Today was a day of sharing stories with old and new friends. Inti Herrera, filmmaker and one of the directors at the excellent Fábrica de Arte Cubano , took me to lunch at the California Cafe, opened last year by our old pal Shona Baum, formerly of San Francisco. Shona moved here with her Cuban husband Paver and opened the California, an outstanding open air eatery a block from the Malecón (the seawall protecting Havana from the Caribbean) and a few blocks from a public wifi spot. (Call or write me before you come to Havana so I can give you the intel on the California.) Inti and I talked about his university studies (Marxist theory), what it was like to grow up in a family of artists (complicated), the early years of the Fábrica (it just turned two and has become one of the coolest places in Havana, and the world, as far as I’ve experienced), and his time in Spain. He returned after a year or two abroad to create here, became a filmmaker, and produced, among other films, Cuba’s first zombie flick, Juan of the Dead. Juan is a wicked satire on Cuba, America, and Cuba & America.
Rafael Betancourt’s story is equally rich. He left here as a Peter Pan kid (google it), a US-run operation that convinced Cuban families that their kids would be better off in Miami than in Cuba, in the early 1960’s, a few years after the revolution commenced. In 25 years in the states, he attended school and earned a PhD in Economics before deciding to return to his homeland in 1986 to “participate in the Cuban socialist project.” During the Special Period, so christened by Fidel after the Soviet withdrawal of funds led to nearly a decade of deprivation, there were few clubs and restaurants, as electricity and supplies were short. Rafael held regular jam sessions and salons at his place, and as it turned out, hosted many of the people in our series. A university econ professor holding music sessions at his house—I like that.
After seeing Telmary perform her unique mix of soul and hiphop,at a tourist bar above the Plaza Vieja, we had a talk about her life here and in Toronto, where she lived for many years. There were more grants, more resources, but she also returned here after her stretch up north. One of the things she loves about Cuba is that “nobody asks me what I do here, and if they do, they don’t nod silently.” Being an artist here (or anywhere) is not easy, but it is embraced. She shared the frustration of having to perform at said tourist joints for cash, but it does subsidize her creative work. At midnight, when we finished our talk, she rushed off to the Bertold Brecht Theater to perform with Interactivo, the much-loved fusion band that I cannot quite describe. A few days ago, Telmary returned from South By Southwest, where she performed with other Cuban musicians; the day after we spoke, she was off to Varadero, a beach resort a few hours from Havana, to perform again. When I told her that I was exploring artists at this moment of change, she said firmly that the change has been in process the last three years. She is interested in our series, and I hope to see more of her.
Inti, Rafael and Telmary all left and returned. Each has a gestión, a navigation they conduct to continue to create. Despite the outmigration and consistent reports in our press of the difficulty of life here, this place has a magical pull.