Under A Warm Cuban Sun
My brother Kevin and I have just returned from six days in Havana, there under the auspices of a tour group affiliated with the Blue Note jazz club in New York City, the tour designed to give us near-total immersion in "Jazz Plaza de la Habana a Santiago," the 39th Cuban International Jazz Festival.
We signed up for the trip with the faint expectation that it might afford us a 2024 version of the beautiful story that is told in "Buena Vista Social Club," the 1999 documentary film produced by American slide guitarist Ry Cooder and directed by Wim Wenders, about the revival of great but nearly-forgotten Cuban musicians of the 1940's and '50's into an eponymous ensemble, culminating in triumphant sold-out concerts by Buena Vista in Amsterdam and at Carnegie Hall.
We stayed at the Hotel Grand Aston La Habana. This is the only hotel in which Americans are permitted to stay by the U.S. government (certain B and B's are also OK). The logic of the limitation, to the extent there is any, may be that the Grand Aston is owned and controlled by foreign, to Cuba that is, interests (Asian I think). Therefore ostensibly none of the money goes into the pockets of the Cuban authorities, which makes our friends the octogenarian and nonagenarian exiles in Miami happy.
The hotel is virtually brand new; it was built during the pandemic. It is styled a five-star venue, with twin 25-story towers and a prime location directly on the Malecon, the iconic seaside strand that runs for about five miles WSW to ENE in the heart of the capital. Its architecture and interior design are contemporary and dramatic, and first-class amenities like spa service are readily available. On the other hand, there is a contemporary crisis of infrastructure in Cuba, and the hoteliers' attempt to insulate their guests from it is not entirely successful. For example, the "new deco" sink in my room had a symbol behind the faucet that meant "don't drink this water!" Also, hot water, and a robust flow of it, were intermittent. And while I had two coffee cartridges for my Keurig-equivalent upon my arrival, attempts to get more during the stay were futile. When this issue was raised with management, we were told that this five-star hotel only offers coffee on the first day.
On the ground floor, between the two towers, there is a breezeway where the bar/restaurant is situated. (The restaurant offerings are modest and spotty; it is mostly a bar.) It was constructed in such a way that in the evenings a refreshing breeze from the north is often a dominant feature. On the evening before our departure, though, the breeze was not so much refreshing as dramatic. Winds of about 30 mph tore through much of the open lobby, with only the inner bar offering protection from them. The wind built up a dramatic surf that burst over the Malecon seawall onto the road. (Speaking of neglected infrastructure, the sidewalk on the sea side of the Malecon has been widely pulverized by such waves, and two people in our group were pretty badly banged up when they fell while attempting a stroll there in more benign weather.)
For about two hours every evening, a little combo played in the hotel bar. It comprised an acoustic guitar player, a percussionist, and a young woman singer, and the repertoire was mostly conventional Latin music, including bossa nova. Late in our stay, I checked an item off my personal bucket list, convincing the band to allow me to step in as bongo player for one tune -- Jobim's "Desafinado." Twenty bucks was the price of fleeting admission into this particular musical fraternity.
Our Groups and Our Hosts
There were about 50 or 60 people participating in the tour. They were broken into sub-groups of about nine or ten. The itineraries of the subgroups were essentially the same, but one subgroup might do certain things on one day and another group on another day, while big events, like certain meals and musical performances in the big National Theatre of Cuba, were attended by everyone at once. Also, each morning we all were treated to an elaborate buffet breakfast in a large room above the lobby bar.
The demographics. The typical people in attendance were folks of retirement age with a demonstrated interest in jazz. (Many, like me, heard of the tour because they subscribe to the Blue Note's email list.) There was a heavy concentration of New Yorkers, but quite a few people from the Boston area, and a scattering of geographical "others." Most were successful professionals. At my table at our "welcoming dinner" on the day we flew in to Havana, in addition to me, there were three lawyers specializing in criminal defense, labor law, and "reproductive rights" respectively (the last a man FWIW). Also in the ad hoc group of new friends that we formed during the week were a teacher of autistic children from Boston and a hospitality consultant from Montana.
