Apr 2009 2

Havana’s Hot Music Scene

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We just came back from a trip to Cuba where we checked out the local music scene. Check out our Vancouver music series.

Mark improvises with Cuban band Mark improvises with Cuban band
Cuban street musician asks Mark for song requests
Cuban street musician
asks Mark for song requests

In Cuba, turistas may be overwhelmed by culture shock Communist bureaucracy, widespread poverty and currency confusion can have a dampening effect on even the sunniest of beach holidays. The best antidote: kick back and enjoy incredibly layered, vibrant music! Havana has a thriving, varied music scene - music is an integral part of the Cuban experience, found everywhere from fast-food stands to open-air plazas to hopping nightclubs, and it is loud.

American music is popular, and if the supply often dates from the last three decades, it at least serves the dual purpose of entertainment and development of language skills; one cab driver asked us what 'creeping' meant and had me write it out for him (he was listening to rapper Akon's 'Smack That').

Son is Cuba's signature music, easily recognizable thanks to the emergence of world-famous bands like the Buena Vista Social Club, whose members are retired musical sages from the 40's and 50's.

Reggaeton, a blend of hip-hop and reggae sung in Spanish with African influences, is an increasingly popular form of musical expression among younger people; lyrics are fast, forceful, and freestyle. You can often spot the locals dancing and singing enthusiastically along to reggaeton blaring from car radios.

Cuban trumpet player and drummer jam with Mark
Cuban trumpet player and
drummer jam with Mark

Traditional bands (five to eight members featuring horn, guitar, upright bass and percussion) are ubiquitous, playing old standards and lively Afro-Cuban salsa at every tourist bar, from El Floridita (Ernest Hemingway's Havana hangout on Obispo, graced by a huge bronze statue and framed photographs of the writer hobnobbing with Castro) to the Jazz Caf? at the corner of Calle 1 and Paseo, where enthusiastic jazz musicians belt out jazz standards that eventually erupt into timba (popular Cuban dance music).

Great places to hear live music include La Lluvia de Oro and Caf? Paris on Obispo, and if you're a dusk-till-dawn type of partier, El Gato Tuerto on Calle 0 in Vedado, a suburb of Havana, is a chic bar where you can belt out boleros with the band. Patio de Maria on Calle 37 is full of head-banging Habaneros and if you like dancing to a DJ's spinning, head to a dance club like the Discoteca Ribera Azul beside the Malecon. Nightclubs in Havana include live music, table seating and often dinner check out the Habana Caf? on Paseo for big salsa acts and 1950's memorabilia d?cor.

Mark bemused by trovadores at a Cuban buffet restaurant
Mark bemused by trovadores
at a Cuban buffet restaurant

Roving bands (trovadores) touring outdoor eateries and tourist buffets often include a drummer on the batas (two-headed Cuban drums) and a beautiful female singing heart-rending tales of the lucha, the Cuban struggle; you can buy their CDs for about $14 CDN.

Rich and soulful, traditional Cuban music in all its varieties son, salsa, rumba, timba, mambo, charanga have spread their influence all over Latin America and were immortalized in the famous American movie The Mambo Kings. If you speak Spanish or come in contact with English-speaking Cubans, ask them about places to hear hot new Cuban groups there are concerts happening everywhere and it's just a matter of knowing where to go!

Mark chats with Cuban bass player Mark chats with Cuban bass player

My friend with whom I was traveling is a professional musician and jazz writer. He found the musicians there really friendly and easy to play with. Hejust hopped in and played the bass on some old standards. As a bit of a music snob, his technical notes were that the level of play is fairly basic and there wasn't too much cutting edge going on. My own musical tastes are a bit more conventional: if you are dancing and partying, you don't want the latest atonal modern compositions, jazz or not. The music was great and the ambience even better.

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