Cuba: the Beat Goes On

WHEN I see Daisy Fuentes in a Revlon ad, I think of a young woman who befriended my wife, Joan, and me on the dark streets of Old Havana.

Ms. Fuentes is a Havana-born New Jerseyite who hosts the weekly "MTV Internacional" show. She is expected to become even more visible in the fall when 24-hour programming of Spanish-language music begins.

Our friend in Havana did not actually use the Fuentes signature line "Chaucito, baby." But the same effervescence was there. Suddenly she took the Walkman earphones off her curly head and put them on me, so I could hear the beat - international rock-and-roll - that she was listening to.

That may have been after Joan told her I was a part-time drummer, and she said she was a pianist. I know it was after we identified ourselves as being from "los Estados Unidos," not Europe as expected, and the smile from the young woman and her companions seemed even warmer.

We were just asking directions to one of Ernest Hemingway's hangouts, La Bodeguita del Medio restaurant. The earphones were one more example of music surviving everywhere in a Cuba that doesn't have much to sing about these days. Earlier we'd driven a hitchhiker 50 miles from Varadero Beach to her home (she invited us in for refreshments), and she turned out to be a physics professor who had gone to the beach to try to get a musical trio together.

At the Bodeguita, we didn't know enough to ask for a table on the roof, where we later discovered a five-piece band. Of course, other musicians kept strolling through where we were eating black beans and rice.

Indeed, we could hardly stop anywhere for our favorite Cuban cold drink, fresh-squeezed orange juice, without a trio pausing to serenade us. Usually it was a guitar, bass, and quiet percussion (hardly louder than salt shakers and water drops), played impeccably, with one or more of the musicians singing.

MOST musicians are paid by the government, we were told, as bands in Russia used to be under communism. Now they may also get some tips from the tourists that Fidel Castro and his government are wooing. Canadians, Europeans, and Latin Americans are already conspicuous in the hotels, restaurants, and stores reserved for visitors with dollars under so-called "tourist apartheid." (Shades of the Batista-era elitism that egalitarian Castro set out to eliminate!) The United States travel industry is making pre parations against the day when Washington lifts restrictions on tourist travel to Cuba.

Some US citizens such as journalists and diplomatic guests (which we were early this year) are already authorized to visit Cuba. This summer, US defense experts and retired military officers have gone there for meetings in what may be part of a thaw.

But no "frequent-flyer" airlines operate between Cuba and the US. When Joan signed us up to fly from Miami with CBT (payment in US cash only), I somehow imagined a small plane on a windswept strip of sand, with the pilot seating us according to estimated weight. No, we were put aboard a 727 emblazoned "Lloyd's Aereo Boliviano" and crowded with Cubans returning from the US with duffel bags that looked big enough for stowaways.

"Peanut Vendor" throbbed on the cabin tape before takeoff and, not very tactfully, the Caribbean capitalist anthem "Rum and Coca-Cola" came on just before our landing in one of the world's last command economies. The song we heard most often in Cuba also goes back several decades: "Besame Mucho" was delivered softly and breathily at our coffee table, the only one occupied, on the seaview verandah of the Hotel Nacional; it was belted out with Broadway emotion by star Omara Portuondo for the motley interna tional crowd under the trees full of perching showgirls at the Tropicana nightclub.

Portuondo was gracious when we happened to meet her at the offices of the National Theater, where we missed an experimental production of "Hamlet" but saw the stage all ready for a Havana Symphony concert. She gave us a poster.

So did the group Fusion 4, whose picture has them grouped around a vintage automobile like a rock band on a record jacket. But Fusion 4 plays mainstream jazz with a Latin flavor.

Between sets in the Hotel Neptuno cafe the drummer/leader Rene Luazurique Hernandez spoke about jamming with Dizzy Gillespie when the late trumpeter made his historic visit to Cuba several years ago. He also praised the "heart" of vibraphonist Milt Jackson of the Modern Jazz Quartet. He told how, "with a good antenna," he taped jazz from the US all night.

The African side of Cuban music kindled the air at the folklore building where we kibitzed at a rehearsal of congo steps by dancers of various colors, ages, and shapes instructed by a senior citizen. By contrast, Tchaikovsky rippled at the Garcia Lorca Theater, where "Swan Lake" was danced in classic Petipa style by the National Ballet, still directed by Alicia Alonso in her 90s. A handsome tuxedoed pianist at a popular restaurant sang "The Shadow of Your Smile" and other classic US tunes a la Bobby Shor t. And at the Inglaterra Hotel, in a big bare tiled dining room, a trio of gray-haired ladies played "La Vie en Rose" on piano, bass, and violin.