There were two doctors in the ad hoc group, neither of whom, to their credit, advertised the M.D., but who rather let it come out naturally in the course of conversation. Both were boon companions for us and both highly literate in jazz.
The first doctor, Dr. R, had Kevin and me at first wondering whether he was just masquerading as a Manhattan dermatologist, but it turned out that the rather eye-popping anecdotes he dropped were true. Yes, Al Pacino was his only patient who required Dr. R to come to his house. Yes, every year he went to the house of Jorma Kaukonen, lead guitarist of Jefferson Airplane and composer of "Embryonic Journey," for two weeks of personal guitar lessons. Yes, he himself took the photo on his cell phone of his friend Larry David sitting on the toilet, as also he took some stunning, National Geographic-quality photos of Costa Rican tree frogs, eyes wide in the dead of night.
The second doctor, Dr. N, was for decades an ER physician on Long Island. He was known among his colleagues for having a specialty in fecal dis-impaction. (The "embryonic journey" of the roll-on deodorant dispenser extracted from one of his patients I will leave to your further imagination.) He brought with him to Cuba some Latin percussion instruments, including a "cabasa" (I called it a "kielbasa" to tease him), sort of a wheel on a stick designed to make the noise of a rattlesnake. Dr. N insinuated himself into the lobby combo before I did on my night of fleeting fame; in fact, by doing so he helped me work up the courage to play, publicly.
Each sub-group has a "tour leader." By consensus they were terrific at their job, which is to herd everyone around to the numerous venues, share personal knowledge of the country and the city of Havana, and accommodate the sometimes-annoying off-script requests of their group members. ("I know that all nine of us now are headed on the bus to Old Havana, but suddenly I feel an urge to take a nap, so can we turn around and drop me at the hotel for a few hours?")
My group of nine had a principal guide, Ivan, and a back-up one, Mauricio. Their personal CVs were impressive, but the fact that they were working as guides given their backgrounds was a sobering comment on the state of the Cuban economy. Ivan is a mechanical engineer by training, but apparently there is no work for mechanical engineers in Cuba. Even more shocking, Mauricio is described as one of Cuba's leading neurologists. I believe that he enjoys his people-to-people work, and the work itself is not to be disparaged, but the fact that he was tap dancing for tips from the likes of me for six long days set me back a bit emotionally.
The centerpiece of this tour, and the man who made it exceed our every musical and cultural expectation, was one Jorge Luis Pacheco. He is a fortyish pianist and percussionist who stands now at the apex of the Cuban jazz scene. But more than that, he is a force of nature. He is the sort of person who lights up a room on entering it with his sheer charisma. He is tall, handsome and built like a linebacker. He sports a sort of carrot-top column of hair on his head that makes him appear even taller than he is. But more than that, his personality projects gentleness, a self-deprecating wit, and a kind of generalized emotional outreach, and the combination seems to spread joy and good fellowship wherever he goes.
What of Pacheco's own music? I checked it out via YouTube in advance of the trip. Sample, with Jorge crowned by a less towering haircut than his contemporary one -- Jorge Luis Pacheco: "Silencio" - WWOZ Piano Night (2015) (youtube.com). My pre-trip evaluation included a little skepticism about whether he leans too heavily on displaying his prodigious speed and dexterity at the keyboard. (Early in the trip, discussing this issue, Dr. N and I at the very same moment said the very same word -- "frenetic!") But having seen him play now multiple times, I withdraw my criticism. Yes, he loves to play fast, and often in long riffs that are as physically daunting as any of the more challenging parts of Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto, but he is able to shift effortlessly among sub-genres of Cuban and Afro-Cuban jazz, and his own interpretation of the signature piece from Buena Vista "Chan Chan," for example, is soft and sensitive.
Pacheco built our musical itinerary so that it had a certain logic to it. What I mean is that it started with more conventional stuff and later branched out to the more esoteric, so that in the end we were better able to piece together the forest from the trees. But it was his network of friendships that made it possible for Blue Note Travel to expose us to the best of Cuban music, often in small, intimate settings. (More about this later.) And he was on the scene personally with us constantly, notwithstanding his own jam-packed performance calendar and, we were sad to learn, the death of his father about three weeks before the festival.
