WAITING BUT NOT WAITING FOR ANYTHING
Arriving at the José Martí airport, as soon as my feet are on Cuban soil and the first wave of humidity engulfing my body, I feel a strange sensation. In my mind’s eye I see that old photo of my parents, who had just met, hugging in the Malecón. That was more than sixty years ago. I ask myself how on earth I have been able to wait so long before coming to Havana, a city which in a way has always been part of my life. It was Stefan who persuaded me to come when we met in Venice. I’ve joined his team but I have no special role (I confess I thought then it would be to look, listen and keep quiet.) It’s been quite a time since that conversation because Stefan has put off the project more than once. I suppose it’s not easy setting up a recording in Cuba. He and the others have already been here a couple of days. I only decided to come at the last minute.
Raúl, one of the two drivers who will ferry us around, has come to meet me. It took a while for us to find one another because he was waiting for me at the wrong gate. He understands as little - or as much - of my Italian as I do of his Spanish, but we don’t stop talking while he takes me to the Hostal Valencia in Old Havana. It’s been recommended to me because it’s pleasant and unluxurious but above all because it has none of the tourists that flood the two Meliás and the Hotel Nacional. We go there in an old red Moskvich which must have done hundreds of thousands of kilometres and suffered innumerable do-it-yourself repairs. Some of the exhaust seeps into the back of the car so it’s essential to open the window if you don’t want to suffocate. But the air in Havana, with thousand of cars in a similar or worse state than Raul’s all using inferior petrol, can’t be very healthy either. Raul is a telecommunications engineer but he earns much more as a chauffeur for foreign tourists. He is of course paid in dollars so that in just one day he can earn the equivalent of his month’s salary as an engineer. Almost at once he tells me the story of his life, then goes on to talk about politics, Fidel (‘Beardie’, he calls him, raising his hand to his cheeks and sketching in the air an imaginary beard), his wife and daughters and, above all, cars. His eyes light up when he sees a good car, certainly a rarity in this city. Nevertheless he drives his old jallopy as pleased as Punch. He doesn’t stop smiling at me and laughing even though he’s complaining..
Raul takes me to meet the others at a fiesta of santería. In a very small room two negroes are beating drums while everyone else is singing a repetitive chant. Among them are various santeras dressed completely in white. The negro leading the singing suddenly asks for a space to be made in the middle so that a woman can dance. She gradually goes into a trance because the music has an undoubted hypnotic effect. She must also be dizzy because she keeps turning and turning. It is also suffocatingly hot. Those who are singing - and those who answer them like an echo - keep jostling the woman, almost cornering her as they sing the incessant African litany in her ear. Someone tells me that she may be the bearer of a message from another god. The woman, perspiring profusely, every so often has little convulsions. The others continue to urge her on and block her exit. She finishes up writhing on the floor, dripping with sweat, with the others crowding round enthusiastically. She has the happy face of someone who has achieved her aim, who has enjoyed the celebration of an ancestral rite. Because of the noise and my difficulty in understanding Spanish I don’t know if the gods - her gods - have spoken or not, but after so much intensity perhaps this is not the point.
The evening ends with a daiquiri in El Floridita and supper in the Le Monseigneur, opposite the Hotel Nacional. This was the restaurant where the great Bolita de Nieve (‘Little Snowball’) played and sang for years. His nickname was the best possible one for a short negro with a round head like a billiard ball. My mother adored him and I knew by heart No dejes que te olvide, Cuando te encuentre, Vete de mí, Déjame recordar, Si me pudieras querer and Babalú, the song by Margarita Lecuona which no one has sung with more charm than he. These songs were how I learned the little Spanish that I know. His piano was there, but not him, and I couldn´t help thinking that the place had seen better days. When I go to the gents’ to wash my hands there isn´t any water, something usual here. However sitting down there is an old man, very old and very thin, who produces a plastic bottle with three holes in the top. He offers to pour some water so that I can wash. Then he sits down again on his little chair beside the washbasin. In my room I begin to read what I chose as my travelling companion, a book of poems by José Martí, the hero of Cuban Independence and Cuba´s national poet. I’ve decided to open it at random every night before going to sleep: This is what I read:
Everything around me
But is everything dying,
Or am I?
