St Pauli

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Cuba - Cafés and bars

Seafood and meat dishes at ex­cel­lent prices (0053 22 65 2292; En­ra­mada 605 be­tween Calle Bar­nada y Plaza de Marte). named af­ter a ru­ined French cof­fee plan­ta­tion in the moun­tains (now a Un­esco World Her­itage Site), the aroma of roasted beans filled the old tav­ern, which has been serv­ing Cuban cof­fee since 1868. The black, bit­ter drink is sweet­ened with sugar and fol­lowed by a slug of can­chán­chara – the lo­cal brew, a blend of sugar-cane al­co­hol, lemon and honey, not un­like a caipir­inha.

Rum is an­other cel­e­brated lo­cal tip­ple. Don Fa­cundo Bac­ardí Massó dis­cov­ered the se­cret of age­ing rum and opened his first fac­tory in San­ti­ago in 1862, but the Bac­ardís left Cuba when com­pa­nies were na­tion­alised by Cas­tro’s new govern­ment around 100 years later. To­day’s big brands are Ron Caney and Ron San­ti­ago. Drunk in a mo­jito or a daiquiri, they help loosen the limbs and in­hi­bi­tions when the call to the dance floor must be an­swered.

In the Casa de la Trova in down­town San­ti­ago, I sat down sim­ply to lis­ten to a son cubano band, Septeto Cum­bre, but be­fore long I was up on my feet, re­spond­ing to its African-Span­ish-Cuban combo of double bass, güiro (a hol­low gourd, played by rub­bing a stick along the notches cut in one side), mara­cas, drums, cam­pana (a bell), gui­tar and flute. A white-capped Cuban, Iván, beck­oned me to join him. He led, twirling me in vueltas (laps) around a room lined with paint­ings of the greats of son un­der the whirr of the ceil­ing fan. The Cuban an­thro­pol­o­gist and es­say­ist Fer­nando Or­tiz once de­scribed this heady mu­sic as “au­di­tory rum”.

Learn­ing about the conga and the com­parsas with Félix Ban­dera Ble, I came to ap­pre­ci­ate San­ti­ago’s unique blend of cul­tural, pa­tri­otic and re­li­gious in­flu­ences: African drums were used to carry arms, medicines and mes­sages to the mam­bises (rev­o­lu­tion­ary fight­ers in Cuba’s War of In­de­pen­dence against Spain); a life-size model of a white horse, be­long­ing to the Chris­tian apos­tle San­ti­ago, pa­rades along­side Los Hoyos as they dance the conga; the colours of the conga in turn sig­nify the Or­ishas (saints) of San­tería – red for the war­rior Changó, yel­low for the fem­i­nine and sen­sual Ochún; and the “burn­ing of the devil”, which takes place in early July each year, is not just an anachro­nis­tic rit­ual but an es­sen­tial prac­tice be­lieved to exterminate evil.

“The devil ef­figy has to burn com­pletely,” Félix Ban­dera Ble told me, “oth­er­wise prob­lems will arise in the city. In 2012, the devil did not burn com­pletely and Hur­ri­cane Sandy later caused a lot of dev­as­ta­tion.” This month, I am told, there was noth­ing left but ashes, herald­ing a more aus­pi­cious year.

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