When an average American thinks of Cuba, he thinks of classic cars left over from pre-revolutionary times and held together, he thinks, with duct tape and ingenuity. Kevin and I are both motorheads; he owns a 1973 Triumph TR-6 and I own a 1962 Ford F-100 "restomod." We were more than a little excited to see and experience these old American classics. Incidentally, they are not used solely in the tourist trade. With one exception, they are the most ubiquitous vehicles in Havana, and some of them not used to ferry tourists are in tired condition inside and out. The exception is the Lada, a Soviet-era knock-off of the Fiat 124 first built in 1970, which is seen everywhere in Havana. In the Soviet era, the Lada was viewed in Western circles as mechanically less reliable than the Fiat on which it was based ("ahem;" and no, "Lada" is not a Russian acronym for "fix it again Dimitry.")
As promised, we got a one-hour tour of central Havana in a nice representative vehicle, a two-tone (bright purple and white) '56 Chevy Bel Air convertible piloted by driver/owner Christian, a genial man in his forties who teaches primary school as his main job. He is part of an old car club, and we (Kevin and I and our new friend from New York Liz) tooled around town in the company of others in vintage cars. (My favorite was an immediately pre- or post-revolutionary 1959 Dodge convertible in bright blue, the revolution having culminated in 1959.) Almost all of the cars had multiple, musical horns, and the protocol on passing is to play a loud little tune that is unique to the vehicle.
Kevin and I wanted engine pictures! But Christian had re-powered his car with an inline-four Hyundai diesel for the sake of fuel efficiency. We took a photo of it anyway. But when we all stopped at Revolution Square for further pictures, he persuaded his pal to open the hood of his '56 Ford, which sported what appeared to be an early Thunderbird V-8, with a throaty exhaust note to match.
Christian's mischievous sense of humor was on display when we stopped at the square which, in addition to a brutalist obelisk of about 150 meters, features two government buildings with stylized sketches of revolutionary heroes adorning their facades. (When we went to the theatre, we discovered that these light up at night.) One pictured hero was Che Guevara. When I asked Christian who was the other, in perfect deadpan he replied "Osama bin Laden." This I took to be a goof on both the Cubans and the Americans. Certainly it did not reflect any revolutionary fervor on the part of Christian himself. Rather, he was quite open in his disdain for his government, calling it a Mafia state. And this seemed to be the prevailing view. When Ivan, for example, was asked any questions with political overtones, he would simply clam up and smile, as if to say "surely you don't buy that horseshit."
On another day we drove about 25 minutes out of the city to the home that Ernest Hemingway maintained called Finca Vigia. It is a spacious hacienda on spacious, shaded grounds. We were not allowed inside the building, but the governmental tour did allow us to look through the windows of all the first-floor rooms, which are maintained as they were in Hemingway's time.
Another signal of the state of the infrastructure. The men's room attached to the hacienda has a non-flushing toilet. Instead, there is a woman whose job it is to pour a bucket of water into it after each visit, for a fee of one dollar. A second, older woman with zero English guarded both restrooms. Kevin and I gifted her some "chachkes" for children (pens in my case). When she then pointed to her feet and said, in Spanish, that shoes for little children cost five dollars, I thought it was in gratitude for the gifts, but on reflection she was asking for another five bucks from each of us.
An unexpected pleasure for me. One of my sisters once gifted me a book about Hemingway's famed fishing boat, "Pilar." I assumed that as a wooden vessel of the 1940's, she was long ago broken up. But no, there she was sitting "on the hard" under a specially-built canopy, and in spectacular condition.
We made one significant non-musical stop that was not on the itinerary at all, this to visit a museum of the revolution that we happened to pass by. The museum featured another, larger motor vessel called "Granma," on which 82 revolutionaries, including Fidel Castro, his brother Raul, and Che Guevara, landed in southwestern Cuba in 1956 after a hazardous and dispiriting trip from Mexico (the boat was wildly overloaded). Soon after they landed, the rebels were attacked by government forces, and about 60 of them were killed.
