Trip to Cuba
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
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.
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.
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.
Check out the Pictures from this trip!
For more information
about future trips to Cuba, contact Alise at (510)848-0911 and look at her
website www.plazacuba.com The Salsamania
tour scheduled for April 2001 is very similar to the program discussed in my
Also contact Ramon at (510)436-7427 for dance
workshops in Havana.
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