Tag Archives: travel

Conner’s Letra del Año

I’m back in the swing of things here in Havana and if I’m reading the signs/between the lines correctly, it promises to be a memorable year. Already some unpredictable ($200,000 cars?!) and unexpected (Fidel rolling up at Romerillo?!) things have happened, about which I promise to post at a later date.

‘Surprising’ and ‘fast-paced’ are the catch phrases for the foreseeable future as far as I can tell. Indeed, 2014 has proven illuminating and educational, adrenaline-rushed and not a little bit hectic – and we’re only a few weeks in.

It’s exciting – I’m excited – but I get the feeling that this year is going to obligate us to work, HARD, to maintain balance; we will have to be master jugglers these next 12 months. It will be tricky keeping all our professional, personal, and spiritual balls in the air, but if we stay focused and true to course, I think the payoff will be well worth it.

In an effort to measure the tenor of our times and steer a tentative course through the exotic, but potentially choppy, waters of 2014, I offer you my Letra del Año. For those readers unfamiliar with this annual declaration, it’s a collaborative document issued each new year by the major Afro Cuban religious associations. It contains everything from conjugal advice and health warnings to what foods and saints should be offered and attended.

While I’m not an adherent, I, like innumerable others on the island, pay attention to each year’s Letra. When I read 2014’s, I was a bit shocked (and encouraged – maybe I’m on the right track!) to learn that one of the sacramental foods this year is the pomegranate. Not only is this extraordinarily rare in Cuba (so an odd sacrament, for any year), I’d bought one and shared it with a friend on New Year’s Eve before this year’s Letra was published.

And will my Letra del Año be prophetic? Maybe not at all or possibly in part, only time will tell, but here’s my take on 2014 and what we might expect:

Love is in the air:
I’ve known Alejandra since I moved here. She’s both family and friend and a helluva woman. She lives with her aging parents, works in a thankless job for 20 bucks a month and has struggled with mental health issues over the years. For the first decade I knew her, she was completely alone – ‘pobrecita,’ they said. I don’t remember her ever going on a date, even. Then, a year ago, Alejandra met Evaristo, a good and good looking guy, who helped around the house, got along with the parents, and had a decent job. And for whatever reason known only to them (or not even – love, after all, is one of life’s great and wonderful mysteries), they clicked and swooned and grooved.

Last weekend, they tied the knot in a beautifully simple ceremony in Alejandra’s front yard. The look on their faces, on that of their parents, siblings and every last guest was pure bliss. You could feel the love before the first teardrops of joy fell. I have another amiga getting married next month and a dear friend of mine for whom the seeds of love have been slowly, carefully sown over the last year or so and are about to bloom. Another few couples are marrying over the summer and well, all you need is love, right? I say: let’s spread it and do our part to silence the bitter and hateful.

Healthier habits and routines:
Whether or not related to love and matters of the heart, I foresee folks around me (and myself included, hopefully, but unlikely), adopting healthier habits. Smoking and drinking less, sleeping longer and more soundly, eating healthier and doing some exercise will be in the mix. Watching less TV (no matter how classic or well-made) and reading more and better literature fall under this rubric, as does consuming less “news”, which just serves to make us more anxious and at the same time apathetic if you ask me.

Globetrotting:
This will be a year of travel, people. Already my trip calendar is filling up fast, with Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ohio, Hawaii and Ireland on my itinerary. Cuban friends are also planning to travel (some ‘definitively’, as we say here, leaving us holding our aching hearts) to the usual places – Mexico, Miami, Madrid – but also to Canada, Germany, Amsterdam, and Thailand. Seems like everyone took a turn around the block with their luggage this December 31st, one of our year-end traditions/superstitions.

Consolidating creativity: I and many people I know put (too) many wheels in motion in 2013 – work projects and personal relationships, new businesses and novel challenges. Last year saw lots of this and now the time has come to focus, buckle down, and channel all this creativity into attainable goals. It’s important to emphasize attainable, since the majority of mi gente are overachievers and tend to set themselves up for defeat with all the complex, long-term (some life-long!) goals they set for themselves. We have the energy, we have the intelligence, we’re motivated and we’ve set 2014 up for success – let’s make it happen, one milestone at a time.

