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The Music and Rhythm of the Cuban Spirit

Street musicians in Cuba
Street music in Trinidad, Cuba. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk from A Taste of Daily Life in Cuba’s Casas Particulares (Bed and Breakfasts).

The waves of the Atlantic Ocean cannot be contained by the walls of the serpentine boardwalk, known as the Malecon, where the northern edge of Havana meets the sea. The swells of the ocean burst into a mist of salty spray over the sidewalks and roadways. Despite the occasional shower of sea water, locals and visitors alike congregate here at all times of day to socialize and it has become the city’s largest hangout. The buildings that line this section of town have the architectural savvy of being majestic even while crumbling and deteriorating from decades of neglect. Contributing to this atmosphere of old-time elegance in Havana are ancient Cadillac and Chevrolet taxis, also in various stages of deterioration, that have paraded the streets of the Malecon since the 1950s.

Fidel Castro orchestrates mass rallies along the Malecon to inspire citizens to keep the faith in his Revolution, his exhaustive speeches give rise to the importance of words and ideas in Cuba. But it is also here, on a nightly basis, that another insurrection of words and ideas takes place through song and dance. Cubans are proud of their musical heritage and a festive atmosphere prevails every night along the Malecon. Many tourists in Cuba have been attracted by the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon which started in 1997 with the movie of the same name and gave son music an audience outside its own Cuban borders. On any given street corner, there is no shortage of rumours that the Buena Vista Social Club played at a bar down the road; the country’s musical history is often fuelled by fictional reports to keep it alive and intriguing to foreigners who want to connect to the people and culture through song.

I was sitting on the wall of the Malecon with an international group of newly-acquired friends, all of us students taking Spanish lessons at the University of Havana. The sun had sunk behind the watery horizon of the Atlantic and the stage was set for groups to gather, son music to be played, and salsa to be put on display . Amid the clinking of rum bottles and the din of battery-powered stereos, w e came across some different musicians, four Cuban music students with two acoustic guitars in their own personal form of revolution. They were simply hanging out, singing their music as they did every night. But this was not your typical Cuban music. With a Caribbean-Latino flair, they sang The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, The Eagles, Elvis Presley, and others. We joined in when we recognized the songs. We filled in English words they didn’t know between the strumming of the guitars.

One of the guitar players, named Giovanni, performed some renditions of rock songs in his own language – we deciphered the familiar melodies, even if the Spanish lyrics were beyond our understanding of the language. With long hair, Giovanni suited the part of rock musician and his look was as rebellious as the music itself. But his spirit was all Cuban. P roving that the gift of rhythm is an innate Cuban trait, Giovanni guided the women in our group in some elaborate salsa steps, advising the men to watch and learn, in order to take the lead later. We danced along the promenade, not caring about the absence of a dance floor, accompanied by the combination of rock and son music, proving that salsa was not limited to one type of music and that communication can be enacted through music and the kinetic rhythm of dance.

I came across Giovanni a few days later along the Malecon. We hadn’t seen each other since the first night he and his friends entertained us with their improvisational rock music, but he embraced me like a long-lost friend, the typical Cuban reaction to friendship at any level. Giovanni’s English and my Spanish were similarly below mediocre and we stumbled our way through conversation, but not quite so easily as our first meeting when song lyrics were our medium. I don’t know where he was coming from or where he was going, but through our disjointed discussion, he invited me to his apartment. Even if he had immediate plans, they were forgotten in order to be a friend to a foreigner for the next few hours. Learning the Cuban concept of time is a good lesson for anyone’s daily routine.

When I met Giovanni and his merry band of musicians, I was amazed at his talent for learning rock songs, even though this type of music was a rare occurrence in Cuba. There was no rock ‘n’ roll at Giovanni’s music school because it was considered unacceptable by the state, yet he was still capable of playing song after song on his guitar. This is the perseverance of the creative Cuban spirit, a commendable quality that shines through even while living in a country that clings to its history of Latin-inspired music, ancient automobiles, and collapsing Colonial buildings.

There was a good chance Giovanni hadn’t heard these songs more than a few times each, but he knew most chords and quite a few words. He didn’t have a stereo of any sort, and when I went to his apartment I realized why. He was very poor, but no poorer than other Cubans without the luxury of an income from the tourist trade. He didn’t own much of anything, let alone musical equipment. The guitar he had the night we met was borrowed from the school he attended. Having his own was out of the question because it would cost him twenty dollars. He didn’t have that kind of money, he said.

His apartment was testament to a life with few amenities. He had three shirts hanging around the apartment. The fridge contained one bottle of water and two eggs. He had a table and a chair. He had running water and a propane stove. In one corner of the room was a working toilet with no doors or walls to contain it as a separate bathroom. His shower was a bucket and a sponge next to the toilet. The only luxury item he had was a 45 record – All Shook Up by Elvis Presley. He insisted that I have it, to remember him when I left Cuba. He didn’t have a record player anyway; he merely liked that the record represented the music he loved. I felt bad taking it and I tried to force it back into his hands, but he wouldn’t allow it. I insisted on making a trade. I would only take the record if he took twenty dollars to buy himself a guitar. He was resistant, waving his hands negatively and denying ever hearing my proposal. “You crazy. You crazy,” he kept saying. He was practically forcing me to take his record but wouldn’t consider anything in return. Communism can be blamed for a lot of ills of Cuba, but this reaction by Giovanni gave me a glimpse into the genuine attitudes and sentiments that develop in a non-capitalistic country.

There are two profound sides to the Cuban economy: the first, are those who work on the streets hustling money from tourists, and the second, are those who need money but are opposed to receiving handouts. As a visitor to Cuba, in the first instance, you are a representative of American dollars; in the second, your ability to become a cross-cultural friend overshadows the monetary incentives. Giovanni’s resistance was similar to that of an herbalist I visited earlier in the week to get a remedy for a sore throat. They both represented the extreme end of the spectrum for refusing money. The herbalist gave me a chunk of cocoa to relieve dry and sun-burned skin. He made a strange concoction of dark molasses, that tasted strongly of fennel, to invigorate me with energy. He gave me plenty of herbs to make a soothing tea for my sore throat. And yet, when I offered to pay, he immediately shook his head and pulled the goods out of my hands, as if saying: “If you give me money, I won’t give you the product.” He was refusing compensation even though he was providing me with the herbs he sold for a living. It was the complete opposite of a capitalistic transaction.

This behaviour represented a common belief in Cuba that material things do not measure one’s worth. Cubans may be stuck in a cycle of poverty but this does not suppress their good nature. They may not have a lot, and often rely on black market transactions to keep them afloat, but they know that receiving is a far inferior quality than giving, whether that means sharing salsa steps, medicine, or friendship. Treating your neighbour as yourself, whether that neighbour comes from your own country or not, is not a lost principle. Cubans exhibit an unconditional kindness to strangers and it takes on a heart-warming quality of goodness that links all humanity