Havana: Music!

This is one of a series of articles about our trip to Cuba. Click here for a list of all the Cuba-related articles.

One of the reasons we decided to stay in Havana for our entire Cuba visit was to experience as much music as possible. Armed with my friend Ken McCarthy’s list of venues from his Jazz on the Tube website, we scoped out the clubs near us. Fortunately, most of them are in Vedado, walking distance or an easy cab ride from our apartment. Three of the top places on Ken’s list were reiterated by Alex, our guide on our walking tour. We decided to focus on those first.

Our first two nights we were too exhausted to think about going out, especially since music in most clubs doesn’t start until 10:30pm. With our mellow gigs in Panajachel, we’re usually home by 10pm. In Havana they’re just opening the doors.

You can hear a variety of different kinds of music while walking around Havana. In Havana Vieja we heard a number of bands playing in restaurants, or playing out front to entice prospective customers. For the most part they were average to good, playing Latin standards with a few songs in English thrown in.

During and after sunset on the Malecón, buskers (street performers) compete for your attention. We talked with a few of the guys who also play in restaurants in Havana Vieja. Most of them were pretty good, plus they sang in tune and their instruments were in tune. Compared with the buskers we hear in Panajachel, it was a delight hearing musicians who know how to tune their instruments.

Mark borrowing a busker's guitar on the Malecón
Mark trading songs with a busker on the Malecón

However, we didn’t come to Havana just to hear music off the street. Here are the clubs we checked out.

Fábrica de Arte Cubano

Fabric sculpture at Fabrica de Arte Cubano
Fabric sculpture at Fabrica de Arte Cubano

Thursday night we decided to check out FAC—Fabrica de Arte Cubano. They’re only open Thursday through Sunday night, but they have music starting at 9pm. Alex had told us to get there around 8 because the line to get in could be long. Arriving so early was completely unnecessary, but we enjoyed the visual arts exhibits while I sipped my first mojito of the trip. It turned out to be the best mojito I had in Cuba.

FAC is truly a Cuban experience. They have music, performance, fashion shows, and visual arts including painting, photography, and multimedia. You wander from space to space, from an auditorium to a large stage in front of a larger dance space, to a tiny stage crammed with a band.

The payment system is unusual. Each person gets a card, and anything you buy is marked on the card. At the end of the night you pay your bill on the way out. If you lose your card, they assume you’ve spent 30 CUC. Don’t lose your card!

We were there on Thursday when they have a weekly classical performance. This performance included clips of European films set to music by a variety of European composers. The fabulous string orchestra was mostly women and conducted by a woman, Daiana García.

String orchestra at Fabrica de Arte Cubano
String orchestra at Fabrica de Arte Cubano

After the classical hour, we went downstairs where a rock band was playing 80s hit songs in English. From there we wandered back to a larger space where Michel Herrera was playing sax. But we were exhausted and there was nowhere to sit down: it was time to leave.

Michel Herrera at the Fabrica de Arte Cubano
Michel Herrera at the Fabrica de Arte Cubano

It took a while to figure out how to leave. We went to what looked like the exit and the guy there directed us somewhere else. After walking around the whole place, we were back where we started, and it turned out that was the place to settle our bill and leave.

We like FAC so much that we went back the following Thursday. The classical program was an outstanding choral group. My phone didn’t capture the sound well with the echo in the large room, but you get the idea.

Next up was Degnis Bofill and Golpes Libres, probably my favorite of the bands we saw. We didn’t stay for that night’s rock band.

The area around the club is on the funky side, so we decided to take a cab the eight blocks back to our apartment. There’s always a line of taxis waiting at the exit.

La Zorra y El Cuervo

High on pretty much every list of Havana jazz clubs  is La Zorra y El Cuervo. Located in the business area of Vedado, on Calle 23 between N and O, it was an easy taxi ride for us. Once we knew our way around, we walked there. The doors open at 10pm and the music starts at 10:30pm. Michel Herrera was on the program for the night, but that’s not who played.

The band was led by a quena player, which was painful at times. Mark was reminded of when he taught music to elementary school students and they realized they could use their cheap plastic recorders as sonic weapons. The guy was a great quena player, but jazz with a quena is a hard sell.

