Chapter 3: Que Bonito es el Turismo
- 10 August, 2016
Day 3 / 3rd August 2016
The housekeeper at Casa Marmol offers me breakfast of an omelette with ham, toast, tropical fruits and coffee so strong, it keeps me wired all day.
After some WiFi time at Plaza Céspedes, I head to Sala Dolores, where I was told Ariwo will be rehearsing and again run into Aaron Liddard, who’s headed there too. While hanging out inside the rehearsal room watching the band I realize that I am very content to be where I am at that moment, witnessing the creation of entirely new forms of music drawn from at least four different historical sources: Persian music, electronica, Afro-Cuban and jazz. This is, after all, the whole point of Manana: to bridge cultures and generate forward-thinking electro-folkloric musical collaborations between Cuba, the UK, Europe and the Americas while simultaneously honouring and spreading awareness of older Afro-Cuban music.
Aaron Liddard, Saxophonist & Stand-Up Gent
Yelfris, Noda and Hammadi from Ariwo
I break away to catch the tail-end of the festival’s official opening ceremony speech at Teatro Herédia, a mixed bag of Cuban propaganda and arts advocacy with Alberto Lescay, Manana ambassador and designer of the massive sculpture at the nearby Plaza de la Revolución. The plaza sculpture, which is the largest in the country, depicts Santiago’s native son and hero, Antonio Maceo, sitting atop his horse in front of 23 huge machetes that look like an abattis designed by Richard Serra. When I wander off to explore the Teatro Herédia complex, I discover that there is no running water in the bathrooms and no flushing toilets, which is a bit worrisome given the hundreds and maybe even thousands of people expected for the festival tomorrow.
Plaza de La Revolución
Hand-drawn sign for MANANA CUBA
Hand-drawn sign for MANANA CUBA (detail)
As I return to the veranda I notice the people assembled for the opening speech moving inside the Teatro Heredia. so I follow the crowd inside where I hear the distinctive sound of Batá drums and bells. Given the revered place that Yoruban percussion and singing has in Cuban cultural and spiritual life, it’s not surprising that the ceremonial opening of the Manana festival begins with a group of Batá drummers called the Santiago Batá Ensemble:
After the performance, I speak with a member of the group, a man named Silvio Bell Echevarría, about the significance of this opening performance and of the Batá drums that already seem to be everywhere at Manana. I’ve been pondering about this, not only for my research but as a fellow percussionist. Silvio’s face perks up with a warm smile and a rich baritone voice belying years of musical experience. He tells me about how and where different types of ceremonial (Fundamento) vs. secular (Aberikula) Batá drums can be played and with which rhythms. It’s all a bit much to remember amidst the constant stimulation of new visual and aural information I’ve been taking in since I arrived in Cuba, so after we finish our rum and cokes, I ask him if he’d be interested in doing an interview the next day. He accepts my request and we agree to meet up the next day for a few performances and a late-afternoon interview on camera.
Silvio Bell Echevarría
As the week continues, Silvio and I will fall into a sort of barter-based, professional friendship, spending hours together each day, during which he will educate me about the different types of Afro-Cuban rhythms and song forms presented at the festival, as well as the differences between music of the Oriente (East, i.e. Santiago) and the Occidente (West, i.e. Havana/Matanzas) of Cuba. He will describe styles such as Tumba Francesa (Santiaguero music societies with Franco-Hatian origins), Guaguancó, Changüí, Son Montuno, Son Cubano, Gagá, Vodún, Rumba, Son, Merengue Haitiano, and expound on the differences and overlaps between music of various Afro-Cuban religious sects from Ifá to Palo.
By the week’s end, I will have bought a couple of CDs from Silvio, T-shirts, and many drinks for us both. In return, he supplies me with a wealth of insight into Afro-Cuban music and its cultural and spiritual roots. Our conversations last for hours and Silvio never seems to tire of my questions.
From my end, it’s more than a fair deal.
