The sharp drum downbeat pounded out over the crowd, and the unmistakable chords of a Chicago blues song rattled the walls and shook the glasses on the tables. Jim Belushi, his Blues Brothers’ persona intact minus the hat and the dark sunglasses, but with a lit cigar between his fingers, wailed on his harmonica, belting out Little Walter’s She’s So Fine.
The central courtyard of the Museo de Bellas Artes, the setting for the 520th anniversary celebration of Columbus’s discovery of the Americas, was suddenly alive with the pulsing beat of an American blues standard. Within milliseconds, executives from Habanos S.A., the Cuban cigar monopoly, owners of Casa del Habano cigar shops worldwide and an army of cigar lovers from every corner of the globe were on their feet swaying to the music. They crowded around the stage, snapping pictures and shouting out encouragement.
Not once, but twice, Belushi asked the crowd if they wanted to hear one more, and each time, the crowd screamed “Yes!” Joined by Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music on guitar, Belushi, the Cuban cigar’s newest favorite fan, gave a great rendition of Let Me Love You Baby, a Buddy Guy tune; the crowd responded to the chorus in unison, especially when he tossed the word Cuba into the mix. Belushi ended the short set with a simple straight blues jam which he topped off with his trademark back flip.
The story behind Belushi’s performance began nearly 10 months ago when I asked my old friend if he’d be interested in being the international celebrity guest, officially hosted by Habanos, for the 2012 Festival de Habanos. We had talked several times over the years about arranging a trip for him on his own, but he jumped at the idea and immediately blocked out the dates on his calendar, even before an official invitation was issued. In short order, Habanos executives said they, too, were interested in having Jim attend the Festival. By early summer, the arrangements were being made and by the fall, the deal was done. Jim Belushi was going to Cuba.
As the day drew closer, his excitement was over the top. Emails filled with questions started arriving in my inbox, and we discussed all the various things to bring, and what to do and what not to do. Most of the correspondence ended with, “You have no idea how excited I am.” Last night, he told me he would be in meetings for possible movie or TV shows, or just a simple business deal, and he would blurt out, “You know, I’m going to Cuba in February.”
You never know when you put people together whether or not they are going to hit it off, or whether they are going to be good sports and meet the expectations of an event organizer. No worries there. Jim has attended all the dinners, gone on the private tours of cigar factories, a walking tour of Habana Vieja, and today, he’s visiting tobacco farms in Pinar del Río. I knew from the beginning that’s how it would be. What could go wrong when you introduce a true cigar lover to the land of where cigars were created? Trust me. Nothing.
We’ve been smoking, drinking, eating and soaking up the true traditions of the Cuban cigar this week. And, there’s still more to come. But Jim has already left a lasting mark on the Festival del Habanos. One owner of a Casa del Habano came up to me at the end of the evening and said, “I’ve been coming to this event since it began, and there has never been a night like this. I will be telling my grandkids about this.”
Thank you, my friend. And, the cigar world thanks you, too.