chance I had, I sought out the low-lit clubs where people gather to dance salsa, bachata, and cha-cha-cha. But the dance floor that beckoned me most was taboo.
Cuba, the “forbidden island,” is the largest island in the Caribbean. During the first half of the 20th century, Cuba was a rum- and sun-drenched playground for the mafia and U.S. financial interests. That all changed in 1959. The young Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, Ernesto “Che” Guevera, and others succeeded in ousting then Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, turning this island country communist. Extensive social and structural changes swept the country as Castro took control and strove to build a nation based on equality. The results within Cuba have been mixed. Industries and private businesses were nationalized, driving the successful business class out of Cuba. Free health care and education became available to all. Literacy rates skyrocketed. Government-supported arts, music, and dance flourished. On the flipside, there’s an average monthly salary of about $25, debated freedoms, limited supplies, and times of extreme hardship. “Hay lo que hay; y no hay (There is only what there is; and there isn’t),” a friend joked with me on the beach one sunny afternoon. “We may not have much, but we have hearts this big!” he added, gesturing broadly with his hands.
Cuba’s relationship with the U.S. played out like a bad break-up and the two countries have been on icy terms ever since. Starting in 1960, U.S. trade embargos isolated Cuba, not only from goods and trade, but also from U.S. travellers. This has started to change with Cuban President Raul Castro beginning to allow Cubans more freedom and U.S. President Barack Obama responding by taking an updated approach to U.S.-Cuba relations. The vibrancy of Cuba is now more readily accessible to U.S. travellers. Including me.
First-time visitors might be surprised that Cuba’s charm isn’t in resorts, shopping, or Zagat-rated dining—although surprisingly posh spots delivering world-class cuisine and entertainment have sprung up in recent years. Cuba’s magic is in the people, with their disarming friendliness, curiosity, and desire to share their daily lives. Chat with a new acquaintance about the current transformation of Havana over a syrupy-sweet thimble-size cup of stout Cuban coffee. Learn the basics of dancing salsa through a friendly invitation to the dance floor at an afternoon concert at Pabellón Cuba in Havana’s Vedado neighbourhood. Ask for directions in the street and you might start a friendship that lasts for life. But a credit card won’t open the door to these experiences. An open mind and a smile are the keys that unlock Cuba.
“De que país tú eres (What country are you from)?” Rafael asked me. I had already heard that question countless times that day. Deep lines in his chocolate-coloured face framed the sparkle in his smiling eyes. He had just wrapped up singing the final refrain of the Cuban classic “Guantanamera,” while coaxing the notes from his weathered, well-loved guitar. I had been strolling along the Malecón, the boardwalk that lines eight kilometres of the city’s shoreline and is known affectionately as “Havana’s living room.” A walk on the Malecón almost always guarantees a fascinating conversation. Escaping the stifling temperatures indoors, the people of Havana—Habaneros—flock here in the evenings. Parents bring their children who fall asleep on the wide sea wall while waiting for the day’s heat to pass. Young lovers flirt and dream. Friends gather and dance to reggaeton playing through their cell phones while sipping on bottles of clear rum. Musicians with trumpets, guitars, and the occasional stand-up bass, cluster every few hundred metres to practice in the ocean breeze, giving a free show to their neighbours while serenading passers-by.
I had heard Rafael playing and decided to sit and listen. We chatted while I accepted sips from his bottle of rum. “So why Cuba? Why here?” he eventually asked me. His tone insinuated that he expected me to bring up the standard fare: U.S.-Cuba relations and communism vs. democracy. “Because I love to dance and I want to learn more about Cuba’s music.” His eyes widened slightly with pleasant surprise and he smiled. “That should be easy,” he responded, “Cuba is music.”
Cuba was music before it was even Cuba. The roots of this sentiment date back to some of the earliest arrivals on the island. The native Taino people were known for a ceremony called areito: believers would dance to drums and flutes until they collapsed from exhaustion—not so different from a night out in modern Cuba.
Then the Spaniards moved in with their swords and diseases; African slaves were not long behind. Havana became a stopover for galleons loaded with gold and riches headed for Europe. The city came alive with boarding houses and dance salons.
