Cuba for a Song

By Oakland Ross

Havana -- No matter where you wander in Cuba, chances are that sooner or later you'll wind up sipping rum in some fine old place, reminiscing about past loves and former days, while a woman sings.
Might as well face it now, before you board that southbound plane.
Consider Bar Dos Hermanos, a well-aged, wood-panelled haunt on the Avenida del Puerto, down by the harbour in Old Havana, right between a pair of slender, crumbling streets, one called Sun and the other Light.
Just now, it's a sunlit Saturday morning - elevenish - and a few, mostly Cuban patrons, huddle at several chipped wooden tables scattered on the dark, tiled floor, as a sexagenarian seductress named Xiomara Sanchez Lombillo eases her flowered blouse provocatively off her shoulders and starts to sing.
She coaxes one bittersweet old melody after another through the filter of her rich, smoky soprano - Dos Gardenias, Lagrimas Negras, Quizas - all the while cradling the audience in the palms of her slender hands. She is ably accompanied on accordion by one Alberto Reysin Faval.
Later, during a break in her performance, Sanchez invites you to her table, where she announces that her 68th birthday is less than a week away.
She graciously accepts your offer of a celebratory mojito - Cuba's national cocktail, a liquid rhapsody of rum, lime juice, sugar, fresh mint, and soda.
"You could write a novel about my life," she confides before returning to her feet to conjure another song out of the morning air.
"It has been long and sad.
"But here I am."
And here are you, comfortably ensconced in your first Cuban bar of the day, sipping rum and reminiscing, while a woman sings.
This is Havana, after all, where every city block seems to offer up another singer and another song. You simply have to follow your ears.
Of course, it doesn't hurt to know the names of a few places in advance. With that in mind, here is an admittedly idiosyncratic guide to living the louche life a la habanera - a selection of fine old places in the Cuban capital to have another drink, listen to some more wonderful music, and forget that Paul Martin or Stephen Harper ever existed, if indeed they ever did.
Bar Dos Hermanos is an excellent place to begin.
Established in 1894, the place is said to be the oldest tavern in Cuba and once counted Federico Garcia Lorca among its more illustrious patrons.
The great Spanish poet spent several months on the island in 1930, lubricating his muse at the Dos Hermanos, before returning to his homeland, where he was soon to be assassinated by right-wing forces at the outset of the Spanish Civil War.
Seven decades later, the Dos Hermanos remains largely unchanged. Now as then, several ceiling fans whirl lazily overhead, while horse-drawn carriages and motorcycles with sidecars clatter or rattle past on the street outside, beyond the tatty potted plants and the wide-open windows.
"I used to work in a tobacco factory," Sanchez tells you before gently launching another bolero onto the humid, tropical air. "But, even in the tobacco factory, I sang. I worked, but I sang."
You, meanwhile, are engaged in a performance of your own, a medley of Havana's drinking spots. It is time to move on.
The best-known purveyors of tropical cocktails in the capital of Cuba are probably La Bodeguita del Medio, an antique bar just off the Plaza de la Catedral in the old city, and El Floridita, a study in worn scarlet elegance not far from the city's Central Park.
Both places are pleasant enough in their ways, but also very touristy and therefore expensive.
So make your way instead along Calle Obispo, a long, lively pedestrian street that runs the breadth of Old Havana, where you will find two unpretentious clubs - Cafe Paris and La Lluvia de Oro - both of which feature unremarkable food and inexpensive drink, along with frequent live music, usually of a style known as son, a precursor of contemporary salsa.
Or veer north a few blocks from Obispo to the corner of O'Reilly and Compostela, where there's a great alfresco spot for a pleasant lunch, an afternoon drink, or preferably both.
It's called Bar-Restaurant ViƱales, and it's an airy, inviting place with a lofty ceiling and an attractive green-walled interior, punctuated by clay-coloured Romanesque pillars.
Chicken breasts sizzle on a large grill, while a breeze wafts through the open-air dining room, with its white tablecloths, white tiled floor, and miscellaneous potted plants.
There's musical accompaniment, of course, and just now it is being provided by Amaranto y Su Grupo, a lively five-piece son band.
The afternoon drifts along on waves of music and cold beer, until you find yourself once again contemplating the immortal words of Jose Marti, Cuba's great national hero, who once wrote that he had two countries - Cuba and the night.
Currently, the night approaches.
Already, it is dusk, and so you stroll past a statue of Marti himself that stands in the Parque Central at the western edge of Old Havana, where the oldest hotel in Cuba - the Inglaterra - presides above the ficus trees and the royal palms.
