Monday, June 11, 2012

Cuba... and all that jazz!

Blog from Cuba – Far Fung Places May 2012
Dennis Keser, Co-principal of Far Fung Places

Sunday May 6 (Trinidad)
I had heard Trinidad was a “quiet, laid-back town” (it once thrived on the sugar trade but then declined), but as I discovered, it rocks!  At night in open squares street musicians play Cuban salsa while seniors dance freely in the cobblestone streets.

Our first night after dinner I took most of the group up to the town square to find some music. Just by chance on the steps of one of the churches, we found a salsa band that Bob Montgomery, a member of our group and a renowned American jazz performing artist, said was one of best he had ever heard. Three vocalists with powerful voices were backed by 10 talented musicians playing intoxicating music on drums, basses, guitars, trumpets, saxophones, trombones, all keeping beat to the maracas. Scores of shoulder-moving locals applauded when they heard Bob introduce himself and then begin to play. Seeing this 70-plus-year-old man with these young artists was marvelous––he soloed and jammed with the group until 11:30 p.m. Everyone including Bob was on cloud nine. We got back to the hotel at midnight, so energized by the music we could hardly sleep!

Monday  May 7 (Trinidad)
Tonight we had a wonderful dinner at Paladar Sol Ananada, an 18th-century fully restored one-story architect's house just off the main square. Paladars are local homes converted into restaurants that are sanctioned by the Cuban government.  Our group of 15 was seated comfortably in the main dining room at the owner’s family hardwood table. The dark colonial furniture, some made in Cuba and other pieces imported from Spain, added to the atmosphere. The owner had hired a local fisherman to bring in the catch of the day, a huge local fish that the family chef deboned in front of us. The owner also offered fresh lobsters for a few extra dollars per person. A group of strolling musicians entertained us during our meal. What a way to wrap up the day!

Tuesday May 8 (Trinidad to Havana) Today our coach driver got lost in the maze of narrow cobblestone streets of Spiritus and then got wedged in a corner trying to make a turn onto the main square. This is not surprising. These streets were built for horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, and pedestrians, not 32-passenger buses! The vernacular architecture is charming: two- and three-story colonial buildings with wrought-iron grilles and verandas with potted geraniums. Freed from our tight spot, we continued to Santa Clara, where we stopped at the government-approved restaurant Los Caneyes for lunch; it was overflowing with tourists.  Afterward, we visited the mausoleum of Che Guevara, who is practically apotheosized in Cuba—T-shirts, books, films, and paintings of Che are found everywhere.  Before returning to Havana, we dropped into a non-touristy cigar factory, where hundreds of workers sitting in rows of wooden tables separate, roll, band, and finish thousands of cigars while listening to a “reader,” someone designated to read aloud newspapers or a novel to relieve the monotony of the work.

Our group stayed at the upgraded Hotel Saratoga, far superior to the Telegrafo where we had been originally confirmed. What attentive service at the bar, with quality wines for only 5.00 CUC a glass and the best rum I have found in Cuba yet, 12-year-old Santiago for 5.50 CUC. At today’s conversion rate, that is about $5.25 a glass.

Friday May 11 Today I asked the group if they wanted to see the Tropicana show or go to a real jazz club. Many hands shot up for a real jazz club—we had all attended the touristy Buena Vista Social Club, and now everyone wanted something less commercial. 

Before the show, we had dinner at a wonderful local paladar within walking distance of the Saratoga. Some in the group wanted to try healthy Creole food, like braised chicken in capers and raisins and other slow-cooked dishes in spices such as oregano and citrus. Others ordered and shared cooked-to-perfection lobster tails for only 20 CUC ($20). Sated, we all hopped into cabs for the oldest and best jazz club in Havana: La Zorra y el Cuervo (The Fox and the Crow).

We got there at 10:00 p.m. and had an hour to wait for the show, but the time went by quickly watching jazz videos from previous shows on a big flat screen.  You feel like you’re in one of those old San Francisco or New York clubs of decades ago—if you’re my age, you remember the underground and in-your- face jazz clubs of the ‘60s. The club was small, and smoking was allowed, but with the efficient ventilation, we couldn’t smell any smoke at all. The cover charge was 10 CUC and included one drink.  Compared to the Buena Vista Club at 65 CUC, this was a deal.

The band was amazing––Mary Rodriquez has a drop-dead-killer voice, a combination of Ella Fitzgerald and Janice Joplin. The stage was crowded with a piano player, six string bass players, a snare and conga drummer, trumpeters, and one of best saxophone players I've heard in years. They were young, brilliant, and amazing.

When I told the owner of the club, Arturo, that Bob Montgomery was with us, Arturo said he would be thrilled to invite him onstage. When the show started, we were all riveted to our seats. At the end of the third number, Mary Rodriquez announced that Bob Montgomery was in the audience, and she invited him to join her onstage.  They played “Summertime” and brought the house down––it was truly the best night of the trip. A once-in-a-lifetime musical and cultural experience!

Saturday May 12 We wrapped up our nine-day trip with a visit to Eduardo Choco Roca, Cuba’s most-renowned collagrapher.  We observed the techniques that he uses to make his textured lithographs, like applying the acrylic paints to a pressed board, then adding sand to create the texture. The painting is then put into a press, rolled out, and dried. He visits junkyards for scrap metal and goes to the beach to collect sand. This collagraphic style for which he is known is based on his struggles to become an artist.  

From foot-tapping music in the streets to underground jazz clubs to the creative home-cooked meals in the family-run paladars, Cuba rocks!