Back in colonial Spain, King Carlos made an ironic decision in his war against non-Christians: he banned slaves from Muslim areas of Africa in the new territory of Cuba. So the peoples of northern Africa were sent to other European colonies including the U.S., where their stringed instruments may have helped give rise to the musical tradition of the blues; while many of the first slaves who wound up in Cuba came from the forested regions of southern Africa, where the drum was, and still is, king.
Sailors filled the salons of Havana and Santiago with music from around the world; with African slaves came drums and centuries of intricate rhythms and beliefs. Cuban music was born. And it didn’t stay put. Experts suggest that along with the gold and other booty from the newly conquered territories, African-infused music and dance, like the zarabanda, made its way from Cuba back to the salons in Spain and then northward through Europe. Ever since, Cuba has been making people around the world move.
You can still feel the echoes of this distant past as you explore the enchanting side streets of La Habana Vieja, the renovated historic centre of Havana. Crowds gather around dancers on stilts dressed in the bright colours of Caribbean carnival celebrations, open-air cafés serve up mojitos, the time-tested Cuban cocktail, loaded with fresh mint and muddled lime, and the irresistible beats of live bands lure visitors into dance salons at all hours of the day and night.
A week after leaving Havana, I found myself on the back of a motorcycle taxi en route to the Casa del Caribe cultural centre in Santiago de Cuba city. I could hear the tat-tat, tat, tat-tat of the conga and the Latin American box drum, cajón, a couple blocks before I arrived. I climbed off the left side of the bike, avoiding the scalding tailpipe, handing the driver the helmet and the fare of ten Cuban pesos as I shook out my hair. The rumba was in full swing. I couldn’t see the stage through the dense mass of moving bodies. Every Sunday, people from Santiago—Santiagueros—gather for live music and dance, welcoming travellers into the mix and giving them a chance to experience the deep Afro-Cuban culture that’s rooted in eastern Cuba. It’s almost impossible to disentangle its music and religion, especially in Santiago. Several people in the crowd were dressed in all white, including their shoes and umbrellas, showing they were initiates or santeros of the Afro-Cuban Yoruba religion, more commonly known as Santería. Today was just an excuse to party but these same drummers gather to celebrate the various deities of Yoruba, known as orishas, where believers dance just as hard as they were dancing here. The only colour highlighting the initiates’ garb was of the bright necklaces and bracelets that announced which orisha they were dedicating themselves to: yellow and gold for Ochún, the sensual saint of the rivers that flow like honey; blue and white for Yemayá, the powerful ocean mother; and red and white for Changó, the orisha of drumming and dance. Pay attention and you’ll notice many Cuban musicians with a red and white bracelet on their wrist.
I danced my way through the mob of people, matching my rhythm to theirs to help me make my way through. I passed a few familiar faces. “Qué bola (What’s up)?” they greeted me as we exchanged a kiss on each cheek. One of the older men opted to kiss me on the forehead instead as a sign of respect. Soon I was near the stage. Lean and ardent Bárbaro, the lead singer of Rumba Aché, was belting out verses to the crowd, backed up by a troop of singers and a battalion of hand drummers. On the far side of the stage another musician finessed music out of a shekere, a large gourd covered in beads.
The distinction between performers and audience was almost arbitrary as men and women in the crowd paired up to dance guaguancó, a style of rumba, and took turns bringing their dance to the stage. Sometimes the dancers were experts, other times a Cuban invited a visitor to dance with them and try their moves. It wasn’t about getting the step right; it was all about having fun. The first time someone explained guaguancó to me, I blushed. Now I can’t resist grinning with appreciation from the start to the finish of a song. The woman sensually undulates her hips, torso, and shoulders while beating out an earthy rhythm with her feet. The man, armed with a colourful handkerchief, matches her step, and deftly moves in, out, and around. When he finds an opening, he’ll flick the bright handkerchief or thrust with an elbow, the tip of his foot, or his pelvis with a vacunao, a symbolic attempt to impregnate the woman. Nimbly and lightning-fast, the woman protects herself from the vacunao by covering her groin with her hand. She might use her free hand to shake her pointer-finger at her dance partner or coquettishly blow him a kiss to say, “Nice try, but I don’t think so!” Then they fall back into their basic step, the woman and the crowd braced for his next move.