Time management challenges: Doesn’t it seem like everyone’s overworked, over-scheduled and just rushed overall? In my world, it looks and feels that way. Keeping everything together, tying up loose ends, leaving time for the people and things we love – this is going to be difficult in 2014. This is especially true in Havana and New York, the two places where I pitch my tent so to speak and where the rhythm of life is different and more hectic (increasingly so in Cuba) than other latitudes. Managing time, while still living in the moment and being present, will be even more difficult. Slowing down to smell the roses, sing to babies, and ask after our neighbors will be important this year. Please remind me when I forget.

Last but not least: have a fabulous and healthy 2014 everyone.

Let life be peachy.

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Havana Mantras

Cubans like their dichos. For just about any hairball situation life coughs up, they’ve got a palliative or folksy saying.

As you may imagine, the general difficulties of modern existence are fertile fodder. To cite just a few:

Al mal tiempo, buena cara.
(When times are bad, put on a good face).

To the question ‘how ya doin’? or ‘what have you been up to?’, Cubans invariably answer:

En la luchita.
(Struggling a little/lot).

And then there’s the ubiquitous:

No es fácil.
(It’s not easy).

It’s not easy can apply to anything – caring for aging parents with Alzheimer’s; pending paperwork and attendant bureaucracy; the quality of bodega rice; even the weather.

These sayings and many more like them have become mantras of sorts. Short, pithy and to the point, they help people fortify themselves and cope with the aging/bureaucracy/vagaries life never tires of throwing our way.

Recently several friends confided that they invoke their own original mantras when faced with challenging situations. They make me smile (the mantras, not the challenging situations) – in mal timepo, when things are especially difícil, and when it feels like the luchita might triumph once and for all. They’re funny in their way, these mantras, but also weighty since they reveal the resilience and resolve with which Cubans confront obstacles. And I have a feeling such resilience, not to mention resolve, will become increasingly – urgently – important in times to come.

_____

If you follow Cuba news, you know that we’ve been under a wet, windy cold front for the past several days. It looks like it’s finally moving on and none too soon: over 100 buildings collapsed completely or in part in Havana due to these torrential, biblical rains, reminding me of 2005’s Hurricane Wilma. Rain like this is problematic here, not only because it sends buildings tumbling – it also floods homes, damages worldly goods and grinds transport, sectors of the economy and much of the bureaucracy to a halt.

But it’s not just the wet: the cold is a problem too since so few of us have hot water in our homes. To be blunt: showering in this weather without hot water is a bitch. Sure, we heat up pots on the stove, decant it into a bucket, mix it with some cold and scoop it over us as fast as possible. It’s workable, but in those few seconds between scoops, you freeze your butt off. Ocassionally, it’s not practical to heat water – there’s no time, no gas for the stove, whatever. End result? We take a lot of cold showers around here, even in winter, even during the chilliest fronts.

As I was talking to my friend Julio Pedro about this, he told me he has a ritual – a mantra, mejor dicho – which he invokes before stepping into a cold shower. Bracing himself, he repeats over and over again, before and during the cold blast:

Soy un macho de pinga. Soy un macho de pinga.
(I’m the fucking man. I am the fucking MAN).

If you knew JP, you’d laugh, like we did, imagining this wisp of a guy incanting his cold shower mantra.

_____

The mantra topic came up again as another friend and I were planning a night out recently. We were headed to one of Havana’s largest theaters to see one of the country’s hottest acts. Neither of us had tickets and it was doubtful we could procure affordable (see note 1) entry the day of the show. I told her we’d only need one ticket since over the past decade, my foreign press pass has gained me entrance into even the most over-sold events, from Pablo Milanes to the Royal Ballet. My friend, who works for Prensa Latina, said she would use her work badge, a yellow and curling card encased in foggy plastic that says ‘Prensa’ in red letters.

‘Isn’t is expired?’ I asked her.
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘But it has yet to fail me.’
‘Nice.’ I said.
Then she confessed: ‘but every time I use it, I think is it going to work? So just in case, I invoke my mantra:’

Soy la reina de la Habana. Soy la reina de la Habana.
(I’m the queen of Havana).

I’m not sure if it was the badge, the mantra or her killer smile, but the queen and I got into the concert.

_____

At this point, you’re probably wondering about my mantras. I’ve got mine, of course. Like everyone else, I’ve had to develop and hone my resilience and coping mechanisms over the years here. One I’ve known for a long time, but really started invoking it during my month-long stint covering the Cuban medical/disaster relief team in Haiti after the earthquake. Now, whenever I’m faced with particularly trying circumstances beyond my control, I tell myself:

No coge lucha. No coge lucha.
(Pay it no mind/Don’t fight it).

