A Rhythm Runs Through It

Music, in every sound and style, is Cuba’s lifeblood, and it can be heard at all hours of the day
| By Gordon Mott | From Welcome to Cuba, May/June 2015
A Rhythm Runs Through It

It is 6:30 pm. The room at the small music venue is already packed. With Cubans. No tourists. The music starts, and for the next two and a half hours, with no breaks, musician Rey Hernandez lights up the room with his upbeat Cuban music. He turns the stage over to a young unknown band for a couple of songs, and then welcomes David Torrens, one of the country's hottest singers, for more tunes. By the time Hernandez retakes the stage, the room is undulating with people standing up at their tables, dancing and moving to the beat and twirling the closest partner, whoever it might be. The rum and beer flows freely, and everyone, and I mean everyone, looks happy.

About the time most tourists are settling in for a late nap, or getting ready to head out for an early meal, Havana's music lovers are searching out "matinees," late afternoon or early evening performances by some of the country's best artists. Call it Havana Happy Hour. It is a time and place for people who have just gotten off work, and they are headed out for a few hours of music and fun. Or call it a moveable music feast. There are certain nights at certain venues, and there is a rotating roster of artists who can pretty much be heard several times a week at the various places.

Those same artists also play late-night performances; they are in the same places, with the same music, but the audience is mostly filled with foreigners, and the late-night crowd of Havana-ites. Those performances often don't even begin until midnight, and at some places, it's not unusual for the first notes to be heard after 1 a.m. It's still a moveable musical feast, but with a very different feel.

If you love music in Cuba like I do, you'll find these spots, and blend into the crowd with your glass of rum, and your fresh "casino" dance moves, the popular dance among Cuba's youth today. Trust me. If you don't like to get up and move your body, you'll be out of place.

The Happy Hours and dance fests would seem to gloss over some of Cuba's best music, jazz. Yet Cuba's great jazz musicians also float between these same music venues, and then hit a couple that are aimed specifically at jazz aficionados. On a Thursday night, Roberto Fonseca, one of our favorite Cuban musicians, was appearing at La Zorra y El Cuervo, one of our favorite Cuban venues, which is notable for the London telephone booth at its entrance. We also visited on a Tuesday to hear a new jazz band, called Jazz en Trance, led by the saxophonist Denys Carbo. The young band produced a vibrant, pulsing sound of progressive jazz that you would get excited hearing in any club in the world. These jazz-centric locations stage some of the best jazz in the world. The Jazz Café across the Meliá Cohiba has fallen down a bit, but it is still open.

We have some other favorites too. Gato Tuerto remains a great late-night choice. The bar is small, but the stage is close to the audience. Tocororo is also a small venue, but the music is always fantastic in popular Cuban music style, and you're never too far away from it. Don Cangrejo remains one of the most amazing nighttime scenes in Havana, usually from Thursday through Saturday nights. During a recent visit, there were more than 1,000 people dancing outside to a loud rock band.

Like many things in Havana, it is hard to find out who's playing where and what nights. There seems to be no central clearing house for musical performances. On the day we went to Don Cangrejo, we got the word "we hear it's going to be a good night at Cangrejo." Everybody apparently got the word. Your best bet is to take the list of venues in this report, go to the concierge at your hotel, and ask him who's playing that week and where. It may take a little cajoling, or a nice tip, but it's the best way. The alternative is just to pass by the venues during the day and ask who's playing that night. Be flexible, and be sure to ask about both the matinees and the late shows.

We also found a new dance revue venue at the Asociacion Asturiana, the home of El Gijones and La Terraza restaurants. On the second floor, the Havana Queens put on a show nearly every night when they are in town, and not on some world tour. It is a well-choreographed show, and you can smoke in the theater while you watch the young Cuban men and women dance. Watch out. They end the show by ranging around the audience and trying to get the tourists up and moving. It's hard to resist.

