Another highlight of being introduced to all forms of Cuban music on a recent trip to Havana was visiting a dance studio in an upscale section of the city where we were treated to a performance by Habana Compas Dance, a group of young, energetic, full-of-life musicians who used everything from castanets to colorfully painted kitchen-table type chairs to present their rhythm, percussion and music with wild abandon but precise and well-practiced symmetry.
It’s the chairs that are most unusual. When they begin their concert for even a small gathering seated on long benches, they’re sitting in these chairs and playing their several different types of drums, flutes, castenets, and other instruments designed to bring out the African and Spanish cultural heritage that’s evident in the music. That moves on to the musicians also performing some intricate dance moves, then standing up and playing the chairs as very effective drums. They switch the chairs around with great dexterity and end up by playing not only the seats and the backs, but also playing and sitting at the same time. It’s unique entertainment, and miniature colorfully painted chairs similar to those used for the performances are available for sale in the attached gift shop as a memento of the performance.
In contrast, the dance studio also offered spectacular ballet by dancers dressed even for rehearsal in formal and highly ornate ballet attire, complete with flowers in their well coifed hair.
Just as music is everywhere in Havana, so is art. In addition to neighborhoods like Pavel’s, our host for the trip through Cuba Educational Travel, where the neighbors turn out to scrub down the outsides of the buildings and create stories and beauty in color, so, too professionals have turned the fronts of huge buildings into historic scenes. It’s one of the reasons why taking walks through the very safe but often cobbled and poorly paved sidewalks of the city is a true treat.
Compared to 2016, it appears there are many more tourists from the United States and other countries wanting to spend a few days or weeks in Cuba. There were also many more groups doing guided tours through Old Havana and a lot more activity on the streets in reaction to the added tours.
For those of us staying in casas in the heart of Old Havana, it’s only a block or two from one of the many squares that dot the city and form the confluence of several streets leading in all directions. Many of the squares have huge cathedrals or churches, all have restaurants, most with charming outside seating so you can observe the other tourists walking and looking, a few have gift shops, though most of them appear to be the front rooms of private homes on the streets leading to the square. This year, there were vendors in the square, including a table with two ornately dressed women who, for ten CUCS (about $9.00) offered to tell your fortune through Tarot cards. I opted out of the experience when she asked me where I was from…shouldn’t a fortune teller know that already?
Something else new in the main squares this year is the presence of that New Orleans style entertainer painted to look like a real statue, then standing motionless for hours as people pass, some noticing the ‘new statue’, some not paying any attention to it, some daring it to move. In Havana, the entertainers feel as entertained as those they are entertaining and like getting into the act. Particularly fun was a black painted and dressed bank robber, set up, of course, in front of a bank. He had on a cowboy hat, long coat, and was carrying a pistol in each hand. The safety deposit box at his feet had a rope around it, but a slot in the top to accept donations. He sood motionless for long periods of time, yet when a youngster or very curious adult came up close, the bandito quickly turned his guns on the unsuspecting investigator, much to the laughter of a crowd that always seemed to surround him.
Another entertainer was shimmering in shiny copper, apparently a minor complete with pick, and a thermos at his waist.
Just off one of the main squares, the entire block long wall, in contrast to Pavel’s brilliantly colored and artistic displays, is a very tasteful and magnificent bi-color depiction of ladies and gentlemen entering a stately building for a ball or evening event. Tour guides explain the story the painting tells, but even without the description, it’s beautiful to see.
In contrast to the beauty, the Museum of the Revolution has outdoor as well as indoor displays, including planes and other vehicles used during the Revolution that changed the country forever.
Next: Pavel and Sondra, a most unique couple