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Cuban reflections


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Our final musical treat was a concert by Portugal’s most celebrated Fado singer Dulce Pontes. I kept wondering why on earth anyone would want to hear a concert of Dowland or Handel when they can hear Dulce and her band. It had charm, emotion, stunning vocal virtuosity, but best of all the charisma of Dulce herself. There was nothing generic about her – she could only have been herself. The audience were ecstatic.

Then we went to a reception at the Fabrica de Arte Cubano. FAC is described in the DK Guide as the latest hip venue in Vedado. In fact it could have been a hipster haunt in London’s East End, bursting with the self-consciously beautiful.  It was another bit of wonderful weirdness. Earlier we’d been talking to Cubans about their life, how they manage on 25 dollars a month, and the punters here surely earned a lot more than that. The social system clearly isn’t perfect, especially when doctors and teachers are leaving their jobs to become taxi drivers or waiters, or small-scale (but relatively high earning) entrepreneurs.  These are professions where convertible currency can be earned, often substantial sums. One of our drivers had two degrees and owned an apartment that he rents out to tourists. He obviously benefits from the more open economy, but he was the first to point out that already there is a western-style class system. You need to be pretty dedicated to be a doctor or a teacher for 25 dollars a month when you can earn the same amount in a morning driving a taxi. There is what we would call poverty, but there are no beggars, no homeless and everyone has an income of sorts. Seeing life in the old city – no big business, no advertisements, no rush, people getting on with life, very relaxed and charming despite not having all that stuff – makes you realise just how materialistic our Western lives are and how raw capitalist values have permeated almost every element of our society. But they permeate Cuban society too – the reception at FAC after Dulce Pontes’ concert seemed to be almost entirely a white middle class affair.  It’s all a bit unfathomable to a foreigner.

We asked about the ending of the US embargo but it was something that didn’t seem to interest Cubans at all.  They have plenty of visitors from Europe and South America and don’t particularly welcome more contact with the USA. There is, of course, the possibility that in time a small number of enterprising neo-capitalists will eventually buy up the state, as happened in Russia and the old East. There’s a sense of inertia somehow – as though nobody thinks anything much will change. Downtown Havana is surely a history lesson in what can happen when the mega-rich lose contact with the daily reality of ordinary people, and they accomplished one revolution pretty well so let’s hope they manage to avoid another one by not repeating the same mistakes. It would certainly take vast investment to restore Havana to its Spanish grandeur but it would be a terrible shame if free education, free medical care and the other state benefits were just swept away.

I brought with me a copy of Real Havana by Mario Rizzi, a Canadian who loves the country and its people and who wants visitors to get beyond the superficial tourist experience. One of his top ten tips is not to let yourself be put off by the many irritations that you’re bound to experience. He also goes into some detail about the scamming of tourists and how to avoid it. It’s good to know when you’re being scammed, though being guests rather than bone fide tourists we tended to just let it happen in case we got someone into trouble. The book turned out to be pretty accurate: we did get charged for non-existent drinks in the mini-bar, we did find that sometimes the menu either wasn’t the printed one it’s supposed to be or that we had to choose the same things from the a la carte menu, just as the book says. But it wasn’t exactly capitalism as we know it and it was a pain threshold easily crossed.

We were also very conscious of our extreme luxury in Vedado once we’d seen street life in the old city. But once you’ve had a day or two of luxury it just becomes ordinary  – a hotel room is in the end just a hotel room. I didn’t actually use the top floor VIP suite at all as it turned out that Ariel and Edin were on the floor below (being mere lutenists…) and so I hung out in the depths with them instead. With one exception: my floor meant that I had a 24 hour free internet pass. Ariel had to pay 5 CUC an hour on the floor below. In other words my pass was worth 120 dollars. We shared it, Cuban fashion.

There were many musical delights during the week, and being part of the festival was a heart-warming thing. We were incredibly well looked after, and meeting Leo and Isabelle Brouwer and seeing what they achieve for ordinary people in the name of music is the kind of thing that makes the heart sing. It was a privilege to be there and I’ll certainly never forget the experience. I have one other enduring Cuban musical memory. I was walking on the shore one morning – it’s volcanic rock and not a beach by any stretch of the imagination, and even in beach shoes it’s tough going – and I saw a man and two women right at the water’s edge with their backs to me. He was playing maracas and chanting, and the women responded with a repeated chorus. The only audience was the sea.

 

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2 Responses to “Cuban reflections”

  1. Don says:

    Dear John,
    Thanks for your fulsome reporting on Havana, I particularly enjoyed the description of the Old city. As you say, one has to travel to places such as Cuba or Vietnam to witness life not yet straightjacketted by consumerism. I particularly miss the cries of vendors in Vietnam. … I hadn’t heard of Dulces Pontes before, thanks for that. Your bulletins were also a reminder of the endless hotel rooms that comprise the daily bread of the musician on the road. I wish you well,
    Don G.

  2. John Potter says:

    Thanks Don. Very glad you enjoyed it. It was an extraordinary trip. I hope we’ll be asked back in a year or two.

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