Next morning we go to an alley (Callejón de Hamel) in a very run-down area. It looks as derelict as the rest of the city: very beautiful houses literally crumbling away, streets without asphalt and with big craters as if just after a great battle. But the only fight here is to survive, to overcome one day more the USA’s repugnant embargo, one more in the long list of America’s crimes since 1945 about which the world keeps the cowardly silence of an accomplice, a crime as despicable as the creation and funding of the Contra who tortured and murdered Nicaraguan peasants in an attempt to bring down the social justice regime of the Sandinistas. It is often forgotten that it was the USA’s embargo that pushed Castro into the arms of the Soviet Union. These streets ooze poverty, much more than in Old Havana, or at least in what I have so far seen of it. But it would be difficult to bear poverty with more dignity.
We arrive at a big party: music here is a therapy, the most handy way to forget, to feel alive. Everything is again very African: clothes, symbols, hairstyles, the words of the songs, the omnipresent percussion. Hundreds of people are living the music crammed together in a tiny space like sardines. Two policemen arrest a negro youth selling illegal cassettes. He refuses to go quietly and there is an ugly fight. Everybody watches, someone says “They’re going to kill him”, but nobody does anything and in the end the police manage to handcuff him. This is the system’s unpleasant side. Everyone knows they are watched - the regime needs this to stay in power - just as everyone has to live on the borderline of legality in order to survive. I am introduced to a six-year-old girl called Yudelkis. I try to talk to her. Her parents, with the natural courtesy and generosity of poor people, offer me a drink from their bottle of rum. Different groups come and go on stage, all of them playing Afro-Cuban music.
In the end I have had enough of such a throng. I decide to go off on my own, to steep myself in the myriad faces of Havana and to draw. There is to be a recording tomorrow afternoon at the Galician Cultural Centre and I arrange to meet Stefan there. In bed I turn again to José Martí:
Like a caged beast
I leave my seat - push the half-closed
Door, return to my book,
I focus on the white eyes in its letters,
Like prudent wounds,
I tremble and vibrate, -
And the tormented soul roars and bites,
As if enclosed in a body of marble.
When I arrive at the Galician Artistic Centre the orchestra has already started on its repertoire of boleros and sons. The audience is mainly old. Some couples must be over eighty but they dance marvellously. The flautist must also be knocking eighty but he plays with genuine enthusiasm. In this relaxed atmosphere I don’t feel at all harassed. We’re on a first floor. The French windows open onto the balconies let in a very beautiful light. Mariko has sat down by one of them and is writing letters. Adrian has taken a microphone down to the street to capture the atmosphere. Andrés and Stefan are controlling the recording. Luis and Günter are chatting and drinking rum cocktails (mojitos). Some men are playing dominoes. Most people are dancing, however, and it is a delight to watch them. What joie de vivre, what pleasure, what smiles, what a way to enjoy the music! The stage on which the Orquesta Sublime is playing is pretty dirty and rundown. The public-address system is also terrible. However rising above adversity is the national sport here.
It’s very enjoyable to watch a very old man with white hair smoking a cigar and dancing. When he sits down I go over and talk to him. He has a smattering of Italian so that at last I can have a more or less coherent conversation with someone. He’s a Spaniard from Malaga whose name is Juan. He tells me a story which I find hard to believe but which he swears is true. In 1941 he was having lunch in Malaga with his wife and another couple. After the meal Juan and the other man told the wives they were going for a stroll. At the harbour they got talking to a sailor who said his ship was about to set sail for Havana. They went aboard, without telling anybody, and spent three years in Cuba. When he returned to Spain his wife showed him the door so he signed up on another ship and spent various years going round the world. Then he returned to Cuba where he was one of the bearded men who triumphantly entered Havana with Fidel in 1959 after defeating Batista. He feels Cuban and he would defend the Revolution to the death. But, like so many other people here, he doesn’t like the present situation at all, what they call here the “special period” since the fall of the Communist regimes in Europe. Juan says he comes to the Galician Centre almost every day to dance, play dominoes and dimly remember Spain. (In Cuba all Spaniards are known as Gallegos, Galicians.)
