A Week In Havana, Cuba

A few weeks ago I had the privilege to spend a week in Havana, Cuba.  I was tagging along with my wife as she was attending a Pan-America Nursing Conference. While she and her colleague attended the conference during the day, I explored Havana. The week was amazing.

Hotel National

People in the United States do not often think of the possibility of even going to Cuba. For so many years it was seemingly off-limits to US citizens, but in the last few years, midway through the Obama presidency relations “normalized” a bit – whatever that means. Getting into the country, flying in from Miami was no problem. A simple stamp on our flight boarding pass was all that seemed necessary. Checking the the box “cultural education” seemed the obvious choice but nothing was questioned. The usual custom form. Welcome to Cuba.

We stayed at the Hotel Riviera about three miles west  along the ocean of central Havana.  I can unequivocally say that the Hotel Riviera is a great place to stay. The rooms are fantastic. The staff is incredible. The pool is awesome. The buffet breakfast in the morning is awesome. When we left, we felt that we were saying goodbye to good friends and this is a hotel with hundreds of guests and 20 floors of rooms.

My main route into town was along the Malecon which runs along the entire north side of Havana. We walked this many times. It is a colorful place. The people. The architecture. The people fishing off the wall. Not far from the Hotel Riviera is the US Embassy.

Us Embassy in Havana

Recently there was a issue with these mysterious waves of energy that were targeted at US Diplomats and people in the CIA. At the time I did not think about that at all. Along the Malecon you would see trumpet players, even trumpet sectionals rehearsing, impromptu parties late into the night with live music, young lovers watching the sunset.  Often when walking this route someone would walk along side you and start up a conversation. “I work as at biologist. I make $50 a month salary.” Eventually the conversation would end up at “can I get some money for milk for my kids?”  This is what we soon realized was what we called the “Cuba tax.” Of course as the week went along we figured out how to avoid or ignore this scenario.

I saw Havana Vieja, The Museum of the Revolution, Hotel Nacional, Jose Marti’s birthplace, the Revolutionary Plaza. At nights we would venture out and hear some great music. The first night at a neighborhood social club, where in the back was a 12 piece Son band. Four trumpets invigorating themselves between mambos with a bottle of rum. Passing it around like a bunch of teenagers. The bass player, playing a home-made baby bass –  in the pocket and swinging hard, maybe a little bit more modern than the style dictated but he was in his 70’s so who is to say. Other nights spent at an extraordinary rumba concert where even Pedro Martinez played a solo set. A late concert with the group Interactivo that was fantastic. A few sets on the top floor of the Lincoln Hotel listening to the Septepto Nacional, a traditional son band that is an internationally touring act. All of these events and contacts courtesy of my son Kai who has blazed the trail in Cuba the last few years and made many friends.  Special thanks to Koton, Bencomo and Gioser who’s friendship we value like family.

Of course for people from the US, just seeing and driving in all the old Chevy’s, Fords, Plymouth’s from the 40’s and 50’s is a treat.  There is something a bit ironic about that fact that cars in the US now last often only 10 years. The old cars in Cuba are over 70 years old and probably because they were made to last to begin with they keep them running out of necessity. Often, they are completely reupholstered and the drivers consider them like a novia.

The historic city of Havana is a beautiful place even in its crumbling decrepitude.  Buildings are literally falling down. Balconies are falling off. People live in these 400 year old structures that are definitely not safe.

For a week after returning from Cuba, I could not help but think about the people and geography. Visit Cuba. 25 miles from the US mainland, it is a world way.

If you want to see an outstanding documentary to get an idea of Cuba, see Cuba and the Cameraman by Jon Alpert




Cuba and its Music – Thoughts on Ned Sublette’s Amazing Book about American Music

“So imagine the Zarabanda, the Congo god of iron – the cutting edge, if you will – traveled on a slave ship with his magic, his mambo, and his machete as soon as the New World was open for business. Then he went back through Havana, across the ocean again, where he got all of Spain dancing, then covertly crept upward through Europe – through the servant’s entrance, of course – and became part of what we now call classical music. In the process, his name was frenchified, he lost his drum and his voice, and his tempo slowed way down. All that remained was the distillation of his dance onto the lute and the guitar, with only the barest trace of the original flavor remaining. Today we call that process going mainstream.”

Ned Sublette Cuba and its Music – From the First Drums to the Mambo (2004)

In December, my brother-in-law, Ted “Banjo” Kuster gave me Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo by Ned Sublette. It is five hundred and eighty pages long and I thought that it would take me until the following December to finish the book, but it was a page turner, at least for any musician who plays American music. In 1998 I wrote a book called Arranging for Salsa Bands – The Doctor Big Ears Essay were I stated – “Let us look deeply into music and explain why things are the way they are.” Ned Sublette goes very deep.

