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  • El PASEO DEL PRADO

    El Paseo del Prado, which translates into something like “Meadow Promenade,” is one of the most beautiful places in Havana. The boulevard was built almost 250 years ago in an undeveloped area just outside of the original city wall, perhaps inspiring its name. Or, since Cuba was a Spanish colony at the time, it may have been named after the famous street in Madrid. In any case, the Prado became the societal epicenter of the colonial city: mansions and important commercial buildings were constructed along its length, and it became fashionable for the wealthy and elite to stroll down its sidewalks or ride in their carriages each afternoon. After Cuba gained independence from Spain in 1902 it was renamed Paseo del Marti in honor of the country's most revered figure, but it is still frequently called by its earlier name, or simply as El Prado.

    I decide to take my own stroll on the Prado one hot afternoon. Crossing busy Calle Neptuno that marks its upper end, I pass the first of several bronze lions that guard the wide promenade. Rows of stately trees line each side, their full, low-hanging branches serving both as a shield from the tropical sun overhead and the noise and fumes from the car-choked streets on either side. This sanctuary of sorts is occupied by artists hoping to sell their work to the tourists who venture away from nearby Parque Central, their stands filled with paintings of Che, old American cars, street scenes of La Bodaguita del Medio where Hemingway drank one afternoon, and the occasional abstract or interpretive piece. I stop to watch a Chinese artist and her small child, she looking out for prospective customers while he sits on a stool with pencil and sketch pad, learning his mother's art.

    As I walk down the gentle slope and begin to taste the salt air coming up from the Malecón I leave the tourists behind and sense more of a Cuban vibe. A jinatera working the day shift calls softly from a marble bench on one side, hoping to “entertain” me for a little while; I nod in her direction, smile, and politely decline the offer. Further along, two girls have decided that another of the lions is a good place to sit, so I ask them to pose for a picture.

    Then I encounter these men. Susceptible to the narrow range of temperatures in which Cubans feel comfortable, they wear long sleeves, sweatshirts and jackets, even though I am warm in a T shirt. They have gathered at what I suspect is “their” bench, at what is probably an appointed hour, to discuss politics, baseball, the problems in their country, the girls walking by, and maybe the jinatera on the opposite side. The uniquely Cuban blend of a tres, abundant percussion instruments, and intertwining vocal harmonies emanating from a boombox accompanies their discussion, along with two bottles of the less expensive vintage of Havana Club rum affordable by ordinary Cubans and a can of Kermato tomato juice.

    I have noticed this decidedly un-tropical cocktail being consumed by other Cubans, and so it becomes the beginning of a conversation with them. Being Cubans, which means being generous to a fault, they quickly offer me a glass, which I just as quickly accept. I ask if I can photograph them, and being Cubans they immediately adopt poses: one crossing his arms and staring down his nose at me, another using his ubiquitous cigar as a prop, and the third giving me a thumbs up, which I take as a sign of approval for their new American friend.

  • LA MIRADA

    The Look

    Photographers are known to suffer from an affliction called GAS: Gear Acquisition Syndrome. In order to make better photographs, we think we must have the latest, greatest, fastest, smartest, highest-pixel count, sleekest, lightest DSLR with which the evil marketing people at Nikon and Canon are currently tempting us. Old-school film photographers like me are susceptible to a regressive form of GAS. We covet older, bigger, antiquated cameras that others consider obsolete. This is just the first step down a dark path. After all, the “best” camera in the world is useless without an assortment of lenses. One needs a tripod on which to perch this magnificent setup, and there is the never-ending list of accessories, not to mention bags and cases to store it all. Once acquired, gear is never disposed of even when it has been replaced by something “better,” unless money is needed for the next fix.

    But there are things more important than equipment that are needed to make good photographs. They are intrinsic qualities that cannot be ordered from B&H Photo or bid on at eBay, but must be discovered and developed and refined by the photographer. For me, an important quality is curiosity. When I think about photographs I have made that most satisfy me, I realize that wondering helped me find them. What is around the next bend in the trail or on the other side of that fence? How can I isolate my subject from its surroundings, simplify the composition? How would this look at night, or in fog? What if I break that rule?

