June 26, 2012
I am reminded of Juan Rulfo’s short story, “Luvina”.
Few experiences are more decadent than chugging through hot, thick green, humid countryside in a huge, brand spanking new, air-conditioned tour bus, only a quarter of which is filled with fellow tourists. That these traveling companions happened to be sixteen spirited art advocates devoted to the United States’ oldest artist residency program, The MacDowell Colony, and that I happened to be the lucky composer invited to come along as the Colony’s “arts ambassador,” made the journey particularly special.
Of course, so did occasionally swigging from bottles of cheap rum in the back of the bus like misbehaving school kids.
But most strikingly decadent of all was that this wasn’t the usual straw-hat-and-SPF tourist junket Americans tend to favor. No.
We were rumbling through the streets and countryside of Cuba.
And we were riding in luxury…
(Irony doesn’t begin to describe it: during part of a four hour ride from Havana to Cienfuegos, we were shown the 20/20 interviews Barbara Walters did with Fidel Castro).
…in a place in which very, very few can afford any ride at all.
A month after returning, I’m still processing the trip, though the rum has long since filtered through my happily besotted liver. I’m certain I’ll still be thinking about Cuba for a very long time. In fact, I had so many contrasting experiences in the mere eight days inhaled on the island, that pondering just how to present them all within these pixels, I concluded that the most verbose composer you may know is incapable of choosing the words and photographs that could possibly do any of it justice.
But of course, being the most verbose composer you may know, that does not stop me from posting something.
Um, how do you say, “loquacious” in Spanish?
And so, I depart for a moment from my regularly scheduled giddy blog programming of San Juan Island nature, in all its freedom and joy, so that I may bring you a glimpse of another isle that is the exact same, meager, 90-mile distance to Key West as my home is to Tacoma. That linear span, and the non-linear one of joy, are possibly the sole things Cuba has in common with the States. Freedom has been missing there for a very, very long time.
One of the many 18th century canons overlooking Havana’s harbor from the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña.
hypocritical convenient workaround to be able to enter Cuba from the U.S. these days, is that our arts-oriented trip had to comply with being deemed a “humanitarian mission.” Thus, we each lugged roughly ten pounds of school and medical supplies with us, to donate to a church that will distribute them. As I observed throughout the week, the gifts of band-aids, Bic pens and chalk– quite simple by U.S. standards– were much needed.
Our group, with Jesus’s torso dangling above our heads, and a very kind nun sticking real close to me to make sure I didn’t drink all the communion wine.
The art-making in Cuba is fantastic. We viewed a terrific amount of it during the visit, which coincided with Havana’s Bienale, a city-wide festival celebrating Cuba’s contemporary art with a surprising degree of stark socio-political commentary. Visual arts, performance art, theater, photography, dance, and of course, music, are vibrant there, and the artists are highly active and valued. In fact, artists are among the best paid people in this country, in which the average monthly income for professionals like doctors and engineers can be as little as $20. Hmmm…
So there I was in the midst of it all; by day, visiting studios and passing sophisticated art installations along Havana’s seaside Malecón, and by night, swinging my lilting hips to the incredible sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club musicians…
… as Fidel…
… and the ghost of Che…
…lorded over the deterioration and slums surrounding the venues in which those amazing artists worked and performed.
From their soviet-era perch over Plaza de la Revolución, the former rebels, who once might have offered Cubans an option more attractive than the Batista-era corruption (replete with tacky mafia casinos and big-time Hollywood celebs), remind artists and their fellow Cubans that they best not take their free expression too far. After seeing plenty of paintings that were obviously critical of the country, I asked a Cuban how it was possible that these pieces were allowed to be publicly displayed. The answer: as long as no artist disses The Man himself, Fidel Castro. Should they dare, they will be essentially blacklisted and unable to participate in government exhibits (read: the important ones), nor will their, uh, standard of living, be nearly as comfortable.
Um, how do you say, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” in Spanish?
