By Stephanie Powell
Cuba. First thoughts? Don’t lie: cigars and rum. That might change after your first visit, though—there’s so much to explore beyond the contraband, and the sensory overload is evident the second you step off the airplane at José Martí International Airport in Havana. The people are warm, the weather is humid, the architecture is frozen in time, and the music and art are all encompassing.
After hopping into a government-owned cab (cab fares are all issued by the government and at same rate, sorry Uber) my first stop is the historic and iconic Hotel Capri. Prior to Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, the hotel was fertile ground for the mob scene, where big-time gangsters rubbed shoulders with Hollywood’s brightest stars. Notable mobsters working at the Capri: Charles “The Blade” Tourine, who managed the nightclub, while Nicholas “The Fat Butcher” di Costanzo ran the casino. Recently reopened in 2014, the Capri’s art-deco interior is inviting, and manages to pay homage (architecturally speaking) to its colorful past. The 18-floor hotel is complete with a rooftop pool and bar, where you must sip a mojito and enjoy the sun as it sets over downtown Havana from one end of the bar, or if you prefer, ocean views from the other side.
I’m on a tour with Stringletter Travel (full disclosure: the travel service offered by Strings’ parent company), which provides a weeklong, all-inclusive, music-focused tour. In one week’s time, according to our itinerary, I’m told we will travel through Old Havana to Cienfuegos to Trinidad; meet with musicologists from the University of Havana; visit jazz clubs; have meet-and-greets with trova, classical, and jazz artists; visit an exclusive dance studio for a private performance; dine at private paladars (family-run restaurants that are not owned by the government), and more. After I settle into my hotel room, I head down to the bar in the lobby. (Apologies to my editor, but sampling Cuba Libres—rum and coke—and mojitos must certainly be considered necessary research.) I’m quickly derailed by a group of musicians tuning their instruments in the corner: a violinist, two guitarists, and a woman with maracas. I ask, “Usted quiere cuerdas de violín?” And, I swear to you, I’ve never seen a smile so quickly take over someone’s face.
I came to Cuba armed with instrument strings, thanks to Strings by Mail, Super-Sensitive Strings, D’Addario, Martin Guitars, and Dogal strings. As I approach the busking violinist with a shiny new pack of Super-Sensitive Pearl strings in hand and make my offer, she quickly sets her instrument down to inspect the new set with both hands, and quickly and graciously thanks me. It’s such a simple gesture, but the genuine happiness radiating from this woman has me feeling like Mother Teresa.
In Cuba, it’s all about la lucha, or the struggle. While the government does ration out food and supplies, the average monthly salary in the state sector is about $20 per month. In order to survive, almost everyone in the country has a side hustle, or “lucha”—for this gaggle of musicians in the lobby, that’s their lucha. The side work, which is often supplemented by tips, remittances, or black-market activity, can raise Cubans’ monthly salary to $100–$150 per month. The foursome quickly jump into an Afro-Cuban rhythm with the violin weaving in long, warm notes in between guitar riffs. I’ve been in the country fewer than five hours, haven’t left the hotel, and am already surrounded by talented musicians.
Although not every day that follows provides a guaranteed string-related performance on the itinerary, with the variety of street musicians in the popular squares during walking tours, in restaurants, or the easily accessible La Zorra y el Cuervo (The Fox and the Raven), a late-night jazz club located a few blocks from the Hotel Capri, finding music is the least of anyone’s worries. Our days are filled with private musical performances in stunning buildings from the early-17th century onward, all influenced by various cultures: Italian, Moorish, French, Spanish. They stand next to one another like a massive collection of mismatched, immaculate time capsules.
The itinerary covers so many musical genres—jazz, trova, classical, bluegrass, and even pop (guitarist Yibran Ribero of Buena Fe fame performs the Beatles’ “Blackbird” in an acoustic performance). My fellow travelers have each arrived with a preferred musical instrument and style of music. But as the days pass, and as the performances of various disciplines and instrumentation continue to delight us, a pattern emerges—one of unexpected discovery. One of the travelers, a violinist, violin teacher, and avid Strings reader, muses on the rewards of being exposed to so many different types of music in a few days’ time. Though there’s clearly much to learn from immersion in such musical diversity, actually doing it can be really challenging, she says, when you’re in a classroom or symphony hall practicing classical music 40-plus hours a week. In Cuba, however, she had the chance to keep her ears open to it all.
The week continues to push our musical boundaries, forcing us to step outside of our individual comfort zones with each engaging performance. But of course, we each have our favorites. And sometimes our favorites hail from inside those initial comfort zones. For me, as a Strings editor, it would have been hard to beat the private concert by the Orquesta del Lyceum Mozartiano de la Habana.
Seminario San Carlos is an 18th-century seminary, constructed with Spanish-style columns lining each wall of the three-story building, with an atrium at its center filled with luscious greenery. It’s also the venue for this concert.
