Play like the Cubans…and make something wonderful happen
Cuba has almost become a parody of itself. We immediately gravitate to the cliches: Sexy, bearded revolutionaries, extravagant 50’s American cars and of course, the music. The thing is, all of that stuff is actual reality.
Having come back from spending nearly 4 weeks travelling in Cuba (my second trip), I feel as frustrated and inspired as I did after the first time. Cuba confounds our European logic and sensibilities. It’s a place of extreme contradiction. They have more qualified doctors in Cuba than than the entire African continent (…although a lot of them now seem to drive taxis or run hostels) and yet while we were there, there was a chronic shortage of baby’s nappies. There appears to be very little crime and no drug problems which sets it apart from most of it’s latin American neighbours. However, it was only a few years ago you may lose your job, or even get banged-up in a cuban jail should you be be overly critical of the regime. For normal Cubans (not tourists) there are regular shortages of food-stuffs. One lady we stayed with was still depending on her state ration book. No-one actually goes hungry or starves, but life ain’t easy.
A fragile economy disabled by the collapse of the Soviet Union followed by the punitive US blockade has left Cuba in a decrepit condition. Most people live in housing that:
a. would have been condemned and demolished years ago in the west or
b. resembles – from the outside – the most dismal and appalling squat you could imagine.
This latter point is extreme in Havana Central. These ‘appalling squats’ are the ghosts of fabulous and extravagant villas built by the rich, wealthy and corrupt of the early 20th century. Of course, step inside these dwellings and you will find immaculately clean and tidy interiors and normal families getting on with their lives. It’s an understandable but glib reaction to judge the Cuban book by its cover.
It’s difficult to make sense of it all. There’s nowhere else like it that I know. You cannot rationalise it. And maybe this is the key. There is a throbbing pulse of emotion in Cuba that keeps the place buzzing. The passion and belief in ‘La Revolucion’ may be a little threadbare but it’s still there and even older, and maybe even stronger, is the passion for music. Music is everywhere: Performed, practiced and generously shared. The love, passion and engagement with music pulses through the veins of Cuban society like it pulses from the bars, side streets, back yards and theatres. It’s a life force.
Devoid of mass marketing (well, any marketing actually), musicians are not isolated entities cooped-up in back rooms fiddling with software, fantasising about celebrity stardom. They are playing together and playing a lot. The house bands in bars and restaurants are playing together every day – probably performing twice a day. From the remotest, shabbiest establishment in Vinales (in the west of Cuba) to the busiest downtown bar in old Havana they are playing their hearts out. And this is not a trivial cliche. They are playing with commitment, skill and feeling – like they mean it.
Let me bring this to life. On one of our many wanderings through old Havana we heard a loud rock band really kicking ass. I was interested because I hadn’t heard a rock band after 3 weeks in the country. We turned a corner onto a square and all we could see was a large church ahead of us. Surely the band wasn’t practicing in the church? No. Right next to the church was a house with a back yard, fenced off with corrugated iron sheets. The band were in the yard and playing hard. They were good. I really wanted to see what was going on so found a street vantage point where I could see the singer and guitarist. They saw me taking a gander, smiled and immediately invited me to come over and join the fun.
Imagine it. A loud (good) band practicing in the morning outside, in a heavily populated city centre, next door to a church. No problem.
On another occasion, we got wind of a free afternoon gig in the ‘National Museum of Music’. We found it – actually right on Obispo, the main ‘shopping’ street of old Havana. A drab, echo-laden hall with a smattering of old plastic chairs. Pancho Amat, the world’s premier Tres player (traditional Cuban stringed instrument) plus his band were giving a full performance. What a band! about 20 Cubans and 3 tourists (us) were treated to an amazing event. If the same gig had been in a stadium of 20,000 people it would have been the same: total emotional commitment to the playing and performance. They exuded joy. They were having a ball. They were warm and welcoming.
I could go on with many stories like this but I will relay just one more and the most humble and unexpected of our music experiences. We were in a restaurant in Trinidad (Cuban city on the south coast of the island). Every restaurant is a concentration of tourists and every restaurant will usually have some live music. The musicians probably (?) get something from the restaurant and they pass the hat round and will try and sell you a CD. On this occasion, it was a duo – guitarist and singer. Again, slightly unusual as the bands typically have some form of percussion. I will be honest. I am wary about live music in restaurants. The spectre of dreadful and unsolicited accordions and loud violins in your face can really put me off my food. On this occasion, the female singer opened her mouth, the guitarist joined her with harmonies and within minutes I was weeping into my grilled fish. The female singer had an absolutely sublime voice. They were playing music for themselves, for the love of it, for the beauty of it. Of course, they were there to make a few bob, but actually, we tourists were just privileged bystanders to something wonderful.
I am not sure I am angry or delighted to see so much talent busking away. It’s tricky to make a crust as a musician anywhere. It’s true to say, musicians in the UK have less opportunities to perform than the Cubans. We still do it for the love rather than the money. So what can we learn from all of this?
One: Play music everyday with other musicians. Two: Never prioritise dry technical ability over feeling. Push your technique of course, but never forget that feeling and emotional depth are really what it’s about. Three: Let it always be joyful and generous Four: Music – the playing and the receiving of it has NOTHING to do with materialism.If you are talented and lucky someone might notice. Otherwise just do it for itself – It’s working on your brain in amazing ways.
Commit, practice and play like the Cubans and make something wonderful happen.
As a little tribute to Indira Roman and Havana (her home city), I have cobbled together a video over a recent recording we did (Know Him Well). Check this out in Our World.