In addition to the Granma, the museum included a Russian-built T-34 tank that was used by Fidel himself in the rebellion, two piston-powered fighter planes that neither Kevin nor I was able to identify with confidence, the shot-up tail of a B-26 bomber used by anti-Castro rebels in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and a Soviet-built surface-to-air ("SAM") missile of the same era.
For tourists like us at least, Cuba by no means has the look and feel of a police state. Uniformed personnel of any kind are few and far between. But there was a single military policeman, very smartly dressed, walking around a balcony on the second floor of the museum. I struggled with arthritis pain throughout the entire trip, and there were times when I felt that I absolutely had to sit. This was one of them, but when I sat on what I thought was just a concrete slab with no historical significance, the soldier sternly signaled me to get up. Then a few minutes later, when I tried to simply lean my back against a structural part of the museum, he insisted via a hand signal that I get away from it. This was too much and also a little scary, so Kevin and I discreetly left the premises.
With a little bit of embarrassment, many Cubans embrace an animist Afro-Cuban religion called "Santeria." They may not really believe in it, but if they are opening a new tire repair shop, they may call on the deities to protect it and to fertilize, as it were, the endeavor.
The ceremonies of Santeria heavily rely on African percussion in which a conga-like drum, draped with little bells, has a head on both ends and is played lying flat on the lap with a hand at each end. Generally speaking, gringo non-believers are not allowed to see this, but we were allowed to witness such a ceremony in the courtyard of the home of Pacheco's godmother. Three drummers played two pieces, the first of which was quite long, maybe lasting 25 minutes. Within the pieces, rhythms shifted many times, and rhythmically the playing was difficult to piece together from a Western musical point of view. Because it was a religious ceremony and not strictly speaking a musical performance, I reference it here.
On Sunday, our last full day in Cuba, we were scheduled to take a two-hour walking architectural tour of Old Havana that was to end at the Havana Cathedral. Because my body clearly would not cooperate for this piece, Kevin and I chose instead to try to attend Mass at the cathedral. When we got there about 9:15, it was not yet open, so we had a second mini-breakfast at a little outside cafe that was called, in homage to Rene Magritte, Esto No Es Un Cafe. The espresso and the eggs were outstanding. A band of little kids ran down the street by the cafe. They were not begging, merely having fun running around. But I stopped them and gifted them some ballpoints and markers that I was carrying for the purpose. There as elsewhere, they treated the gifts as truly treasured prizes, which of course made me feel good and bad at the same time.
At the cathedral, we heard an entire pre-Mass rosary recited in "call and response" fashion by two women in competing pulpits. Kevin found this tedious, perhaps more so because in cryptic Spanish, but I enjoyed it, particularly the drone-like second half of the Hail Marys ("... ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amen.") Immediately thereafter the Mass started, but we had to duck out at the Gloria to rendezvous with our compadres in the plaza that the cathedral faces. There, once again, my arthritis pain betrayed me. There were no benches, so I resorted to sitting on the street or with my butt against the ledge of a window. From those perches, in a mere half hour or so, I was exposed to three men who themselves were "of the street" and hence gave me and Kevin a more complete picture of the gritty side of Cuban life.
The first was a wild-looking guy with an extreme Rasta hairdo, electric-looking glasses, and a nice acoustic guitar on which he was playing good old North American blues riffs. He saw that I was suffering a bit, and therefore did not ask me for money but rather told me to sit and relax. Then, for a tightwad's tip, he serenaded the trophy wife of a passing tourist. I was hooked. With Kevin as my banker, I changed a ten for two fives and gave one to him, asking him to play the classic "Viente Anos" made famous by Buena Vista. This he did most beautifully and it touched me. Kevin got it down on video.
Then a rheumy-eyed, perhaps mentally-ill guy, a double amputee, pulled up in a wheelchair wielding his 10AM can of Heineken, and appeared to ask us for money. We gave him some, then he asked for more. Time to move away and leave him to other prey, but not before he rolled up his shorts to show us the ugly stumps of both legs.