That night, after taking in a spectacular sunset at Balcón de Velasquez…
Sunset at Balcón De Veláquez amidst Zika virus fumigation
I make my way to Casa Micaela, formerly Casa de la Música, expecting another performance, but the place is still empty and the band is still rehearsing. Gradually, the place fills with a mix of foreigners and Santiagueros. This show is not officially part of the Manana Festival programming but many of the artists performing — DJ Jigüe & Guampara Productions crew, Wichy De Vedado, Nickodemus, Uproot Andy — are on the festival schedule. It seems word of the off-site performance has gotten out because I see professional video cameras start to set up and it’s not long before the press presence begins to dominate the space, with cameramen edging onto the stage to get their close-up shots.
Despite the large film crew presence onstage in such a tight space, the artists eventually get comfortable enough to dance and perform while navigating around the half dozen active camera operators, and deliver an electric performance nearly until dawn.
While a I wait for a moto-taxi at the plaza to take me home for the night, a staggering drunk man sings boldly into the night to an audience of none, though with an incredible voice that makes me think this man should be a star.
“One day I’m going to become a millionaire from my music,” he tells me when he passes me by.
Then, “Can I have 3 CUCs so I can get some more rum?
Chapter 2: Quiero Conectarme a La WiFi
- 08 July, 2016
Day 2: 2nd May 2016
After breakfast, I leave the casa particular shielding my eyes from the bright sun as I lost my only pair of sunglasses at some point in yesterday’s airport-guagua shuffle and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere around town where I can pick up another pair.
Instead, I turn my search to Wi-Fi.
Private home internet access is virtually non-existent in Cuba except for embassy residences and for those with government connections. Often what you’ll find is dial-up modems, so most people only have the option of connecting to newly established government Wi-Fi networks in public parks and plazas with access cards purchased through ETECSA, Cuba’s national telecom. At the first ETECSA kiosk I find, I purchase three Wi-Fi cards with an hour of connectivity each for 6 CUC and circle around the corner to Plaza Céspedes where locals and tourists sit scattered on benches, and stare into phone and tablet screens.
In Cuba, even the internet is an outdoor activity.
I spend an hour or so checking social media and posting an obligatory old car photo, then head in the direction Café Dranguet, Manana Festival’s information hub, and run into Natalia Linares, the festival’s Cuban-American press coordinator on the way. She briefs me on the day’s activities and somehow during our conversation, we end up trading her sunglasses for my internet cards; bartering, I will soon learn, is standard practice in Santiago.
Time to check in at my new home for the week: a 1950s style two-floor casa particular called Casa Marmol, sourced through Airbnb. My room is clean, simple, and frosty with air conditioning. I unpack and gather my various digital media devices to catch the rehearsal of an artist called Gifted and Blessed at Iris Jazz Café that Natalia mentioned to me earlier. Shuttling around the city in taxis can get expensive, so, for a fraction of the price, I hail another moto-taxi and pull out my camera to record the experience in 360 degrees:
Iris Jazz Club is empty, save for the barman at the front. I ask if this is the right place and the barman says yes, just that nobody has arrived yet ; we’re on Cuban time. I can’t resist ordering a mojito while I wait, setting up my recording gear in the performance hall, which is dimly lit with dark wood panelling and a psychedelic mural of strange-looking horns blowing out a whirlwind of multi-coloured geometric shapes. There’s a photo-wall of famous jazz musicians, many of whom have graced this very theatre. Onstage there’s a piano, a drum set, some congas and a set of batá drums.
Gabriel Reyes-Whittaker, aka the musician Gifted and Blessed, in from Los Angeles, shows up with a backpack full of gear including an Elektron Octatrack drum machine/sampler and an Analog Four synthesizer/sequencer, donated to the Manana Festival by the Swedish electronic musical instrument company Elektron to foster collaborations exactly like the one whose genesis I’m about to witness:
Gabe and his two Cuban collaborators jam for about an hour so, in what appears to be a somewhat unfocused, but still compelling, mixture of sequenced electronic drums, jazzy, modal Bossa-flavoured chord progressions by GB via the Elektron, piano solos, live break-beats and Latin-jazz fusion beats on drum set and percussion. Though I’m thoroughly enjoying the music and mojitos, I’ve been here for hours and have got to move on and see what else Santiago has to offer this evening.
