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.