Finally, a tall middle-aged man approached me. He was in quasi-military garb including beret, and sported medals on his chest. He carried a very cheap looking valise. He told me, in Spanish, that he was on his way to work in the Ministry of Interior as best I could tell. "Patria o muerte!" he said, echoing New Hampshire's "Live free or die!" Kevin and I were a little dubious. As an international good will gesture, we regifted him two Romeo y Juliet cigars that had been gifted to us by the proprietor of one of the restaurants where we had had lunch during the week. (We wanted to smoke them in the bar of the Grand Aston, as is permitted, but they had no matches in the entire joint ca va sans dire.)
A Musical Stop Sans Music
Courtesy, as usual, of Pacheco, we were treated to a visit to one of Havana's most important and storied music studios. A lovely middle-aged woman was the boss. First she crammed us into a little room where old LPs are remastered, digitally. A technician showed us how it was done. We got to hear a tune as it sounds on the old vinyl or Bakelite from ... the '30's? And then the remastered version. Miraculous. Our host told us that Placido Domingo has visited Cuba many times, and that one time, in gratitude, the studio found a very old recording of his mother, singing. They remastered it for him, beautifully. This little gesture, it seems to me, is emblematic of the larger charm of Cuban hospitality.
Then we moved over to the largest recording studio in the complex. There a band comprising some of the most accomplished musicians on the island was rehearsing for a performance at the festival (so not entirely "sans music"). It was good for us to witness the hard concentration necessary in advance to make the playing in the evening look effortless.
In a way we were spoiled by our first exposure to Cuban food. Our welcoming dinner was held at La Guarida, "the best restaurant in Cuba" per the 2023 World Culinary awards. It is situated in a beautiful building of lavish stone and marble, and all 50 or 60 of us were seated in adjoining dining rooms with 30-foot ceilings. The meal was of five or six exquisitely-prepared courses, but most of the courses had courses within the courses (for example a puree of eggplant next to a miniature taco of fish of some kind). All of it was served with stunning efficiency to this large group. If it had been a wedding reception dinner for the daughter of a billionaire, the guests would have walked away satisfied.
Otherwise, dinners were not provided as part of the tour package. Kevin and I generally went light on the dinners because we were eating too much, but we did have a very nice dinner of freshly-made pappardelle at Eclectica, about a mile from the Aston. Our waiter called us a cab in the aftermath, and it proved to be another '56 Bel Air. Kevin paid the driver ten bucks as if we were renting a classic car (we were), and he was very happy with that fare!
The lunches, which were part of the tour package, were delicious, if a little predictable. First a welcoming mojito, then some empanadas, perhaps of fish, with a dressing that might be honey or might be some sort of cream sauce. Then a green salad, from which Kevin and I steered clear fearing Batista's Revenge. Then rice and beans. Then several main dishes, pulled pork or beef perhaps and chicken and fish (often delicious swordfish but marlin on at least one occasion), typically in some sort of lightly-seasoned sauce. Then dessert -- perhaps tiramisu, perhaps dark Cuban chocolate, which was to die for.
Finally, and Crucially, the Music
The festival itself offered 50 or more performances of Latin jazz musicians. Most were Cuban, but by no means all. One was a professor at Berklee College in Boston, and in the customs line at Jose Marti Airport, outbound, I met an American trumpeter from the heartland, fresh from the festival, who in the line serenaded an Orthodox Jewish family in front of him with a quiet "Hava Nagila." We were given VIP festival passes to hang around our necks.
On the first night of music, we were taken to the National Theatre of Cuba to hear a three-hour concert featuring two groups, both very roughly in the Chucho Valdes Afro-Cuban style, and both outstanding (but up until midnight was a challenge for me!).
