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Sun and ‘Son’ in Cuba

The notes of the trumpet are braying in one of Varadero’s beach bars, sounding thru the warm sparkling tones of the guitar and the sharp slaps on the bongo. The doublebassplayer beats on the sides of his instrument. “El Cuarto de Tula”. The blond singer of Septeto Son del Caiman Mariano Leyva sings this song of the Buena Vista Social Club with passion.

Honking in the rhythm

“We’re playing here for the tourists to earn some money”he tells me after the performance. “Only the best musicians can play here. Maybe we can play once abroad”.

The group originally comes from Santiago de Cuba. They play son, traditional music from Cuba. ,the most influential style in the country. It originated from the clash between warm Spanish guitar melodies and African rhythms.

Salsa has indebted much of her history and repertory to Cuban son. It firstly came to existence at the end of the 19th century in little villages in the eastern part of Cuba, in Oriente, around its main city Santiago de Cuba. From there it spreaded over the island. The musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club still know the days that son flourished for the first time.

Rhythm of the clave

When I tell Mariano that I am a percussionist, he gives me immediately two small wooden sticks: the clave.

“The rhythm of the clave is essential in Cuban music. It’s the soul of Cuban music. Even cars are honking in the clave”he says.

I know that and it’s a great shame if you beat it out of rhythm. It happens one time to me during the quickening of the tempo . The bongoplayer sings it directly for me: taktaktak tak tak . Meanwhile two couples started to dance salsa. Also salsa dancing belong to the Cuban life.

Between salsa and revolution

The statue of Che Guevara rises above the city of Santa Clara, 250 kilometers east of Varadero. Santa Clara lays inland. In 1997 he is reburied here. In 1959 he fought the decisive battle against the troops of Batista in this small town of 200.000 inhabitants.

Two days after my departure from Varadero, I walk with hundreds of Cubans to the monument to listen to a speech of Fidel Castro. The speech of Castro takes only one and a half hour and that’s short compared to the seven hours he spoke often in the past. Every time he interrupts his speech for a short break, I hear the sound from the speakers. I hear a softly spoken ” Fidel, Fidel” and the people take this over , waving with Cuban flags. The evening in Santa Clara is a nice contrast wth the revolutionary rhetoric in the morning. The local salsaband La Pegada brings the dancing crowd together in another happy gathering. They play timba, a modern salsa style, very popular among young people. With influences from pop, funk and rap. A Spanish rap resounds over the Calle Rafael Trista.

Tankers, loaded with beer, are standing at the corners of some streets. One beer costs one dollar.

Some women like my way of dancing. I tell them that I did in a course in Cuban salsa. “Chica, yo tu chica” they whisper this sentence in my ear. I will hear it may times. When they marry with a man from the West , from Europe, they may leave the country , it’s the only way to get out. When they dance with me, they don’t take any distance.

Congas in the park

The day after the evening carnaval I walk along the Parquesino del Carmen along a white Spanish church. Before the church I see a memorial stone in honour of immigrants from the Canarian Islands.

On their way to America the Spanish boats sailed along these islands. Much farmer families went with them. The Canarians learned the cultivation of tabacco from the Indians, developed and refined it further. They also brought with them their own way of singing and couple dancing. Most popular music on Cuba-like the son- developed from the fusion of Spanish and Canarian culture with the African cultures from Nigeria and Congo.

On my way from the little park to the bigger Parque Vidal some men try to sell me a cigar for one dollar. “Hé, amigo, good price”.

Parque Vidal looks like a park in a small Spanish town. In the nearby bar La Marquesina I drink mojitos, a typical Cuban cocktail, a mix of rum, lemon juice, sugar, soda and mint. I meet Mariano, a black Cuban guy. He is a mechanic.

“I earn twenty dollars a month, that’s 400 pesos” , he tells me. “And a Cd-player costs 250 dollar”. “On Cuba everybody wants to work in the growing tourist industry”, he adds. ” A waiter in a hotel earns more than a doctor.”

We leave together the bar. On a red couch in Parque Vidal some congadrummers and trumpetplayers are gathering. Behind them some young female dancers are waiting . On a sign of one of the drummers the group starts to move just like the dancers. A strange figure, dressed in a suit of blue and white shreds, symbolizes the African past of a lot of Cubans by dancing on the rhythms of the congas.