I’ve added another mantra lately which helps me with the haters and naysayers who for time immemorial have tried to keep down the dreamers and lovers and doers:

Que lástima odias tu vida.
(What a pity you hate your life).  

And a pity it surely is, but you know what? It’s not my problem so I’m not going to coger lucha.

Notes
1. Ticket scalping is a common and lucrative practice in Cuba’s double economy.

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Havana: The Land of Big Ideas

Dear friends, family, readers new and not, informants, and detractors:

I’ve been (too) quiet here lately and for this, I apologize. It’s for worthy, horizon-broadening reasons however, and for that, I’ll never seek pardon. But enough with the ‘justificaciones’ as my friend and Havana Bike Polo champ Tomás likes to say.

To the grano:

I had this idea for a bookstore/café a couple of years ago. Like many of my ideas, it was ambitious, quirky, and against the grain. Furthermore, it was quite possibly impractical and practically (but not quite) impossible. I cooked it up slowly, adding ingredients and letting it simmer while I built momentum and strength (see note 1).

When I roped my Cuban family into it, I never imagined all the valuable experience and lessons – all the magic – we would live in the three short months since opening Cuba Libro (see note 2). And those experiences and magic were imparted and shared by some extraordinary people of all ages and genders, orientations and many nationalities, too. Being Cuba, every color of the skin spectrum has walked through our doors – another thing I love about this island. We’ve even imparted/shared with a little person (i.e. a dwarf), who had a voice delicious enough to eat – I could have talked to him all Havana day long.

In short (no pun intended), the people we’ve met and talked to, read and laughed with, are inspiring and surprising us daily.

Cuba Libro: serving up Havana's best juice!

Cuba Libro: serving up Havana’s best juice!

There’s Marta, the English teacher at the grade school across and up the street. And I do mean across and up: the school is divided between two Vedado mansions a block apart and the cute, uniformed kids are shuttled between the two – single file, hand-in-hand – a few times a day by Marta and others. When Marta came in to see about the possibility of getting some bilingual dictionaries (neither the school nor the teacher has one), we hatched a donation drive. Thanks to some folks visiting from afar, we made the first, small delivery of a few dictionaries a couple of weeks ago (see note 3).

Then there’s the guy in the orange-tinted, 70’s porn star sunglasses peddling black market coffee (see note 4), his breath perennially laced with Planchao. One morning around 11, he came in, plopped into the Adirondack chair under a palm tree, began mumbling drunkenly and nodded off. We rousted him gently and ushered him on his way. The combination between comfort and coolness at Cuba Libro is why we don’t sell any booze. If we did, we’d have people passed out in the hammocks, on the couch, the bathroom floor…

The avocado seller is another memorable character in Cuba Libro’s world. One day he saw me standing in front of the gate and asked: ‘Hey Blondie! Why’s someone as pretty as you all alone?’

‘I don’t know. I guess no one can tame the beast,’ I responded, laughing.

He sidled over with a gap-toothed smile. ‘I know how to tame the beast. Love and tenderness.’

When he saw me a couple of days later he said, ‘remember Blondie! Love and tenderness!!’

It’s still avocado season, but he hasn’t been around in a while. I miss him.

There’s the rough-around-the-edges fellow who passes by at the same time every single day pulling two boxes on a chivichana. We hear him before we see him:

‘CREMITA DE LEEEEEEEECHE!!’

‘BARRA DE GUAYABAAAAAA!!’

If you know some enthusiastic, deep-throated pregoneros, you know we can hear this sweets seller for blocks and blocks and blocks and…here he is now!

Doctors and students, parents, grandparents, expats and diplomats. They’re coming in droves. But it’s the artists – from scriptwriters to sculptors, composers to poets – keeping things frisky. We’re getting all kinds: painters, photographers, actors, costume designers, puppet makers and musicians. Some famous, all talented.

me and santi

I’ve taken a personal shine to Samuel. Red-haired, with big green eyes (a striking combination in any context, more so in Cuba), he’s a violin player who showed up at our most recent art opening. He lives in the neighborhood and was just passing by he told us. The party was in full swing, just comfortably shy of packed.

‘Would it be okay for me to play a while in the garden?’ he asked.

