"Vacations" are not something that musicians tend to take. We travel for gigs, we seek out songs wherever we are, music is our vehicle for seeing the world. We are strange tourists. We always speak the language.
Last month I spent a blissful sixteen days traveling around Cuba with a very good friend of mine from high school. He had some time to use from work and had been asking me to take a trip with him for a good year or so. My hesitation was not about not wanting to go. I was tangled up in building a career and gigging and booking and working a part-time job at a needle exchange and writing for a new album and recording and translating and staying up late and getting up early and ... oh yeah, maybe trip could be a good thing.
I realized early on in my studies that Cuba was one of my top choices for places to visit. I received my Bachelor's and Master's Degree in Latin American Studies at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island. In my overview of the novelists, poets and artists of Latin America, I found myself drawn to the soulful, bright, tropical, sensual aesthetics of Cuban culture. I connected with the small but quality Latin music scene of mostly Cubans in Victoria and fell in love with the poetic lyrics, swinging tumbao, harmony singing, coros and witty improvisaciones that are at the heart of Cuban Son and Salsa.
We started our trip in La Habana and spent the first five days mostly wandering around the brightly colored, crumbling city in awe. We took in the surreal experience of seeing the city from inside beautifully maintained '57 Chevrolets and Thunderbirds. We tried to articulate its strange isolation, and marveled at the utilitarian use of vehicles and furniture that might elsewhere be kept away behind glass or on the shelves of an overpriced vintage boutique. This was the opposite of a throw away culture that requires upgrading and tells us to replace. This was repair and rebuild, keep and treasure. Resources are scarce. Gratitude for what is gifted is deep. Present-day Cuba gave me a longing and nostalgia for a time in American history I hadn’t ever experienced and a new perspective on my relationship to material things.
Our first morning in the country we took our time walking along the iconic malecón until we found ourselves suurounded by the drums, dancing and singing of a real, breathing afternoon rumba at Callejón de Hamel, a cultural center of sorts build with all recycled material, decorated with Martí quotes and tributes to orishas. It was the perfect welcome to Havana and set the tone for the rest of our trip. We sought out music every night, I sat in and did quite a bit of singing, we danced for hours, drank bilongos made with local honey and smoked cigars. We saw a jazz show where Chucho Valdes’ kids were headlining and followed it up with a drag show around the corner.
We traveled to five cities around the island including the famed Santiago de Cuba, a city that proves that many of life’s greatest things are off the grid. Heavy with Haitian and African cultural influences and rich with history, Santiago was a truly magical experience for me and well-worth the thirteen hour bus ride from Trinidad. Santiago is known as “the cradle of Cuban music” and it was there we stumbled upon one of the deepest musical experiences of my life. Our second night there we ended up at place called Casa de las tradiciones, home to some of the best local groups. As soon as we stepped in, I felt like I had found what I was looking for the entire trip. The band, Sones del Oriente, was world-class. On the break, one of the musicians asked me to sing an "American ballad." I sang an a cappella version of “The Nearness of You” to a small attentive audience and it was foliowed buy a duet with the lead singer of "Si llego a besarte" with guitar accompaniment. when the second set started I found myself on stage singing traditional Cuban songs with them. It was a life-changing experience and, unlike so many of those divine moments that exist only in one's only memory, part of it was caught on video (posted above).
Besides the inspiration gleamed from the conversations, musical experiences and just the time spent in this beautiful, complex country, I came back with a renewed send of myself as an artist and confirmation that I am indeed walking the path that I am destined to walk. Music makes the world a small and beautiful place. I look forward to more travel in 2016 and to taking all of you with me on the journey.