When one imagines Cuba, there is a standard picture that comes to most people’s mind. The picture is one of a bright coloured vintage car, possibly from the 1930s, gleaming in the sunlight, set against a heritage building with colonial architecture, partly falling apart. Look a little harder and you’ll find faded walls not too far away, carrying revolution inspired wall paintings. This was exactly how we had imagined Cuba and Cuba surely did not fail our imagination. Enhance that picture with sounds and rhythms, the music and dance, something that every Cuban is born with and you have yourself an experience that goes way above the clichéd cigar routes.
We had decided to spend two weeks in Cuba and we hadn’t really put a day-by-day itinerary in place. Not like we went to a travel agent who said ‘got the perfect deals for you‘. Thought we had read through tons of travel tips, all about the Cuban way of life, the one that I clearly loved was to be guided by salsa & son, rumba & ron (ron is the Spanish word for rum). As we got into one of the old American cars, which operated as taxis, I couldn’t help but notice that the seats creaked and the doors rattled in perfect harmony, intercepted by the occasional honking. So, the task of going out there searching for music wasn’t really an issue in Cuba. It was alive in every aspect of Cuban life.
Within the first few days of traveling, we landed up meeting our travel companions Ernesto & Raquel, from Argentina and Spain, thanks to Cuban music. We walked into a small café in Trinidad, attracted like a magnet to the musician strumming on the guitar, only to share a table with these two travelers and not surprisingly the rest of our journey. We had partners in crime, Spanish translators cum Mojito marathoners.
Known for having more musicians per capita than most other countries in the world, you can’t help but notice the musical undertones the minute you walk into any of the small bars in Habana Vieja. They may run out of food, but never out of live music or rum. A bar without a set of congo drums or the tres (a 6 string guitar) is non-existent. With its cultural origins in Europe & Africa, Cuban music is the marriage between the African drums and the Spanish guitar.
For a musical introduction, you have to first listen to son. Son is to Cuba, what tango is to Argentina or samba to Brazil. Son gave birth to Salsa, though the origins of Salsa have been much debated in the world. A really popular salsa artist Tito Puentes once said, ‘the only salsa I know is sold in a bottle as ketchup, I play Cuban music’. So, this was my first learning. Salsa was just a coined term for Cuban music, and one that North America successfully marketed in the 1970s to the rest of the world, in the post revolution time when many Cuban musicians were exiled in the United States. The controversy continues around the world, but one is truly oblivious to this as you are pulled into the dance floor by the smooth and natural Cuban dancers, who make every traveler feel like he has two left feet.
The first few days in Havana, we visited La Bodeguita Del Medio, an extremely popular bar, as it was Ernest Hemingway’s favourite place to order Mojitos and El Floridita, the bar where Daiquiri was invented. “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita” can still be read on the wall today, in Hemingway’s handwriting. Within a few minutes, one can easily figure out that these bars are a part of the tourist trail, as one more Buena Vista Social Club cover band takes the stage. The setting is not complete without a bus full of tourists walking into El Floridita, ordering the expensive Daiquiri and clicking pictures of the bronze statue of Hemingway leaning against the bar counter, the flash reflecting against the bottles of Havana Club rum in the background.
Rumba, Mambo Chachacha, Trova, Neuvo Trova, the list is never ending. I realized soon enough that I wasn’t going to be able to differentiate every genre of Cuban music, unless I actually went for some organized classes. I couldn’t play the guitar or sing in Spanish, so I decided on percussion. You have to begin somewhere. In Trinidad, I eagerly enrolled for drumming lessons. My teacher Guillermo was a natural, like every other Cuban. As I sat in the backyard of a house, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the basic setting – a few stools, sets of drums, mud walls and nothing to think about except the music lesson. Guillermo thought me the basic beats and made me practice till my fingers were blue. As he sipped a Mojito, he told me that he was actually a mathematics teacher turned percussion instructor. End of the day, music is like mathematics and follows a pattern. Well, I don’t blame him for switching. You clearly don’t have beautiful women dancing to algebra equations.
Sitting in Casa de la Trova, one of the most popular live music venues in Trinidad, I couldn’t take my mind of mathematics. There are hundreds of permutations and combinations in Cuba. Which bar do I go to? Which drink do I order? What kind of music are they playing? Which guy is going to ask me to dance? Well, the beauty of it is that you can actually pick and choose what you want and you still have a winning combination. It’s the simple Cuban cocktail of life.