    It is Saturday morning and Habana Vieja is slowly waking up. Cubans are walking from the local panadería carrying loaves of aromatic, freshly baked bread for breakfast. The tourists have finished their breakfasts in the hotel dining rooms and are beginning to prowl the shops in search of that perfect souvenir of their visit to Cuba. I wander down a street with my camera at the ready and my mind open to the possibilities. The sound of voices coming from the open windows of a building piques my curiosity, so I walk up to the door where I am immediately noticed, invited in, and learn that a class on hair styling is in progress. In one area a man demonstrates on one of the students while the others pay close attention. His mother, who by her demeanor is clearly in charge, gives me a tour and then goes back to braiding the hair of an attractive young woman. La jefa (the boss lady) grants my request to photograph her at work; the younger woman apparently has no say in the matter but seems to have decided that she can at least give me a little attitude. Folding her arms, she sits up a little straighter and stares back into my lens with the same unblinking intensity that it does her. Her gaze conveys that she knows she is pretty, and probably also knows that is the reason I want to make this particular photograph.

    I have never quite gotten accustomed to the directness of Cuban women. Generalizations are dangerous, I know, but it seems that unlike many women in other places who avoid eye contact with men they do not know, Cubanas often look first. And far from being a demure glance, the looks are candid, obvious, inviting, and often accompanied with a smile or greeting. Sometimes the women are jinateras offering a certain kind of “entertainment” to foreign men; others are husband-shopping, or maybe want someone to buy them a nice dinner. But mostly, I think, they are just being Cuban women: confident in their appeal, not ashamed of their appearance, appreciative of the looks that they get. At times I have the impression that not looking back gives offense here. Far be it from me to do that.

  • DOMINÓ

    DOMINÓ

    Every country seems to have its own sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations that are woven into its fabric, that say, “you are in this particular place.” I begin experiencing uniquely-Cuban sights as soon as I step outside the arrivals terminal at Jose Marti Airport: the incredible number and variety of classic American cars waiting to transport people into Havana. Instead of commercial advertisements, billboards featuring various revolutionary proclamations and visages of Fidel Castro. Schoolchildren wearing uniform white shirts and colored pants or skirts indicating their grade levels. The iconic image of Che Guevara on every conceivable surface. Cigars. And dominoes.

    I recall playing dominoes as a child, but for most of my life the word has meant a place to buy takeout pizza. In Spanish the singular noun dominó is used; I learn from Professor Elda Stanco Downey at Roanoke Spanish  that it is a play on the verb dominar, to dominate. To Cubans dominó is the equivalent of a video game addiction. It is part of their culture and I see it being played everywhere: on a hot, sunny day on the Paseo del Prado, after dark in a dimly-lit street in Habana Vieja, during a raucous wedding party, outside a store in Santiago de Cuba on the eastern end of the island, and here, in the shade of a tropical tree.

    It is played by adults in this country – usually men – sometimes for hours on end and frequently accompanied by cigars and cheap rum. Working in two-person teams, players lay tiles on the table by matching them to one with an equal number of spots that has already been played, “knocking” on the table to pass if unable to make a play. In some games the first team to use all of their tiles wins, in others a score of the value of tiles played is kept to determine the winning team. At first glance it may seem to be a quiet, passive game, and showing emotion during the game is discouraged in some quarters, since by words or actions a player could show his hand to his partner or to the opposing team. But as are most things in Cuba, here it is done with intensity, passion, and enthusiasm.

    I find a game underway one placid, Saturday afternoon on a residential street just off the busy Avenida de la Independencia. As I approach, the players notice me and my camera and a conversation begins in the usual way:

    CUBAN: De dónde eres? (Where are you from?)

    ME: Los Estados Unidos. (The United States.)

    CUBAN: ¡Me encanta los Estados Unidos! (I love the United States, accompanied by the usual peace or victory sign, I have never been able to figure out which sentiment is being expressed.)

