Music an organic part of life in Cuba

A duo performs mid-day at La Familia in Old Havana. Photos by Gale Horton Gay

A duo performs mid-day at La Familia in Old Havana. Photos by Gale Horton Gay

Whether traveling domestically or internationally, one of my favorite things is checking out live music venues, especially jazz spots. I usually do an online search beforehand and compile a list of prospects. Once at my destination, I have a few jumping off points to begin my musical exploration. 

Such an effort was unnecessary for a recent trip to Havana, Cuba. 

Live Latin music was everywhere, indoors and outside, at all times of the day and night—no reservations, no cover charge and no special attire required. Music at casual eateries as well as at upscale restaurants was as standard as the tables and chairs.

 

We stopped at a cafe around 11:45 a.m. for lunch one day and a quintet was setting up, during an evening meal and drinks at a spot in Old Havana an all-female quartet was jamming and while strolling the streets in search of souvenirs we came upon restaurant with a six-member band that specialized in salsa and Latin vibes. At the end of my trip I met a Floridian at the airport who had spent a week in Cuba getting special tutelage in her instrument—the flute. She shared that the island is a hot spot for music and musicians and that the flute is one of the principle instruments in Cuban music. 

Music is performed for patrons dining indoors as well as al fresco at various restaurants in Old Havana.

Music is performed for patrons dining indoors as well as al fresco at various restaurants in Old Havana.

At most spots in Old Havana, the musicians usually had a tip jar and were not shy about hawking their CDs or asking for tips during breaks—a small price to pay for good music.

My first trip to Cuba involved five days of finding what the island nation—so long off limits to U.S. citizens—has to offer. The answer is plenty!

Lovers of history, architecture, photography, vintage automobiles, art and, of course, music will find a multitude of unique sights and sounds worth investigating.

Old Havana, locally known as La Habana Vieja, is the city center—one of 15 municipalities that make up Havana. It is vibrant, colorful and alive. It bustles with energy as Cubans are in its streets heading to school, work, the market and elsewhere. Clotheslines provide a canopy of colorful cover as sheets, towels and clothing flap in the breeze. Vendors push carts down the narrow streets throughout the day, shouting out what they have for sale. People living on the upper floors of pastel-colored buildings use baskets and rope to bring goods (for example, groceries) up to them from street level as there are no elevators in these old buildings.

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The structures in Old Havana date back centuries. Many of the Spanish colonial buildings are dilapidated and crumbling but others are still intact, housing some of the 2 million people who live in the capital city. One can see Cuban craftsmanship in many of the buildings’ details. There’s also a tremendous amount of restoration and construction underway in various parts of the city

Old Havana is also a noisy place with street sounds of people shouting to one another, roosters crowing incessantly in the morning, motorcycles and vehicles of a vast array cruising the streets. Into the night, activity is constant and there isn’t much of a calm until close to 4 a.m.

While there are many places such as museums and historical sites to visit in Havana, I spent the majority of my time simply roaming the streets and plazas interacting with people, studying the architecture, sampling mojitos and enjoying the music. It’s the kind of place I can’t wait to visit again.

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