Tonight a kid stole Adrian’s camera in the street. We have to wait while he, Noel and Luis, who has gone as translator, come back from the police station. Luis tells me things about the police station which I also find very hard to believe, even though Juan has considerably reduced my capacity for surprise. We have a very late supper in the Café Mercurio and then I stroll back to the Hostal Valencia. Martí is waiting for me:
Don’t remove the white hairs,
Which are my nobility:
Each white hair is the trace of a thunderbolt
That came and went, without bending my head.
Kiss me on my white hairs, my love,
Which are my nobility.
Although I like the Hostal Valencia I decide to move to the Nuevo Vedado, the area where Stefan and the others are living. I miss being in closer contact with people. Noel finds me a room in the home of a woman aged sixty called Milaida. She lives with her eighty-seven-year-old mother who spends her life cheating herself at cards and smoking when her daughter’s back is turned. Renting rooms is now legal but there is a mass of red tape; there are also high taxes to pay each month whether or not you have lodgers. Everything of course is paid in dollars. Milaida also has a smattering of Italian and she tells me stories of former lodgers lured to Cuba by sexual tourism. Milaida doesn’t want hookers under her roof, she says, but she also makes it clear that not all the women who go with foreigners are whores. She knows young women with respectable jobs like nurses or shop assistants for whom going out with foreigners is the only way to get the dollars they need to bring up their children. She also lets it drop that if I want she can quickly contact one and arrange a date for me. But, she insists, with only one girl. She regards being with two at once as “pornography”. It’s incredible, we’ve only just met and yet she’s talking to me with total familiarity. Everything here goes slowly except relationships; they go at the speed of light.
Later, when we go to a house in the Miramar district to record, I get another insight into the precarious way Cubans live. The house is beautiful but, like almost all the others, it hasn’t been painted for decades. However it’s luxurious in comparison with our next destination, a house in central Havana, in the Calle Ánimas (Ánimas = souls). Here not only is everything about to fall down but many things have already collapsed. A street with such a name is destined to be inhabited only by ghosts. Time here plays with houses and men; everything seems to advance in a strange equilibrium. Nobody picks up the remains of the walls which fall down, just as it seems that nobody is looking after the barefoot, ragged children playing amid the rubble. The poverty is absolute.
In the house we go to there is a bowl on the fire in which something with an indefinable smell is cooking. In a corner on the floor there is a small santera altar with sticks, rum, stones, glasses and many other objects. A woman suggests we kneel, kiss something and ask for good health or for “our mother”. In another corner there is the famous picture of Che Guevara, as much a national idol as Martí. The sensation inside is that everything is also falling down; I suppose it’s been like this for years. I sit down on a tiny, dilapidated staircase: the bedroom, which I imagine a tiny hovel, must be upstairs. As usual people are coming and going all the time. Everyone seems to be happy, they shake my hand, they smile at me, they talk so quickly that I don’t understand a word. I seize the opportunity to draw, first here inside, then in the street where a big party with percussion and Afro-Cuban songs quickly gets under way. People walk past without turning a hair as if the racket in the street were normal. (This very morning, in fact, I was woken up very early at Milaida’s by music coming from the street.) Nobody complains. The policemen who throng the streets just look and let them continue. Old-fashioned bicycles and extraordinary home-made contraptions go by. In one of the shops for Cubans, which are almost always shut or just empty, having nothing to sell, I read a sign which says: “Get the milk in the morning because the fridge is broken and if there’s a power cut it can’t be fixed.” Raul the driver explains that only children up to the age of seven have the right to milk. After that age anyone who wants milk has to buy it with dollars. Dollars are not easy to obtain but many people seem to manage to get them.
