Milillian Galis is widely considered to be a living master of the batá drums and, some years ago, he had throat cancer. Now he speaks through an electrolarynx, which is literally a voice synthesizer. These devices never really sound very pleasing to the ears, and it’s always a bit strange to see someone hold a machine up to a hole in their neck in order to speak, but he is perfectly comfortable with it, as if master drummers just naturally start to sound like robots when they get old.
He claims to have been the first person to bring the batá drums from the Havana / Matanzas area to Santiago in 1952. The batá have their origin in Yoruba (Nigeria) and, for most of Cuba’s post-colonial history, were only found in the western part of the island, which is where the vast majority of Yoruban slaves were brought.
“The drum dates back roughly 500 years, and is believed to have been introduced by a Yoruba king named Shangó, ‘el rey del tambor’. Despite the previous long history, awareness of the instrument didn’t spread until the 1800s slave-trade in which close to 300,000 Africans were brought to Cuba. The religion and beliefs the Yorùbá brought with them eventually became the basis for what is known as Lukumí (or Santería in Cuba). This religion spawned the creation of the first “sacred” Batá in Cuba around 1830 by a Yorùbá named Añabi. The Batá slowly became inducted into the Cuban culture after a time, and began to take on more secular uses: they were first publicly performed in 1935 in a broadcast over Cuban radio for purposes of folklore music. Uses such as this have grown as knowledge of the instrument has spread; more and more musicians not currently practising Lukumí have used versions of the drums in recordings or performances. These “non-sacred” Batá drums are called aberínkula — profane Batá. Batá drums and rhythms have started to be used in other genres, most notably in Cuban timba, jazz and hip hop. In the 1970s, for instance, a mixture of Batá drums and Big Band called Son-Batá or Batá Rock became popular, a genre highly influenced by Irakere.” — en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batá_drum
These drums can now be found in many types of Latin fusion music, from Irakere in the 1970s to the currently popular French/Cuban electronic R&B duo, Ibeyi, to Galis himself playing the large batá (iyá) drum onstage with Pouya from Ariwo.
Galis is the batá drum teacher of Harry Follett, the co-director the MANANA Festival. While Follett is not himself a practitioner of Santería, he has been initiated as a drummer by Galis with a ceremonial washing of the hands, a ritual signifying that the student may continue to learn the rhythms of the batá.
When I discover this in an interview with Follett, it occurs to me that these drums could be seen as a kind of musical mascot for the MANANA festival. The batá, for me at least, seem to imbue the entire festival with a sense of Afro-Cuban ritual music history. There is a musical weight and intentionality at MANANA I’ve very rarely seen in other music festivals, electronic or otherwise, and these drums seem to add to it.
Follett and Alain manage to pull off this balance of secular and sacred musical sensibilities in a way that conveys the history of this essentially ritualistic music without MANANA purporting to be a spiritual or religious musical event. I imagine there are more than a few MANANA festival goers who — like an increasing number of people these days (myself included) — don’t care to put labels on their relationship with the creative energies in the universe. Much like some atheists or agnostics who are perfectly fine being awestruck by the beauty and mystery the universe without needing to assign it some kind of deist conceptual framework, the music projects created at MANANA, depending on the proclivities of any given listener, are equally powerful as either deeply spiritual music experiences, or simply a great experiment in combining live folkloric and electronic musical styles.
It was Galis, says Harry, who encouraged Alain and him towards the idea of combining Afro-Cuban batá rhythms with electronic music to make MANANA Festival into an intercultural exchange project and festival rather than just an Afro-Cuban music meets electronic music album project.
When the time comes for Galis to perform on Friday afternoon, Harry goes around to everyone he can find in the Teatro Heredia’s main gathering area try to get them into the main theatre. This is a key performance of the festival where his master drum teacher will be performing with Pouya and I’ve not seen him get so personally involved with any one show so far.