There are many fascinating ideas in the book. One of the main ideas is that African music has had a much larger effect on Western classical music than we realize as the quote above illustrates. The Zarabanda is the grandmother as the Sarabande which composers like J.S. Bach used in pieces like his Bach Cello Suites. And as has been duly noted in many books, the influence of Cuban music on North American music is often ignored and unacknowledged.

The Elephant in the Room – Ned Sublette on the Spectrum of American Music

“If you ever heard an America sax player fail to lock in while jamming with a salsa band, or heard a Cuban band take on a bluesy jazz tune that doesn’t feel right, you know for all that Afro Cuban and African American music might have in common, they’re also very different than each other.

Why? Because essential elements of these two musics came from different parts of Africa, entering the New World by different routes, at different times, into different structured societies.

Ned Sublette Cuba and its Music – From the First Drums to the Mambo (2004)

Here Sublette points out how the differences between the Muslim influenced sub-Saharan Africa as opposed to the forests of the Congo. It is the thesis of the book and he convincingly states the case. This concept alone is worth the price of the book.

Ninth Voluntary Infantry Immune Band from New Orleans

During the time of the Spanish-American war, 1898, the US Army sent a band from New Orleans to Cuba. At the time they thought that black people were immune to yellow fever. Unfortunately they were not. Just imagine the mind set of the military. “Let’s get those jammin’ horn players from New Orleans and send them into war in Cuba. They will do anything!” Anyway, the Ninth Voluntary Infantry Immune Band from New Orleans went down to Cuba for about a year.

“There is no documentation of the Immune Band having performed in Cuba, and it is impossible to say whether their stay in Cuba affected the course of New Orleans music or not. But if a band of the best horn players could stay in Cuba for nine months without absorbing something, at a time when the oquestas typicas were all the rage in Cuba, they would be unlike any musicians this writer has ever known.

Ned Sublette Cuba and its Music – From the First Drums to the Mambo (2004)

As in many places in the book, the scenes seem almost like historical fiction. It would have been fun to hear this band and if they make a movie, just think of coveted gig of being the costume designer for this epic Hollywood blockbuster! Sublette, of course, points out that Havana and New Orleans were were like cousins both being important and vibrant port towns. Wild and crazy places. The Immune Band was just one of many cultural exchanges.

Puerto Rican’s in New York – The Jones Act

The 1917 Jones Act gave Puerto Ricans U.S citizenship. This enable Uncle Sam to fortify the army for the nastiness of World War I. But the Jones Act would also change the cultural and musical landscape in New York in very interesting ways. Most folks just think of West Side Story but of course much more was going on in the art and music worlds.

Any history of jazz that doesn’t mention Puerto Ricans, is leaving something out.

Ned Sublette Cuba and its Music – From the First Drums to the Mambo (2004)


Then Sublette presents this heavy concept about modernism that probably makes many academics roll their eyes, but which is an interesting perspective. They did not teach this point of view, in terms of African influence of European music when I was in school, that is certain. Part of the concept has to do with the looting and display of African art around 1900, and that this art was being influential to the abstract artists in Europe such as Picasso and his “Africa period,” but it also has to do with the empowerment of black artists no longer in Africa.

It would later become academic common practice to speak of modernism as being a move toward abstraction and stylization and away from representation and realism, it could perhaps be better explained as the consequence of the liberation of black creativity – which to many white people was an abstract concept.

Ned Sublette Cuba and its Music – From the First Drums to the Mambo (2004)


These are all the quotes I will pull from Ned Sublette Cuba and its Music – From the First Drums to the Mambo (2004). There are many more but at this point you’ll just have to buy the book. The book finishes with a few sections about the Mambo and explores briefly the beginning of television, Desi Arnaz and Perez Prado. It is curious to think that Prado and his dissonant, in your face music, was banned from writing in Cuba and had to go off to Mexico where he eventually became an international sensation. There is mention of many Mexican movies that feature his music that I am really interested in checking out. Prado’s music introduced an adventurous dissonance, resolutions to a dominant 7 #11 b9 chord for example, that now we associate with Mambo, but it was very disturbing for many. I have a feeling that this adventurousness then helped propel some of the more interesting work of later “salsa” artists, like Eddie and Charlie Palmeri, Willie Rosario, Ray Barreto and many of the Fania record label.

This era, from about 1970 to 1990, when the urban music of the Harlem Renaissance known as “be-bop,” a music that signaled the end of jazz as dance music, a harmonically and rhythmically rich music that was pushing the status quo, completely fused with the Cuban son and other rhythms in such a way that made both musics even more vital – and people danced. That is not in the book but is my thesis, and I am standing by it!

If you are interested in actually writing for Latin music groups and want to explore more some of the basics of clave, orchestration and arranging, I would seriously recommend the book below. I reread it last week, and I still think it fills a void in the published material in this field. Below is a link to the first chapter which is pretty silly but actually very important. A lot of people from France seem to be buying it.



Feel free to comment on any of the quotes above with the discussion below.