In the middle of the street party, which Noel and Günter have enlivened with some bottles of rum, a negro comes up and tries to persuade me to go with him to a santería altar where someone will tell my fortune and, if I like, my past. I tell him that my blurred and disorganized past interests me much more than my future. He laughs and stays with me, smoking and drinking from the bottles of rum that are being passed round ... Then what he calls his babalú - I take him to be a kind of personal guru - appears. He very proudly introduces me. He speaks to him with genuine veneration. There are these constant traces of people’s African roots. When the music ends and Adrian and Andrés start to collect the microphones the negro gives me his address and phone number and insists that we meet. “It’s for your own good”, he tells me with utter conviction.
In the afternoon, amid the warblings of birds, we record a group in the Café O’Reilly. One of the many songs they sing is Chan chan by Compay Segundo, which has become the hymn of the Cuban musical renaissance outside the island. Fidel the percussionist explains to me that it is a very old song which has been rescued from obscurity. It’s been the same with the octogenarian musicians now all the rage in Europe and the USA. After decades of playing and composing in Cuba for peanuts they are now rich and famous and the multinationals fight to get exclusive contracts with them.
Later I went on my own to the second-hand bookstalls in the Plaza de Armas. I bought a selection of poems by Nicolás Guillén, another of Cuba’s literary glories. Although I had a look at it in my room, in bed I was faithful to José Martí:
Like a dagger of twisted steel
This song penetrates.
In the morning I talk to Milaida, who is delighted with the newspapers and magazines I’ve brought her. She collects them in all languages, although she doesn’t understand a single word. Her favourite ones are the Spanish glossies; she knows all the famous people who show off their houses and their new lovers. I then have a walk around the area. In the fruit market near Milaida’s I witness a strange scene. An old man is sitting in a rocking chair. A woman asks him either to do something or to go somewhere. He doesn’t move. He tells her he can’t do whatever it is she wants because he has a lot to do. How can he say this, she protests, when he spends the whole day sitting down doing nothing. He says: “I have a lot to think about”. His name is Hernández and he says goodbye to me with a smile and a gesture of complicity.
I then walk as far as the house where Stefan and Mariko are staying. While Adrian gets things ready to record a duo I talk to Manolo and Eloína, our charming, hospitable hosts. Manolo proudly shows me his 1951 Opel, a perfectly preserved jewel. He was a bank cashier for forty-two years and now he has a pension equivalent to some fifteen dollars a month. The monthly salary of a surgeon is around 450 pesos or twenty-five dollars. Like many other people in Nuevo Vedado Manolo and Eloína rent out rooms. They say that the inspectors are always on the lookout for any irregularities, especially people having more rooms than the ones they have declared.
On the way to Alicia’s house (Alicia is Noel’s girlfriend) I play my favourite game these days. This is asking Raul the make and model of all the old American cars that are still driven around. “1953 Chevrolet!” “1949 Buick!” “1956 Cadillac!” “1958 Ford, special model!” Raul always answers with total confidence, giving me details about each of the cars and the changes or additions their owners have made to them. For some he even knows how many there are in the city, genuine rarities that he can identify at a distance. All of them naturally predate the Revolution. 1959 marks here, as with everything else, a before and after. Raul is making plans to join his brother in Miami because there’s no future in Cuba for his daughters. I tell him that when he gets there he’ll be able to drive a real car, not an old rickety Moskvich, and his eyes light up. Of all the people I’ve met he’s the one who’s the most critical of the system. He says to me: “Imagine that I recited to you the same poem for forty years and then I said: ‘Do you like this poem?’” The regime has nothing more to give, it’s strangling itself although, like everyone here, Raul respects and in some way admires Fidel. In the car he plays jokes by a Cuban comedian, an exile in Miami. I understand hardly anything. Raul calls the funny jokes “violent”. I ask him if it’s true that the Cubans in Miami have already divided up the island so that when Fidel dies they can buy it all. Raul shrugs his shoulders: Fidel dying seems to him a utopia. Although presumably nothing will change until this happens, nobody talks seriously about it
There’s a power cut in Alicia’s house. This usually means that there isn’t any water either. We first record a children’s choir. Alicia conducts with gestures and expressions that the children fondly imitate. Then we talk to her father Andrés, a famous pianist who studied at the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire in Moscow, has made records and had music published. He has played a lot with his friend Arturo Sandoval. He doesn’t want to leave Cuba where he lives, like almost everyone, with the bare minimum and in conditions in inverse proportion to his talent. It’s night when we finish the conversation by candlelight. Stefan manages to persuade Andrés to take part in a recording another day.