On my way home from the rumba, I met a musician nicknamed Multifacetiko on Enramadas, Santiago’s bustling and historic pedestrian street. Families, couples, and groups of friends crowded the street. Some ordered steaming and sugar-crusted churros from food carts while others waited in line to enter concert halls or dine at one of the newly opened paladares—private restaurants—that are appearing throughout the country at a lightning pace. Multi and I munched on roasted peanuts wrapped in paper cones that we bought from a street vendor as he explained: “Rumba is traditional music, but reggaeton is the music de la calle—of the street. When young Cuban kids hear reggaeton, they understand it. It’s what they live and how they think. They say, ‘I could make that music, too’. They have power in it. They can reach it.”
He offered to show me his recording studio. Leaving the bright lights and classical architecture of downtown behind, I followed him through a labyrinth of shadowy streets. Puddles of yellow light from street lamps transformed people into silhouettes who moved through the city like musical notes along a staff. Finally, we arrived at a four-storey building, built like a haphazard layer cake. A tight circular staircase, made of soldered sheets of metal, led to the roof. I dodged low-hanging clothes lines and picked my way over the uneven surface in my high heels to the small structure that crowned the building.
He pushed a door open. Light and a welcoming cacophony of excited voices flooded out. He stepped to the side, inviting me to go into the tiny room crammed with young men. It was a jigsaw puzzle of moving bodies that artfully shifted to create enough space for us to slide inside. A 1990’s desktop PC, oversized speakers, and a small soundboard were the focus of attention. A door just on the other side of the desk led into the studio: 1×2 metres in size, sound-proofed with beat-up and salvaged insulation, and featuring a window of hard-to-come-by glass that let the singer see the person working at the soundboard. Yes, this was the music del pueblo—of the people. Dream it and you can do it. “In a country where everyone is supposed to be equal, if you sing, you have a voice,” Multi told me, “and with a voice you can become someone special.”
Cubans cultivate an arsenal of homespun sayings. Whether you’re chatting with a 94-year-old man who still climbs coconut trees in Baracoa or catching up with a young mom in the local market, they’ll regale you with wisdom neatly packaged in a few quick words. During the final days of my trip, I visited Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best-preserved colonial cities in the Americas. I walked the streets between pastel-coloured church towers overlooking hidden plazas, nestled between the verdant peaks of the Escambray Mountains and the white-sand beaches of the sparkling Caribbean. The echo of horse hooves and cartwheels passing on the cobblestones—tlot tlot tlot—blended with the sound of maracas and guitar that spilled out onto the street from the Casa de la Trova nightclub.
As they passed, a group of young people called out to me, “Hoy vamos a bailar (Are we going to dance today)?” I had never seen them before, but it was the same common friendliness that I had come to love in Cuba. “No, but thank you. Another night,” I said. After a long day of hiking and swimming in waterfalls in the nearby nature reserve of Topes de Collantes, my legs already felt like they were made from rubber, not exactly prime form for a night of fiery Cuban dancing. One of the young women responded, “Bueno, pero hoy es lo que tenemos!”—Okay, but today is what we have! Another flash of Cuban wisdom.
I smiled and kept walking, but thought about how right she was and all I had learned from Cuba and its music. I learned how to keep my feet under me when someone is wrapping me up in their arms and flinging me across the dance floor at high velocity. I learned that whatever you might not have, you always have something when you have your voice. And I learned that while much has changed in Cuba recently, one thing won’t change: Hoy es lo que tenemos. Today is what they have. Today is what we all have. And today is time enough for music.
Casa de la Música
Avenida 20 No. 3308 esquina 35, Miramar
Casa de la Música is the classic spot to catch world-class acts and see Cuban couples dance jaw-dropping salsa casino. Catch the matinee at 5 p.m. or come after dinner for the late show.
