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.