A trip from Vancouver, BC to Santiago de Cuba: Son, Salsa, and Santeria

No one stared at me; it seemed natural that I should be invited in. The two violinists finished and two comedians followed them performing a lively Cuban Bufo sketch. I couldn’t understand the words, but their physical comedy was so perfectly timed, I joined in with the others laughing like a child.

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Music, the Face of Culture

Caledonia’s musical offerings usually revolve around allowing travellers of whatever musical background to join in on simple rhythms on one of the many uniquely Cuban percussion instruments, such as the tumba, but with my credentials we had to improvise. Cuban musician Cristóbal Díaz said that Son is the “most important genre of Cuban music”. Son is to Cuba what the Tango is to Argentina, although what I played was not so much Son as its descendant, Salsa.

When I joined Sonora la Calle, dropping in a former classical clarinetist into an established afro-Cuban salsa band, guaranteed me with many moments both exhilarating and embarrassing. “It could have been so much easier”, I thought at times. “I could have been sprawled on a lounge chair in Guardelavaca like all the other tourists”, but instead I’d bought me a salsa band for a week.

Although I’d had the intent of improvising so when they presented me with sheet music, I found myself leaning heavily on my rusty old session chops. Occasionally their trumpeter, Gua, would invite me to try my hand at improvising, and however well I did it, I was treated to rounds of high fives for my efforts. I had imagined a hoary old Cuban master doling out musical criticisms, but hey, this was also meant to be a holiday, so high fives from my new Cuban friends it was! After burning through Hay Candela (of Bueno Vista Social Club fame) at tempo, my Cuban cultural adventure was beyond immersion. “I'm starting to feel like Rick Steves now”, I blurted out to Yalina between sets.

Hugo Chávez and the Special Period

There are a lot of things that can bring a well-planned holiday to a screeching halt, but the death of a leader in an entirely different land might be low on the list of holiday hazards. And so it was that Hugo Chávez­­—friend of Cuba—died. And there was much silence.

To show respect, officialdom in Havana decreed that there would be no music or dance for one week. One week? I wonder about a similar ban on live music in a Canadian city—who’d even notice? Santiago without music nearly doesn’t exist. Fortunately, my lessons were permitted to continue despite the deathly silence that enveloped the city.

I was assured that “This never happens in Cuba”, but all I could think was “Why pick on the arts? Why not turn off the electricity and the gas?" After the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, Cuba became incredibly reliant on Venezuela for its oil, but even so doing without “necessities” is commonplace; doing without the Arts shows exceptional respect.

Santeria

From my first visit to La Trova, I began to notice something intriguing about the locals. Many people wore curious bracelets and other adornments and Yalina’s comment, “Eyes are windows to the soul” revealed some subterranean depths about the culture not found in most tourist pamphlets. Even the cathedral in Céspedes Square seemed to ring with influences of something other than Christianity.

Santeria

Walking back to my casa particular after my last rehearsal with Sonora la Calle, I was aimlessly reflecting that just as the eyes are windows to the soul, language and music are windows into the soul of a culture. As I ambled past the tumbledown houses, music overtook me from a balcony. Was that a pair of violins playing Ave Maria? Too Canadian to approach a private home (but too intrigued to keep walking), I sat on a bench to listen. A man spotted me and waved me up. Inside, I found a crowd in a state of what I would call reverence. I had walked into a church and, indeed, there was an altar of sorts festooned with food, flowers, and trinkets. Could this be a gathering of the Afro-Cuban Santeria cult Yalina had mentioned?

No one stared at me; it seemed natural that I should be invited in. The two violinists finished and two comedians followed them performing a lively Cuban Bufo sketch. I couldn’t understand the words, but their physical comedy was so perfectly timed, I joined in with the others laughing like a child.

In thanks for my invitation (and beer), they let me make a donation and ring the little ceremonial bell at their altar in the corner. Although Santeria is still a mystery to me, I do now know what it is to be genuinely welcomed into a living culture. I guess that’s what I came to Cuba for.

Travel Tips

Planning a trip to Cuba? If you plan to include Santiago de Cuba on your itinerary, there are two key events in July:

  • Festival del Caribe, 2-9 July
  • Santiago Carnival, 19-26 July

Book a cultural vacation to Santiago de Cuba with Caledonia.

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