    ME: Bueno, me encanta tu país también. (Well, I love your country also.)

    From there the conversation segues into their cousins who live in Miami. I am granted permission to photograph their game, and chat amiably with three of the players. But the fourth will have nothing to do with me. I do not sense hostility from him, rather that he is simply serious about the game and does not want to be distracted. Head down and cigar firmly clenched in his teeth, he grumbles to his compadres, likely admonishing them in Spanish too rapid for me to understand to stop talking and play. Perhaps to signal his frustration, he passes by rapping the flimsy table so vigorously that the tiles become momentarily airborne. A quiet and passive game indeed!

  • EL JUEGO DE BEISBOL

    The Baseball Game

    Baseball might be the first and most enduring of many bonds that have formed between the United States and Cuba. Born in the US in the middle of the 19th Century, the sport gained popularity during the rest of the century to become our “national pastime.” Cuban students returning from studying in the US, along with American sailors on shore leave in Cuba introduced baseball there. Under Spanish rule at the time, Cubans were expected to be fans of Spain's national sport, bullfighting. But as a subtle act of protest against their colonial masters, Cubans began to favor baseball over bullfighting. The Spanish attempted to ban the sport in Cuba, which only served to increase its popularity. Bullfighting was seen as a metaphor for the Spanish oppression from which Cubans longed to escape, while baseball represented the American values of freedom and democracy to which they aspired.

    During the early 20th century when baseball was still racially segregated in the US, black, white, and mixed-race athletes played as equals on Cuban teams. According to an article in Atlantic Magazine, “many of the greatest interracial games of the era took place in Havana, rather than in Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park...” In 1947 the Brooklyn Dodgers held spring training in Havana to help Jackie Robinson prepare for the upcoming season and break the color barrier in American baseball.

    Perhaps because of its association with freedom from Spanish rule, baseball remained extremely popular in Cuba even as it was being eclipsed by football and other sports in the United States. In addition, Fidel Castro loved the game and was an aspiring, if ultimately unsuccessful, pitcher. Capitalizing on the nationalistic pride in the game, he banned professional baseball in the early days of the Revolution, instituting a league of amateur teams who, as he said, “play for the love of people, not money.” Accordingly, they were paid salaries only slightly higher than the average “wage” of state jobs in Cuba. Poorly paid or not, these players are some of the best in the world: Cuba frequently wins international tournaments, many players who have defected from Cuba are stars in Major League Baseball in the US, and the Cuban National Team has held its own in games against MLB teams.

    Baseball games are being shown on practically every TV set in Havana, and I learn that the Cuban version of the World Series is currently underway. I decide to attend a game, so I walk to Estadio Latinoamerica, home of the beloved Industriales. A security guard tells me there is no game today, but there will be one tomorrow. At least I think that is what he says; when I return the next day I discover that there is no game then either. Maybe its that mañana thing: sometimes the word means tomorrow, other times some unspecified point in the future.

    Several days later I am walking down the Malecón when I notice some kids playing a pick-up game on a tiny patch of grass bounded by busy thoroughfares. First base is a concrete cover on the sidewalk; other bases are similarly improvised. Balls often roll across the street toward the Spanish embassy or fly dangerously close to cars approaching the tunnel to the other side of the bay. Ill-equipped, the teams trade gloves as each takes its turn in the field. They ignore the Yuma with the camera and play with the same emotion and excitement that I remember from my Little League days, although lack of talent doomed my baseball “career” the same way it did Fidel's. But it is El Comandante's words, not his playing ability, that inspire these kids: they play for love, not money.

  • LAS SEMILLAS DE CAPITALISMO

    The Seeds of Capitalism

    Odin is the head chef at a great restaurant in Habana Vieja called Café Rum Rum. I know him through Steve Anchell, who regularly takes his photography workshop participants there. Odin has a fondness for Steve, and invites him to his house for dinner with his family every time we are there. Steve takes me along as his translator and “wingman.” I treasure these dinners, not only for the great food, but because I feel like a I am a member of this wonderful Cuban family. Unlike many popular restaurants in Cuba, Café Rum Rum is privately owned. Odin's brother Osiris and his partner Carlos started the restaurant four years ago, when President Raul Castro began allowing more private business ownership to bolster the perpetually-lethargic Cuban economy.