That night we have supper in the restaurant at the Hostal Valencia; I’m glad I left it for Milaida’s. In my room I start looking at Nicolás Guillén:
You, who left Cuba,
Where will you find green and green,
Blue and blue,
Palm and palm beneath the sky?
Tell me. You, who forgot your language,
And masticate in a strange language
well and you,
How can you live dumb?
This morning we’re going to record in the Music Museum. Osmani, the curator of the instruments, sets some pianolas working. Stefan has a theory about Cuba being responsible for the spreading of new music to the USA. We ask Osmani to use piano rolls from the beginning of the century. Although he raises problems and talks of official permission, dollars and our insistence arrange it.
Over lunch I talk to Noel about politics. He sees the same problem as Raúl (what anyone half blind or half deaf can see after a few days here) but his vision is much more optimistic. Although he’s critical of the regime he says that things are changing even if slowly. He bemoans the fact that however much money you have (which someone must have given you - it’s materially impossible to become rich here since the State owns everything), there’s nothing you can do with it. People are gradually accumulating dollars, though. This is why Noel thinks that it will soon be possible to buy cars and flats. Not so long ago it was illegal to have dollars and now you don’t see anything else in the street. But the crucial problem is housing. No new houses are being built and so young couples who marry have to stay with their parents. Milaida has told me that many young people are now moving in to look after old people. They pay no rent and receive no wages. Instead of wages they have the distant, unreal hope that when the old person dies they will be allowed to keep the house. This is a new manifestation of patience. Waiting in fact is the national sport. Everyone is waiting for something that never happens. They are waiting but not waiting for anything. Time passes at such a weary pace which, of course, helps. We in fact were waiting almost all afternoon in the Club Imágenes for Frank Emilio, a blind pianist. We finally arranged with him to record the next day.
That night we end up at the Casa de la Troya, a small dive in San Lazaro with flaking walls. A group of women and small children are listening to an old man playing the guitar and singing boleros. Later he is joined by a young girl whose voice is neither trained nor spoilt by the usual singers’ voices. Although she’s sometimes out of tune, the combination of her and the old man (who sings some of his own compositions, written in the style called here “filin”) is extraordinary. Günter and Luis hand out rum and people soon get in the mood and start dancing. A woman tries to undress to show off her good body. Luis manages to persuade her that it isn’t necessary, telling her it’s obvious how attractive she is. In fact she’s sadly not. The poverty scrawled over her face and clothes has prematurely deformed her body. “The men are pursuing me!”, she shouts tipsily, raising the bottle of rum in the air. The atmosphere is marvellous and the alcohol has its effect even on us.
The evening ends with supper at La Guarida, which is in an amazing house in Calle Concordia, the street where they made the film Strawberries and Chocolate. Large balustrades, huge landings and very high ceilings reveal that in its day it must have been extremely luxurious. Now it’s virtually a ruin. Nevertheless we eat very well. Back in my room I return to José Martí. By chance today I passed the house near the railway station where he was born. His words and picture are everywhere in the streets of Havana side by side with the revolutionary proclamations. Tonight I like these lines from his Guantanamera.