In the main lobby, I check to see if I can pick up the Wi-Fi signal from Plaza Martes across the street. Another tall white Yuma (Cuban for “gringo”), also on the hunt for Wi-Fi, sits nearby and we get to chatting about music and our hometowns. He’s Aaron Liddard, from London, and his friends in the group called Ariwo have invited him here; a musician, like myself, but not playing at the festival, or at least not officially. We talk over a couple of beers, until interrupted by what sounds like a large percussion ensemble playing outside in the plaza. We step out to see what’s happening in the square and come across a comparsa called Tambores De Bonne. They are not performing at Manana, but the music is typical of the type of Santiaguero folk ensembles that are gracing the schedule.
“Comparsas are large ensembles of musicians, singers and dancers with a specific costume and choreography which perform in the street carnivals of Santiago de Cuba and Havana. Congas santiagueras include the corneta china (Chinese cornet), which is an adaptation of the Cantonese suona introduced in Oriente in 1915, and its percussion section comprises bocúes (similar to African ashiko drums), the quinto (highest pitched conga drum), galletas and the pilón, as well as brakes which are struck with metal sticks)” — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conga_(music)
Aaron and I eventually part ways, and after about four blocks walking along Calle Enramadas (Street of Tabernacles), the main commercial promenade stretching from one end of downtown Santiago to the other, I manage to get hooked into one of Cuba’s most common tourism schemes: the impromptu tour guide posing as your new best friend.
Two wiry black men with ruddy but friendly faces approach me asking if I like live music.
“Sure,” I say, a little suspicious, but interested given that this is the entire purpose of my visit here. “Why?”
One of the guys, who claims to be a dance teacher, tells me that close by a great music ensemble is playing Son Rumbero. I decide to roll with the guys to the bar. It’s early evening on a well-lit street with plenty of people everywhere. I feel like these guys will probably end up asking me for money at some point, but for now, I’m just killing time.
They must sense my American caution, though. To reassure me, the more talkative one pulls out his Cuban national ID (carnet) to show that he is, in fact, a registered, government-approved dance teacher. Then his friend pulls out his own carnet proving that he, too, is a registered teacher: of boxing.
The bar is, of course, a total tourist trap, with a mediocre band. I’m hungry, and the guys tell me about another place, a nice restaurant with live music too. I’m a little sceptical of their tour guiding skills at this point, but we head over, and I buy the guys a couple of beers for their services. We talk about life in Santiago and the music scene here compared to that of Havana, while a young woman and old man playing a guitar perform old Cuban boleros.
The dancer and the boxer tell me how hard it is to make a living as a salsa instructor and as a boxing coach who, though a former pro, has suffered too many concussions.
I notice the dance teacher wears a green and yellow beaded necklace and bracelet, for the orisha Orúnmila, syncretized with St. Francis of Assisi, for protection from death arriving at the wrong moment. The conversation shifts toward Santería, then to Fidel, about whom the dance teacher repeats a popular local rumour that the reason Fidel has lasted so long and survived so many assassination attempts, never losing his power over the island, is because he’s a secretly a babalawo, a priest of Ifá.
I’m fairly sure the rumour is apocryphal but who knows: it’s not like there’s a free press in Cuba to either confirm or deny the rumour and it’s probably worked to Fidel’s advantage to neither confirm or deny it.
As expected, when we head back to the Plaza Céspedes sometime around midnight so I can catch a moto-taxi home, the dancer and the boxer reveal their hustle by making their pitch to me for some cash.
No sob stories though. They tell me all they want is to be able to buy a bottle of rum to take to a party.
I respect their honest hustle and give them 5 CUC, thanking them for showing me around.
