With music at every turn, you can't help but dance to the beat of the Cuban capital of Havana
The first word most people learn in Cuba is ‘mojito’ – the rum cocktail with soda, lime juice and crushed mint leaves invented by one-time resident, Ernest Hemingway. But there is more to Cuba than rum, cigars and 50s cars. Having danced salsa from London to Sydney, I had come to its birthplace to taste the real thing. So here I was, dancing to a live band in Casa Della Musica, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon.
Cubans don’t need a reason to dance salsa. It isn’t a pastime here, but an inseparable part of life. ‘We feel proud of being Cuban when we dance,’ said Ordlys, our city guide. ‘It’s something we can do to lift ourselves up no matter how bad we feel. It connects us to a supreme power’.
Cuban music is in a class of its own. Created by a fusion of African and Spanish culture, songs are often dedicated to the ‘gods’ of Santeria – a popular religious cult with its origins in Nigeria. Havana Vieja, the old city, is alive with live bands. Music is playing everywhere – from crackling car radios to ragged bands on the stone steps of the beautifully restored baroque Plaza de la Cathedral to glossy line-ups in the tourist restaurants. Getting into the spirit of things, I picked out a DIY salsa kit of handmade musical instruments from the market, from among the paper maché dolls with baskets of fruit on their head.
‘My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita’ is what Hemingway scrawled above the bar in La Bodeguita Del Medio, and we followed his instructions exactly. Then, tottering across the cobbles in my dance heels, I stumbled upon the Benny More café – dedicated to the king of 50s salsa. The green creeper pattern on the napkins was just as it should be and a six-piece band in Hawaiian shirts played mellow percussion for a couple of old timers dancing around the tables. Before I could say mojito, the drummer beckoned me over to dance.
In the back streets, old men whose bushy moustaches and beards made them look like ageing generals sat in clouds of smoke. A shrivelled old woman with dyed blonde hair sat sprawled across a doorway, croaking ‘photo one dollar’ around the fat cigar in her mouth. I tried not to look into the crumbling houses, but with shutters and doors flung open, it was easy to see these people had, literally, nothing to hide.
On our way down 5th Avenue – without the shops – Ordlys had pointed out the house of the first woman to divorce a Cuban. Now at the old baobab tree in Plaza de Armas, she stopped to explain that locals circle it three times to wish for anything, including a divorce. Wondering whether this was a personal issue, I discovered her ex-husband had taken a raft to Florida, leaving her to look after their child.
The sea splashed over the wall and onto the road as we drove out of town along the sweeping curve of the Malecon, but no one attempted to swerve. As we pulled up to the lights, a beautiful girl, barely 16, got into a cycle rickshaw with a fat foreigner who would not see 50 again. We must have been staring, for, embarrassed, she looked away. ‘They choose the older ones on purpose, because they can’t do much,’ shrugged Ordlys. Every restaurant table was full of ‘couples’. With meat a rarity on a salary of around US$30 a month, some girls need a free dinner. Others are married to men three times their age.
Stopping at a Havana Club café on the city outskirts, we found we’d gatecrashed a 14th birthday party. The band improvised with a piece of corrugated plastic tubing as a ‘washboard’, and a gaggle of teenagers danced on the cracked concrete in the yard. Shrieking with laughter, the girls wiggled their hips at the boys while the parents looked on.
Coming back from the dancefloor, I made my way through luminous white T-shirts to the bar in Casa Della Musica. The wild Café Cantante started at midnight, and there was still the Salon Rosario to go to. But, before I could say mojito, a hand pulled me up to dance. Although the tourist dollar sustains communist ideals, Cubans dance to their own music.