I’m an honest man
From where the palm tree grows
And before I die I want
To extract my song from my soul.
I come from everywhere
and I go everywhere
I’m art among the arts
And in the mountains I’m a mountain.
I hide in my brave chest
The sorrow that wounds me
The son of an enslaved people
Lives for it, keeps silent and dies.
I have a free day in which to rest, read, draw and stroll. I’m going to meet the others tonight in Miramar, where Andrés is at last going to record Saumeli’s contradanses. He’s also going to record the blind pianist Frank Emilio, who is going to improvise jazz and Cuban music from the start of the century, the music Stefan is so interested in. After having lunch near Milaida’s I spend hours wandering. I see a huge cemetery, a street market, a school, bars, a sports complex. When I hear people speaking Italian I turn round. They’re usually men from the south arm-in-arm with very young mulatas whom they flaunt like hunting trophies.
The recording ends very late. It’s after midnight when we go to a restaurant called El gato tuerto (‘The One-eyed Cat’). Then Günter, Adrian and Luis persuade me to go with them to a place called La Casa de la Música (‘The Music House’). Raul takes us there. No sooner have we got out of the car than a dozen girls crowd round us. I get the impression that these are not the respectable girls Milaida told me about but genuine hookers. All of them are very young and either negresses or mulatas. They tell us with total self-confidence to choose the one we like most. They can’t go in on their own and we have to pay their ten-dollar admission. Luis acts as translator. I don’t think he inspires much confidence in the girls, especially when he decides to go in on his own. Then Günter chooses a mulata in a red dress. She takes his arm and doesn’t let go until we’re inside. We drink rum cocktails and dance and eventually, without knowing quite how, each of us is with a girl. Mine is very tall and is wearing a black dress. She says she’s called Lisdeivis, a name she has to repeat various times before I understand it. It doesn’t seem to bother her at all that I’m more than thirty years older. She touches me and slides her arms across my mouth, asking if I like her skin. “Men go wild about this skin”, she says. I ask her what she does. She replies that she’s studying to be a businesswoman. What sort of business, I think to myself, can it be in a Communist country? She will also have a long wait before she can practice her profession. “But I’m not a whore”, she insists, without my having insinuated that she was and while she’s behaving more and more as if she were. She asks me about Italy and tells me about Italian friends, without doubt tourists she’s been to bed with recently. Time passes with rum cocktails, dances and laughter. Adrian seems to have captivated his girl, a big negress in a tight dress.
The night ends when it is already morning. On the balcony of the house where Adrian and Günter are staying the four of us drink beer we’ve bought in an all-night bar called El Rápido. From the balcony we can see Humberto. He’s a pensioner who keeps an eye at night on the houses in the vicinity, for which the neighbours give him money. From time to time he shines his torch to draw attention to himself. I don’t suppose he could do much if he had to deal with well-organized thieves. During the storm we don’t see him. It’s a typical Caribbean storm - intense and brief - but as soon as it stops raining Humberto and his torch appear again. He stays the whole night to ensure that nothing happens. On my way home I find him and give him a bottle of beer. He thanks me effusively and I smile in reply. If I only I spoke Spanish! I would love to keep him company during his nocturnal patrol, ask him about his life, find out what he thinks about while he waits with his torch hour after hour, night after night. But I decide to say goodbye. His face lights up as he starts to drink the beer. He can’t be used to people giving him anything or even to paying any attention to him.
In my room, dog tired, I still have time to look at Nicolás Guillén. I open the book at the last page:
Time passes silently
Like the passing of nocturnal water,
And sees my taciturn forehead
And sees my restless chest.
In this silent time
I immerse my voice of nocturnal water:
I make my forehead taciturn
I rest the restless chest.
I keep my sorrow in the sorrow cupboard,
I keep my soul in the soul wardrobe.
I keep my voice like a sword.
Now I have nothing, I want nothing.
I look for nothing, I expect nothing.
