Cuba: Seeking Music, Finding Muses


Yo vengo de todas partes,
Y hacia todas partes voy:
Arte soy entre las artes,
En los montes, monte soy.*

                                                          –“Versos Sencillos” (José Martí)

I.  Landing in Havana

Flights to Cuba on United Airlines hold a special place in the heart of Newark Airport’s Terminal C. To find it, you have to walk in, join one of the myriad kiosk lines labeled “Step 1” to check in for your flight; find out that you can’t do this because your flight is an exception; ask someone what to do, and then be directed to take a left and keep walking until you reach the big blue wall which is the terminus of the terminal itself. There, they make sure you have a visa (which I do), and sell them at $50 a pop if you don’t.

The flight itself is an uneventful, if cramped, three hours, with no checked bags, and consequently no Jordan-style luggage snafus.  It even lands early. The Cuban government demands no fewer than three customs and immigration forms to be filled out, which the friendly officer barely glances at before taking my picture and welcoming me to Cuba–the site of my latest learning sojourn.

Thanks to the Michelle T. Riecke Fellowship from South Orange and Maplewood’s Achieve Foundation, and the generous support of dozens of contributors (friends both old and new) via, I’m here to participate in ThisWorldMusic Cuba, an eleven-day study abroad hands on exploration of Afro-Cuban music, dance, and culture. My hope is that this experience will broaden my knowledge in these areas and ultimately enrich my World Literature and Literature of the African Diaspora courses, perhaps even moving beyond my classroom as I share my knowledge with other educators from various disciplines throughout my school and district.

flags casa

I step out of the arrivals gate and almost immediately spot Claire Kelly, one of our tour facilitators, and the founder of Educational Experiences Abroad. She is hard to miss, beaming and blonde, holding up a ThisWorldMusic/EE Abroad sign. Wasting no time after the niceties, Claire directs me to the money changing bureau, where I hand over my dollars for CUCs. The CUC is special Cuban currency whose value is closely tied to the U.S. dollar which, thanks to a mark-up of at least 10% for exchanging American money, means that you’ll get less back in in CUCs than you gave in dollars. I end up with .87 cents on the dollar and count myself lucky.

Eventually we meet up with Jeremy Cohen, ThisWorldMusic’s founder and CEO, along with more of the ten other participants, and head over to Casona de Calzada, our casa particular. Casas particulares, private homes or other properties let out for temporary lodging, are Cuba’s answer to a dearth (and consequently the expense) of traditional hotels. Ours is a grand colonial affair with 30-foot ceilings and a courtyard festooned with tropical plants.  Needless to say, for me, it’s love at first sight. From there it’s more introductions to the remainder of our group, some course logistics, a quick walking tour of our Vedado neighborhood, and dinner at El Cimarron, the highlights of which are a terrific house band and flan that makes me forget I dislike flan.

II.  A New Day in the Old City

Our first full day begins with a communal breakfast at the casa– fresh fruit, juices, bread, coffee, and delicious made to order eggs. As I mentioned previously, The house drips in 19th Century vintage character, from its tiled, bright tangerine and green leafy courtyard to the eye-catching curios that make up its decor– everything from the dolphin motif on the dining room chandelier, to the single slave manacle, chain still attached, displayed almost matter-of-factly on the wall.

Our dancing and drumming classes officially start tomorrow. There will be two hours of the former each morning, followed by the same for the latter in the afternoons. For now though, we’re offered some context. We drive about fifteen minutes into Old Havana, and our first stop is Casa Museo de Africa, a museum dedicated to preserving, and gratifyingly, CELEBRATING Cuba’s African heritage. The museum’s director, Alberto Granada, admits that this proud spirit of African consciousness was not always the case in Cuba, as he guides us through the exhibits, which attest to the undeniable contributions of Cuba’s enslaved people to both its cultural and national identity.  The exhibits themselves, though relatively modest, are authentic– most of them gifted to the island by various countries on the African Continent.

