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Trip to Cuba

By rita@salsacrazy.com

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I just returned  from a memorable trip to Cuba, home of salsa, cha-cha, danzon and now the rocking sounds of timba music.  My trip was organized by Caribbean Dance and Music Programs and focused on the popular music and dance forms of Cuba. 

 I strongly encourage people to go on this trip if they want to experience, first hand the vibrant, creativity, energy and soulfulness of Latin jazz , rueda and salsa.  A number of Bay Area and Southern California musicians (particularly percussionists) have taken this tour 2-3 times to sharpen and broaden their mastery of the complex, rhythmic patterns that are the foundation of the unique sound of Cuban music.

 

THE CITY AND NIGHTLIFE

Havana is a mysterious and seductive city, filled with surprises and contradictions.   There are beautiful hotels, decaying colonial buildings, hot jazz and salsa clubs and people just scratching out a living on $10.00 a month.   The city is like an aging drag queen that thinks she is still 25 years old.   Her façade shows lots of wear and tear but her insides are youthful and passionate.  There are “son” bands (smaller versions of the bands in “Buena Vista Social Club”) playing on street corners all over old Havana and young hip hop groups are playing  in the discos.  The salsa clubs can range from total dives like the Rio Club to moderately sized, well appointed clubs like Café Cantate.  Wherever you go, the music will be great whether you see established acts like Isaac Delgado or the new timba bands that are only known in Cuba.  Our group also had a private performance place called “The Piano Bar” which was free for participants and showcased great bands, folkloric dance troupes and outdoor dance parties.

 For best food, you must go to the privately owned and operated paladores.  For $10-$15 you can have a huge lobster tail, vegetables, rice and beans and dessert.  But the real challenge is finding these places since there are no advertisements or signs.   Plan to eat at 10 PM, hit the clubs at 12:30 AM and stay out as long as you dare.

THE PROGRAM.

 I participated in the two week dance program which should have been titled “Cuban Dance Boot Camp”.  Our instructors, Nichito and Yaseli, are  featured dancers with the Cuban Haitiano folkloric dance group Banrara.  They  were charming, supportive and energetic.  Let me underscore  ENERGETIC.    Those guys were real slave drivers.  We danced 3-5 hours per day to fast, loud , high energy timba music.  I’m in pretty good shape but I really got a good work out with them.   We spent a few hours learning old Cuban dance forms such as cha cha cha, mambo and son.  But most of the time we focused on casino (Cuban style salsa), Salsa Suelta (freestyle open footwork) and Rueda (sometimes described as salsa square dancing).  The classes were held at the National School of Art, (ENA), Cuba’s premier school for the performing arts.  Many of the young men and women (ranging from 16-22 years old) in our classes will go on to perform internationally in  ballet companies, modern dance troupes, folkloric groups and cabarets.  The dedication and talent of these young people reminded me of kids you might see at the performing arts high school in N.Y. or any other dance conservatory in the world.   Every morning we would ride to ENA in a rickety school bus,  with the radio blasting the latest timba music.  As we approached the school, we saw dancers stretching, chatting and improvising salsa, rhumba or  hip-hop moves.  You could hear congas, claves , traces of jazz pianos, classical violin—a kalidescope of sound, movement, color.   What a great way to start the day.

THE PEOPLE

When I travel,  the people I meet are the most memorable and enjoyable part of the adventure.  In general, I found the Cubans were extremely friendly and cordial.   They did not laugh or make us feel silly while  we butchered their language trying  to communicate through a combination of broken Spanish and hand gestures.  My Spanish improved dramatically while I was there but I could only manage to construct relatively coherent sentences made of no more than four words.  You’d be surprised how much information you can convey in four words when you have to.  Phrases like “Where is the bathroom?” and “What is the price?” became quite crucial.  People were also always available to give us directions, get taxis and contacting other people who was more fluent in English.  Since there were so many men associated with our program, I did not get as much time to interact socially with Cuban women as I would have liked.  I would love to have gotten their perspective on living and flourishing in such a male dominated society.  The ENA students were so incredibly optimistic, energetic and devoted to their art that you wanted to take them back home. 

Though Havana has a vibrant nightlife and is known for it’s party atmosphere, I sensed  that family, tradition and spirituality are still central to the everyday life of many Cubans.  There was also real commitment to preserving  Afro-Cuban and Afro-Haitian history and culture.

The U.S. participants on this trip were a fun loving, warm and affectionate group.  They included full-time and part-time musicians, dance teachers, doctors, nurses and lawyers who were all passionate about Cuban music and dance.  Some people came from communities with no salsa clubs and others came from places like New York and the Bay Area with thriving Latin music scenes.   By the end, we all felt that we had been part of a raucous, joyous experience that would be difficult to duplicate.   We spent many happy afternoons and evening at the Hotel Palco pool dancing salsa, rueda and even N.Y. style mambo.  On the last day, members of our group could be seen dancing, singing and drinking rum at airports in L.A., Chicago and Houston as we reluctantly re-entered our quieter stateside lives. 

In closing, I suggest that you save your pennies and start planning for your adventures in Cuba.  You won’t be sorry.

Rita

If you liked this article, you should check out my site www.salsaroots.com.  There's tons of information on the history of Salsa with a special focus on Cuba and Puerto Rico.

For more information about future trips to Cuba, contact Alise at (510)848-0911  and look at her website www.plazacuba.com

If you want to go to Cuba with Ramon and experience his  dance workshops, log on  to Baile En Cuba for more details.

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