‘OK?! It would be phenomenal!’ I told him, blue eyes meeting green.

So he unzipped his case, grabbed his bow, tuned up, and ripped in. Samuel is 16 years old.

Then there are the little kids, many of them Cuba Libro regulars. Nikki (I’m not sure how to spell her name but given the Cuban penchant for funky, medio cheo names, this is probably close) is a handful and already a troublemaker at the tender age of eight (see note 5), but cute and charming. She’ll go far in this life.

ninas

We also have a tribe of 10-year old guapos coming in. They like to break rules, brag about fantasy conquests, and steal the condoms we offer free for the taking – but not for balloon making, which is what these kids use them for (see aforementioned fantasy conquests).

But it’s sweet, polite Jonathan, a tow-headed kid who says por favor and gracias while looking you in the eye shyly, who has won my heart. In his first year of pre-school (also across the street, but contained in one building por suerte), he came in with his grandmother Aracely a couple of months ago. Havana was still in that weird monsoon vortex where we’d get hours-long, sheets-of-water downpours every day, but that afternoon was sunny. I set Jonathan up swinging in a hammock and started talking to Aracely.

Like Cubans do, she said right out and straightaway: Jonathan is six, an only child. His mother, (Aracely’s daughter-in-law), died of a heart attack in March. She was 27. I touched Aracely’s arm and said ‘how awful.’ I told her how sorry I was. I asked after her family, after her son, after Jonathan. Her eyes went soft and moist as she confided that they were doing the best they can.

They came in a week later during another break in the rain. As Jonathan dashed for the hammock, Aracely told me: we were walking to school the other day. It was 7:30 and he was all excited, pointing as we passed by: ‘look abue! That’s where I drew with the colored chalk. In that garden. Let’s go back!’

And they’ve been in several times since. Jonathan always gets a lollipop, a box of colored chalk, and plenty of driveway-cum-canvas to draw his heart out. And Aracely always gets a cafecito on the house.

This is some of what and whom have kept me from writing lately. And that’s just fine by me.

PS – This post was ready two weeks ago but no manner of internet gymnastics/expense allowed me to post it. GRRRRRR.

Notes

1. 2011-2012 was a hell of a time for me, with great and multiple personal losses – hence the need for strength-gathering.

2. It actually started in earnest about 6 months ago when we started fixing the space up.

3. Anyone interested in donating, please drop a line to cubalibrohavana@gmail.com.

4. We don’t buy it, of course. That would be illegal. Regardless, it clogs our espresso machine. How did we discover that black market coffee clogs the machine? Don’t ask; don’t tell.

5. Not unlike another female Scorpio I know. Ahem.

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Just When You Think You Know Cubans

Loud, machista, brand-loco, bossy, gold medal (but loose and slippery) lovers: one – or several – of these stereotypes applies to most of the Cubans I know. Judging by the search terms used to land here (‘why are Cubans so rude’; ‘Cuban men are controlling/known for being cheaters’; ‘STD from resort staff in Cuba’), many readers can relate.

It’s true Cubans tend to be noisy, romp with aplomb, and sow their oats with gusto and few regrets. They are also big talkers – waxing eloquent on topics about which they’re clueless or avoiding silence at all costs; I know a lot of women here, for instance, who never, and I mean ever, shut their mouths, talking about whatever minor thought skips across their brains (I always send a silent shot of strength to the spouse when I meet a woman like this). Then there’s the Cuban classic, which I call ‘blah, blah, blah’: giving a long, considered response – to an entirely different question than the one asked. Actions belying words also falls into this “classic” category.

These are all generalizations of course – but that doesn’t obviate their veracity. Indeed, stereotypes exist because they apply to huge swaths of a population. And if you know Cubans, you know that these generalizations are true for many or even most. Which is why I’ve become fascinated with stereotype-defying folks here. People who break the mold anywhere have always intrigued me, but Cuba has traditionally emphasized unity over individuality, is small and (relatively) isolated, meaning there are fewer mold-breakers.

These are what I call, for lack of a better term, ‘not-very-Cuban’ Cubans. Each one was born and raised here, lives on the island still, went to all the same schools, political rallies and lame concerts (Air Supply, ahem) as the rest, but exhibit few typically Cuban traits. Sure, they’re missing teeth, can be unreliable, and are prone to slack; in the end, they’re a product of their context and yet…not.