The hotel's ground-floor terrace overlooks the plaza and is an excellent location from which to greet the advent of darkness as you sip a restorative Cubanito - tomato juice and rum - while listening to yet another live band.
Now your real dilemma begins - what to do in Havana after night falls. You face a surfeit of choices. To keep things simple, you might simply wander back across the Parque Central and along Calle Belgica to the Cafe Monserrate, a large, well-lit room with a long bar and a selection of wooden tables - as crowded and lively and frenetic a place as you could wish. There is always an excellent electrified son band playing at night.
Or you might venture farther afield.
For contemporary salsa - currently the most popular musical form on the island - you should certainly consider a lively, subterranean spot called Cafe Cantante, tucked away in the basement beneath the Teatro Nacional de Cuba at the edge of the Plaza de la Revolucion in the Vedado section of town.
The doors don't open until 10 p.m., and there is usually at least a modest lineup outside. The bands rarely hit the stage much before midnight, but there's recorded music until then.
The elite of the island's salsa performers - acts such as La Charanga Habanera or Paulo F.G. or Adalberto Alvarez - regularly perform at several venues around town, including La Casa de la Musica, a large music hall in the eastern suburb of Miramar. It has a proscenium stage and lots of room to dance. The cover charge usually runs around $15 U.S. per person, but it's worth the price - a great place to hear great live music.
There is much less space at Havana Cafe in the Melia Cohiba Hotel in Vedado, partly because this particular nightclub's furnishings also include a couple of vintage American automobiles, not to mention a small airplane, but the club does book excellent musicians.
On the downside, the cover at Havana Cafe is expensive, you have to show up very early to ensure you get a good seat, and there is a pretentious, inauthentic quality to the place.
If it is authenticity you crave, you might be better advised to make a pilgrimage to a somewhat musty shrine dedicated to the leading deity in the pantheon of Cuban music.
Born Bartolome Maximiliano More in 1919 , the man generally regarded as Cuba's greatest interpreter of song is better known as Beny More. More than 40 years after his death in 1963 from liver disease, he's a legend still.
During his short life, More was to Cuban music what Frank Sinatra is to American song, and a boxy little club called Ali Bar on Avenida Dolores in a Havana suburb called Arroyo Naranjo was his favourite stage.
Nowadays, the place is in somewhat dowdy condition, but it presents a nightly homage to More and his music. The food is pretty bad, but the drinks are cheap, and the show - featuring a retrospective of More's greatest songs, performed by a trio of men in double-breasted suits - is surprisingly enjoyable, considering that it's produced on a miniscule budget. The clientele is almost entirely Cuban.
Make sure to ask your taxi driver to come back for you at midnight or so, because there are few taxis in this part of town, and Ali Bar claims not to have a functioning telephone.
If you're interested in the glories of Cuba's musical history, you might also consider visiting a grand old colonial mansion that houses a small network of clubs and restaurants, known collectively as Dos Gardenias.
Located in the western suburb of Miramar, Dos Gardenias includes an intimate little boite called El Rincon del Bolero, or the Bolero Corner.
Every night, a different lineup of venerable singers take turns performing romantic ballads from the 1950s, the golden age of Cuban music. They are accompanied by a three-piece band.
On this particular evening, the final singer on the bill is Ela Calvo - also known as La Vieja or The Old Woman. Now in her 80s, she can still pour out a love song as though she had been decanting bottles of dark tears all her long life, which she has.
She can also work an audience like a pro.
Squinting out from the stage, she addresses a trio of men, asks them where they are from.
"Colombia," they reply.
She and the band promptly perform a spirited cumbia, which is Colombia's national musical form.
Next, she asks another audience member to identify his homeland.
"Italy," he declares.
Calvo nods at the band. At once, they strike up an exuberant rendition of Volare.
Finally, Calvo asks you to name your country. "Canada," you mumble, with your customary diffidence.
Calvo's face goes blank. The band is silent. At last, the pianist comes to the rescue. He soldiers alone through a truncated version of My Heart Will Go On, from the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic.
At first, you fail to recognize the song's relevance to your northern homeland, but then you remember. Ah, yes. Celine Dion. Never mind. By now, Ela Calvo is crooning another sad Cuban bolero into the darkened room. It is midnight in Havana, and there's just you, a glass of rum, and a woman singing.
This is where you belong.

The Toronto Star, 5 February, 2005