At another hotel we applauded an eight-piece band playing strictly Cuban music for a scanty crowd near the pool (where the gig appeared to be about 14 hours a day off and on). During a break a couple of players came over to our table, and we talked music in a dissonant mixture of Spanish and English.

Finally I understood that the maracas player (I didn't know how complex and nuanced maracas playing could be) was selling a cassette recording of the band. When I said yes, a certain atmosphere of conspiracy arose. The cassette would cost $10. OK, I said, sparing no expense for the sake of a unique memento.

At that, the maracas player offered me a cigarette. When I declined, he placed the open pack on the table and gave it a significant Jack Nicholson glance, though he looked much more like Donald Sutherland. And, like an old hand among entrepreneurs in communist countries, I rolled up a $10 bill and stuck it in the cigarette package. He whisked the pack into his pocket, smiled, and brought out an unmarked Sony cassette of the kind used for home recording.

Would it be as blank as it looked? I went so far as to ask for the name of the band. Instead of telling me, he said I would find it on a sign in the lobby. Trying to make light of things, I ventured, "Mucho misterioso!"

Then he became as serious as Sutherland, the conspiracy theorist in the movie "JFK." He looked around and said, "It's impossible here."

For all the friendliness and resilience of the Cubans we met, many are finding it "impossible" in an economy that has lost the support of Moscow and continues to face a US embargo. There are the frequent blackouts, scheduled and unscheduled. (One morning, when the water went off too, I found I could shave in a glass of Evian.) There are the crowds endlessly waiting for smoky Hungarian buses - and the young men clinging dangerously to the outsides when they come. There's a steady stream of bicycles - many

of them Chinese Flying Pigeons - with two, three, even four people to a bike. A thread of people along every roadside, flapping their hands in hopes of a ride, suddenly appears like deer in your headlights in the dead of the night.

"Everyone's thinner," said a US official handling Cuban visa applications in the US Interest Section, the quasi-embassy in Havana. "You can tell by their passport photos that were made three or four years ago."

No wonder visiting journalists write articles and books with titles like Andres Oppenheimer's "Castro's Final Hour." They are a far cry from the earlier "In Cuba," by Nicaraguan poet-priest-Marxist Ernesto Cardenale, a self-styled skeptic who found a positive side to just about every deficiency of the revolution as he saw it in 1970.

In the '90s, Oppenheimer finds disaffected youth and their musical hero, Carlos Varela, who claims to support the revolution and to want to correct its failures. With a mixture of rock and Cuban folk music, he greets a full house of 5,000 at Havana's Karl Marx Theater. He plays three notes of "William Tell," and the crowd cheers.

It's a song about the son of William Tell getting tired of having the apple as a target on his head and saying it's time to switch and make the father prove his valor.

Another Varela song attacks the privileges of tourists under tourist apartheid: "It's all happening here, and I want to change it."

We tell ourselves that we may have been part of the apartheid problem, but maybe our spending was part of the economic solution, too. I had dollars in three pockets, a wallet, and a concealed belt, because US plastic credit is no good in Cuba.

It took a wad of folding money to pay for our modest purchases at the government art store in Santiago, and I tried to joke about "high finance" with the cordial clerk who was scrupulously filling out large forms. She smiled and said, yes, high finance, but not for her - for Fidel. Then, like other Cubans who referred in one way or another to their hardships, she went on to insist that it was all worthwhile for the good education and health care provided by Castro (though these, too, have reportedly been

affected by economic decline).

We were at the government store because it was the only place we could buy something by a blithe young artist, Manuel Toledano, whose work we'd seen over in the next block. He had hailed us when we were looking for yet another sound of Cuba, a legendary storefront music hall called the Casa de la Trova. Just when we thought we had understood in Spanish that the hall would not open that day as scheduled - it opened.

And here we were in a time warp, with photos of bygone stars on the walls and an older Cuban generation politely applauding the first notes of traditional songs the way Varela's fans cheered the revised "William Tell." Or it would have been a time warp if young musicians had not taken turns with the vintage performers on the tiny stage. Here was a place for visitors to expand their knowledge of Ernesto Lecuona beyond "The Breeze and I."

When we got back to the States, one of Cuba's latest exports, trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval, was playing on the Grammy Awards show. Cuban abstractionist Wifredo Lam's paintings were on view in New York. Daisy Fuentes was profiled in the New York Times. (She dreams of opening a "great little restaurant" in Varadero: "We'd play all kinds of crazy music.") And the unlabeled tape I bought was not blank. It was a swinger, Cuban-style, including the song whose pencil-written lyrics the maracas player showed

me he was still trying to memorize.

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