Chapter 1: The Yuma and the Guagua
- 29 June, 2016
Day 1: 1st May 2016
Cuba does not care if you are uncomfortable or in a hurry. Here, you learn to wait. I become aware of this detail of cubanidad almost upon arrival at Jose Martí International Airport in Havana where, after a slightly awkward exchange with a female airport security worker who tells me, “eres muy lindo” as I remove several articles of clothing for the baggage scanner, I spend half an hour searching for the currency exchange counter.
The three different people I ask for help give me three contradicting sets of directions, making me question my Spanish, which I’ve always believed to be fluent. At the Cadeca, four women in brown uniform shirts count stacks of cash, by hand, blanketing their desks with bills. After thirty minutes of waiting for them to finish and open for business, I take a seat on the airport floor below the counter and doze off, tired from a long night preparing for this trip, and the 4am flight check-in time. Another ninety minutes passes before one of the women shakes me awake, and I see a fat queue of impatient foreigners has formed behind me. I change some Euros I got in Miami to the Cuban convertible peso, aka the CUC, and get on my way.
From the airport, I take a taxi to the El Cobre train station, hoping to catch the six o’clock train to Santiago de Cuba, on the other side of the island, where the Manana Festival will begin in three days. When I ask the security officers at the station where I can buy a ticket they stare at me like I’m asking for the nearest bullet train.
“You can’t get a ticket because the ticket office for foreigners is closed,” one officer tells me.
“When will it open?” I ask.
It’s Sunday morning.
“Can’t I just buy a ticket to get on the train?”
“Because it doesn’t work that way here in Cuba. You have to have a Cuban National ID to get on the train right now.”
“I need to get to Santiago, so is there any way I can get on this train?”
“You’re not getting it. You can’t. It’s not going to happen today. You have to wait until Tuesday. Try the Vía Azul buses.”
Ok then; Santiago by bus it is. After going through another fruitless and frustrating exchange with the ticketing agents at the nearby bus station, I find out I have to go to yet another bus station specifically for foreigners, only to find that the only bus to Santiago that day has already left. Next option: a guagua. Cuban guaguas are essentially heavy-duty trucks of widely varying quality and construction, retrofitted with metal cabins and bench seats or old, used bus seats. They are not very comfortable but they are considerably cheaper than any other form of long-distance ground transportation making it a popular choice for Cubans.
Cubanos en La Guagua
The price for a fifteen-hour ride to Santiago: 12 CUC, or about 12 US dollars. I console myself with the idea that I’m getting an ‘authentic’ perspective of the trip between Havana and Santiago, travelling as ‘real Cubans’ do, and find a seat on the front bench of the bus facing the guagua (full of passengers staring back at me) the uncomfortable Yuma who only just now realises this is going to be a very tedious, ass-jarring, day-long ride over Cuba’s poorly-maintained highways. Various items rain down from storage shelves above us, secured with dry-rotted rubber bungee cords that threaten an avalanche of makeshift cardboard luggage and bags of rotting potatoes and onions. The guagua breaks down three times on the road to Santiago, nearly catching fire from a loose battery cable, and has to be push-started on the side of the highway twice. Not one passenger seems surprised in the least.
We make a late-afternoon stop in a dusty little village restaurant called Paladar María (Paladars are privately-owned restaurants) where I find temporary relief in a cold Cerveza Cristal and some chicken with beans and rice.
The guagua jangles along for another 8 hours before I arrive in Santiago at 2:30 in the morning, deposited on a deserted street, unsure of my exact location, without the help of mobile service or Google to help me find my way to my destination.
I flag the nearest motorcycle taxi I can find, ask him to take me to the Plaza Céspedes, climb into his sidecar and rumble off into the dark early-morning heart of the most humid and petroleum-scented city I’ve ever seen.
Members of the late-night staff at Hotel Casa Granda, near the Teatro Herédia, where the Manana Festival is set take place, graciously help me find a room in a local casa particular to spend what’s left of the night. I’m welcomed with a private bathroom, fresh towels, air conditioning and a Chihuahua named Beatriz. I shower off the day’s sweaty travel grime, drop onto my single bed covered with peach-coloured sheets and slip into an easy asleep.
Welcome to Cuba.