By Marti Winer ~
Upon arriving in Cuba when queried as to what I would like to do while there, I naively asked when we would get to go see some music. I quickly learned, however, that my question conveyed my rookie status as a traveler to Cuba. An experienced person would have known that in Cuba, you don’t go to see the music. In almost every venue, the music finds you.
A simple stroll through the Plaza Vieja after a dinner early in the trip revealed how prevalent music was to the culture and how readily available it is. You see small performing groups on the street corners, hear it wafting out of restaurants, and feel the rhythm of dancers inspired to break into a salsa on any available flat surface. It was then that I fell in love. Any culture that could need music and dance with the same urgency as air and water was going to be one that I could embrace, even with a clumsy hold form and an amateur hip shake.
When the opportunity arose to actually “go see” some of the legendary (and still performing) musicians who had graced the acoustic halls of the Buena Vista Social Club before Cuba’s revolution, I cha-cha-cha-ed my way into the cab and over to the Hotel Nacional beyond excited about the show.
We entered the music hall, and what ambiance it lacked with its outdated wood paneled walls, was amply made up for by the smiling server who showed us to a front table with awaiting mojitos. From the minute the show began to the last rousing number, the performers demonstrated the dichotomy that I had seen throughout Havana. It was the exact blend of before and after, simultaneously showcasing both abundance and need. The passion of performers, young and old, and the talent they displayed made their dim surroundings and slightly tattered wardrobes disappear. For me those details faded into the background of the stage, just as my romantic view of Havana after sunset had often obscured the reality of the dilapidated buildings that line the streets. That night, however, the audience, who readily participated when invited, could only see the Havana I loved- the passion for the music and dance and a culture that had persevered.
At the end of the show, the audience levitated out to the patio of Havana’s most luxurious hotel, still tapping their toes and reliving their moments on the dance floor, and I knew that most current city residents would never have the chance to see what I had just seen in that room. The next day we would go back to learning more about the economics and politics that had led to this point in history and the impact on the humans that comprised this beautiful island, but in that moment, it was the rhythm that defined Havana. It was the syncopated beats of that city that made the permanent imprint on my heart.