Opening Statement



Thursday, 7 November 2013

Santiago de Cuba Diary 4: Music + Dance



Last night we made our way through the old French quarter to the Casa de Tradicines, a traditional Cuban house of music club, one of 3 or so run by Caribe. Though the streets were dark, with few streetlights, everybody was out sitting on their steps. Half naked children ran around in the streets seemingly unsupervised. I wouldn’t rule out an unsuspecting tourist getting robbed, though I never have, but everybody looks out for each other here, especially the children. Even in a city this size neighbours know each other well enough that if something goes wrong, well folks know where to look, who is probably the culprit and community justice will be done, with the help of the police. Problem settled. Cuba remains a remarkably safe place to visit in the Caribbean, safer I would say than the US, even Canada.

Of course it was a poor neighbourhood, but in Cuba everybody is guaranteed a roof over their head, food rations, a free education through university, and universal health care. You won’t see many if any wealthy Cubans but you won’t see the terrible ravages of poverty like elsewhere in the Americas.


En la noche!
The club was located in a small hole in the wall. It was but a series of second floor rooms in a crumbling stone shell of a building. It was built in an old French style, when the Spanish colonial city was conquered by the French. Since then the British, the Spanish again, later the Americans, the Russians and everybody under the sun it sometimes seems has come through creating a total backwash of architecture, culture and customs from the last 500 years of history in the America. Indeed Santiago was one of the first 7 Spanish colonial ports in the Americas built after Cuba was "discovered" by Christopher Columbus.

The club walls were lined with old musical and dated anti American propaganda posters, a large painting of Jose Marti and Sainto Santiago. Chairs + upturned wooden boxes, crates, a few stools were arranged around the room, with the band against the wall playing congas, tram bones, a tres guitar, a stand up bass guitar and two lead singers alternating vocals while the rest of the grupo chanted the back up vocals. We heard sones, boleros, guarachas, well every local Cuban music style one could imagine, sometimes bearing an influence of the popular new sounds for an evenings entertainment of song and dance.

The small tight floor space in front of the band was packed with crazy dancers doing some very wild but perfectly orchestrated Cuban moves. A huge robust black woman jumped up to do the lambada in front of the band, shaking her big butts and breasts to the music in a mad delirium, not a Cuban style but great fun anyway. The spirit certainly moved her. Everybody else too. It was incredibly sweltering hot, the packed room, the music and dance. The sweat making my sopping wet shirt cling to my chest. It mattered not. It was an exciting night of music and dance in a little backroom room time had truly forgot.

This morning Maryanne and I had breakfast and were by the pool at 10am. We grabbed a few umbrellas and pool chairs. Professors Jose Luis and Marta arrived to join us. We swam, lay in the sun and engaged in idle but lively chatter. Later we cooled down again in the pool, just our heads sticking out of the water as we talked a little business in the shadow of the Melia Santiago hotel.

The hotel is a postmodern inspiration, circa 2000, some body’s idea of being whimsical + daring. Quite frankly it sticks out like a sore thumb in this old city. Inside though, it is not without its charms. Repairs continued. Workers are repolishing the marble floors. Many of the huge stairwell windows are still missing, leaving huge gaping holes in the flat uninterrupted skyward lines of the towering structure. A rather odd post hurricane, post twentieth century twist that now makes the Melia fit in better now in this cityscape of old colonial ruins.

Melia Santiago Hotel

After a light poolside lunch we retired inside to the air-conditioned lobby and sat on the coaches with the computers, working out some kinks, problem solving and the like. Jose presented me with a four-year plan to develop "Ingles Para Ti", and we discussed the software they would need to create it. I don’t mean to overstate the size or the scope of the Cuban School Project. It is very grassroots, local and community based, I suppose like much of my work over the years with the union or in setting up my programs at school before I retired. The workbook is popular here, and getting good use. My philosophy is that it's best to just try help out wherever you are rather than try to save the whole world from itself. Santiago is where I have been coming for over 20 years now, a few dozen times at least.


Late afternoon we made out way back to the city centre by taxi to see a traditional rumba show performed on Heredia Street near the Cathedral and the Casa de Trova. The drums were set up against the inner courtyard wall of a very old nunnery from before the revolution. It has now been turned into a cultural centre, the "Museo del Canival Santiago de Cuba" like the Caribe house last night, this one dedicated to preserving the traditional Afro Cuban version of the rumba, not the fancy modern stylized ones you see on t.v.


 The rumba drummers accompanied the dancers dressed in traditional slave costumes, African ceremonial garb and Colonial Spanish style swirling dresses and the like. They beat out a ferocious storm as the dances increased in tempo; hot, sweaty, the mad mad beat rising and falling again and again. Different facets of the rumba were presented in each segment with audience participation for over the hour or so length of the performance. Very transporting. Pure magic.

The rumba in Cuba is not unlike that in Columbia with a yambo influence, a fabulous union of Spanish and African culture. It's a mainstay yearly in the long rumba lines that wind up and down the foot hill streets of Santiago de Cuba 24/7 each July 26th holiday week, when the drums can be heard joining in the tattoo everywhere, across the rooftops, in the streets, the doorways, the indoor and outdoor fiestas, the whole city moving, swaying, and joining with the hypnotic beat, moving in time under the blazing hot summer sun.


As the rumba lines make their way through the city everyone joins in, sometimes for very long timeless stretches, the action rising, falling in a wild orgasm of song and dance unlike anything we ever experience in the more staid anglocized cities up our way. Not to be missed! Beware of the pick pockets bringing up the rear though.Today was not carnival time but it was very trance like all the same, the dancers acting out their folklore traditions and roles in African Spanish ceremonial dress. All of us joining in the rumba line circling the courtyard towards the end. Finally a lone figure walked out a doorway playing a tinny clarinet in a long soulful solo echoing through the timeless ages, a final breathful gasp in the ceremony extraordinaire.

We arrived back to the Melia by cab at dusk. We relaxed in our air-conditioned rooms before supper. I've set aside some time for the computer internet while I update my blog, post this diary and check for some software solutions and Spanish Ipad guide books on line, if its not too slow again tonight.

Here I am teaching the Cubans a music lesson! Not! ;-}
PS: The internet is maddening here. I will have to return later to fix up these posts.

PPS: Now that I am back in Canada I will update the names of the music, dance and locations.

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