Dancing in the street - The Cuban music scene

Dancing in the street - The Cuban music scene

by Nick Hendry

Havana is famous across the world for her 2 great epicurean exports: Cuban cigars and fine rum.  These 2 products have cemented their place in the collective consciousness of luxury and flavour lovers across the globe as truly world-class, and are usually the first things we think of when someone mentions Cuba or Havana.  For all the fame and reverence bestowed upon them, they are not the only things to have come from this little island and brought joy to the world – art, cuisine and an impressive array of top-level boxers are further examples of Cuban excellence – but one facet comes closer than the rest to joining Cohiba cigars and Havana Club rum at the top of their respective fields: Cuban music.

Cuba’s music is considered some of the most diverse in the world, drawing significant influence from a whole host of sources.  The most notable, and audible, among these are the Spanish melodic guitar and west African percussion which have infused the sounds of the island for centuries.  Drums, strings and wind instruments all feature prominently in today’s revered Cuban soundscape.  It is a style of jazz that lifts the spirits and reflects the vibrancy and passion of the people of the island.

Music and cigar smoke fills the streets of Havana

Enjoying a Trinidad Fundadores while dancing to the sounds of Havana

In the days before the revolution Cuba was the playground of the world.  Casinos, restaurants and nightclubs to compete with any in Europe or the USA filled the capital and entertained visitors from the glamour of Hollywood to the dirty money of the US underworld, all coming for a taste of the opulence, excess and luxury for which the island had become famous.  All of this wonder was set to a blistering soundtrack of Cuban jazz, played by a constant stream of local virtuosos who had dedicated their lives to the mastery of their instrument.  When the regime changed in 1959, the clubs and venues where this scene had thrived were closed and all recording rights taken over by the state, leaving many musicians suddenly out of work.  Some lived in exile, bringing their art to the rest of the world via performances in the United States; some were forced into new careers by the new situation in their homeland, doubtless causing the loss of many great musicians to the world.

While so many of these Cuban musicians could no longer bring their particular brand of playing to the world due, this did not stop their love for their art.  The streets of Havana have always been as full of the sounds of bands on street corners, in homes or in small restaurants as they have with the aromas of cigar tobacco and delicious local food.  In 1996, a pair of American musicians determined to bring at least a sample of this magic to the rest of the world, to show outsiders that Cuban music was far from dying under Communist rule, even if our opportunities to hear it were few and far between.  3 albums were recorded in just under 2 weeks – the most famous is the now legendary Buena Vista Social Club.

The music of Havana is enough to tempt anyone to dance

The music of Havana will tempt anyone to dance

Buena Vista Social Club was released in 1997 and quickly took the world of music by storm.  A collective of artists in their 70s and 80s were given a chance to play again after having been forced into retirement by the lack of venues and grabbed it with both hands, delivering performances which showed their raw passion and incredible skill.  The result astonished music lovers worldwide, capturing the hearts and ears of all who listened and creating an appetite for Cuban music that had been missing for a long while.  People travelled from far and wide to Havana to immerse themselves in the sounds of the city, creating memories that would last a lifetime of the uncanny brilliance of local musicians who played not for the riches and fame bestowed on their counterparts 100 miles away in America, but purely for the love of it.

Today, Havana’s music scene thrives once again, thanks to the continued global appreciation driven by the masterful performances given by the old guard in the late 90s.  Their gift to their nation is not just the music itself but the demand it created for more, giving a new crop of young Cuban artists hope of being able to follow their own craft to make a living, if not a fortune.  Alongside the music comes the dance, classes and exhibitions being put on for tourists in resorts and bars across the island.  There are few better ways to experience the spirit of the Cuban people than this; joyful, energetic and sensuous evenings that will live in the memory forever.  Even if we are unable to physically travel to Havana right now, we can do so emotionally – just fill a glass with ice and rum, put on a record and transport yourself across the seas.  Of course, don’t forget to light a cigar to round off the evening in style.

Model: Laura Rivalta

Photography: Monica Molto

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