We also can't help but give a nod to some of the big extravaganzas. The Tropicana show hasn't changed in years but still draws crowds—it is worth going to at least once. Pay a little extra for the seats up front. You will be happy you did, even though the tab will run more than $100 a person. Or try the Cabaret Parisién at the Hotel Nacional. It is another traditional Cuban musical review with dancing and live music. It is a good second choice to the Tropicana because it's so close to the center of town that you won't spend a lot of time getting there and back. Or even try out the Havana Café, in the Meliá Cohiba; they currently have a music revue of the Buena Vista Social Club (there is at least one other revue in Old Havana for the venerable Cuban band). All these elaborate shows will provide an evening of great entertainment, even while they often
succumb to musical and theatrical clichés.


La Zorra y El Cuervo
Calle 23, entre N y O, Vedado, Tel: (537) 833-2402
This remains one of the best places to hear jazz in Havana. The low-ceilinged, basement room makes you feel like you're in Greenwich Village during the Beat Generation. There are no bad seats in the house, and your entrance fee now comes with two drinks, a limited selection of house drinks that I would call weak mojitos—anything else, you pay for. Roberto Fonseca is a regular here.

Gato Tuerto
Calle 0, entre 17 y 19, Vedado, Tel: (537) 838-2629

We love this place, which is located just to the side of the Hotel Nacional. The stage is small, the room is intimate, and you can hear great Latin jazz. It's never too loud. On stage you can see everything from an 80-year-old jazz chanteuse to a young acapella quartet doing old standards. It's an easy stop, and not hard to find.Casa de la Musica Miramar

Calle 20, No. 3308, esq. 35, Miramar, Tel: (537) 202-3868
There is a huge stage here, with big band shows performing nearly every night of the week. It can get crowded at times, but the music here is simply outstanding.

Diablo Tun Tun
Calle 20, No. 3308, esquina 35, Miramar, Tel: (537) 202-6147

It's in the same building as the Casa de la Musica Miramar, but it is a much smaller venue, and often a good place to catch matinees. Just check on the day. Much more intimate than the big stage down below.

Casa de la Musica Centro Habana
Galiano, Centro Habano, Tel: (537) 862-4165

A bit seedier than its Miramar sister, but the stage is big, there's a mezzanine to get great views of the bands and the music is almost always as good as anywhere else in town.

Don Cangrejo
Avenida 1, entre 16 y 18, Miramar, Tel: (537) 207-4196

A wild, outdoor disco scene that usually doesn't really get going until after midnight on weekends or a Thursday night lead-in to the weekend. The DJ music pulses early, and keeps the crowd, sometimes more than 1,000 people, moving until whatever band is playing that night. Worth a visit just to check out the scene, but the music is infectious.

El Tocororo
Calle 18, esquina 3ra, Miramar, Tel: (537) 202-4530

This is a great bar, with a small stage where there is music nearly every night of the week. It can get crowded but you get up close and personal with the musicians. It is also a cigar friendly place, all night long.

Cabarets and Nightclubs

Calle 72, entre 41 y 42, Marianao, Tel: (537) 267-1717
One of the most venerable shows in Havana. As we have said before, they are Vegas-style spectaculars, and they've been staged since before Vegas was a thriving casino resort town. Opt for the higher 90 cuc ticket price and push your concierge to be sure you are going to get a good seat. It's worth it.

Cabaret Parisién
In the Hotel Nacional, Calle O, esquina 21, Vedado, Tel: (537) 836-3564

This is one of the grand Hotel Nacional's finest attractions. It is a Tropicana-style Cabaret show, probably better described as dance and music revue. The dancers are young and pretty. Plan on dinner before or afterwards, and enjoy a cocktail during the show.

Habana Café
In the Meliá Cohiba Hotel: Avenida Paseo, entre 1 y 3, Vedado, Tel: (537) 833-3636, ext. 2710

Get your tickets through the hotel concierge. It's a big room with a semicircular stage, so you are always pretty close to the action. Currently staging a Buena Vista Social Club revue.

El Gijones/Asociacion Asturiana
Prado 309, esquina Virtudes, Habana Vieja, Tel: (537) 817-8778

This is the home of the Havana Queens, a dance troupe that covers everything from classic Cuban cha-cha to modern dance. A relatively small room puts you close to the stage. Get ready to dance; the dancers head out into the audience at the end of the performance.

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