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Professor Granada’s tour is followed by what I consider the highlight of our first day, the first half of a talk by Professor Alberto Faya on the origins and evolution of Cuban music and its contribution to what he calls “Cubanity.” This is the resultant sound of Cuba brought about by the core rhythms and musicality of West Africans, with added influence from Europe and even Asia (e.g. the double-reed horn). The professor’s “lecture” takes the form of brief segments of history, frequently interspersed with excerpts played by the live band of musicians he’s brought with him, which coupled with his own impressive singing voice, serve to bring the music to remarkable life. To top things off, there are dancers as well, helping the professor illustrate various styles of rumba, and thus provide a preview of what we’ll be learning in the ensuing days.

After lunch (and another delicious piece of flan), we spend the afternoon walking through Old Havana, guided by Alvin, our wonderfully adept 25 year-old interpreter, cum tour guide, cum cultural liaison. Alvin is not only delightful, he is also a wealth of information, speaks several languages fluently, and as a talented vocalist, has an impressive repertoire of show tunes and other songs. Summer is low season, but Old Havana, with its fashionable shops, cafes, and MSC cruise ship docked in port, is clearly the place to be for the well-heeled foreigner in search of La Habana at her most beguiling, but also at her most fantastic (in the literal sense).


Our gang in front of Havana Cathedral on our first full day.

III.  Drumming to the Beat of a Different Dance

I learn a lot during the course of our practical lessons over the next few days, mostly about how my brain works– and how it doesn’t. In short, and seemingly incongruously, I am coordinated enough to dance a rumba, but playing one on a drum is another matter.

The rehearsal and performance space at CFN

The morning dance lessons are quite literally hot, but also exhilarating, surprisingly advanced, and exhausting. The studio has no air-conditioning, and the few fans installed high on the walls do nothing more than tantalize with suggestions of a cool breeze. There are also, curiously, no mirrors, so it’s impossible for any of us to get an audience-view of what we’re doing. And there WILL be an audience, as the program culminates in a group performance for our hosts– the administrators, artists and instructors of the internationally-renowned  Conjunto Folklórico Nacional de Cuba (CFN). This prospect, coupled with the absence of mirrors, makes the approval and positive reinforcement I get from our two dance teachers from the Conjunto all the more rewarding. Owing to the vital inter-connectedness of dance and percussion to Afro-Cuban (originally Yoruba) spiritual tradition, during the course of the week, we learn and rehearse two dances dedicated to two Orishas/Santeria deities: Eleggua, the playful, impetuous, and childlike messenger saint who opens and closes all doors, and the machete-wielding Ogun, the spirit of war and iron workers. The third and final dance we learn, of course, is the rumba, the signature (and notoriously suggestive) Afro-Cuban dance.


Rehearsing the Rumba

Our rehearsals are accompanied live by the Conjunto’s band of master musicians, two of whom, Guillermo and Israel, are also our percussion instructors. Drumming class number one starts off with a whole group lesson, followed by breakout sessions, with groupings determined by skill level. I, along with two other participants, test into the euphemistically labeled “moderately paced” class with Israel. Likewise, the idea of percussion class becomes “moderately” intimidating for me the day after I bomb the introductory rumba pattern, which, though my hapless attempts seem to inspire visible consternation from my teacher, he is no less determined to teach me.  Israel is demanding, but also remarkably patient and encouraging, so I keep pa-rum-pa-pum-pumming away, despite my growing suspicion that I will never get it.   I’ll admit too, that his insistence that I keep trying also reminds me of a certain teacher-blogger who’s fond of telling her students that just because something is hard doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it. So, determined to improve, I start making videos in order to practice during my limited down time (but I also start fantasizing about being relegated to the nonexistent tambourine section of our makeshift band).

Here are the three rumba rhythms:

1. Yambú – This is the slowest and goes hand-in-hand with the less “naughty” couples version of the dance. It’s associated with older dancers, and it’s also the one we’re slated to perform.
2.  Guaguancó – (WAH-WAN-KO) – Like my class, is moderately paced:) and incorporates the male dancer’s attempts to “inject” (vacunao) his female partner with suggestive thrusts of his hips, hands, or feet.  She in turn must coquettishly resist this, using her skirt to shield her virtue, so to speak. The idea is that if either party wins this game (s)he can demand anything from his/her partner.
3. Columbia – I’m tickled at the thought of sharing this one with students and fellow staff members at Columbia H.S. It’s  is a quick-footed country rumba traditionally danced by men.