In the morning we go to the Vibora, where Raul lives, to record a trio Stefan has heard a lot about. They are teachers at the Centre for Cultural Excellence. This is in an old Spanish Colonial House, a distinguished building somewhat less dilapidated than the norm; there are painted tiles showing scenes from Don Quixote. Adrian decides to set up the microphones in a kind of patio decorated in a Moslem style that somehow makes me think of the Alhambra in Granada. I’m astounded once again by the nobility with which the three musicians - Hermes, René and Diego - bear the Centre’s lowliness and lack of means. There isn’t any water here either. They play and sing wonderfully. Stefan gives them guitar strings, as he has done to so many others here. They thank him with a self-effacement which I have never come across anywhere else.
From the car I see Diego walking down the street with his guitar. I call goodbye and wave and he gives us a farewell smile. I think of how many kilometres he has to walk to get home. Diego is an exceptional guitarist with a very beautiful voice. In fact he is an excellent musician who would live comfortably almost anywhere else in the world. Here he’s just one of the hundreds of good musicians who live in Havana. After singing for us for nearly two hours he has no choice but to walk miles home with his guitar.
Having a car is a luxury reserved for very few: some civil servants and workers who got Russian or Czech or Polish cars when they were available. Almost everybody has to use public transport, which is a disaster. All the bus stops have interminable queues. Many people position themselves at traffic lights to try to persuade the drivers to let them on, but usually only girls succeed. The most popular means of transport is what are called “camels”, large trucks on which hundreds of people travel crammed together. There are also old buses with registrations from all round the globe - Rome, Amsterdam, Madrid, Berlin! What is no longer used in those cities is used here for years and years.
In the afternoon we spend a few hours recording in La Madriguera (‘The Burrow’) in Central Havana. This is in the Quinta de los Molinos, a house with large grounds with exuberant vegetation, notably thousands of palm trees. The idea is to hear younger and more innovative groups (the ones Noel admires so much) who are trying to go beyond the traditional way of playing Cuban music. The building used as a cultural centre is very modest. There are hardly any chairs and so many of us have to sit on the floor.
I like the first group very much. It is a trio - a white man, a negro and a man with olive skin. They are like a cross between the Nueva Trova Cubana and Brazilian singers like Caetano Veloso or Gilberto Gil. Afterwards I congratulate one of them and, as always happens here, he thanks me effusively. Other groups and soloists play, not all equally good. I specially like a duo, a mulato and a negro who, as well as singing marvellously, display an inexhaustible sense of humour. They dance, imitate instruments, improvise, introduce African accents. In no time at all they have the audience eating out of their hand. While the groups are changing over I talk to Alicia, a teenager who radiates joie de vivre. She tells me she’d love to go to other countries but she knows it’s impossible given the present situation. She feels Cuban and, like her parents, she is not interested in leaving. She wants to stay and, like Noel, she likes to think that things are changing gradually.
That night we go back to the Víbora because Raúl has invited us home for a paella. At last I meet his wife and daughters, after hearing him talk about them so much. The paella is delicious and the meal lavish, another display of generosity. The evening ends with dancing in which Mariko delights Raúl’s daughters - Jessica and Giselle - by teaching them some classical ballet steps. There is a strange exchange of happiness between hosts and guests. They give us much more than they have and are grateful for the mere fact of our presence. I experience their generosity and their knowing how to live as a miracle. I say goodbye to the day one night more with José Martí:
Cuba unites us on foreign soil,
Our love desires Cuban breezes:
Cuba is your heart, Cuba is my sky,
Let Cuba be my word in your book.
Over breakfast the next day Milaida gives me some of her out-of-date ration books. It’s astonishing to see the little that can be bought with Cuban pesos. Everything is of poor quality, like the bread Milaida gave me to try one morning at breakfast. As the shops are usually out of stock you need to go almost every day to get everything you’re theoretically entitled to. It’s almost a war economy, or a post-war economy. Milaida explains that in the 1980s they lived reasonably well on the same income as now but since the fall of communism their standard of living has slumped. She, like many others in this area, is able to buy in the dollar shops. The majority of the population, however, have to survive on the meagre quantities of food imposed by the ration books. Examined carefully, this is something which is virtually impossible.