    When I first began traveling to Cuba in 2013 we stayed at Hotel Los Frailes. We had dinner at the best-known restaurant in Havana, Paladar La Guarida, with its walls covered by photographs of the rich and famous people from around the world who have eaten there. We went to the Hotel Nacional for mojitos on a lawn bristling with cannons pointed north to defend against the expected invasion from the United States. Some went to the show at the Tropicana nightclub. To travel outside the city we boarded a bus emblazoned with the name Transgaviota, or yellow Cubataxi vans. All of these tourist-oriented “businesses” are in fact owned by the Cuban government, with their revenue going directly to support the military.

    But every afternoon a door from a stairway across the street from the hotel opened, revealing inexpensive jewelry, trinkets, the ubiquitous Che Berets, and other merchandise offered for sale by a young woman. There were a few other such souvenir shops, the usual buskers, and some small, privately-owned paladares scattered about. Each time I returned to Cuba I noticed the growth of this entrepreneurship, growth which fairly exploded after the December 17, 2014 announcement of normalized relations between our countries, and the easing of restrictions on travel to Cuba by US citizens.

    We no longer rent rooms at the state-owned hotel, instead staying in a casa particular, a privately-owned home with individual bedrooms, a large kitchen, and a common area. Our host Juan Miguel and his wife Odalys have an apartment and gift shop on the main floor, with the casa on the floors above. Every morning Juan prepares for his guests a great Cuban breakfast of eggs, fruit, ham, bread, juice, and, of course, Cuban coffee. Business is so good that each time I stay there he is adding another room, the last being little cabinas that have been built on the roof with wood harvested from their family farm out in the country...pure Caribbean!

    In June of 2017 Donald Trump declared in a speech to the cheers of the Cuban diaspora in Miami, “I am cancelling the last administration's completely one-sided deal with Cuba.” New rules published late that year fell far short of the rhetoric, of course, but did sow enough confusion to discourage many Americans from traveling to Cuba, and steering most of those who did go toward the larger tour operators. The Cuban businesses who have suffered most from this change in policy represent the seeds of a capitalistic economy: paladares such as Cafe Rum Rum and casas owned by people like Juan Miguel. The antithesis of communism, capitalism had lain dormant for over a half century until the pragmatic Raul Castro permitted a little sun and warmth, allowing it to germinate. Increased tourism from the US gave it the nutrients it needed to flourish. And now, just as the Cuban people are beginning to see capitalism as a path to freedom and democracy, the Republican administration has poured an herbicide on it.

  • RESOLVER

    “To solve a problem, a doubt, a difficulty, decide something or form an idea of what to do.” - RAE

    English is an organic, messy language; any one of us can make up a new word, and if adopted by enough people it becomes part of our lexicon. Consider “bling,” “bromance,” “locavore,” and my personal favorite, one that spellcheck - another made up word - has yet to learn, “Illiterati.” Spanish, on the other hand, uses a much more organized and formal process. Some 300 years ago King Philip of Spain created the Royal Academy of Spanish, or RAE, to “fix the voices and vocabularies of the Castilian language with propriety, elegance, and purity.” In other words, to be the word police.

    But Cubans, being the resourceful people that they are, have reshaped the official definition of the verb resolver to better describe their circumstances. To them it means doing what is necessary to survive. The dissident Cuban journalist Yoany Sanchez says, “we are specialists at finding everything that is censored, prohibited, and rationed.” I learn first hand how resolver works after mentioning to a Cuban friend my failure to find my favorite rum to bring home. He smiles, gives me his phone number, and tells me to call him after 3PM the next day. When I call, he instructs me to meet him in an hour on the veranda of a certain restaurant. Over beer at our clandestine meeting, I give him the agreed-upon price plus 10 CUC for his trouble. Soon, a sketchy-looking guy walks past us and into the restaurant, followed shortly thereafter by my friend. Sketchy-looking guy comes back out a few minutes later, gives me a surreptitious nod, and walks away. My friend then returns with three bottles of the Ron de Santiago that I have been unable to buy anywhere in Havana. I don't know how sketchy-looking guy got the rum, or what his relationship is to my friend, all I know is that they “resolve” my problem of no rum to take home, and theirs of making ends meet. And the adventure makes the best rum on the planet taste even better.