I’ve met a couple of their kind over the years, but recently I’ve come to know several fairly well – they intrigue and puzzle me in equal measure. For instance, not one of them has been off-island and each works for the state (as well as ‘por la izquierda’ because that’s how survival rolls here). Age might be a factor – the folks I write about are between 25 and 40 – but I’ll have to think more on that since I don’t have the analytical energy just now. By chance (or not), each person described below is also male, but again, my analytical reserves fail me.

What I’m coming to realize as I write this is that place – la siempre fidelíssima Isla de Cuba – has much to do with their character (each is proud to be Cuban), but little to do with their mold breaking: these people would be, and will be, who they are, no matter where they are.

The Musician: I’m not sure I’ve met a Cuban as callado as this guy in the nearly dozen years I’ve lived here. He’s so quiet he makes me nervous. Have I insulted him? Is he bored? Does he simply have nothing to say? This last I discount not only because he has that ‘still waters run deep’ thing going on, but also because when he’s on stage playing his cutting-edge compositions, he speaks volumes.

When I asked a mutual friend: ‘what gives with Daniel? I’ve known my share of strong, silent types, but he kind of takes it to the extreme, doesn’t he?’ She laughed. ‘Yeah, I’ve known him my whole life and I’d swear he was born in Europe instead of La Ceiba.’ Quiet, measured, urbane, and bling-free: he actually reminds me of some New Yorkers I know, this ‘not very Cuban’ Cuban.

The Born Again: One of Cuba’s new frontiers is being mapped out by pews and altars, chapels and collection plates (big, deep ones). As an agnostic skeptical of all organized religion and someone who has seen both the good and bad wrought by evangelical churches throughout Latin America, I have to say all the conversion going on around here has me concerned. The phenomenon is replicating itself from Sandino to Baracoa, with record numbers of converts packing pews most nights and some days too, as they attend bible study, Sunday school and other church-y activities (see note 1). The people I know in Havana who have been sucked in belong to these churches are usually either not too bright or dealing with some social issue – alcoholism or delinquency, for instance.

But not my ‘not very Cuban’ Cuban friend, who breaks even this mold: he’s smart, has a good job, a wife, his own transport, a nice place to live and two happy, well-adjusted children. Furthermore, he was always more of a rebel than a joiner, rejecting the mob mentality. Flash forward to any recent Sunday, however and he’s wholly subsumed by one of these churches – to the tune of several times a week for 8 hours at a clip. And the proselytizing has begun, with non-responders feeling the freeze-out.

The Gamer: Hyper observant and curious, this ‘not very Cuban’ Cuban takes people to task for littering and ‘envidia’ (see note 2), has lovely manners, smells naturally great in the heart of summer (see note 3), and pardons himself when he (infrequently) interrupts. He’s also vehemently anti-gossip and comfortable being alone – criteria enough to make him a peculiar Cuban. Surely this aversion to the maddening crowd is the gamer in him – he admits to shutting himself in for 8 hours or more when he’s mastering a new game – but I thought everyone here was hard-wired for social gad flying. To an extent, anyway. This guy, however, would hole up on a mountaintop with just the bare necessities given the chance, which sounds extreme even to me, a solitary mountain girl at heart.

In another inversion of a Cuban stereotype, he’s not afraid to ask questions, learn about what he doesn’t know, and pursue new experiences – including hard work. He’s got a hunger for knowledge and the confidence to seek it out I don’t see that often in Cuba’s 20-somethings. It’s refreshing and hopeful, especially because it comes from the next generation, too much of which has lost hope here.

Notes

1. Let me emphasize that I’m referring to anti-scientific, charismatic churches (what’s sometimes referred to as neo-charismatic or neo-Pentecostal), not the traditional kind where you go on Sunday to pray and catch up with the congregation. The kind that freak me out are the ones where the pastor fairly preys on his flock, encouraging adoration of him and distance from non-believing friends and family.

2. This is a very negative, very Cuban concept which literally translates as ‘envy’ but runs much deeper, to the roots of want, need, greed, and paranoia.

3. I’m currently preparing a post on Cubans and their cologne/perfume habits; gas mask anyone?

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Birth of a Biker Bitch

Fifteen or so years ago I was living above a taquería and across the street from one of San Francisco’s largest thrift stores. Community Thrift wasn’t the hippest or most swank, but it stocked the eclectic, second-hand zaniness that city is famous for. Living right across the street was dangerous: it made it all too easy to accumulate cool, cheap shit that ends up collecting dust.