As our group files into the room, the 14-member orchestra is tuning, and the acoustics dance throughout the space, reflecting back from even Father Felix Valera’s bustform, which is planted directly behind the musicians. (Valera taught economics and physics in this very room in 1813, and his bust is adorned with a pair of real glasses.)
The group starts off with a lively piece by a Cuban composer—the first violins repeat a playful melody, the cellos add depth with a warm pizzicato, and the second violins play long, open-note bows. Different sections of the orchestra sway back and forth to the Afro-Cuban rhythm, while smiles play across the musicians’ faces. The upbeat performance comes to a crescendo as music director José Antonio Méndez Padrón motions for acceleration as the final notes develop into a crushing close.
The program continues with Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion, and cellist Gabriela Nardo performs the sweeping and thoughtful solo. The afternoon wouldn’t be complete without a nod to Mozart—the orchestra is partially funded by Salzburg, Austria’s Mozarteum Foundation—and delivers the classic, crowd-pleasing Serenade No. 13 for Strings in G minor, K. 525 (“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”).
The performance comes to an end with Sambason, written by one of the orchestra’s second violinists, Jenny Peña. The work fuses Brazilian samba with Cuban son—a blended style of Spanish and African music that reached Havana in the early-20th century. Over the course of our time in Cuba, we’ve become very familiar with its rhythmic, beautiful sound.
The final piece trades wild and frequent pizzicatos among sections, and calls for the musicians to use their precious wooden instruments as percussion substitutes. The orchestra moves as it plays, dancing in their spots. The enthusiasm among the orchestra and crowd is palpable as it escalates to the music’s close.
As the music fades, the audience rises into an immediate standing ovation.
An audience member later asks the orchestra the first in a series of follow-up questions: “Do you prefer to play music by Cuban composers or European composers?” With a speedy and genuine response, Méndez Padrón translates his students’ initial reactions. “We enjoy both,” he says, then adds with a smile, “At the end of the day, music is music.”
Day at a Glance
9:30 Am: Breakfast
The most important meal of the day—especially when your day is jam-packed with walking tours and hopping between various musical venues. It was convenient to eat breakfast at Hotel Capri, but the hotel is centrally located on Calle 21, a main avenue in Havana, which is full of delicious, local paladars. (In Cuba, paladars are privately, not government, owned restaurants.) Breakfast options vary from traditional Western omelettes to a variety of island-gathered fruit to selections of cheese and sliced meat.
11 Am: Walking Tour of Old Havana
The architecture is breathtaking, with stunning Baroque and Neoclassical influences. On the northern side, Old Havana is bordered by a seawall that offers gorgeous ocean views. In the Plaza de Armas, a main square, you’ll find buskers (often a violin-guitar-bass combo); an Italian-influenced fountain at the square’s center featuring lions; classic cobblestone pathways; and manicured gardens. Old Havana also serves as a hub for museums (e.g. Old Havana Museum, Museum of the Revolution, Museum of Fine Arts), cafes, live music, souvenir shopping, and more.
2 pm: Private Chamber-Music Performance
The 14-member Orquesta del Lyceum Mozartiano de la Habana, under the direction of Jose Antonio Méndez Padrón, delivers a lively performance by various Cuban and European composers—from Afro-Cuban rhythms to Mozart. Seminario San Carlos, established in the mid-18th century and still operating as a seminary today, serves as the venue.
4 pm: Visit to Lizt Alfonso Academy
This women-led dance company provides instruction for school and local youth. The dancers vary in age from six to 18, and have performed in more than 20 countries on five different continents, during 40+ international tours. The students, both male and female, specialize in a “fusion” dance style that combines ballet, jazz, contemporary, flamenco, and more.
7:30 pm: Dinner
A group dinner at La Guarida, a paladar located a few blocks from the coast, was featured in the 1993 Oscar-nominated film Strawberry and Chocolate. The restaurant is located on the third floor of an early-20th century building. Appetizers vary from an avocado taco (vegetarian alternative) to a small glass of ceviche, served with Cuba’s famous “dirty rice” (a mash-up of black beans, rice, and what I imagine has to be lard to get that delicious taste). Entrees are traditional, from seafood specialties, a vegetarian risotto option, or chicken. Dessert offers a variety of decadent, chocolate-heavy options.
9 pm: Fabrica de Arte Cubano
A multi-use space for musicians, artists, filmmakers, photographers, fashion designers, visual artists, dancers, and more—any type of art medium you can think of thrives at the Fabrica. The old factory building was converted to an art space, and houses high-end bars, a giant stage for music and dance performances, select enclaves that offer tapas, and endless corridors that weave into diverse artist galleries. A must-see in terms of Cuban nightlife—but get there early! Fabrica is only open Thursday through Sunday, and the line is guaranteed to wrap around the building.
This article originally appeared in the March-April 2019 issue of Strings magazine.