    Alberto and his camera exemplify the Cuban notion of resolver. Most days they can be found in Parque Central, a place frequented by tourists. With the exception of an ancient Kodak lens, the camera and tripod appear to be completely home-made, and to have been repeatedly modified and repaired. He brings his subject into focus by sliding the lens board in and out along steel rods that serve as rails, to which the lensboard is attached with bits of wire. His “focusing loupe” is one half of what I think were once a pair of reading glasses. His exposures are made the way the early photographers did, by removing a (home-made in his case) lens cap and counting seconds.

    His process is even more amazing than his equipment. Having positioned and focused his subject, he reaches inside a cloth sleeve attached to the back of the camera, where completely by feel he replaces the ground glass with a small sheet of photo paper that he is somehow able to obtain from Germany. After making the exposure he develops the paper, again by touch since it cannot yet be exposed to sunlight, in trays of developer and fixer inside the camera. A few minutes later he withdraws the exposed and developed paper with a negative image. He then attaches this negative to a board in front of the lens and rephotographs it on another sheet of paper, repeating the focusing-exposure-development process all over again, this time producing a positive image.

      

    The resulting picture is of dreadful quality. But the tourists, and in this case me too, happily pay him 3 CUC for the experience, and a unique souvenir of Havana. It humbles me to be in the same profession as Alberto when I consider how much more difficult it is for him to create a photograph, while I use precision made cameras, work in a fully equipped darkroom, and can have all of my supplies delivered to my door whenever I need them.

    For information about traveling to Cuba visit www.anchellworkshops.com

  • LA SERENATA

    The Serenade


    Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life - Berthold Auerbach


    The author of this quote died before the Republic of Cuba was born, and as far as I know he never visited the island. But it crystalizes the importance of music to Cubans. The dust of the place can easily grind a soul down, but music cleanses them so that they can live their lives more happily and joyously and vibrantly than circumstances might otherwise permit.

    Music serves other purposes as well, providing a creative outlet in a place where just surviving can take an enormous amount of work and self expression is not always tolerated; yang to balance the yin of life in Cuba. It is also a means of survival. There are musicians in nearly all of the restaurants and bars frequented by tourists, where they make the rounds to play at every table and present the ubiquitous basket from which self-produced CDs are sold or tips collected. Other performers rove the streets of Habana Vieja to entertain patrons enjoying the tropical night at tables outside those same establishments, while during the day it is not unusual to find a one-man band on a street corner, singing as he simultaneously plays several instruments with both hands and feet.

    But these things do not inspire this man to make music. He plays for love, and he plays for his lover. I encounter them on a blazingly-hot day in Parque Central, a lovely shaded oasis across from the equally beautiful ballet theatre. The park is filled with people, Habaneros enjoying their lunch breaks and mothers watching their children play. A group of men loudly and animatedly discuss the Cuban National Baseball Series currently underway. Entrepreneurs of various stripes work to earn a little of the money in the pockets of the sunburned tourists who pour into the park from the double decker buses parked along Paseo de Martí.

    The couple sit on a bench under a palm tree, oblivious to all that is going on around them. He sings and plays with his heart as well as his voice and fingers; she gazes into his eyes, appreciating every note. I listen and wonder about the connection between them. Are they married and just enjoying a day out together in a special place? Lovers in the midst of a tryst? I will never know. I like to meet, interact with, learn about the subjects of my photographs in order to tell a more complete story. But this time I decide that simply being allowed to observe a few moments in the lives of these people is enough. Perhaps the mystery is the story.