This is how I came across an $18 vintage Harley Davidson jacket. Little did I imagine all those years ago that one day I would be flying along the coast east of Havana on a 1948 Harley wearing that jacket (see note 1).

Seeds get planted, people. Cultivate them – however long it takes – and you shall see that flora flourish, I promise. The problem is, I’ve planted seeds I cannot tend alone – that are so profligate I can’t handle their abundance. When this happens, I write (to wit: this blog!). So while I had no intention of revisiting the Harley scene here at Here is Havana, my garden runs amok…

One of the 12 bikes Ive ridden on...

One of the 12 bikes Ive ridden on…

Some of you may have read my chronicle of last year’s Varadero Harley Rally/Encuentro de Harlistas Cubanos, my first taste of the HD world (save for one long mountain ride years ago, pre-vintage jacket, with a guy who couldn’t hold my attention). Long and short of that post about the Cuban rally? These pre-1960 bikes are impressive and the folks who keep them running and enjoy riding them more impressive still. When I was invited back for the second Encuentro, I was all game.

This year’s event was even better than last – for many reasons but the fundamental one for me was what occurred in the months between rallies: I’m now collaborating with Max Cucchi on his photography book about Cuban Harley riders. Since the 2012 rally, I’ve been hearing all the stories, learning the history, and interviewing the clan. I’m also riding on the bikes; 11 of them 12 of them to be precise and I anticipate trying out more (see note 2).

David Blanco, Harlista Cubano, musician, all around nice guy, rocks out the 2nd Encuentro.

David Blanco, Harlista Cubano, musician, all around nice guy, rocks out the 2nd Encuentro.

It’s true I cringed when that foreign photographer called me a bike dyke, but I have to admit it’s a hell of a lot of run riding on these thundering, troublesome machines. The thing is, riding can’t compare with driving and I know that’s where the real thrill lies (am I doomed to now accumulate a totally cool but not-at-all cheap piece of dust-collecting shit?!). Me acquiring a Harley Davidson is entirely theoretical since I can’t imagine abandoning my beloved bicycle and don’t have the money for anything motorized beyond a rikimbili (see note 3). But while interviewing Cuba’s only female Harley rider for The Book, she offered to let me take her 45 for a spin. Another seed planted, I’m afraid.

li and tony

I’m excited about The Book, in no small measure because it has opened up a whole new world to me, populated by extraordinarily fun, creative, and collaborative Cubans. Until further notice, however, I will be referring to this project as The Book. It had a proper title, which has since been relegated to a working title. Why? Because this is Cuba: things are complicated and being immersed in a rich, rare breed subculture like that of the island’s antique Harleys means being privy to all the gossip, tussles and intrigue therein. Good manners and my desire for everyone to get along prevent me from going into it here. Plus, I’m just the writer/rider so it’s best if I wait and see how it all shakes out. Until it does (in 12 months or so when we go to print), I shall be referring to this project simply as The Book (see note 4).

Cheito Puig, 103 years old and still on a Harley (he's featured in The Book).

Cheito Puig, 103 years old and still on a Harley (he’s featured in The Book).

Besides, none of that is important. What is important is that The Book has images by Max, text by me, and the passion of generations of Harlistas Cubanos.

Notes
1. There are no pictures of me en route, wearing said jacket, since my camera mysteriously disappeared the first night of the rally.

2. As I was readying this post for print a few days ago, I mounted my 12th Cuban Harley. The occasion was a beach BBQ with the gang – fun stuff. Unfortunately, the beast coughed, sputtered, and died two blocks from my house. During curbside repairs, the carburetor caught fire. ‘Socio, you got a fire going there,’ more than one passerby noted casually while eyeballing the red and chrome, leather-accented stallion. It took about an hour to get running again (watered-down gas direct from the Cupet seems to have been the culprit), but that was just the beginning of the 15-hour adventure. A key piece flew off as we flew down the highway; we had to stop at least have a dozen times to do repairs (correction: I watched as my driver and assorted others did repairs); the ‘suicide’ clutch kept getting stuck; and we ran out of gas at 1am in Centro Habana. I guess I’ve concluded the honeymoon phase with these Cuban Harleys…

Even breakdowns are fun in Havana!

Even breakdowns are fun in Havana!