It’s as if the hope these men once offered is frozen on the face of a broken clock, by which people are ordered to tell accurate time.
Graphics, particularly of Che Guevara, abound throughout the city. Perhaps it’s metaphoric that his image is often found on peeling plaster.
Gazing high into the clouds, turkey vultures can almost always be spotted circling above Havana.
They are waiting for the buildings to die.
This tree grows defiantly, five stories above the middle of the city, like an air fern clinging stubbornly to a soil-less rock. Human nature is like this: it will find a way to survive under the most inconvenient of circumstances.
But forget about living analogies. Daily life in Cuba is like an iceberg: the part seen above the water belies the magnitude of what lurks beneath the visible surface.
And in Cuba, much occurs beneath the visible surface: not only amidst the rulers, but amidst those who are ruled. Despite the endless list of basic necessities that Cubans are either denied, or out-priced from obtaining, they still find very creative ways to wheel and deal for what they can. Everybody’s got an angle on something. Everybody knows somebody who can line them up with what they need, at a better price. The problem is that it’s still never enough to make a real difference.
Unless, of course, it’s almost too much. Well, for the tourists.
Everything you’ve heard about the Tropicana? Yes, it’s true.
Except that all those gorgeous writhing dancing bodies are wearing body suits, dammit! Nonetheless, I was not about to leave Cuba without experiencing this quintessential outdoor nightclub’s titillating extravaganza-on-a-communist-budget spectacle. Just imagine.
That’s right, you can’t. And I still can’t, and I witnessed the damn thing.
With every ticket, a table gets a fifth of cheap rum.
Let me confess, that was not quite enough rum to anesthetize my comrades and I, once the singers departed from the great Afro-Cuban numbers, went on to the well, okay, disco-Cuban stuff, and then launched into a cheesy-synth, harshly mic’ed, Phantom of the Opera set.
Um, how do you say, “oy, vey!” in Spanish?
Moving right along…
After several days in Havana, we timed our arrival on the other side of the island in lovely, 500-year old Trinidad, to coincide perfectly with that of a tropical storm. Undeterred by a
little bit deluge of warm Caribbean rain, one evening after dinner a handful of us ventured a quarter mile from the hotel to see what music was going on at the local joint, Casa de Trova. It was not: the locals had far more sense than silly tourists. And then it was, thanks to a chance encounter I had while paused in the wet darkness across the street from the entrance, trying to figure out how to cross a suddenly raging current that was quickly turning the cobblestone into a river bed, in order to join two friends on the other side. Yes, this sounds like a chicken joke. Anyway, as I stood there like a drowned rat, a young man hurried past me in his effort to get home. It was the sole person I knew in the village, Edgar the magician, who had given a few of us an impromptu performance at the hotel the previous night.
I mean, really: what are the chances?
When I explained that we had shown up hoping to hear music, Edgar heroically announced, “I’m a musician!”
Unconcerned by the veracity of his claim, I removed my shoes and we made it across.
Edgar got a friend to bring over a guitar. Bongos were already mounted on a stand.
He and his friend were terrific. We sang and clapped and danced and drank our Bucanero beer from happy red cans.
And the rain came down. And down. In torrents.
And the raging river of the main plaza began coursing into the club.
There may have been six or seven of us in there, and as the water rose, so did we. Migrating with a relaxed sense of, uh, urgency, to the back section of the Casa de Trova as a stream now impressively cascaded down the stairs that were inside the club, we proceeded to hole up for the next couple of hours, hoping the electricity would stay on if only to keep the beer cold. A set of rapids zipped through the streets at calf level, and the little village was now impassable. But the more convincing reason to hang out with another cerveza and a few more rounds of Guantanamera was that the locals feared power lines were down (did I mention the really high winds?) and we’d be electrocuted. Oh, that.
