LONG-DISTANCE LOVE AFFAIR
THE Western tourists at the Casa de la Trova in Santiago de Cuba can’t believe their luck. Onstage, just metres from where they are sitting around tables strewn with bottles of cola and Havana Club rum, a blackclad guitarist in a cowboy hat is singing Chan Chan, the song made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club. That this happens to be the same singer who sang on the Buena Vistas’ bestselling Grammy-winning 1997 album is, for most, fantasy made real.
‘‘ The feelings I have for you/ I cannot deny,’’ 65-year-old Eliades Ochoa croons in Spanish, singing the words written by his compadre Compay Segundo, and strumming the song’s trademark four chords. Inspired by its irresistible romanticism a few couples take to the dance floor; a middle-aged blonde woman in a Che Guevara T-shirt stands and sings along loudly. Someone strikes up a Cohiba cigar from a box probably bought in Havana, the sprawling capital on the other side of this 1250km-long Caribbean island and the first stop for most Cuba tours.
The traditional Cuban son of Ochoa and his band — think a combination of Spanish song and guitar and African rhythms and percussion — wafts over the colonial balcony and on to the streets, to where similarly tight-knit outfits are performing in squares, tourist hotels and other music houses. In the Casa de La Musica, a timba band is whipping Western salseros into a sweat. An AfroCuban rumba session is going on in the Casa del Caribe. The programmed beats of reggaeton rule at the outdoor La Claquetta, where young Cubans in lycra and baseball garb gyrate in pairs.
Cuba’s rhythms are as diverse as its melting pot population, most of whom trace their ancestry to African slaves or Spanish settlers, and all of whom love to dance. Professional dancers are groomed in statebacked ballet schools and folkloric companies. Talented musicians pour out of conservatories. Cuba may shudder under its own post-revolutionary weight, its buildings may be crumbling and derelict and its people struggling, but its artistic spirit is undiminished.
With a tropical climate and fabulous beaches it’s no wonder, really, why tourists have been descending on Cuba since Chan Chan went stratospheric. Courses in percussion, drumming and Spanish are thriving. A worldwide boom in salsa has seen hordes taking lessons from loose-limbed locals who’ve been salsa-ing since they could walk. Marketed as a place of cigars and rum, vintage cars and big-bottomed women, last year this lovely, beleaguered country welcomed 2.5 million international visitors. Many of these were Australian.
Getting to Cuba isn’t easy from Australia. While there are direct flights to the country from Britain, Europe, Canada and Mexico, anybody wanting to fly there from the Antipodes has to do so via one of these hubs as well (as must anybody in the US). But for those put off by the journey and expense, for Australia’s widespread community of Cuban expats — for anyone, basically, with an interest in music and dance — there’s a solution. Since our love affair with Cuba was jump-started by the timeless sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club more than a decade ago, Cuba has been coming to us.
‘‘ Australian audiences connect immediately with Cuban music,’’ says Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, the bandleader, composer and arranger often described as Cuban music’s most important contemporary figure. ‘‘ They seem to understand its authenticity despite the cultural differences.
‘‘ It’s the same everywhere,’’ he adds. ‘‘ I’ve seen people in eastern Europe and certain parts of Africa, people who’ve never heard the music before, feel compelled to get up and follow the rhythm in their own way.’’
It was Gonzalez, a conservatory-trained musician (and doctor of engineering) who had the idea for an all-star band of forgotten Cuban masters and, after teaming up with London-based record company World Circuit and American guitarist Ry Cooder, went looking for them.
A Toda Cuba Le Gusta (Everyone in Cuba Loves It), the 1997 album by Gonzalez’s 13-piece Afro-Cuban Allstars, paved the way for the twilight stardom of artists such as singer Ibrahim Ferrer and pianist Ruben Gonzalez, both of whom released albums under the Buena Vista banner.
Gonzalez remained a Buena Vista fixture for six years, touring, directing and producing between playing with Sierra Maestra, the Grammy-winning son group he co-founded in 1978 to keep this Cuban folk music alive. The Mexico-based Gonzalez is performing again with the Afro-Cuban Allstars, who played WOMAdelaide in March (on a bill with the Creole Choir of Cuba, who also toured), then entertained Brisbane with their mix of styles: bolero and guajira, rumba, danzon and cha-cha-cha.
Last year’s Australian tour by Los Van Van, the sprawling 20-piece orchestra cum music academy known as the Rolling Stones of Cuba, saw audiences out in force. Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club — featuring lesser-known original members — graced the Byron Bay Blues Festival. WOMAdelaide audiences cheered Eliades Ochoa (at the helm of World Circuit supergroup AfroCubism). Buena Vista diva Omara Portuondo, jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca and Latin jazz godfather Chucho Valdes have all been here.