The highlight was the special guest trumpet player, who only played a couple songs. We left after one set. At least it wasn’t expensive—10 CUC included two (not very good) drinks.

When we told someone about our experience there, she said she’d never heard someone say they didn’t like the music at La Zorra y El Cuervo, and that we should give them another try. We’re happy we did, as we thoroughly enjoyed Albertic Lescay and Grupo Forma, though his music is a bit too electronic for our taste.

Ironically, our favorite Cuban music was at Sophia restsurant, next to La Zorra y El Cuervo: an 8-piece Cuban band with a phenomenal singer. We stopped there for a drink before La Zorra y El Cuervo opened, and all it cost was the reasonable price of our drinks.

Jazz Cafe

Saturday night…time to check out the Jazz Cafe. This highly rated club was within walking distance of our apartment. We settled into the open, airy room at a table near the windows.

The band was good: sax, trumpet, keyboard, bass, and drums. We enjoyed the first few songs, and the fact that they gave their own twist to some standards. By the third song, however, everything started to sound the same. The musicians were all talented and played well off one another (especially the trumpet and sax) but, c’mon , guys, mix it up a bit.

Then the weirdness started. The band leader/sax player lightheartedly gave a hard time to a woman two tables away from us, right in front of the stage, for talking too loudly. The band went into the next song, but the woman was really upset. The others at her table tried to talk her down.

After a couple more songs, the woman stormed the stage. The band leader tried to laugh it off, teasing her with a sax-based imitation of her rant. She did not see the humor and literally struck out and hit his instrument while it was still in his mouth. It all descended into a shouting match, and we decided to leave. The band gathered around the sax player. The woman was crying outside the club, surrounded by her friends. Get. Me. Out. Of. Here.

As we waited for our bill, the band started again: the show must go on. The woman stood outside the club looking angry and dejected. The server apologized as she charged us full price for our mediocre drinks. We didn’t go back. It gave us a great story, though I wish I’d had the presence of mind to record the whole mess.

El Patio de EGREM

Sunday afternoon and our quest for music gets weirder. We took a taxi to the Central Park as our taxi driver didn’t understand where we wanted to go in central Havana. . The matinee was supposed to start at 5pm. Perfect. We’ll listen to music, walk to the Malecón for sunset, then see the lights of the Paseo de Martí.

Walking slowly from the Parque Central, on streets that felt just this side of dangerous, we got to the club shortly before 5. We each got a mineral water and went inside to enjoy the coolness of the AC.

The room was fairly small with no windows. A few tables were occupied and we took one for ourselves. The video monitor showed Cuban music videos, which kept us pretty entertained. Then we waited. And waited. And waited. All around us, people were walking in with full bottles of rum or whiskey or dozens of beers. The crowd was completely Cuban. The lovely woman who was selling CDs for the band was in front of us and made a point of introducing herself.

As the people around me got drunker, I became less comfortable. The room was small and the tables packed close together. I considered leaving, but we’d already waited over an hour. With so many people packed in, it must be a popular band.

Finally Millo e Iyerosun filed in, playing percussion and singing. I would have enjoyed the Afro-Cuban music, but the sound was amplified so much that our ears hurt.

The band sang happy birthday to someone, and then a Father’s Day song. Unfortunately, it was so highly amplified that I was in pain. Mark was in more pain than I was (several days later he said he could still feel the claves piercing his brain). I suggested that maybe we should go, and Mark looked both thrilled and cautious. We were in the middle of a bunch of full tables with no way out. As Mark edged closer to panic, two people at the table next to us got up: a path of escape!

Rarely have I seen Mark look so relieved to leave a place. The combination of pain in his ears and claustrophobia were taking its toll. We laughed as we walked up the street, heading for the Central Park.

We stopped at the outdoor cafe of the Hotel Inglaterra (video at the top of this post). The band included flute and a stand-up bass (instead to the electric 6-string we heard in the clubs). Ahhh. It was like an auditory cleansing.

I wouldn’t let our experience stop you from going to El Patio de la EGREM–it’s a real Cuban experience. Maybe the sound guy was over-zealous that day. The entrance fee is only 5 CUC, so you don’t have much to lose.

This is one of a series of articles about our trip to Cuba. Click here for a list of all the Cuba-related articles.

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