One of my favorite places to listen to music in Cuba bears the ironic name of Cafe Paris. It sits at the intersection of two important streets in Habana Vieja, San Ignacio and Obispo, that are closed to vehicular traffic but crowded with tourists. The proprietors have taken advantage of this happy accident to fill the cobblestone street in front of the cafe with tables and chairs. On pleasant evenings, which is to say most evenings in Havana, this patio is filled with patrons whose money enables the cafe to hire top quality ensembles to entertain them.
But one evening I find myself being entertained by two elderly women at another table, each with one of the quintessential tourist drinks, a mojito and a daiquiri. The woman drinking the daiquiri is employing a fascinating method of consuming her beverage: keeping her hands in her lap, she bends forward at the waist and aims her mouth at the straw, takes a small sip, then straightens back up. Seconds later she repeats this process, over and over, reminding me of one of those drinking bird toys. Neither woman smiles or seems to be particularly enjoying herself. Daiquiri-sipper's bows to her straw are not in time to the music, causing me to wonder if they even hear it. In any case, I decide they at least don't “get” the music, and maybe not the place.
Whether lost on these women or not, a great band plays a mixture of salsa music, Buena Vista Social Club hits, and of course, their version of “Guantanamera.” The same cast of Cubans that I see here every night dances at the edge of the seating area, one of whom is a woman with what seems to be the same large cigar clenched in her teeth. With even the slightest encouragement, they descend upon the tables to pose for selfies with the tourists and ask for money before being chased out by the waiters.
In Viñales I watch a group of children taking salsa lessons and wonder why, since it seems that Cubans are born knowing how to move to the music; it is as natural to them as walking. Salsa music is built around a particular rhythm, called a clave, or key, with a wooden instrument of the same name often heard tapping out this rhythm. Jorge Gomez of the band Moncada says that one one must have the clave inside them, and that when Cuban women walk, it is more like they are dancing. I observe this phenomenon carefully and can confirm that Jorge is correct: Cuban women seem to make an extra little forward movement of their hips with each step they take, giving them a dancing kind of walk. They feel the music, even when they do not hear it.
Salsa is an escape, however temporary, from the hard reality of life in Cuba. To watch Cubans play or dance is to see them free of the bonds of oppression under which they have lived for five hundred years. It is also a way to make a living. The best bands play in places like Cafe Paris, while those less talented, or perhaps those still earning their “chops,” play on street corners. Some use homemade instruments; all regularly pass a small basket for donations or to sell their latest hit CD. Teaching salsa is a booming business as well. Five American friends and I take a class one day, each of us paying our personal instructor 10CUC per hour, good money here. After two hours, we at least understand the basic steps of salsa dance: “one two three, five six seven,” still echoing in our minds hours later.
Late in the evening, I lie in the darkness of my little room on the roof of a casa particular. The sun has long set, and the tropical day is slowly cooling. Down the street at Cafe Paris the salsa band plays, percussion instruments and horn clearly audible, the notes of a tres sneaking through from time to time. With windows open on two sides, my room becomes a large speaker, the music a perfect soundtrack to my time here in Cuba.