Salon Rojo at Hotel Capri
Calle 21 entre N y O, Vedado
Located in Vedado, close to the renowned Hotel Nacional, Salon Rojo features Cuba’s most famous bands.
Callejón de Hamel
Between Calles Espada and Aramburu
For a taste of Afro-Cuban culture, head to the Sunday afternoon rumba at Callejón de Hamel. The crowd can be rowdy so watch your wallet and go prepared to dance.
Fábrica de Arte Cubano
Calle 26 esquina 11, Vedado
Also known as FAC or La Fábrica, this trendy spot has recently achieved global recognition. You’ll find live music, an art gallery, art films, and the latest in all that is hot in Cuba.
Third level of the Galerias Paseo Mall, Avenida Paseo and 3, Vedado
This polished venue offers two shows nightly, a full dinner menu, and a bar that goes well beyond the standard Cuban fare of rum, mojitos, and beer. You’re likely to run into Havana’s top musical talent, also coming to enjoy the show.
SANTIAGO DE CUBA
La Claqueta bar
For those serious about dancing, La Claqueta is the best place in Santiago to dance most days of the week. This outdoor venue features live bands from around Cuba every night that it doesn’t rain and attracts the best salsa dancers in Santiago.
Casa de las Tradiciones
Calle General Lacret 651
Instead of joining the tourist crowd at Casa de la Trova, head to Casa de las Tradiciones, located several blocks from the heart of Santiago near La Escalinata, the stairway, on Padre Pico Street. You’ll find a classic Cuban house, a local crowd, and an excellent live band playing son that you can enjoy either from your table or on the dance floor.
Cabaret-Disco San Pedro del Mar
Carretera del Morro km 7 1/2
For an all-night party with reggaeton and timba, head to “San Pedro” near the historic fort, Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, that guards the entrance to Santiago de Cuba’s harbour. Starting around 11 p.m. and lasting until the early morning hours, it is the hottest spot in town on a Friday or Saturday night.
Casa de Cultura Josué País García
Heredia No 204
With the mission of keeping arts and culture alive and flourishing in Santiago de Cuba, the Casa de Cultura offers an array of music and dance performances. Stop by to ask about upcoming events.
Casa de la Trova
Fernando H. Echerri 29
An intimate venue in the heart of Trinidad, the Casa de la Trova is especially lively on weekends. Bands play salsa and son while locals are happy to teach you the basic steps and invite you to a friendly dance.
Casa de la Musica
Enjoy live music and dance performances during Casa de la Musica’s early evening show. This open-air venue is located on the steps next to the church of Plaza Mayor, serving up some of the best mojitos in town to a crowd of both Cubans and travellers.
Las Cuevas (top of the hill)
Located in a majestic cave, this nightclub features reggaeton and Cuban pop, while catering to the late night crowd. Regardless of your musical taste, it is well worth the trek up the hill to see it
Appeared in the September 2016 issue as “Cuba is Music”.
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, about 145 kilometres from Key West in Florida, U.S.A. Havana, Cuba’s colourful capital, lies on its northern coast while the urban hub of Afro-Cuban culture, Santiago de Cuba, is in the southeast of the country. Trinidad in south-central Cuba Orientation is a well-preserved colonial city and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Flying from Mumbai/Delhi to Havana requires at least one layover at a European gateway city. From Delhi it’s also possible to travel via Moscow or a Canadian gateway. Check whether a visa is required to transit these stopovers. Havana is well connected to Santiago de Cuba and Trinidad by bus and taxi (www.viazul.com; Havana to Trinidad $25/₹1,672, 6 hr; Havana to Santiago de Cuba $51/₹3,407, 15 hr). Cubana Aviación offers daily flights from Havana to Santiago de Cuba.
Indian travellers to Cuba require a tourist visa. Applicants can download the form and required list of documents at www.cubadiplomatica.cu, and submit the application at the Cuban embassy in New Delhi on Monday, Wednesday, or Thursday. The visa takes two working days to process, and costs ₹6,400.