The boldly titled Ballet Revolucion, an ambitious extravaganza with Australian producers and an all-Cuban cast, premieres in Perth next month, then tours nationally. The Bar at Buena Vista, a savvy take on the original concept that features 93-year-old sonero Reynaldo Creagh and Brisbane-based Cuban dancer Eric Turro, is touring Australia for the third time and is halfway through a seven-city schedule. (The hit show Lady Salsa, which toured Australia twice, ran for three months at the Gold Coast Casino in 2009.)
Gonzalez isn’t impressed with the BVSC hybrids: ‘‘ The real Buena Vista Social Club ended with the deaths of the original featured artists,’’ the genial but outspoken auteur insists. ‘‘ It was great that it reintroduced Cuban music to the world and brought it to the attention of a wider audience. But it also became a middle-class fashion and a lucrative business for world music promoters, who made the sort of money they’d never make from touring their usual bands.’’
The fad for all things Cuban arguably reached its peak in July 2000, when 40,000 people turned out to see the original Buena Vista Social Club perform in London’s Hyde Park. ‘‘ The bubble has probably burst for Cuban music in the UK and Europe,’’ says Andy Wood, director of UK-based Latin events promoters Como No.
‘‘ Cuban dance has become hugely popular,’’ Wood says. ‘‘ The Ballet Nacional hadn’t been to the UK for 20 years when it returned in 2006 and it’s now a regular visitor. Danza Contemporanea de Cuba is coming back next year. Constructed dance projects like Havana Rakatan’’ — a crowd pleaser that tells the history of Cuban music and dance and is in Sydney this month — ‘‘ do very well. It’s partly down to cycles of promotion, and the fact Cuba is one of the great cultural centres of the world.’’
Havana was America’s playground in the first half of the 20th century. Cuban music soundtracked Hollywood films. Cuban stars such as Beny More and Celia Cruz played the New York Palladium and interpreted the American songbook. Musicians including Chano Pozo collaborated with American jazzmen such as Dizzy Gillespie. The Buena Vista Social Club — the Havana members club after which the band was named — buzzed with musical life.
The 1959 revolution closed down venues and cut off contact; today’s musicians, while well educated, are largely denied access to decent instruments, wages and places to play. Visit the Disneyfied Old Havana or the beach resort of Varadero and you’ll find talented ensembles playing for a pittance in lobbies of hotels they’re forbidden entry into. Even the Buena Vista crew play Varadero once a month or so when they’re at home. If Cuban artists want to play abroad, if they want to keep cashing in on the BVSC brand, who can blame them?
‘‘ Not that [Cuban] musicians are properly paid, especially in America,’’ Gonzalez says. ‘‘ The Obama administration has relaxed the previous administration’s draconian restrictions in regards to the cultural exchange but little else. More than 40 ensembles have been gigging across America from the end of 2009 until now, and they only get a per diem. America doesn’t want to be seen to support ‘ Castro’s dictatorship’.’’ Similarly, some European promoters have been known to take advantage of Cuba’s plethora of firstclass musicians, only too aware many will accept paltry fees just for the chance to play. What, then, of promoters in Australia?
‘‘ The Afro-Cuban Allstars are paid international rates wherever we play,’’ Gonzalez says. ‘‘ But then everyone in our line-up either owns another passport or currently lives outside the island.’’
That Cuba has managed to withstand the US blockade for 52 years is, of course, remarkable. But while Western visitors marvel at the population’s resilience (‘‘Things are getting better step by step and at the end Cuba will recover,’’ Gonzalez reckons), Cubans get on with living their lives. For many that involves making art that exists beyond the tourist gaze.
‘‘ There’s more to my country than cigars and rum, vintage cars and big-bottomed women,’’ says Georges Cespedes, 31, a former Danza Contemporanea dancer who choreographed Mambo 3XX1, an electro hiphop take on the music of Perez Prado, for the company’s Brisbane Festival visit last year. ‘‘ My generation has more colours and flavours than that. We like to make people think. Otherwise what’s the point?’’
His friend Carlos Acosta, with whom Cespedes co-choreographed two contemporary dance pieces performed at the London Coliseum last July, agrees.
‘‘ There’s an artistic revolution waiting to happen in Cuba,’’ says the Royal Ballet principal, 38, who started his career with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, another Brisbane Festival headliner last year.
‘‘ There are so many different kinds of dances because of the mestizo [mix] of people and because the revolution made arts and sports open to everyone.
‘‘ Dancers in Cuba know ballet, martial arts, capoiera, Afro-Cuban rhythms . . . When you put this all into a Caribbean setting it becomes something very special. There is a lot of collaborating going on, which is something that interests me,’’ adds Acosta, who is in talks for an Australian season in 2013. (He was a guest artist with the Australian Ballet in 2008.) Artists have to keep moving forward, wherever they happen to be.’’
While Australian reviews for the collaborative Danza Contemporanea were