Home. Transitions Abroad founded 1977.  
Travel Work Living Teach Intern Volunteer Study Language High School
  ► Travel Writing  ► Narrative Travel Writing Contest  ► 2007 Narrative Writing Contest Finalist
Narrative Writing Contest Finalist

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.

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 ocean's swells burst into a mist of salty spray over the sidewalks and roadways. Despite the occasional shower of seawater, 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 are architecturally savvy and majestic even while crumbling and deteriorating from decades of neglect. Ancient Cadillac and Chevrolet taxis, also in various stages of deterioration, contribute to this atmosphere of old-time elegance in Havana, which has paraded the streets of Malecon since the 1950s.

Music Permeates Cuban Culture

Fidel Castro orchestrated mass rallies along the Malecon to inspire citizens to keep their faith in his Revolution; his exhaustive speeches gave 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 occurs through song and dance. Cubans are proud of their musical heritage; 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 a movie of the same name and gave son music to an audience outside its own Cuban borders. On any given street corner, there is no shortage of rumors 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, we came across some different musicians, four Cuban music students with two acoustic guitars in their own personal form of Revolution. They were hanging out, singing their music as they did every night. But this was not your typical Cuban music. They sang The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, The Eagles, Elvis Presley, and others with a Caribbean-Latino flair. We joined in when we recognized the songs. We filled in English words they didn't know between the strumming of the guitars.

Giovanni's Guitar Music and an Introduction to Cuban Life

One of the guitar players, 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 a rock musician, and his look was as rebellious as the music itself. But his spirit was all Cuban. Proving 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 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 the dance.

I came across Giovanni a few days later along the Malecon. The last time we saw each other was the first night he and his friends entertained us with their improvisational rock music. Regardless, 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 a conversation, but not quite so easily as in 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 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.

Poor but Generous Cuba with Talent, Musicality, and Humanity So Rich

Car driving in front of poster of Cuban Revolutionary heroes.
An early 50's car passing a bill board featuring revolutionary heroes from the past.
Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk from A Taste of Daily Life in Cuba’s Casas Particulares.

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 rare in Cuba. There was no rock 'n' roll at Giovanni's music school because it was considered unacceptable by the state. Yet, he could still play song after song on his guitar. This is the perseverance of the creative Cuban spirit. This commendable quality 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, and I realized why when I went to his apartment. Giovanni was 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 his school. 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 a 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. His only luxury item 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 terrible taking it and 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 hearing my proposal. "You crazy. You crazy," he kept saying. He forced me to take his record but wouldn't consider anything in return. Communism can be blamed for many of Cuba's ills. Nevertheless, 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 cash 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, sunburned 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 refused compensation even though he gave me the herbs he sold for a living. It was the complete opposite of a capitalistic transaction.

This behavior represented a 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 much and often rely on black market transactions to keep them afloat. Regardless, they know that receiving is far inferior to giving, whether that means sharing salsa steps, medicine, or friendship. Treating your neighbor as yourself, whether that neighbor comes from your own country or not, is not a lost principle. Cubans exhibit unconditional kindness to strangers, and it takes on a heart-warming quality of goodness that links all humanity.

Darin Cook is a freelance writer based out of London..

About Us  
Contact Us  
© 1997-2024 Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc.
Privacy Policy Cookie Policy Terms and Conditions California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) Opt-Out IconYour Privacy Choices Notice at Collection