We Are Back in Havana!

We had an excellent landing in Havana—the first return trip for Mica since he came here in 2011 to deliver baseball gear to the Martin Luther King Center. Our casa  particular [predates Air B n B by a few decades] is in Central Havana, a few blocks from the sea and a short ride to Old Havana in a maquina, a recycled, rebuilt, reanimated American car from the 50s that functions like an affordable Uber pool, plying certain routes in the city.

Ivan Soca, subject of the first film in our series, Evolution Cuba, scooped us up in Aquitania, his car, named after the region bordering Spain and France where the first troubadours sang. Los trovadores are a central theme of Ivan’s work—musicians who write and sing songs of the people, from the people, and for the people. They are storytellers and the soul of their pueblo, of their people.



Silvio Rodriguez

Silvio Rodriguez

Ivan took us to Jaimanitas, on the outskirts of Havana where the artist Fuster has transformed the area into a Gaudi-like mosaic of beauty and imagination. But tonight we were here to witness a free neighborhood concert by Silvio Rodriguez, a Cuban troubadour famous throughout Latin America. Using his own resources, Silvio invites guest artists to perform with him throughout the island, converting a street into a concert venue, free for all. This was the 75th in the series; Ivan has photographed all of them save for the two performed in Spain and Chile. No T-shirts for sale, no vendors, just a makeshift stage raised a few feet above the street, and the music. After a brief afternoon deluge Frank Delgado, another trovador with a sharp sense of humor took the stage and wowed us. A short set later, Silvio sat down and sang songs that the entire country seems to know—elders, pierced, tattooed and gender nonconforming college students, local workers, and young families, sway, cheer, and sing. Silvio has been writing and singing trovas for 50 years, and while many in the U.S. don’t know his voice, he is one of Latin America’s greatest bards.

View from the rooftop

View from the rooftop

Ivan knows not only the neighborhood, but he knows the rooftops to climb for the best plano general—the wide shot. He knocked on a few doors, introduced himself, and we were invited up.

Not bad for our first half day in Cuba.

Live from Havana

Havana, Day 1

The airport in Cancun is both a transition from San Francisco to Cuba and a cautionary tale. The food court screams out, Johnny Rockets! Starbucks! California Pizza Kitchen!  And the ubiquitous Duty Free, where I buy a few small bottles of American Whiskey for friends in Cuba.  In my day long journey, necessary due to the difficulties of travelling under the embargo (the embargo still exists, in spite of Presidents Obama and Raul Castro agreeing to loosen restrictions and move towards “normalization” of relations), gave me much time to meet a Spanish artist,  a Brazilian-American professor of Informatics, and members of the growing cadre of American tourists and travellers racing to Cuba “before it’s too late.” I assure them that Cuba’s transition will be incremental, and many of the things I love about this island—the music, dance, sport, and the joie de vivre—are not going anywhere. Or so I hope, being an optimist.

My good friend Javier met me at the Jose Marti airport with his older son, who does the lights and sound for Javier’s comedy performances. Javier is always my first contact on the island, and he fills me in on his family (his wife gives birth to a boy in 5 months!), the new photo exhibitions of our friends Rick Swig and Roberto Chile, and my Cuban cel phone, which he uses when I am not in country. As always, his young daughters have erased my contacts.

After settling into my casa particular, an apartment rented out by a local in Havana’s Vedado district (pre-Air B n B, Cubans have rented out extra rooms or empty homes to travellers for years), I meet my friend Ernesto Wong for dinner. Ernesto is a professor of linguistics at the University of Havana, is fluent in Spanish, English and French, and has a keen understanding of our cultural similarities and differences. He also serves as my translator, helpjng me not only with language but with cross-cultural subtleties that I sometimes miss. Our conversation sprawls from language stylistics to voting in Cuba and the U.S. (always interesting to see our system through the lens of an outsider) and the confluence of art, Cuba, the encroaching market, and free expression.

Saying goodnight, I strolled to La Rampa, one of Cuba’s first wi-fi hotspots, to check e-mails. Monday night is fairly slow at La Rampa; later in the week this 4-block corridor will be filled with people on their laptops and cels, communicating with friends and family on and off the island, gaming, managing their facebook pages.

Back in my casa a little after midnight, I discover that Anisa, the owner of the casa, had left a plate of sliced papaya, pineapple and guava in the fridge. I love this island.

- Ken