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Why visit Cuba? The connection between Cuban culture and music

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Read our guest blog post by Patty who, with her husband Bob, travelled around Cuba and then joined the Cuba Music Holiday in Santiago de Cuba in March 2018. With their travels stretching from Havana to the Oriente, Patty shares their musical journey and her impression of the ubiquitous nature of music in Cuban culture: 

Cuba is not a quiet country. Roosters crow, motorcycles roar, street vendors call, dogs bark, neighbors chat, trucks rumble, pigeon-herders blow whistles, and children laugh to create a mixture of never-ending sound.

And amidst this undercurrent emerges something unique: their music. The Cuban music, which dances through every nook and cranny of background noise as you walk down the street. The rhythms, so foreign and unmistakable, that now reach to my very bones. In Cuba, it is everywhere.

Seemingly everyone shares it, absorbs it, “gets” it: young and old, taxi drivers and shopkeepers, tour guides and churchgoers. Everyone willingly serves as our music teachers as the entire country becomes our classroom.

Our education started during our first day in Havana when we were caught under an awning during a brief rain shower and we had the opportunity to watch three local musicians who were totally engaged in a discussion/practice session about the nuances of the folk song “Guantanamera.” Although we couldn’t follow the conversation in rapid-fire “Cuban,” the passion for the subject and the skill of the players was obvious.

Two talented locals in Santiago performing the cello and guitar on the street

Talented locals in Santiago performing on the street. Photo credit: Bob & Patty Tatum

And we found skilled, passionate musicians everywhere we went…in the park, in gift shops, in small hole-in-the-wall restaurants and music halls even in the middle of the day. It enveloped us, and we loved it.

People were so willing to share their gift of music. While listening to an amazing band, Los Leales, at the Buena Vista Curry Club in Havana, the clave (rhythm sticks) player noticed how energized I was by the music, so she handed me her claves and encouraged me to play with the band by tapping the rhythm on my shoulder while I tried to match the “tap tap tap (wait for tricky synchronized pause only they understand) tap tap” Cuban “Son” (pronounced sown) rhythm I had never heard before. Soon, with her encouragement, I was on my feet and dancing to the music while I played along.

Walking through town, especially in the evening, was always a treat, as we never knew what what we might discover. Maybe a few old cowboys might be strumming guitars and singing what sounded like Johnny Cash music. Some ladies could be singing in the afternoon in the Casa de la Trova (center for traditional music found in most cities). A eight-piece band quite possibly would be rehearsing in the courtyard of an old colonial home in Holguin, and they could invite us to listen. Or Eliades Ochoa, one of Cuba’s national treasures featured in the film Buena Vista Social Club, could be performing in a free concert in the town square or walking down the street the next morning in Santiago. You never knew what to expect.

As a major part of our official Cuban music study program in Santiago, we were introduced to incredible people, places, and experiences. Casa de las Traditiones pulsed with sound as locals danced the night away with us, acting as our private salsa instructors. Our percussion class with bandmates

A woman and boy playing trumpets surrounded by a group of students in Santiago

Patty playing with students of the Lauro Fuentes music school in Santiago. Photo credit: Bob & Patty Tatum

Ramon and Julius allowed us to try our hand at bongos, congas, claves, maracas and guiros, and in the process we gained so much respect for the players of these seemingly simple instruments. A private tour of the government-owned Egrem recording studio, where they made us feel like VIPs instead of tourists, was unforgettable. Visiting the workshop of Harlem Campos, the go-to instrument maker for the stars of Son, and seeing how he creates the magic with his own hands was amazing enough; having Alejandro, one of our band’s vocalists, select a pair of maracas just for me made it even better. And of course, our cultural exchange program at Lauro Fuentes Music school where students performed a recital for us and we played a few songs from home for them in return, captured our hearts as we signed autographs, handed out Sound Traveler decals, and I played traditional music in the school’s courtyard with a seriously talented young trumpet player. This is the stuff of dreams, and it became reality for us.

But we’ll also remember the little things. Riding around the Cuban countryside with our taxi driver Javier while listening to our Sound Traveler CD and talking about politics. Salsa dancing (or at least our attempt at it) on the sidewalk in Camaguey while listening to yet another hot band. Singing “Quisas Quisas Quisas” and other songs with a taxi driver who couldn’t speak English but obviously loved music. Dancing in the forest with our guide who just so happened to be a champion salsa dancer. Even enjoying a private concert given by Omar, the Beatles-loving fiddler, who visited our home in Santiago.

Some people expressed to us a fear that reggaeton, a music import that has become popular with the youth, will take over. We also wonder how the smartphone explosion that has so consumed our own country and the way we receive entertainment will impact Cuban culture, as we saw people clustered around Wi-Fi hotspots in town squares in hopes of catching fleeting bits of bandwidth. We hope that Cuba’s unique music culture can withstand the test of changing times. Because it’s absolutely amazing. Experience it for yourself while you can.

Like the sound of Patty’s trip? If you would like to experience Cuba, please contact us on our enquiry form or call +44 131 621 7721 to speak with one of our Cuba specialists or visit our webpage for more information: www.caledoniaworldwide.com

About the Author:

Patty Kunze Tatum has visited 46 countries and 43 American states so far.  The author of the novel Cruising Alaska Tropical Style, she has worked on cruise ships, taught English in Japan, sailed as a crew member on a private yacht in the South Pacific, and jumped out of a perfectly good airplane.  She lives in Florida, North Carolina, and on the road with Sound Traveler, the acoustic music duo she shares with her husband Bob. To follow Patty and Bob’s musical journey, visit the Sound Traveler Band website and Facebook page.

Have you recently been on a trip with us and would like to feature on our blogs? We love hearing all about how your trips went and seeing your wonderful photos – that’s the best bit of our job! If you would like to contribute a blog please get in touch. We look forward to hearing from you!