When the trio hits the stage, I’m pleasantly surprised to see that the trio includes a female batá player. This was the first time I’ve seen this in a traditional Cuban instrumental trio and the fact that it’s with a player of Galis’ stature and standing in the community makes it all the more fascinating. The batá drums, and percussion in general, are not often played by women in Cuba. That is changing and this drum taboo seems to only now extend to fundamento (sacred) batá drums. But perhaps the tide of the traditionally male-dominated Afro-Cuban music and religious culture is changing alongside the diplomatic shifts in Cuban relations with the USA. The Iyá (“Mother”) batá drum is, after all, a female drum dedicated to Yemaya, the Orisha of the ocean, so it seems appropriate that a woman could play it in any context.
Galís is wearing a white beret and a colourful, patterned red and black shirt. His face is leathery with that taught-skinned, slightly caved-in look that skinny old men sometimes get with age. He has twinkly eyes, energetic and joyful even after years of hard-earned musical experience. As he opens the performance playing the largest of the three baatá, the iyá, he is intensely focused, eyes looking upward, mouthing the rhythms that have been imprinted into his memory for the last half century.
The instrumentation is simple but the music is rhythmically quite complicated. There are no obvious song forms, no build-ups and no drops, only continuous polyrhythmic repetition with gradual, subtle variations over time and occasional spontaneous outbursts of accentuated notes on the larger drum head. For nearly 10 minutes, Pouya looks on at the performance from his onstage mixing desk and one begins to wonder what exactly he is doing to collaborate with this trio other than simply amplifying their microphones. Then, slowly, he begins to bring up the gain on an effect that sounds like a ring modulator on the mic signals of the drums (a ring modulator outputs the sum and difference of the frequencies from two input signals).
“Pouya’s live processing pushed the sonic boundaries of Gali’s ancient Yoruba batá rhythms, exploring their tonal possibilities, and shaping the pinpoint accuracy and energy of the percussion. The result was a truly special exchange of musical craft and culture that both challenged and pulled audiences together at MANANA.” — Manana Festival website
It is the last night of the festival and I have a decision to make. My bus for Havana is supposed to leave at 12:30 am. Ariwo’s performance — the last one of the festival — is scheduled for midnight. There was no way I can do both. There is another bus at 6:30 am, but no guaranteed seats on it. All the flights are sold out. My friends who are driving back to Havana have a totally full car. After consulting with them and weighing the options, I make my decision. This show is, in many ways, a summation of what MANANA is all about and to miss it would be to miss out on the grand finale. I decide to stay.
I sit in my seat in the middle of the theatre. The performance starts off with a cinematic blast of low end, saw-wave-driven bass synth in A-flat, run through heavy distortion and delay. Imagine the sonification of the Big Bang. A man standing stage left, dressed in white, begins to call out the names of the Yoruban orishas, with his voice running through a delay effect as well. An invocation for the spirits to enter the room perhaps.
After a few minutes trumpeter Yelfris Valdes enters the mix with a slow, two-note modulation between A-Flat and E-Flat, reminiscent of the opening notes of Richard Strauss’ epic tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathrustra”, as immortalized on film in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Valdes then introduces some pentatonic improvisational soloing, starting the set off on a distinctly middle-eastern melodic path from Cuba back over the Atlantic, across North Africa and into Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Iran. The rhythms, however, remain firmly planted in Afro-Cuba.
Percussionists Oreste Noda (congas) and Hammadi Rencurrell Valdes (batá, timbales, mallet percussion) are only playing ambient flourishes at this point but the effect is palpable. The musical mood is like simultaneously watching the cold pre-birth and heat death of the universe.
Slowly, out of the earth-shattering blastwaves of synth, an undulating bassline appears and Hammadi begins to play the batá. Then a 4/4 electronic bass drum emerges from the low frequency oscillations. The percussionists pick up on a house beat and start playing with more force and accentuation. Yelfris comes in and out of the mix, letting the drums resonate and excite the air in the theatre. His trumpet punctuates the air in that lonely way that only a trumpet can. Think Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis playing Afro-Cuban space house.
As the music progresses it becomes clear that this will not be a concert of 3–4 minute songs with any discernible pop, jazz or classical music-based structure. Rather these are improvisational pieces meant to evoke a mood by repetition of rhythm and melodic improvisation.