The Yambú  is the slowest, and supposedly the easiest to play, but because of what I can only call a right/left brain disconnect, it’s also my nemesis. When we eventually move on, Israel is both highly amused and clearly confounded by my ability to pick up the more difficult rhythms of the latter two rumbas, particularly the third and most complex, with relative ease. Of course, there are other percussion instruments. Besides drums of various types and timbre, all of which would be considered sacred in the context of an actual religious ceremony, the clave (klah-vay), and even the catá, drumsticks tapped rhythmically against a cylinder play important fundamental roles in our syncopated symphony. We’re all required to learn these as well, and I’m pretty consistently decent at everything except for the actual conga drum (and begin to dread hearing the word “tumbadora” in conjunction with a pointed look in my direction).


Learning to play the Guaguancó meant I had to “distract” one hand from what the other was doing.

Before long, I come to realize that despite my attempts to dodge it, I’ve become obsessed with the conga, and tend to define my percussion lessons by the little I can’t grasp vs. the great deal I can– and already have– in the span of a few days. And I ultimately begin to see this as the character-building experience it is. I’ve never played a drum in my life, and never imagined that it might involve a set of skills that I didn’t necessarily have, or which wouldn’t come out naturally once I got started. Otherwise, I probably would have thought twice about signing up. I realize (not proudly) that I really only want to try “new” things I’m likely to be good at. However, my percussion experience has made me see things from the perspectives of my struggling students, particularly the ones with learning disabilities, or who may just respond better to teaching styles that don’t happen to be mine.  In other words, I’ve been reintroduced to the cycle of growing and being cut down to size that essentially defines learning.

IV. El Chino and the Orishas

In this detail from a spectacular mural in Matanzas, the Orishas appear to be crossing the Atlantic to follow their faithful. Note, for example, Elegua’s hook, Ogun’s machete, and Yemaya’s fish.

On Wednesday afternoon, we take a 30 minute ride out to the neighborhood of Regla to visit the home of a Santero, or priest of Santeria ( the Yoruba-based Afro-Cuban religion also known as Regla de Ochá, La Regla de Ifá, or Lucumi) who has invited us into his home to share his life story and offer a first-hand look at the icons of his spiritual practices. For this part of the program, he has asked, and we have all agreed, 1) to dress modestly (as for a house of worship), and 2) not to post any pictures or videos we take of him or his home on public or social media forums. Thus the photos or videos included here for illustrative purposes come from other excursions.

Our tour bus pulls up in front of a small two-story home located on a relatively narrow street, both of which belie the religious, if not physical stature of its main occupant.  Claire leads the way, calling out “Chino!” at the front gate, in the absence of a doorbell, and I’m more surprised than I should be when our affable, elderly host turns out to be of obvious Asian descent.

El Chino introduces himself as the 68 year-old descendant of Afro-Cuban slaves on his mother’s side, and of Cantonese slaves on his father’s. If any of this seems incompatible, that in itself may be the point about Afro-Cuban culture and its vital connection to Cuba as a whole. A visibly Chinese Yoruba priest who happens to also attend Sunday Catholic mass fits right into the tradition of syncretism which has allowed West African-based religions to thrive under the yokes of slavery and colonialism, thereby giving Cuba its unique character and sound.

The first thing he shares with us is the sanctuary that holds intricately beaded representations of the major Orishas, each occupying its own designated shelf space. Obatala, the supreme Orisha–creator of humans and the god of purity, peace, and kindness–is represented entirely in white; he is the only Orisha who carries a cane (which operates as more of a scepter). We find out later, when a group member questions a depiction of Jesus that hangs prominently in another room, that Obatala in Santeria is syncretized with Jesus in the Christian tradition. The shelves below Obatala are designated spaces for other central figures in the pantheon, including Yemaya, represented in blue and white–the goddess of the sea and salt waters; and her younger sister Ochun, Cuba’s patron saint–the goddess of beauty, sexuality, fertility–whose color is yellow. They are, like Obatala, syncretized with Christian figures: Yemaya, the universal mother, is syncretized with The Virgin of Regla (a black madonna), and Ochun, with Our Lady of Charity. The corners of his living room house similar shrines for Elegua, and for Chango–the god of thunder–among others.