    When he finishes his first serenade the people around them clap in appreciation. Only then does he seem to realize that others have heard his song, and he acknowledges us with a slight nod and smile. As he refocuses his attention on his amor and begins another song, I slip closer, make a few photographs, and move on.

  • EL PIANISTA; HOTEL AMBOS MUNDOS

    The Piano Player, Ambos Mundos Hotel

    I am nearing the end of my most productive trip to Cuba. I came here with a specific objective. I am armed with a camera well suited to achieving that goal, and I never leave my apartment without it in my hands, loaded with film, finger in the ready position. I move slowly, stay constantly aware of my surroundings, and respond to people and events that I encounter. The hours and miles of walking that I invest are producing many pictures and stories about which I am excited.

    Today I seem to have hit a wall. I've been working since morning and have exposed some film, though I know it contains nothing interesting. But following the old sports adage I am going to “play until the whistle blows,” so late in the evening I am walking back toward my room, a roll of high speed film in my camera, looking and listening. I hear the sound of a piano and turn to see through the open window of a lounge a man sitting at the keyboard. He has no patrons to entertain but plays anyway, maybe just because he likes to play. Similarly unburdened with clientele the bartender has assumed the quintessential pose of his profession, leaning on the bar and staring disinterestedly into space. I have just enough time to raise the camera to my eye and make one exposure before the bartender decides that he can be bored elsewhere and walks away, weakening the composition. Only then do I notice that I am standing outside the bar of the Hotel Ambos Mundos.

    In the 1930's many artists, writers, and other creatives stayed here, the most famous of whom was Ernest Hemingway who lived in Room 511 for the first seven years of his time in Cuba. Some of Hemingway's work is among my favorite literature, such as The Nick Adams Stories set in another place that I love, Michigan's Upper Peninsula. My wanderlust is partially sated by his stories of Africa, and well, any lover of Cuba must have “The Old Man and the Sea” on their bookshelves.

    I enjoy reading books set in a place where I am at the time, so reading “Islands in the Stream” in Cuba seems a good choice. Like the Nick Adams stories that chronicle a soldier attempting to heal the wounds of war, it is more or less autobiographical. The lasting memory that I have of the book is Hemingway's painfully detailed description of his protagonist, a successful painter named Thomas Hudson, going into Havana after finishing his day's work. Hudson drinks to excess, picks fights with other patrons, and proves himself an unpleasant drinking companion. The book is depressing to me, but it does seem to provide a window into the psyche of the author.

    As I look into that empty bar I envision the place nearly a century earlier; Hemingway loudly and drunkenly holding court at the head of a table filled with other artists and various sycophants and hangers-on. But at least the piano player would have had people for whom to play, and the bartender some customers to keep him occupied.

  •  SEGUIR LA MÚSICA

    Follow the Music

    Photographers are often advised to “follow the light.” It is the quality of light, the ways in which it falls upon certain parts of the composition, that makes a photograph successful. But in a place as sensually rich as Havana I have often found a satisfying photograph by following my other senses, especially the sound of music. The place is filled with it, from Afro-Cuban Jazz in nightclubs, to covers of “Guantanamera” and Buena Vista Social Club hits played by every roving band in the city, to the annoying horns and percussion played by the carnival performers who clog up the streets as they entertain and solicit money from tourists.

    Walking down a street in Habana Vieja one day I hear a single instrument. It is a trumpet, on which a melody is being played slowly, sounding as mournful as the horn of a distant locomotive on a dark, quiet night. I follow the music toward its source, a man named Carlos Confesor Sanchez. He is immaculately dressed in a white suit and hat, two toned patent leather shoes, his tie bearing the likeness of his instrument. He sits on the stoop of a building with a small Cuban flag hung on the door over one shoulder and a US flag over the other, making himself a bridge between our cultures. The moment he notices that I have stopped to listen and watch he becomes as much an actor as a musician. His back straightens, he repositions his legs just so, and his horn goes up at an angle as if playing to heaven, or perhaps for heaven. Since I am concentrating on architecture this trip I am using a large format camera that is too heavy to carry when I am just out wandering as I am today. So I take a few pictures with my digital SLR, leave Carlos a tip, and go on my way.