As the music progresses into a more steady 4/4 rhythm the audience goes from sitting still and cross-armed in their seats to bobbing their heads a bit to the music. After about 20 minutes or so people begin to get up out of their chairs and actually start dancing in the aisles. About halfway through the performance, Oreste Noda’s son Franco, an accomplished student of dance at Havana’s premier dance school, comes onto the stage dressed all in black to do an interpretive, improvisational dance to one of the songs.
The stage lighting is minimal but effective, white spotlights illuminate the band, and moving lights and strobes punctuate an otherwise dark theatre. Flashes of purple and yellow and red flicker over the faces of band and audience members.
I remained in my chair the entire time. While I love dancing, this was music that, for me, inspired serious and deep introspection. It made me think about the journey of music across continents and how the sound waves being produced in that room were the cumulative result of hundreds of years of musical evolution now echoing into space.
I start the day by getting up late and eat more government breakfast at Casa Marmol. I had made plans with Aaron the previous night to go to the nearby Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, but it looks like rain and I’m not much for soggy tourist activity. So I head into town to work on music and video editing until the MANANA shows start again in the afternoon.
Another Cuban musician I keep running into throughout the week was a skinny percussionist with a moustache and deep brown eyes that seemed to communicate a lifetime of devoted music practice. His name is Irán Farías-Saínz (aka El Menor). In addition to working as a full-time drummer and percussionist, he is also part of the Havana-based Guámpara Productions music collective formed by Isnay Rodriguez (aka DJ Jigüe) with whom he’s collaborated in the past, and performed several times throughout the festival. Irán and I had been talking at the Casa Micaela show about playing drums and percussion with electronic music. Towards the end of the day I get him to sit down and talk about his experience with both the festival and his life as a working musician in Havana. His wisdom and perspective on how every experience can have a musical quality to it gives me deep pause about my own thinking on musical inspiration.
(NB: The interview is entirely in Spanish because translating and subtitling interview videos takes a LONG time, so apologies to the non-Spanish speakers.)
I also manage to book an interview with Iran’s frequent collaborator, DJ Jigüe. In his opinion, one of the standout concerts of the festival wasn’t even officially on the schedule. It was the pre-fiesta that took place on Tuesday night at Casa Micaela, which ended up being a kind of mini-MANANA festival that took place on one small stage all over the course of one night. DJ Jigüe, Yasek De Manzano, Wichy De Vedado, Golpe Seko, El Menor, and US-Based DJs Uproot Andy and Nickodemus were throwing down all manner of hip hop, global bass, MPC’d drum ‘n’ bass, jazz and Afro-Cuban beats. And it all worked. This show embodied exactly the type of self-starting, cross-cultural collaboration that the founders had envisioned would emerge from MANANA.
After Jigüe and Iran’s hybrid performance, I was ready for some more old school acoustic music. Diogenes Y Su Changüi were playing in the main theatre space. Silvio had been telling me about the origins of changüi the previous night and I was eager to check out one of the only acts on the bill playing this style of eastern Cuban music.
“ Changüí is a style of Cuban music which originated in the early 19th century in the eastern region of Guantánamo Province, specifically Baracoa. It arose in the sugar cane refineries and in the rural communities populated by slaves. Changüí combines the structure and elements of Spain’s canción and the Spanish guitar with African rhythms and percussion instruments of Bantu origin. Changüí is considered a predecessor of son montuno (the ancestor of modern salsa), which has enjoyed tremendous popularity in Cuba throughout the 20th century.” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Changüí)
One can hear the direct influence of Changüi on the hugely popular Buena Vista Social Club records from the 1990s.
Later that evening I experienced what was was easily the most audience-engaging show of the whole festival in the form a collaboration with Aché Meyi with London-based Producer/Musician/DJ brothers Henry and Oliver Keen, aka Sound Species. More than any other show I saw the entire time at MANANA, Aché Meyi and Sound Species showed the sweet spot between the realm of experimental electronic dance music and Afro-Cuban bembé.
This is about as compelling a performance as I’ve seen yet and it’s a good way to end the day so I walk home, in the rain, and realise how fortunate I am to be where I am right now.