Our host leads us into the inner rooms of his home, sharing family photos and stories, and pointing out (but not necessarily introducing) two of his godchildren, spiritual protégés, who are engaged in the exacting task of creating more beaded shrines. El Chino’s most recent godchild, his nephew, also appears. Dressed entirely in white from head to toe, he has undergone the seven-day initiation into his faith, and must subsequently wear nothing but this white garb for a year. Thankfully, El Chino tells us with a humorous gleam in his eye, his nephew is also a gifted tailor.

While such excursions are sandwiched between our dancing and drumming classes, they are designed to introduce and/or reinforce context for these, and our visit with El Chino is no different.  Thus, the most delightfully engaging moments of our visit occur when he casually distributes instruments among the group, with the expectation that we play along while he sings and accompanies himself on the drum.

As the only Literature teacher (and only non-music teacher) in the group though, I long for words– stories, poems, a sacred text– to tie this all together, so I ask our host about these.  His response is rather ambivalent, citing the very many books which have been published on Santeria that all but ignore the vital connection to community inherent in building a faith– a connection which is most often manifested by passing things down orally.

V.  Obsesión and the Evolution of the Oral Tradition


Obsesión, Cuba’s most successful hip-hop duo, live in a modest top floor apartment in the same Regla neighborhood as El Chino.  Like old friends, we’re invited to sit around their living room, where we meet Magia Lopez, the female half of the duo first, quickly followed by her partner, Alexey Rodriguez, who joins us a bit later with their producer. Also present is Alexey’s mother, who as it turns out, is also the star of one of their most successful music videos.

Magia and Alexey are cool and low-key, with easy smiles; the only outward sign of their celebrity is just that–a sign– the blue and yellow mural (pictured above) emblazoned on the wall of the landing right below their apartment.  The sentiment under their name is KRS-One’s proverbial wisdom translated into Spanish:  “Rap is something you do.  Hip-hop is something you live.”


Magia does most of the talking, speaking at length about their challenges as Cuban hip-hop pioneers in the ’90s, everything from jerry-rigging antennae in their attempts to tune into 99JAMS in Miami, to trying to gain a platform as a legitimate artform, to being careful not to dance themselves out of their only pair of shoes. The last of these issues being most indicative of the Cuban economic depression of The Special Period, which while it left them short on shoes, inspired many more ideas, and paper and pencil were cheaper.

They give nods to their American influences, everything from Soul Train, to artists like Queen Latifah, De La Soul, and The Roots.  When they play us a couple of their videos,  their sound is clearly reminiscent of all the above, with a little Arrested Development thrown in.  So what makes their hip-hop Cuban?  For starters, they laugh off any suggestion of artificially incorporating congas or claves into their music in order to sound “authentic.”  On the other hand, they’re not inclined to sell-out on Spanish, a language they love, and have inspired their non-Spanish speaking fans to learn.  In other words, Obsesión keeps it real and like anyone who truly lives hip-hop; they speak truth, tackling issues such as racism, colorism, poverty, and sexism in their music.  In essence, they are living proof of Professor Faya’s assertion earlier in the week that “rap is very antique in Cuba,” and, when done well,  is merely the latest, most powerful means of relating the Afro-Cuban experience.

Watch below, “Los Pelos” (The Hairs):

VI.  Power! Energy! Passion!


Performing Ogun

Alvin is a revelation. Going above and beyond his duties as an interpreter, by week’s end, he has danced with us, drummed with us, definitely sung with us–and has emerged (with his favorite refrain above) as our biggest cheerleader.

I, for one, need all the power, energy, passion, and prayer I can muster as Saturday morning’s showtime draws near.  Dance class has been a lot of fun, but Lazara and her assistant, Yosiel, are not going easy on us, and by Thursday, we start to exchange nervous glances when they’re still adding to the choreography.  This is particularly nerve-wracking for me because they’ve seen fit to place me front and center of all our dance performances.  I immediately turn to  my companions on either side of and behind me, and admit to having mostly faked the choreography (except perhaps for the rumba) up to this point.  When someone behind me laughs good-naturedly and points out that they’ll be following me as “the leader,” I get a quick, yet profound reminder of the difference between standing in the front and actually leading.  Meanwhile, Israel, who has mercifully assigned me to play my beloved clave for our percussion performance, has somehow endearingly morphed into a dance coach–by turns giving me thumbs-up signs, or gently chiding me about mis-handling my (make-believe) machete during the Ogun dance.  Just before true panic sets in however, I obtain the choreography from someone who’s had the wherewithal to record it, and spend part of Friday night really learning it.