    The next time I am in Cuba it is to participate in a workshop on Street Photography, recording the lives of people, sometimes in a more formal, portrait-like way, other times surreptitiously as they go about their lives. So on this trip I bring a medium format camera that is more agile and faster to use. I recall having met Carlos and I keep my eyes and ears open, hoping to find and photograph him for the workshop.

    But to my disappointment he is nowhere to be found. I sit at a table outside Cafe Oriente on the busy Plaza de San Francisco to have a glass of rum. Montero is on duty today, as he is on alternating days from before lunch until very late at night. Like many Cubans in the service sector Montero pays attention to his customers, and he knows exactly what brand and vintage of rum I drink. I know that he is attentive to his surroundings as well, so I ask him about Carlos. Montero tells me that he knows Carlos well, they are friends and that he is “around,” but I finish the workshop and return to the US without finding him.

    A few months later I am back in Havana collecting more pictures and stories, determined to include Carlos among them. On my last day there I turn a corner and hear the clear, solo notes of a trumpet and know that my quest has been fulfilled. He sits on another stoop in his perfectly clean white trousers, jacket and hat. I tell him that I have been looking all over for him because I want to photograph him as he makes his art. I show him the picture on my phone, causing him to smile and pull that signature tie out from under his vest. I notice that in the picture he is playing a bright brass trumpet, but his current instrument looks old and dull. He tells me that he was arrested by the police and that when he was released his good horn was not returned to him. But he plays this one just as sweetly as I make his portrait, this time a proper one on black and white film, and I am happy to have been led here by the music.

  • BABALAWO OLUO SIWAGO

    In a city so full of life as Havana it seems a bit perverse to visit a cemetery. On the other hand, Necrópolis de Colón, named after the Spanish word for Columbus, is not just any graveyard. It encompasses 140 acres and is one of the largest and most beautiful cemeteries in the Americas, filled with thousands of above-ground tombs, beautiful marble statues, and elaborate mausoleums.

    Many important figures in Cuban history, culture, sports, and politics are buried here. Máximo Gómez, one of the heroes of Cuba's struggle for independence from Spain occupies a prominent place near the main entrance, as does a memorial to 28 firefighters killed in a fire in Havana in 1890. Korda, the photographer who made the iconic image of Che Guevara lies in repose, as well as several musicians from the Buena Vista Social Club. The graves of some of the guerrillas who died during the Cuban Revolution are located here. The US sailors and Marines who were killed in the explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor in 1898 were buried in the Necrópolis before being re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery. The most famous tomb is that of La Milagrosa, a Cuban woman who died in childbirth; when her tomb was opened years later her body had not deteriorated, which was taken as a sign of a miracle, or milagro. Ironically, Christopher Columbus for whom the cemetery is named, does not reside here.

    The light reflecting from the surfaces of all of the marble and concrete intensifies the tropical sun and is almost blinding as I walk through the place on a cloudless Sunday morning. I notice people buying flowers from stands near the entrance to put on the graves of deceased loved ones, and think this ritual might be more interesting to document than simply taking pictures of tombs. But the idea ultimately proves unproductive, so I decide to do something that often leads me to a photograph: I wander aimlessly.

    Tolkien wrote that “not all those who wander are lost,” and I soon find myself approaching a group of people dressed in white and gathered around a tomb. Not wanting to intrude upon their grieving, I stop and watch from a respectful distance until my presence is noticed and acknowledged. They are practitioners of Santería, a syncretism of catholic and west African religions common in Cuba. I learn that they are mourning the passing of Babalawo Oluo Siwagu, a respected priest who had died four days earlier. His daughter is seated nearby as other family members seal his tomb, I think as a ritual.

    With the daughter's permission I make a few photographs and then leave, grateful to have been led here, and allowed to share such an intimate moment with this family and with a part of the culture of Cuba.