A group of old son musicians is waiting at the same time at the veranda of Hotel Santa Clara Libre. The saxophone player in his red shirt is exercising his notes. When the congadrummers disappear around the corner, the old men start to play. On the street but also near the entrance of the hotel young and old couples are dancing closely to each other. An old man is dancing with a young lady.

“Cha cha cha que rico cha cha cha”. This song sounds some moments later. “I noticed that the dancers made a sound like zga-zga-zga while shifting their feet. When 200 people do that at the same time, it’s clearly audible”, Enrique Jorrin, inventor of the chachacha around 1940 once said.

Santiago de Cuba

After a bus trip of twelve hours over largely empty roads thru a green flat landscape of palmtrees and sugarcane fields, I reach Santiago, 600 kilometers from Santa Clara. I see many Cuban hitchhikers along the road, it’s the only way of public transport for most Cubans.

Santiago de Cuba ( 400.000 inhabitants) is surrounded by the green hills of the Sierra Maestra. In the summer Santiago is a sultry town. Temperatures go up till 35 degrees celsius. It’s muggy and hot in the narrow rising streets.

In the evening I visit the famous Casa de la Trova (House of the Troubadours). A guitarist sings a passionate ballad (trova) . An old black trumpet player sits next to the stage. He is braying his wonderful tones into the ears of a dancing couple.

I get a taste of an old tradition. In the twenties they same scene could have taken place.

African heart

Outside I hear the sound of drums, coming from the House of the Chess Players, the Casa de Aljedrez.

The audience is mainly black just like the band Kazumbi.

Two female dancers are performing a complicated dance on the rhythm of the congas. Suddenly a dancing man on a broomstick is passing by. From the wall the Fidel Castro and Che Guevara of the sixties are looking on while I am picked out by one of the dancers

I try to follow her movements but this isn’t a salsa dance. This is dance from nearby Haiti. The slaves of the French planters who fled away from the island during the independence struggle at the end of the 18th century took their music and dance with them and kept them alive till the present time.

I take place on the Haitian broomstick and make a round amidst loud applause. But I flee into the audience after the appearance of strange dancing woman with a little backpack.

“You are in the African heart of Cuba” whispers a young spectator. He offers me a glass of rum and asks me if I like to go with him to a salsabar. I ask him to wait.

Because I want to talk with the musicians of Kazumbi.

“Kazumbi means power in an old language from Angola”, Luis Herrera, leader of the group, tells me. “The rhythms we are playing come originally from Nigeria, Congo, Angola and Haiti. Our music is a mix of all those cultures and at the same time very Cuban”.

The rhythms are played by conga and batadrummers, supported by that typical Cuban instrument: the clave-and by the campana, the big cowbell, also used in son and salsa.

Given the fact that Cuba was one of the last American countries were slavery was abolished, the African traditions are conserved very well, mixed up with elements from catholicism.

“Nigerian musicians who travelled to Cuba, discovered rhythms on Cuba who aren’t played anymore in their own country. But still they recognized them”, Luis tells me during one of the lessons.


The next day I am witness of a santeria ceremony in a local house. While the bata drummers are playing a rhythm (toque) for one of the gods, called orishas, a priestess (babalawo) in a white dress shows me how I have to greet the gods near the colourful altar. I kiss the ground, ring a bell and put five dollar in a box. Later I get a strong alcoholic drink.

When the white skinned priestess starts to dance, some other guests are following her. Not everybody is black, the Santeria cult is not restricted to people from African origin. The owner of the house has even remarkable Chinese characterics.

The whole ceremony will last seven days and nights. It’s dedicated to one of the dancers. He will eat and sleep in the house. After seven days he will be a babalawo.

In a neighbouring room kids are playing computergames. So the tradition meets the present time. Afterwards somebody tells me the future babalawo may not go to the disco for one year.

Later when I am lying in my bed, I hear the rhythm of the clave in my head. The fan is humming through it. Near my bed stands the little batadrum I bought from one of the members of Kazumbi.

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