Later in the week, we attended a concert by Pacheco himself and others in a spectacular old theatre in central Havana, steps from the Capitol. It included pieces for two pianos, pieces for four hands, and also a Cuban-American singer who did justice to both "December in the Rain" and a song or two from Buena Vista. It was most interesting to see Pacheco in that rather formal setting and performing before thousands of his fellow Cubans. The audience loved every minute of it. In contrast, earlier that day we attended a private concert of Pacheco and Friends at the Cuban Art Factory, an industrial setting converted to both visual arts and the musical. The performance once again was primo, and, in the informal setting, it was an open lovefest among Pacheco and his virtuoso comrades.
Along the way, Pacheco took us to two music schools that were (sorry) instrumental in shaping him as a pianist and a percussionist. The first schooled kids from about eight until about 18, and its graduates went on to musical studies at university or to teach in their own right. We were treated to performances ranging from two little girls singing in tandem to a jazz ensemble playing its own subtle and sophisticated arrangements, impeccably. When it was over, I gifted two pair of well-used drumsticks, and I gave the woman who directs the school and some of her students Lindt chocolates. My more generous brother gifted about six sets of drumsticks, a set of claves, and a number of packages of acoustic guitar strings. All gratefully accepted.
The second school was devoted more to orchestral playing. We sat within about ten feet of an orchestra comprising about 50 kids, all incredibly accomplished. Among other things, they played a classically-oriented piece that was written and arranged by a young pianist who was a protege of Pacheco, followed by the same student's arrangement of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps." Then two very black brothers, tall and handsome, aged 17 and 18, blew us all away with a violin duet, also classically oriented, that one of the brothers had written. I think we all walked away thinking "how can this very poor and quite small country produce such prodigies when our own kids can't seem to stop looking at nonsense on their phones?"
On one day, we were scheduled to go far out into the countryside to visit an "eco-community" the building of which was commissioned by El Commandante himself. But someone or something had a conflict. This made some in the group happy, because they did not want to ride in mini-buses for four hours there and back. Others of us were disappointed because we wanted to experience something of Cuba other than Havana. But Pacheco himself stepped in to arrange an alternate schedule, and it proved to be a highlight of the trip. In a beautiful courtyard setting, we had a private performance by some of the top musicians in Cuba, focused on a percussion-intensive repertoire that included a wild mambo and an Afro-Cuban style rendition of Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry." And in the afternoon we had a private performance by a group devoted to teaching young women a unique style of integrated percussion and dance, with the latter heavily influenced by classic flamenco. The girls were all beautiful and supremely talented. It was breathtaking.
Later, our own mini-group of nine was the audience for an a capella singing group called Coro Leo, directed by Pacheco's own mom. They performed some Cuban songs, then flipped effortlessly into North American gospel, including "My Soul Is Anchored in the Lord."
Finally in time, and a perfect exclamation point for our musical odyssey, we visited the National Lyrical Theatre, where Pacheco's late father directed operatic studies for many years. Pacheco introduced us to four young men and three young women who sang at a world-class level. They performed for us short pieces from the classical repertoire, a stark but not unwelcome contrast to the Afro-Cuban to which we had been exposed all week.
As a finale, Pacheco said that the wonderful tenor among them would sing "Nessun Dorma," a song essentially of hope that was a favorite of his father. To our ears, in our private audience, the young man knocked it out of the park, rivaling Pavarotti himself in his passion and in his execution, and when he finished on that signature fortissimo note, Pacheco burst into sobs, and the two embraced for a full minute before Pacheco was able to get it together again. It was a stunning tribute to his father.
What is contemporary Cuba like? Our experience of the musical culture was life changing, but I'm not sure we have much grasp of the full picture needed to answer the question posed. The government, the power structure, was opaque to us. It was as if the musical culture were the people's revenge against it, against the situation they find themselves in thanks to the vagaries of international politics. Clearly, that culture is not monopolized by some political or economic elite in Cuba, as it commonly is elsewhere; it reaches down to the street level, as was evidenced by my Rasta Man. But also clearly, in the deepest depths of poverty people don't have the luxury of cultural expression.
The music is a catalyst. The music knocked my socks off all week, but if I had to isolate one thing that encapsulated Cuba for me, it would be the milk of human kindness, flowing in abundance.