Six Reasons to Love Cuba

There is so much to say  about Cuba it would fill a library.  I have been  there three times  since 2015, visiting Havana, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara,  Varadero and now the more remote Cayo Guillermo, in Ciego de Avila province, an area  praised by Hemingway in his book Islands in the Stream (1970).   Some countries get to you and that bond is cemented. Though it was a struggle to boil these choices down  – the architecture, literature and films are not bad either – but I stuck to my limit of  six- Colours, Music & Dance (sneakily rolled into one), Santeria, the People, Sustainability, and Heroism.

1) Colours

Cuba for me is colourful in a way that has the edge in how it strikes your eyes. Colours are luminous here. Perhaps it is the light – sun, sea and sky all at the right angles?  To talk ‘riot’ or ‘loud ‘doesn’t do the colours justice. Starting with the vintage cars, they are not just the usual black and grey so favoured in the UK. These Cadillacs Pontiacs, and Oldsmobiles are virulent fuschia, electric green, canary yellow, shocking pink, lipstick red or flame orange. The city of Havana is a living car museum. Cubans like to mix bright colours in their clothes too – and get away with it as they carry themeselves with panache. Even the flamingos, standing leg-still in the mangroves of Cayo Guillermo have pink plumage that even a Disney film could not exaggerate more.  It is pinkness filtered to its essence, enough fodder for any artist able to capture it.

2) Music & Dance

 
You can take the music out of the Cuban, but can’t stop them dancing. The two go together. Correction – you simply cannot take the music out of the Cuban either – it is embedded in their DNA. Music and dance are like breathing in and out to them. When my Cuban friend Yurian came to London, his first observation on looking at people standing, drinking outside pubs  was: ‘But why are the people not dancing?’ Cubans don’t hesitate to move their asses.

Cuba is famed for its distinct blend of styles Afro-Calypso-Spanish; so lots of guitars, marimbas, maracas, and the double bass. It is well known for Son which is a sad, soft wistful style, still played in bars and restaurants all over the country. But there is a great variety. You also have the noisier, brassier, sassier styles, of Mambo, Chachacha and Salsa. Most well known is Celia Cruz, born in Havana in 1925, the diva of salsa. But there is also guaracha, a picaresque style of Cuban music with quatrain lyrics. Music is never far away in Cuba. The preference for Live music ,even at lunchtime, is common.

But Cuba has an even more pervasive pop Hip Hop sound, with splashes of Salsa, Timba, and Calypso. This has taken hold of the young in the form of home-grown Reggaeton with the likes of Gente de Zona, Jomil, Los Quatros, Jacob Forever and Yadir, el Pibe with her ‘Yo Soy Soltera’. Cubaton, a version of Reggaeton is very distinctly independent of the US influence, as you would expect. It takes  all the hardness of Dance Hall, and ghetto mentality you find in Hip Hop/R&B in the USA. This softens Cubaton, though still ridden with machismo,  giving it a more bubbly sound,  less edgy, even more romantic and lyrical, less ridden with urban vitriol. Cubans know every single word of ‘Hasta Que Se Seque el Malecon’ by Jacob Forever or ‘Rikitik’ – Cuban style twerking- by Chacal and others.   People are guaranteed to get up and dance when those songs are played.

D.J., Giles Peterson, has  also  pioneered a project that gathers the varieties of genres – jazz, latin, hip hop, soul and alternative – fusing the most unlikely styles together under the world music umbrella. In the clubs like Las Vegas however, the drag queens and divas in deliver a heavy dose of the usual tragic songs, many of them in Spanish with lots of pleading, longing and suffering, like Evidencia by Tania Pantoja and Los 4 but very emphatically delivered – the magic trick of suffering is to just survive against the odds.  A new transgender film Viva ( 2016) dramatises this need to express  that intense feeling born of immense frustration.

 

3) Santeria
Cuba has a unique cocktail culture, blended from a variety of sources, but you can’t go far without stumbling upon the Orishas, the saints of Santeria as practiced in Cuba. Films usually paint a wholly malefic picture of Santeria as an evil practice, but don’t be fooled by the psuedo-Christian media spin catering to white people’s fears of nature spirits. Santeria is serious, soulful and creative,  a kind of DIY with more than a tinge of natural magic and Afro-pan-psychism to its rituals. It is syncretic, and surprisingly idiosyncratic. I don’t personally hold with the animal sacrifice, but not every Santo practitioner does either. In the midst of the frenetic hedonism of a party, a Cuban may suddenly stop to pay obesiance to Gemaya, Chango,Babalú-Ayé, Ogún, Ochún and the tone suddenly becomes sacred. Anyone wearing all white is probably being initiated into their first year of their Santo, their patron saint. Each one goes through a long and personal inititation with their mentor. The jewellery they wear marks out their Santo allegience. Michael Atwood Mason author of Living Santeria  says that it is more than curious that the alleged ‘thaw’ between the US and Cuba was announced on the day of their most important feast day Saint Lazarus on December 16th. Lazarus is a cipher for Babalú-Ayé, who is associated with the miraculous, but also recognised as another patron saint of Cuba.