Saturday morning is nothing short of glorious.  We spend the first hour dress-rehearsing our dance and percussion routines, and then perform–quite well, if I may add–for an audience that cannot be more supportive or appreciative.  Jeremy, our real leader–and my gallant rumba partner–had promised as much, but nothing beats the affirmation that comes with seeing an audience of world-class dancers and musicians genuinely root for you.  Our rumba, in particular, turns into something magical when the entire CFN company joins the cantor, Ariel, in the live call-and-response soundtrack for our dance. That one moment alone may be worth the trip.


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But there’s more magic to come when CFN take the stage in magnificent form, leaving little doubt about the power of music and movement to transcend the physical and spiritual realms.

That afternoon, we head back into Old Havana to meet and literally learn at the feet of the dancers of Peña Bailadores de Santa Amelia. A tradition dating back to the 1940’s, these elder devotees to jazz and dance get together for their legendary Friday dance parties, representing every style from tap to salsa.  They perform first, and then invite us to join in.  I think I can speak for the entire group when I say that dancing is the last thing we want to do after the morning’s showcase, but we do, and the experience is priceless. My first dance partner is in his 80s and stands about three inches below my 5’4″ height, but that doesn’t stop his feet, nattily encased in black and white spectators, from moving like Michael Jackson’s.  Then my second partner, similarly suave in blue, gives me the best salsa lesson I’ve had to date (and pays me the highest compliment by declaring me Cuban on the inside).  Most of the dancers are in their 70s or 80s, with the oldest still cutting a rug at 90! A few more rounds of dancing, and I am exhausted, while both my partners and their counterparts look as fresh and full of energy as they did when we walked in.  In the end, this hour-long dance party–and this days-long musical journey–teaches me much more about developing a state of mind than anything about dancing or drumming.  I will be forever grateful to them, and to Cuba, for the lessons I have learned, and for the ones I will impart.

What I Learned on This Sojourn:

1. The indispensable link connecting the literature of the African Diaspora to its music and dance is both real and vital. It’s so much more than the hunch I had when I included all that music in the course curriculum.
2. There is a lot to learn in Cuba about ourselves as Americans.
3. ThisWorldMusic and EEAbroad are wonderful partners in learning; I would go anywhere again with Jeremy Cohen and/or Claire Kelly without hesitation.
4. Friends are indispensable on a trip like this, and my group quickly felt like my friends. To any one of you who shared with me–a room, a laugh, ideas, meals, pictures/videos, notes etc.:  You have at least indirectly contributed to this blog post, and I thank you sincerely. I hope I’ve done justice to our shared experience.
5. My sense of wonder is under-utilized.  Things happen that surpass all boundaries of understanding– and we should be prepared to experience them without expecting to.


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*The second verse of José Martí’s “Versos Sencillos” (“Simple Verses”) translates to:

 I’m a traveller to all parts,

And a newcomer to none:

I am art among the arts,

With the mountains I am one.



2 Comments on “Cuba: Seeking Music, Finding Muses”

  1. This trip was amazing, I seriously want to go to Cuba now! I started laughing really hard when you said, “… his insistence that I keep trying also reminds me of a certain teacher-blogger who’s fond of telling her students that just because something is hard doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it.” I will miss being in your classroom Mrs. Marshall! Much love

    • Hi Fadjy :0)! Sorry I’ve been so delinquent in checking my blog messages. I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear from you, and that you’d actually come back to read about my trip! Cuba WAS a truly amazing experience. There is SO much Africa there, and you’d never know it from the limited (and biased) picture of Cuba we get here. I’m glad you got a kick out of that part you quoted LOL. BTW, I did eventually learn to play that elusive Yambu rhythm (as if I had a choice). Who knew my teacher doppelganger would be a Cuban drum master?? Drop me an e-mail and let me know how you’re doing.

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