Go Ahead Director of Product Development Lael recently explored Cuba and was blown away by the island’s varied cultural experiences. Here, he shares some musical highlights—one of the many aspects of local culture you’ll see on a tour of Cuba.
After 55 years of very limited access, political changes in both the United States and Cuba have allowed increasing numbers of U.S. travelers to discover this vibrant and fascinating country on a people-to-people cultural exchange trip.
The capital city of Havana is less than a one-hour flight from Miami, but a world away in terms of lifestyle. What is most striking about visiting Cuba is the abundance of cultural wealth versus the lack of material wealth. Cuba is a very poor country—food rationing, half-empty shops and dilapidated historic buildings are a part of life. But on the other hand, Cuba is one of the most culturally alive and vivacious countries in the world. People hold on to local customs, practices and creativity with a vaunted courage and steadfastness that has remained unchanged through the Communist era.
Music permeates Cuban culture, through the sounds of the rumba, casino, trova, son, jazz and reggaeton. Not only is the variety and quality astounding, but Cuban musicians are everywhere—from street corners and community centers to bars, restaurants and people’s homes. One of the best places to hear traditional Cuban music is at the famous Buena Vista Social Club in Old Havana. Throughout Havana, there are a number of music venues that offer quality performances of Cuban classics and the beloved sounds many will recognize from the documentary film, also called Bueno Vista Social Club. At these venues, patrons get a chance to interact with the musicians and dancers to gain a deeper understanding of the people who bring the performance to life.
Actively keeping traditions alive is deeply rooted in the Cuban way of life, and musical traditions are no exception. A community project that I visited in Central Havana, called the Callejon de Hammel, celebrates Afro-Cuban culture in the form of music, dance and art. Every Sunday, the community puts together a lively show of rumba music and dance. The performance weaves together the Afro-Cuban religious customs of Yoruba, Santeria and Abakuá, with drum circles, colorful costumes and ritualistic dance. The dancing and music go on for hours, giving visitors a chance to see inside the soul of the Afro-Cuban community. The Sunday show mostly consists of locals celebrating their culture while engaging with the few outside visitors who help keep the project afloat. The Callejon de Hammel is for the benefit of the Afro-Cuban community, so it also provides studio space for local artists.
Another musical project I visited was in the university city of Santa Clara in central Cuba. The city is famously the home of the mausoleum of Che Guevara, one of the most iconic players of the Cuban Revolution. The community project, called Melodias Antillanas, performs at the art and performance center Casa de la Cultura. It was great to be able to speak with the band members, and to learn about how they restored all of their instruments from antiques—carefully patching holes in the drum set, re-welding a trumpet back together, and finding a mishmash of odd parts to repair a trombone. Their ingenuity and ability to work with the resources they had is what made the music possible. The musical group partners with a group of elderly Cubans who teach traditional Cuban dance. The personal interactions I had with each dancer gave me a deeper connection to the individual Cuban people. They were as interested in my life as I was in theirs.
The best part of visiting Cuba is that it’s not a one-way show but a cultural engagement of two societies. It’s about people who are equally curious about each other, and there’s no better way to engage in this relationship than by enjoying some of the rich musical culture and traditions for which Cuba is famous.