 

 

4) People

Cubans like to take the easy way,  so I’ve been told. They are earthy people, resourceful, resilient, stoical, but also naturally talkative, lively and very social which makes sense for a so called ‘socialist’ country. Neighbours pour in through the front door and are never rejected which makes communities tightly-knit. It was not Fidel’s creation, but is just the way people are. Sharing comes naturally. For all their geo-political isolation, they are open to the world, friendly, sincere and full of warmth. They are down to earth as astrologers will note that Cuba is a Taurean country, though the new Cuba, from  the 1959 revolution is Capricorn – another Earth sign. Cubans are lovers of good times, parties, music, singing, dancing, love making. ‘Dance, for tomorrow we may die’ goes the motto – and why not? –  it’s a grim act of hope in times of suffering, to just have that last dance in the street.  Young and old dance on spec,  irrespective of how odd they might look.  They love children and that spontaneity is infectious.  Attitudes to gay people are interesting. Gender polarity is very pronounced in Latin communities making it difficult for anyone to occupy any space in between. Not invisible so much as just overlooked.  But the Cuban attitude is basically live and let live towards gays, in spite of the history of oppression of all those considered at risk to Castro’s revolutionary idealism. Travel writer, Pico Iyer, puts it best in his short piece about how Cubans know more about reslience than most. They have access to good health and education, but have no access to the variety of goods available in countries where supermarkets  shelves are threadbare; even tuna fish is expensive – hence the street art saying ‘give us food’. Grafitti sometimes tells the story better yet DJ Sexto  recently was jailed for his work on the walls of Havana. Cuban supermarkets may be understocked, yet they know how to prepare a  rich tasty feast, usually a pork roast, with ‘congri’ -rice and beans.

5) Sustainability

Cuba is a place where you can watch pelican feeding time on the beach, have a chat,   swim and even sing ‘Guantanamera’ with dolphins in the Delfinaria. Some such as the WDC would say these mammals should never be in captivity,  but the lure of dolphins is powerful and marine establishments cite doing research as the reason. Still, I’d prefer to see them in the wild.  You can also  ride in cars that have been preserved  in immaculate condition, sometimes for up to 50 years,  and, like India, you see horses, cows, chickens and goats just wandering about in the villages, apparently free to roam. You can see dazzling pink flamingos, and a huge variety of birds including the famous Tocoroco.   Along with Costa Rica, Cuba has an outstanding reputation for sustainable practices and laws that preserve its natural biodiversity. Urban development has not mushroomed into the landscape here – yet!  Every type of food Cuba produces is produced in Cuba.  You may not get the variety of foods you want, or any refined imported products much,  but local homegrown food will do just as well. This is largely due to the lack of industrial scale chemicals and the variety of produce they have, and to their lack of cars per person. As of 2013 it was It is only 38 per 1000 people and the story was that this was by necessity, not choice. It has 300 natural beaches and one of the best is Playa Pilar in Cayo Guillermo where the only blotch on the landscape was a single can of Cristal beer, floating in the pristine turquoise sea.  Sadly, this is not true of Havana where there is  evidence of pollutants and unregulated dumping – even dead dogs in plastic bags- you only have to look over the Malecon wall to see this.

6) Heroism

They may like to take the easy way in life – let’s face it, it’s a tropical country and climate, with pineapples and coconuts hanging from the trees, too hot to move from your chair at midday – but in  spite of the heat, the fact is it did not succumb to the pressure to be seduced by the United States, Cubans opted for the more difficult route.   Cuba has been David to the USA’s Goliath, which is a rare achievement.  Even though geopolitics is shifting, stencilled Images of Che Guevara, Castro, Camillo Cienfuegos, and even Hugo Chavez are everywhere. This  makes an interesting change from the mind-numbing blur of advertising in other countries, but number one is Che’s handsome face which translates instantly to  icon of rebellion.  Fidel Castro ruled Cuba with an lion-sized will, and whatever his legacy, he will be remembered both as a reckless, resourceful and embattled leader, yet one who offered a sustained challenge to the underhand methods of the US in a way that no other small country has ever able to do. There is even a high quality Napoleon Museum  in Havana- some of the early Latin revolutionaries aligned with Napoleon, and his influence is still felt here. This story is on a grand scale with various assassination attempts, the 1962 Bay of Pigs debacle, Guantananmo, the decades-long trade embargo, and mass deportation of people to Miami – which is Cuba home from Cuba only 100 miles from the Malecon. From the point of view of the ordinary Cubans, they have had to sacfrice their freedom for that lone status so they know what that entailed, yet it doesn’t stop them singing and dancing. The alleged thaw in relations  with the US still has to endure the 2016 US election so the bumpiness of the relationship is not yet over.

Don’t go to Cuba expecting a replica of other countries. It is unique, and as independent as they come.

“Puedo escribir los versos mas tristes esta noche.

Escribir, por ejemplo, “La noche esta estrellada,

Y tiritan, azules, los astros, a lo lejos.”

El viente de la noche gira en el cielo y canta.”

Pablo Neruda

 

© Kieron Devlin, September, 2016

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