3. These are bicycles outfitted with small motors, usually powered by a liter-and-a-half bottle holding kerosene.

4. Not to be confused with my abandoned memoir. Sigh.

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Adventures of the Cuban Virgins: Part II

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

We last left our protagonists – American musicians on the island for the first time – as they were figuratively deflowered by the temptress that is Cuba and literally robbed by her inhabitants.

With only 48 hours in country, they were already acquainted with water-borne bichos and explosive diarrhea; frolicked (and perhaps even fornicated) along the Malecón; and acquired groupies. In short, they were partying late, sleeping little, creating music, and making very merry.

The theft of the Fender bass after the Will Magid 4’s first Jazz Festival gig did little to dampen their spirits or enthusiasm for this place. On the contrary: the kind, well-equipped stranger who offered to loan us a bass for the next gigs only reinforced their admiration for Cubans and their ways.

Before you can say ‘pass the planchao, asere,’ it was Friday, hours before the gig that had everyone hot and bothered. It wasn’t a festival event, the crowd would be small by design (we had to keep it quiet in the interest of crowd control), and we weren’t sure how the band would fit in the performance space. But after another rehearsal in my living room, all we could talk about was the Guagua Loca.

Box o rum, at the nice price!

Box o rum, at the nice price!

It’s not really called the ‘Crazy Bus,’ (see note 1); that’s my name for it because it is a little loco (and muy cool) this gutted bus packed with Havana’s best DJs making music and fun on its midnight tour of the city. To date, the Guagua Loca had only made one voyage; my guys were excited to be the first foreigners invited to play this innovative mobile music party.

Clearly, a jazz quartet has no place on the Guagua Loca. But while the Will Magid 4 was here to play Jazz Fest, they aren’t really a jazz combo at all, but an amalgam of funk and groove, sampling and swing drawing on musical roots from New Orleans to Ghana. This is music to boogie and have revelations by and after just one gig, Cubans were already gaga for their delicious mix of live and electronic music. And after meeting Iliam and Alexis, (collectively known as I.A. Electronica, the brain trust behind the Bus), the feeling was mutual. Hopes were high for Friday night’s adventure.

As the sun set and excitement swelled as big as the almost-full moon, the Will Magid 4 + 4 dribbled in from their day’s explorations. I waited until all were assembled to give them the news: the Guagua Loca was off. For reasons beyond our control or comprehension, it had been cancelled by The Deciders. I was at pains to explain it – maybe it was a little too loco for this place and time? Regardless, everyone – the Will Magid 4, the other DJs, and fans – was saddened by this turn of events. So we turned to rum for succor and set our sights on Saturday night’s Jazz Festival gig.

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We were running late for the sound check and I was tasting the bane of all music managers: organizing musicians is like wrangling cats in heat. When my phone rang at 4 on the dot and it was Wil Campa asking “Where are you? We’ve got the bass and are waiting at the theater,” I started to fret for real. The bass was locked in, but now we were missing the bass player.

At the beginning of this trip, if I’d had to bet who would go missing, show up late, or somehow leave us hanging, my money would have been on the drummer. To my surprise, Terry turned out to be the only one at our early morning meeting after partying all night and was settled behind his kit on time, every time, earning him a new nickname: Mr Professional. Adam, meanwhile, had taken to Cuba like a drunk to an open bar (despite the theft of his bass), and he was out mixing and mingling somewhere when we had a sound check and a Cuban musician of international renown waiting on us.

Smile on his face and jaba in hand, Adam sauntered up at about 4:05 and we rushed to pack ourselves into an almendrón to the Bertol Brecht Theater. True to his word, Wil Campa and his wife Tony awaited us there with a beautiful six string Rickenbacker they were loaning Adam for the night.

Tony, Adamm & Wil Campa, post-gig

Tony, Adamm & Wil Campa, post-gig

“Please, please, please don’t let this bass out of your sight,” Tony implored.

Slipping the case on to his back, Adam said: “don’t worry, I won’t.”

After kisses and hugs all around, our saviors sped away in their late-model BMW to shoot a music video in the setting sun.
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The room was big and a few of our tribe were still suffering from bouts of explosive diarrhea forcing them into a step we’d dubbed ‘the clench and scurry.’ If you’ve ever been to a theater anywhere in Havana, you know how apocalyptic/toxic/disgusting the bathrooms can be. But everyone took this in (scurrying) stride, as they did all their Cuban experiences, from cockroaches in the bedroom to stolen instruments and cancelled gigs.