In the morning we go to Bejucal, a village just over an hour from Havana by car, where we arrive at midday. We have come to.hear a group play for us in the patio of the Municipal Museum. It’s a very beautiful building, eighteenth century I’m told, with a flower-filled patio with arches on both sides. The Tambores de Bejucal (‘The Drums of Bejucal’) are twenty peasants who play brass instruments (trumpet, trombone) and percussion (bongos, bells, ploughshares); there are also three singers. The conductor is Robelio, a comic figure wearing a white baseball cap. He treats the musicians with a strange mixture of humour and severity. It’s impossible to imagine that such an incredible assortment of people could produce music of such quality. Almost everyone becomes transformed once they begin to play. Their faces light up, they smile a lot and they exchange knowing winks. At least they are happy at the moment. From their clothes it’s easy to imagine the poverty of their daily lives. Raúl buys rum, Luis hands out biros, Stefan records, cigars and notebooks. There is an extraordinary festive atmosphere. They play congas, yorubas and Carnival music. Later some of them start improvising African-style songs with percussion. The atmosphere hots up again. Just before we go Robelio starts singing with a very old man who has turned up out of the blue, presumably attracted by the music. He admits he’s already a bit tipsy. They sing old boleros with great naturalness. They’re not singing for us but for themselves - to enliven the wait I can’t help thinking once again.
In the afternoon, back in Havana, we first of all go to the Hotel Nacional. As this is where my parents met I should have come here before instead of leaving it till my last day here. We walk in the gardens, which have views over much of the Malecón and Old Havana. As we drink rum cocktails I consider the possibility of staying a few more days or even a few more months. Although nobody and nothing is waiting for me, I decide it’s better to go home. I’ve done a lot of drawings and I’m full of images and faces and all the music I’ve heard. Looking at the old photos hanging in the Hotel, I remember once more the image of my smiling parents in the Malecón. I feel that I’m also linked to this city now, that it belongs to me as much as it did to them. I’m sure that I’ll come back. I ask myself if then everyone will still be waiting, if they will still be proud of going against the swim and if the embargo will still exist, the embargo that coils itself around their necks. Nicolás Guillén sings tonight his final farewell:
Martí promised it to you
And Fidel achieved it for you;
Oh, Cuba, it’s over now
It’s over here for ever,
Oh, Cuba, yes, yes,
The manatee whip
With which the yankee beat you.
Martí promised it to you
And Fidel achieved it for you.
Oh, how beautiful my flag is,
My little Cuban flag,
Without them sending it outside,
Without any scoundrel coming
To trample on it in Havana!
I saw it happen.
Martí promised it to you
And Fidel achieved it for you.
Mario Luis Malfatti
Translation: Roger Mortimore
Mario Luis Malfatti was born in 1947 in Trieste, the only son of a respected industrial family. He gave up the study of Law in Bologna in 1968 to pursue his grand passions, writing and painting. Malfatti’s first collection of short stories, “Traverse” (Side Streets), was published in 1970 but received little recognition. In 1972 his father, Luis Massimo Malfatti, committed suicide after being arrested for tax evasion. This family tragedy, which led to the death of Malfatti’s mother three years later, has enabled him to be financially independent and has allowed him to lead a life of total seclusion. His novels “Passi perduti” (Lost Steps) and “L’ultimo paradiso” (The Last Paradise) were never published. He now dedicates himself solely to his painting, stimulated by Günther Grass whom he admires.
Team of Producers: Noel Alvarez Marin, Luis Gago, Günter Mattei, Andrés Mayo, Adrian Wilhelm Maria Ripka Edler von Röthlin, Raul Rodriguez Chica, Mariko Takahashi, Stefan Winter
Recorded at various locations in Havana, Cuba, January 1999.