Hoping to avoid a repeat of the guagua experience I’d had getting to Santiago, I head out first thing in the morning for the Cubana Airlines office on Enramadas to inquire about airline tickets back to Havana.
From a few blocks away I hear jangly street drums playing a kind of Cubanified hip hop shuffle beat, and follow the music until I find a guy playing percussion with whatever makeshift instrumentation he can find. He sings his heart out and, looking into his basket, he is clearly not making a lot of money doing it. I’ve seen plenty of more virtuosic street performances that this, but he plays and sings like his life depends on it, which it probably does.
I wonder: “When was the last time I played the drums with that kind of urgency?”
“When was the last time I played live and didn’t worry about being original or perfect and just went for it with no reservations, on an instrument that I had built myself no less?”
I realize I need to up my musical hustle. Badly.
Do what you love and do it with passion.
This guy right here is the embodiment of MANANA:
La Lucha es Real
I continue on to the Cubana Airlines office. After waiting for close to an hour for assistance, I finally meet with a kind, older gentleman who consults a 20 year-old monochrome computer terminal and eventually informs me that there are no available flights for the next four days. I have no choice but to take another bus back to Havana.
I make my way to Plaza Céspedes, a few blocks over, my de facto outdoor office and WiFi hub, to try to book a ticket on the Vía Azul bus lines for Friday night. There are still a few seats available on the midnight bus, which will get me back to the capital in about 14 hours. Not ideal, but it’s a big step up from the butt-bruising guagua that brought me to Santiago.
I’m working on recording a 360 degree video of the city’s main avenue, Enramadas, when I run into a guy I met a few days ago at the Tambores de Bonne show in Plaza Martes with Aaron. His name is Eider Bouly Hernandez and he’s a reggaeton singer who came to MANANA hoping to connect with some music producers and record a track while here.
I’ve never heard his music before and reggaeton is not really my production forté, but I’ve got some time before the first MANANA show of the day and since I’m carrying recording gear, we decide to give it a shot; Eirder and I head to my casa particular and set up a makeshift studio in my room where I record his vocals on a Zoom Q3HD, feed them into Ableton Live running a simple reggaeton drum loop that Eider can hear in his headphones.
My laptop starts acting strangely and we have to cut the session short about thirty minutes in, but I feel like we’ve gotten the best take possible given the circumstances. Eider leaves and I walk over to Teatro Heredia to see the opening performances for Manana at the Pacho Alonso Stage (Pacho Alonso was a Cuban singer and bandleader from Santiago de Cuba who is attributed with creating the musical form pilón).
Since arriving in Santiago, there’s been a current of excitement and creativity rushing through the city, but when the first performances are underway at Pacho Alonso, I immediately understand that this festival has likely not been as heavily promoted within Cuba as it was in the U.S. and Europe. In the audience, I observe plenty of foreigners dressed in trendy clothing and armed with professional camera and audio equipment, but hardly any Cubans.
This is a bit of a disappointment given MANANA’s heavily publicized mission as an intercultural exchange project and the fairly even mix of Cubans vs. Euro/UK/US natives I’ve seen at rehearsals and side shows over the last two days. The fact is I’m just another camera-carrying white guy like the rest of the press pass-wielding culture vultures around here. I’m suddenly self-conscious and hide my press badge, using my iPhone to record instead of my DSLR in order to stick out as little as possible.
Fortunately, as afternoon turns into evening, the crowd starts to balance out with the arrival of more Cubans. An electric performance by Rumba Aché accompanied by an arresting, interpretive dance number helps heighten the tone of the event to one of engagement rather than mere removed observation of the musical performance.
Several people dressed in elaborate mythical creature costumes made out of found materials painted an iridescent black appear among the crowd, intended to be moving sculptures created by Alberto Lescay, the famed Cuban sculptor who designed the Plaza de La Revolución sculpture. These performers wander all around the festival ground for most of the three days, adding an element of dark surrealism that seems to find its way into both the music and the general tenor of the crowd.