The Will Magid 4 set up – live electric bass and guitar, drums (with some sort of electronic component I never did grok), trumpet, MacBook, and sequencer – was presenting problems during the sound check. There weren’t enough outlets and we didn’t have the right adapters. We were short a few cables and there was a false contact somewhere between the amp and bass obligating Adam into his own dance and scurry. Little by little we worked together to get it together, but everything was running late and the 25-piece college ensemble following us fiddled with their instruments, anxious to get their sound check rolling. After a few false starts, things were finally set and I took a seat alongside Will’s parents. The first notes erupted from Will’s trumpet and I started to relax when suddenly everything went dark and silent.

Blackout.

Dios mío. Would Cuba pull any punches for these guys?

I followed Emilio, the laid back runner-of-things at the Brecht, onstage. In trembling sotto voce I asked: had the group’s rig blown the circuit?

“Some cables are down,” he explained. (Whew). “The electric company is on their way. Chill out for an hour or so with some beers and I’ll call you when we’re back online.”

Will packed up his Mac, Adam shouldered “his” bass, and we stowed the rest for safe keeping. After a couple of lagers and lively conversation with some Cuban musicians who told me there are only 8 or so fretless Fender Jazz basses in all of Havana (I will find you cabrón, whoever you are) and that both Carlos Varela and Liuba María Hevia had both suffered thefts of their guitars (the WM4 was in good company), Emilio’s call came through: llegó la luz; haul your asses back.

Once there, the sound check went quickly, I bought Emilio a Bucanero, and we cut loose until showtime. In spite of all the mishaps and low level stress (mine, not theirs), energy and hopes were high for this gig. It was indoors, so the sound would be better that at the previous show and we’d done a lot of publicity to get a good crowd. I’d set up two interviews for Will and invitations had already been extended for their return to Cuba.

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The Will Magid 4 went on after the talented Jorge Aragón Trio and though the crowd was thinner than we’d hoped, the potential was palpable. I prayed to whomever listens to me – that is, no one in particular – for good sound and functioning equipment. I knew the rest would be superbly attended by the four guys on stage.

WM 4 ADsmall

By the end of their first number, feet were tapping and heads bobbing as the audience got into it. The last notes of Cuban Swing were winding around and down when suddenly everything went dark and silent.

Blackout. (‘Shit!, again?!’)

“Thank you all and good night,” Ethan said into his mic, unplugging his guitar.

“¡Qué lástima!” Terry exclaimed, using his new favorite phrase.

Once again I followed Emilio onstage.

“Leave your rig and gear hooked up. We’re checking on the problem and you guys’ll continue once it’s solved.”

Will looked at the band, lit by the beam from Terry’s iPhone.

“I saw a stand up bass backstage,” Adam ventured.

“St James Infirmary. Acoustic. Let’s do it,” Will said.

And there in that dark theater, the quartet – now a trio as Ethan held the iPhone up high for light – gathered in close. Will began teasing out the first notes of what turned out to be the most soulful and novel version of that jazz-blues standard ever heard on these shores. The Cubans in the audience sat stunned and smiling. Emilio caught my eye with his big thumbs up and nothing could keep my goose bumps down. The notes from Will’s trumpet trembled and leapt through the dark in a visceral eulogy to life’s lost love. The rhythm section paced our emotion, carrying us through one of those impossible to plan and hard to forget only-in-Cuba moments.

It was musical alchemy. The band knew it. The audience felt it and we had the talent and solidarity, dreams, hard work and dedication of so many people, strangers and friends alike, to thanks. It was magic not unlike Cuba itself.

As the last stanzas enveloped us, the band was suddenly, glaringly, bathed in light.

Llegó la luz.

“Can’t we have a little more blackout?” someone in the audience asked.

They finished their impromptu number, Adam traded the stand up for the Rickenbacker, Ethan plugged in and the Will Magid 4 played out their set to a dancing crowd – small, but exultant.

2013? I’m chasing more musical alchemy. Won’t you join me?

My deepest thanks and respect to Will, Adam, Terry, Ethan, Larry, Patti, Julie, Josue, Wil Campa, Tony Massolin, I.A. Electronica, and all the organizers of Festival Jazz Plaza 2012 for helping make my dream of bringing US musicians to Cuba come true.

Notes
1. It’s real name is the ElectroBus; look for it.

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