Sometime before 1 a.m. there was a slight break in the downpour, and we decided it was safe enough to try to return to the hotel. Edgar and his friend were quite noble and insisted on seeing the three of us back, which was entirely the opposite direction of where they needed to go.
The most memorable parts of a trip are often the most unexpected ones. The sensation of hard, slippery cobblestone under my bare soaked feet as I tried to keep my balance while negotiating 500-year old, empty streets-turned-creeks in the dark of Trinidad, is one I will not forget. I suddenly felt connected to the generations before me, for whom this would have been the norm.
Um, how do you say, “thanks, guys!” in Spanish?
It was not yet 2 a.m. when I opened the door to my very nice hotel room to find half of it lightly flooded. Being on the second of several floors, I had no idea where all the water had come from. It didn’t matter. I found a dry spot in which to sleep, and by eight the next morning, our bus and its still-damp occupants retraced the path back to Havana.
The Prado, which boasts the five-star hotel in which we stayed, was once beautiful. Its polished stone benefits from the shine of the rain, the way dim light in a cocktail bar catches the high cheekbones of an aging woman who was a stunner in her twenties.
Turn up the lights, and be confronted with the truth.
As I hiked down one side of the wide colonnade and up the other, conflicting emotions of “this is so wonderful/this is so deeply sad” were interrupted too regularly by aggressive cat calls. A necessary uptick in my gait precluded my ability to shoot as many photos as I might have liked.
Walking through Havana is like experiencing the fall of Rome in a stop-animation film. This was an elegant city, filled with outstanding Colonial architecture that has been allowed to decay nearly beyond recognition. Gazing into the deepening layers of crumbling plaster is an exercise in socio-political archeology. Like jaw-breaker candies, every few licks of weather, history and strife reveal a new color of paint from a previous era. And every one of those colors has a story.
Oh, if these walls could talk.
Bare, decaying flesh of architectural history. Vibrant, warm Cubans. They share a technicolor exterior.
A revolution is indeed needed.
And the Cubans are still waiting.
Could a tourist take a look at seedier parts of Manhattan and make the same, negative assumptions about the United States? Sure. You can stay at a five-star in some parts of town, and walk half a block to a neighborhood whose residents couldn’t afford even one of the hotel’s washcloths. But the U.S., for all its many faults, is a free country in which the majority, if sadly not all, of its citizens have the option to do better.
Cuba is a world of contradictions. Where the promise of boundless utopia is slapped with the reality of unnecessary limitation.
Cuba provides free housing, but many of its people cannot afford electricity, telephone service, or house repairs.
Cuba provides free education, but many of its school rooms have few pencils and paper, much less computers.
Cuba provides free medical care, but many of its clinics and pharmacies remain understocked, lacking even the most basic necessities.
Cuba is covered with abundant, fertile countryside, yet vast landscapes of it lie unused in the face of a hungry population that has the potential to feed itself– and others.
The Cuban leaders say they want to help their people, yet they make it almost impossible to have WiFi, and censor what little of the internet can, at great expense, be glimpsed.
And the American government remains stuck in a 50 year old grudge-match embargo that has accomplished virtually nothing.
There is such beauty in this place.
The vista on the way to Cienfuegos and Trinidad.
There is such potential.
The Gran Teatro de La Habana is absolutely gorgeous.
There is such hope.
The art being made at Instituto Superior de Artes is first rate.
There is such frustration.
Taxi drivers repair their sixty year old American cars in front of the Capital building.
In electronic music, we refer to four, alterable states of sound collectively known as the envelope: Attack. Decay. Sustain. Release. Each of these events occur in linear time, and each can be adjusted from lasting an instant to a very, very long duration.
If only I had an envelope generator in my state-of-the-art digital project studio that could adjust Cuba.
This decay has sustained. Far, far too long. We wait for the release of the spirit and freedom of the wonderful people who call this beautiful island home.
Um, how do you say, “viva Cuba libre!” in Spanish?
Meanwhile, pass that rum to the back of the bus, por favor…!