I decide to redirect my focus to the inspiration behind the festival itself – rhythm and collaboration – rather than concentrate on the surface activity like most of the other press around here, as well as the Cuban artists playing here; specifically the ones who aren’t already music blog famous.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of nearly all the UK/Euro/US musical acts filling MANANA’s programming schedule, but even a quick glance around the Teatro Heredia’s three stage areas that day is enough to tell me there will be plenty of other larger media outlets to tell their story.
I want to go deeper to find the perspective of the artists at MANANA who live and work in the Cuban music industry and how they are making a life of music work for them and their families. I want to find out what it is that drives them, year in and year out, to push forward with making music a career in an economy that offers little compensation for being a professional artist unless you have that rare confluence of both creative virtuosity and socio-political diplomacy.
Silvio Echevarría is one such working musician and, in yet another fortuitous encounter, I manage to find him backstage in the main theater right before the next act is about to go on. As seems to be the norm here in Santiago, Silvio is a member of multiple bands and ensembles in the city and plays batá drums with the Ballet Folklórico Del Oriente. With just minutes to go before the curtain call, I convince him to let me put my 360-camera on a microphone stand in the middle of his group:
A bit later Silvio and his friend and band member from Ballet Folklórico Del Oriente, José Luis Guzman, and I all meet up to watch the Quantic show at the Pacho Alonso stage. The Cristal beer flows freely and we chat for hours into the night about working as a musician in Cuba, MANANA festival logistics, Afro-Cuban musical history and the various forms of Afro-Cuban religion found in Santiago. Perfect.
After chatting with Silvio and José for a few hours I serendipitously run into my friends Holmes and Claudia who are here from Mexico with two other friends. We watch Quantic bring his particular brand of Latin-flavored funk and soul to a great set of mid-tempo songs made from his collaborative efforts with local Santiaguero musicians in the studio the previous week. He is followed by the prodigiously talented live electronic jazz trio led by Havana-based DJ and electronic producer Wichy de Vedado — another electric performance that typifies the spirit of Manana: old-school Cuban jazz and rumba sounds mixed with live samplers and drum machines. I also run into my new friend Aaron Liddard again right before he jumps onstage with Wichy de Vedado for a guest saxophone solo, which he kills.
Afterwards we head inside to check out the Fania / Calentura party to finish out the night at Cafe Cantante. I’ve been rocking their recent compilation Calentura: Global Bass quite a bit in my DJ sets and have been looking forward to seeing this crew perform for a while. As we enter the nightclub / bar area of the theater, the vibes and music are all about the get down.
“Might music play a role in sexual selection? Darwin thought so. In The Descent of Man he wrote, ‘I conclude that musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex. Thus musical tones became firmly associated with some of the strongest passions an animal is capable of feeling, and are consequently used instinctively…’ In seeking mates, our innate drive is to find — either consciously or unconsciously — someone who is biologically and sexually fit, someone who will provide us with children who are likely to be healthy and able to attract mates of their own. Music may indicate biological and sexual fitness, serving to attract mates.”
Daniel Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music
If Darwin’s position on the role of music in sexual selection is correct, it certainly would help explain the completely different musical and social scenes found in the Café Cantante vs. the main auditorium of Teatro Heredia, where all the folkloric music of MANANA was being presented. The club vibes from Fania’s Calentura party are filled with sweat, sex and sidelong glances. This wasn’t just due to song selection and a big club sound system hitting the crowd’s pelvic region with waves of undulating bass; there were just a lot more scantily dressed women and men in the club with that hungry look in their eyes. And, while one doesn’t want to make any assumptions in this day and age, it became fairly clear as the night wore on that a number of them were professionals. It’s not like we don’t have prostitution back in Miami, but it’s all a bit more obvious here in Santiago. Sex is a physical currency and a lot of people are exchanging it for paper.
Despite a number of blatant solicitations from women, my friends and I still manage to have a great time dancing our asses off to some world-class global bass music courtesy of Canyon Cody, Jeremy Sole, Uproot Andy and Nickodemus. These guys are paving a bright future for Afro-Latin and folkloric bass and club music worldwide and it’s exciting to see them here in such a completely different context that the clubs and bars of LA, New York or Miami.
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?
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.
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.