The name had barely slipped off the comedian’s lips when the crowd erupted in applause and shouts of admiration echoed in the small bar. A woman dressed in black, with shiny black hair down to her shoulders and eyes as big as round brown saucers shuffled toward the stage with the microphone already in her hand. The guitar player struck up the distinctive chords of Cuban music, in a syncopated rhythm to the percussionist’s seductive, body-moving beat. The singer launched into her first song, unfamiliar to a foreigner, but clearly memorized by most of the crowd. Ela Calvo’s midnight set at the Gato Tuerto had begun.
My last night had begun no less auspiciously. I couldn’t really lead this blog with the scene, because Dave and I have talked about it repeatedly all week long: waves crashing over the seawall on the Malecon and driving huge geysers of water up through the drains in the middle of the road, a cool northeast wind bringing out the local versions of ski parkas (I even saw many folks with woolen caps pulled down over their heads) and low threatening clouds. The rains finally came, too; there had been intermittent showers all day long, torpedoing our afternoon plans for a daylight walking tour of Habana Vieja, the stunningly renovated Spanish colonial sector of the city. After a quiet afternoon of writing and taking stock of our week’s reporting, we headed out amid the drizzles and low-hanging clouds for an 8:30 date at a new paladar called El Gijones, with the accent on the last e. Every one who heard we were heading there agreed; it’s one of the best restaurants in Havana today.
It takes a while getting used to driving in Havana at night; the streetlights are dim at best and often just absent. You turn onto dark, narrow streets that are either rutted or littered with potholes or what remains of the surface powdered into rubble, leaving only an uneven dirt surface. People hang out in the dark in front of buildings, the soft yellow incandescent light spilling out from inside to cast faint shadows on the curbs. I didn’t really know where we were headed in a still unfamiliar city, but the maze of streets in the Centro and Habana Vieja, the latter mostly closed to vehicle traffic, was beginning to fall into some kind of rational layout in my head. The cab pulled up in front of a building with stone arches forming a colonnade and the familiar patchy stucco exterior with entire sections simply fallen away and never repaired. A young lady waited by the front door, behind her a huge two-story courtyard where young girls in leotards were getting flamenco lessons. She asked if we had a reservation. A Mojito order later, we were happily ensconced on a third floor terrace overlooking the dark tops of buildings in old Havana. The wind whipped loudly outside, more than once driving a few drops onto the terrace, but for the most part, it stayed dry and warm enough.
Dinner was excellent. Carpaccio of beef, octopus sautéed in garlic, chopped salmon with mayonnaise and warm bread made by the house came first. We ordered up a Chilean cabernet and leg of lamb (Piernita de Cordero) for everyone around the table, filled with an international band of a Cuban; a British and a German ex-pat and three Americans, myself, Dave and a musician visiting Havana for a few days. The conversation darted between politics, music, cigars, food and all the good things life can serve up to you in Cuba. At the end of dinner, out came the cigars, again; a Behike BHK 56 given to me by the German (I traded him a Montecristo Grand Edmundo, an Edicion Limitada in 2010) and a smattering of other Behikes and Montecristo Petit Edmundos. Those were accompanied with generous pours of Santiago rum, Cuba’s most premium rum brand.
But the night was young. Our Brit host for dinner, a gregarious man named Toby, suggested we go hear some music. We trundled off with our cigars to El Gato Tuerto, or loosely translated, the One-Eyed Cat, the jazz bar’s logo being a cat with a black eye-patch. Toby explained that there’s live music there almost every night, usually starting quite late, and the crowd is always filled with some of Cuba’s best known musicians.
We were in for a treat. Calvo has performed with the legendary Omara Portuondo and is a fixture on the Havana music scene. She carries her 79 years like a much younger woman, and she has a voice to match. As she launched into her set, the bar was dark and filled with cigar smoke. Flashing Christmas lights adorned the wall, which was covered in everything from a red and white Havana Club sign to a Chivas motto: Live with Chivalry. From time to time, people stood up and danced to the music’s beat, a shadowy human wave rippling through the room. The rum was flowing freely, this time a Havana Club 7-year-old with a cube of ice for me. With my Behike burning down to knuckle-searing length, I reluctantly laid it in an ashtray and I lit up my last Montecristo Grand Edmundo. I visited the upstairs bar where I met Elvis, the “best bartender in Havana” according to Toby. Back downstairs, I joined the late night crowd swaying to the beat.
Three a.m. looked pretty good on the clock when my head finally hit the pillow back at the hotel. But it was our last night in Havana, and I was almost sorry that we left while the music was still going…on the other hand, I was also glad I had gotten a few hours sleep when I woke up at 7:30 to pack, through a post-rum induced fog, and managed to still make it to the airport on time.
We can’t wait until our next visit. Stay tuned.