Category Archives: The Cuba Essays

A collection of works from my two week writer’s workshop in Havana.

Jazz Club

The smoke billowed from my cigar and rose to the ceiling (Picture 5), mushrooming into a cloud before being sucked away by the dull hum of a vent secured to the ceiling. My eyes followed the cloud as it rose and quickly disappeared, scanning the tiny jazz bar from top to bottom, the music popping and riding in a mix of Chicago and Cuban disciplines of the genre.

Looking on as the pianist, Robert Fonseca, worked his hands along the keys, the crowd hung on every note, bursting into applause as he eased out of his solo and back into the group dynamic. The bandleader quickly came in on saxophone, taking the reigns from Fonseca and scurrying down the rabbit hole with the plethora of notes he patched together in succession.

Jazz in America went a long way towards race relations, allowing African-Americans a platform in our country that had been previously denied. It allowed for self-expression, born out the brooding actualization of blues, it conveyed frustration, despair and light-heartedness in a single broad tune. The sounds moved into the white realm, result of its beginnings in culturally diverse New Orleans near the turn of the century. The great melting pot of sound and color, Jazz set the stage for people of all races to come together under the umbrella of music.

The bandleader tonight was a smooth-headed white Cuban, his mastery of the clarinet and saxophone easily evident. Flanked by a pianist, bass and drums, he was the only white person on stage, his obvious soul a sticking point for the sound popping from the speakers. Fonseca, to his right was the reason the small club was packed shoulder to shoulder, a small grey fedora perched on his head, a confident smile hardly leaving his lips, a finger on the key was enough to silence the crowd. The bassist and drummer, both seemingly of African descent waited for their orders, given in a measured mixture of sharps and flats. Our tour guide, Lian, had told us a bit about the state of race here in Cuba, a place where Spanish, European and African peoples mixed and came together.

Sitting in the underground club, it’s entrance a red antique English telephone booth that pointed down, I glanced over the packed room. Swaying, smiling, chatting those of all races mixed intermittently. A tall pale twenty-year-old from Portland worked game on a Mexican-American woman not far from where a white man gently graced the lips of his darker counterpart. To hear Lian talk of it, race is of nearly no concern to those from this cordoned nation, itself with a history of problems. “If you never get over it, you will dwell on it forever and be unhappy,” she says. A place that places a premium on smiles, dancing and the like; this couldn’t have summed things up more.

Langston Hughes, traveled to Cuba fairly early in his life, writing about it in a piece titled “Havana Nights and Cuban Color Lines” he noted the differences between the way we in America reacted to differences and the way it was handled here. He noticed what he called a “triple color line” during his stay, addressing the pureblooded blacks as the bottom of the totem pole, mixed above and white at the top. It was a result of the times, the social turmoil spilling over our borders and into other realms. With Americans allowed to travel south to the island, southern prejudices and problems were allowed to infiltrate the unique culture, our ugliness tarnishing their beautiful civilization.

The embargo allowed the people of Cuba to grow, independent of the problems that plagued the United States throughout the sixties, seventies and beyond. What stayed, however, was the art of Jazz; that of the great melting pot culture. Instead of being inundated with the problems from the north, the people of Cuba came together, created community, especially during the “Special Period” of the 90s. As the Soviets crumbled and pulled their support, race meant less as everyone, dark light or in between scrambled to find their next meal and survive day to day, an immense sense of community growing from the darkest days.

Leaning back in my chair I watched as the pianist rolls his chord into the chorus, syncopating in perfect harmony with the rest of the band, the loop building to a climax, dropping heavily and quickly picking back up before the drummer takes the reigns, tapping the snare in a hurried rush before working his way across drums with a flurry of hand movements, pointing a stick back at Fronseca to throw it back to the entire band. A black man with dreads bobs his head next to a blond girl with a straw hat, a mixed Cuban man with a cigar dangling from his mouth easing into a bar stool behind them. Mr. Hughes saw the land with American influence, before the absence of cultural vices that plagued our hegemonic society, they better for it.

Hemingway’s House

As I write this I am doing one of the most stereotypical things possible in Havana: sitting on the back porch of Earnest Hemingway’s home, overlooking the beautiful city he left suddenly to never return. It’s a definite tourist destination though the feelings evoked from this place are absolutely substantial.  

Tour guides offer assumptions and generalizations while people snap pictures and bump into one another. One has to wonder if this is how he would want it to be. Our class learned yesterday that there are no statues erected of Che Guevara, he saw doing so to be a vain attraction. I find myself rolling that idea over and over again in my head on this visit to the residence. Hemingway, by taking his own life put assumptions in the hands of the hundreds of thousands of people who have come from far and wide to catch a glimpse of the place where this intriguing man wielded his craft.

A posthumously prescribed manic-depressive I find it hard to believe anyone could be anything less than happy in a place as beautiful as this, but of course we are all slaves to our own minds. Sitting here I wonder why. Why take a life so beautiful and full and end it so abruptly? What could have troubled him so, eaten away at him so to the point there was nothing left?

As I stare through the palm trees, through the leaves and down the slight berm a tour bus sputters and leaves in the distance behind me, taking a horde of tourists with it. The place a bit quieter, the scene a bit more serene, these questions matter less. The chatter of others falls away and I slowly shift my gaze to the dirt trail leading from the tower his last wife, Mary, built for him, down to the bottom of the hill.

A stray dog trots along, lazily hopping scattered fallen branches, passing a drained swimming pool, disappearing from view beyond a row of trees. I begin to imagine the man, years earlier, rising from the water after a late-morning soak, gingerly pulling his body, battered from a life lived, from the artificial sea, grabbing sandals and a towel; a glimpse of contemplation before ambling up the stone path leading to the house, passing under coconut trees and past berry bushes. I imagine him grabbing the handle of the side door before thoughtfully letting go, the cool breeze slowly drying his exposed torso.

Walking through the back patio, past the tower, I imagine him crossing the small grassy patch and sitting where I sit now, soaking it all in with a deep breath and a sigh, his brow furrowing with some deep despair; a moment of patience before a start to the day.

Behind me comes the stomping of feet, the ominous babble of different languages and suddenly I am surrounded on all sides by the clicks of digital cameras, the moment suddenly lost amid cigarette smoke and French gossip. This may not be exactly what Hemingway had in mind, but it may have been a slice of what he wanted. Perhaps the great Cuban poet Pablo Armando Francisco summed it up best when he wrote in his piece, “The Other Adam”, “But he did not conquer/the restlessness that the evening murmur/of tropical death/produces in men from the North.”