Few foreigners get to enjoy the music of Cuba
Few foreigners get to enjoy the music of Cuba
That's hardly surprising, given the lack of any easily accessible,
Celeste Mackenzie, Canadian Press
Published: Saturday, January 20, 2007
HAVANA — Electric guitarist Elmer Ferrer gave a sizzling performance
recently at Havana's upscale Sala Atril nightclub. Ferrer, who heads up
his own band and is also a sought-after studio musician in Cuba, had
just added a couple of new members to the group. Their high energy and
smiles all round showed the musicians were clearly pleased with their
concert — a mix of blues, rock and jazz.
But there were few foreigners in the club — and that seemed a shame.
These were some of Cuba's most outstanding young musicians in a country
with one of the strongest music cultures in the world.
Outsiders can be forgiven for not taking advantage of Cuban's great live
music opportunities. Being in the know isn't easy, given the lack of any
easily accessible, comprehensive guide to musical goings-on.
According to Yaniel de la Concepcion, a communications official with the
Cuban Music Institute, Cuban culture is first and foremost for Cubans.
"That's the priority. Targeting foreigners is not something we've really
tried to do," de la Concepcion said.
Most shows cost much less than the $6 US charged by Atril — just a few
pennies, in fact. Often concerts are free, as was top singer-songwriter
Carlos Varela's outdoor tribute to John Lennon in December. Notices
about these free events are what usually make the papers, including the
institute's monthly La Corcha. De la Concepcion points out though, that
the institute plans to launch a website this spring with a good listing
of upcoming concerts throughout Cuba.
Ferrer's Canadian manager and record producer, Billy Johnston, who
travels frequently to Havana from Ottawa, says it's worth the effort to
find out what's happening. Usually this means enlisting the help of a
Spanish speaker to make a few phone calls. Johnston describes Cuba as
"the jazz capital of the world."
"In Havana you can go to a jazz club and find people there in their 20s.
It's vibrant, organic and inspiring," he said. "Many jazz clubs in North
America are struggling, the audiences aging. But worldwide, it's Latin
jazz [that] is on the upswing, and here you can go to a small venue and
enjoy some of the greatest musicians in the world."
His favourite jazz club is La Zorra y El Cuervo (the Fox and the Crow),
an intimate, underground setting in Havana's Vedado neighbourhood. The
shows get underway at 10 p.m. every night (pianist Roberto Fonseca, not
to be missed, plays Thursdays). Cover of almost $13 includes a couple of
For close to the same cover, Jazz Cafe, also in Vedado but near the
Melia Cohiba and Riveria hotels along the famed Malecon seawall, is
another good option, says Johnston, although the atmosphere is not so cosy.
He also recommends an evening of salsa music at a Casa de la Musica
(House of Music), where music goes hand in hand with salsa dancing.
There are two casas in Havana — both great places to mix with locals.
"It's a real treat to be there on a sultry Saturday night," says
Johnston. "Be prepared for loud but great music, and great dancing."
Just keep in mind that some of the locals are bound to be "jineteras" —
For a taste of more Afro-Cuban music, try the Sunday morning outdoor
performances at the Callejon de Hamel, or the Wednesday 4 p.m. show at
the Vedado's Huron Azul. The latter comes alive at 9 p.m. Saturday as
well for a night of ballads (cover, about $6).
If your timing is right, you may hit one of the city's many musical
festivals, such as Havana's annual December jazz fest
(www.festivaljazzplaza.icm.cu). In addition to a performance by Ferrer's
band, this year's four-day event included Toronto's Hilario Duran
playing to his hometown crowd for the first time in nine years. On the
horizon is the International Choir Festival, March 30 to April 7
And there's good news for visitors to Varadero Beach unable to make the
140-kilometre trip to Havana: a former cinema was converted into a Casa
de la Musica in November, says jazz festival director Alexis Vasquez.
The locale, which served as a satellite stage for the December fest,
offers live music every night, including a couple of jazz and percussion
shows per week.
Finally, don't forget to buy music before you leave Cuba.
CD prices and selection are far better than anything you'll find online.
The Artex stores offer a good variety.
IF YOU GO …
One of the best websites for Cuban nightlife and concerts:
Addresses of some Havana clubs:
– Sala Atril
Ave. 1ra. e/8 y 10 Playa
tel: 2067596 & 2063816
– Jazz Cafe
1ra esq. Paseo, Galerias Paseo
– La Zorra y El Cuervo
Calle 23 entre – y O
– Casa de la Musica (Miramar)
Avenida 35 esq. a 20, Miramar, Playa
– Casa de La Musica (Centro Habana)
– Calle Galiano e/ Concordia y Neptuno, Centro Habana
tel. 8624165 & 8608296
– Bar el Huron Azul
Calles 17 y H, Vedado