I go out again in the morning, the other way on the Malecón today. There are fishermen again, and some out in boats on the water too. The waves occasionally send some spray over the wall, and there are puddles on the sidewalk. Some high-rise hotels, another sports complex looking sorta thing, and then some fortish looking buildings.
I’ve come to what seems like the end, at least the road goes down into a tunnel and there doesn’t seem to be a clear way to continue on foot, so I head back toward the casa, but on surface streets through the neighborhood rather than along the Malecón. Again, people on their way to work or school. I see a man in a basement workshop making furniture.
The same tasty breakfast and coffee, and the group assembles for the day’s adventures. We walk over to by the ice cream park to catch taxis to go to the home of musicologist Dr. Olavo Alén Rodriguez. He’s going to be giving us a lecture on Cuban music.
I’m in the first taxi with three others. It’s a bit of an adventure, with a certain amount of make your own lane, and some spots where I’m thinking “I hope this street is one way.” Then it turns out the driver doesn’t know exactly where we’re going. He stops and asks someone, they don’t know the street name he asks about. One of our group has a map, but he’s not so interested in that. A little later he stops and asks a second person on the street and they know and we are delivered successfully to our destination.
It’s actually a few blocks from Dr. Rodriguez’s home, we’re running a bit late (wait, is that possible in Cuba?), but wait for the others. Cars slow, we wave them on, no thank you we don’t need a taxi. One stops. No taxi. Oh, it’s Dr. Rodriguez’s son, who’d been over for tech support, they were actually starting to wonder where we were. Gosh I wonder how he knew we (the four gringos standing on the corner, in a non-touristy neighborhood) were the ones headed to his father’s house? The rest of the group arrives shortly, they’d caught a station wagon, which everyone else fit into.
We walk through the neighborhood to Dr. Rodriguez’s. We’re actually up on a bit of a hill, although it didn’t seem like that much of an elevation gain we can see out over the city and pick out some landmarks like the dome of the Capitol.
Despite our tardiness, Dr. Rodriguez is very gracious, and gives us a tour of his home. It’s neat to see a private home that isn’t a casa particular, although as a professor it isn’t necessarily representative of most Cuban households. Lots of books, which is great, and some fantastic art.
We get seated in the living room, and he launches in to his Introduction to Cuban Music, or, as he says it might be better called, Introduction to Cuban People Through Their Music. He’s often asked how many types of Cuban music there are, and has come up with 5: Son, Rumba, Canción, Danzón and Punto guajiro. Each arose from a particular set of circumstances a group of people faced at a particular time and place in Cuba.
He’s given this talk, or a version of it who knows how many times before, and doesn’t have any notes that I see, but just speaks, with encyclopedic knowledge. Amazing detail, and great stories to illustrate his points, he obviously loves this topic, and probably could have spoken the rest of the day. We were booked for the afternoon though, so although it seemed to pain him a bit to be less thorough, he did get through the later types in a bit speedier fashion.
Although, after being in a bit of a rush, the taxis they thought they’d arranged to come pick us up did not show up at the appointed time, then one did come, but it was only one, not the three we needed.
Well, may as well get started, four of us get in and head back down town. We’re going to a particular restaurant for lunch, Castas & Tal, and the taxi drops us close but not exactly at it. There’s a fellow on the street, hustler is maybe a bit strong of a word, but he wants to guide us to a restaurant for a tip. He thinks we should go one direction, for some (totally unknown) reason I think it’s the opposite direction. Which it turns out to be, and just a block away.
We get settled in, and eventually decide to order, since we have an afternoon drum lesson and no idea when the others will arrive. One of the day’s specials is tuna, there’s the usual white rice and black beans, and some vegetables. All super tasty. A second group arrives, having finally gotten a taxi, they have instructions for what to order for the last group, which eventually arrives as well.
We walk over to our second drum lesson with Siete Potencias. Up up up the narrow steep stairs again. This time we end up splitting in to two groups, one continues with the same pattern we did yesterday, with Hermes, the director. A few of us work on a variation and then some other patterns. We’re all in the same room but somehow it works.
The afternoon zips by and then it’s off to dinner. There’s kids in the street playing basketball, but no hoop, they just shoot to hit a spot on the wall. A couple blocks away we see some kids practicing drumming and dancing.
Walking, most of the way in the pedestrian malls. Oh, potential ice cream. No, we’re on our way to dinner. There’s a big, grand old theatre that’s being refurbished, and the Capitol, that’s also being fixed up. Parque Central, with a statue of Martí with a bird on his head. Wait, that’s a real bird. For a moment it flies over and sits on his outstretched hand, but I don’t get it in electrons.
We continue in to old Havana, and have a few minutes to walk around the cathedral square before our dinner at Paladar Doña Eutimia. I notice that the Taller Experimental de Gráfica is next door to the restaurant. Not open though. I’ll have to come back some time when they are.
I go with the recommendation for picadillo a la habanera – ground beef with olives and raisins – which sounds a little odd, but hey, I’m here. When in Cuba… It turns out to be a hash like dish, with tomato(?) sauce and spices, onion and pepper along with the already mentioned items. It’s super tasty and there’s the usual sides.
The cover of the menu looks like a lino cut, and printed on hand-made paper. I wonder if it was done next door. I ask when I go to the bathroom, and yes, the menu was done next door. There are previous versions they’ve also done that are hanging by the bathroom. I’d like to have a copy, and ask, saying I can buy it. The proprietor says she will give me an old one, which she does. It has a small tear on one edge, but doesn’t really seem old. I thank her.
On the go again, through more of old town, some outside night life, a band playing in one of the squares. Then into a bit less touristy area. Darker and a bit run down, I don’t feel unsafe, but am glad to be with a group.
We’re going to Casa Yoruba, for a performance by Obini Bata, another group we will have a lesson with. I’m not quite sure if they were waiting for us or if it was a regularly scheduled show. At first we’re the only ones there, but we don’t fill the space and later there are some other audience members who aren’t in our group. We’re going to order drinks but turns out they don’t have all the ingredients for mojitos and then a second choice they didn’t have either and I end up figuring OK that’s the universe saying no drink for you. There’s music playing, and Enrique Iglesias song comes on as we’re waiting.
Eventually it’s show time. Amazing drumming and dancing. The bata are two-headed, hour-glass shaped drums which are held horizontally on a stand and traditionally played by men. Obini Bata was the first all woman bata ensemble. Besides the bata they play a variety of other drums and percussion instruments and sing. And there’s some audience participation. (Note to self don’t sit in the front row.) There were very stern warnings about no photos or recording, but people do and no one gets yelled at. There’s an intermission, well Obini Bata takes a break, and we get a couple of lounge songs, one by a woman, one by a man. Both good singers, just a bit incongruous. Well, it’s all music, right?
We catch a taxi back to the casa, scoring a station wagon that we all fit in to. A few of the guys stay out in search of more music, and end up seeing (a version of) Buena Vista Social Club. (It sounds like on most nights somewhere in Havana there is a group playing that has at least one member who has some sort of association with BVSC, which then gets on the bill.) This particular show was actually sold out already, but it sounded like they were able to get a great view through some windows right next to the stage.
It’s Friday night, and there’s more activity and noise on the Avenida, so it takes me a bit longer to fall asleep, but eventually I do.