Sometimes walking down a street in Havana from late afternoon into the wee hours, the walls echo with the sounds of music. A tight Son beat drifts out from a small stage occupied by a jazz combo at the Café Paris. The soft rhythm of an acoustic group with a guitar, a bass and a tambourine back a silky voiced singer in La Bodeguita del Medio.
The smoky air hangs heavy in the basement lair of La Zorra y el Cuervo where Roberto Fonseca’s fluid modern jazz band, led by renowned saxophonist Javier Zalba, accompanies his astonishing keyboard work. Or stick your head into the Cabaret Parisien at the Hotel Nacional and watch the full dance and musical review that seems to be an entertainment staple in Cuba.
Cuba’s best musicians travel the world today plying their trade, and often, when you see a fancy new BMW in the streets of Havana, it belongs to one of these musical superstars, a luxury not available to a normal Cuban worker but a symbol of how highly they are valued by the government.
The music they are creating is, according to the experts, some of the best jazz being played in the world today, and the Caribbean-and African-influenced music, among them the local music known as Son, is some of the most compelling and vibrant in the world.
The Cubans’ innate sense of rhythm and melody are exciting, and on any given night in Havana, you can hear those musicians in a long roster of nightclubs, jazz bars and cabarets. We only managed to make it to five different outposts including one cabaret and one dance club, Don Cangrejo. But both offer different kinds of shows and music from the jazz clubs on any given night, so you might hear a jazz band one night and watch a highly choreographed dance show the next evening. You won’t be bored.
The best advice is to hire a driver for the night. The shows often don’t start until sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., and an 11:30 start isn’t out of the question. If you want to hit more than one spot, it’s imperative you have transportation because it will be late and taxis might be hard to find. Expect to pay anywhere from 10 cuc to 25 cuc for the entrance fee at the smaller clubs. The Tropicana show, which we haven’t been to in years, is a bit different.
It starts at around 8:30 with dinner included, and for that, expect to pay close to 100 cuc for the best seats. Is it worth it? It is a true spectacular of dance and music and, like going up the Eiffel Tower or to the top of the Empire State building, it is something every visitor to Havana should do at least once.
But the real treasures are in the jazz clubs. Here are our favorites:
La Zorra y el Cuervo
Calle 23, entre N y O
Tel: (537) 833-2402
In any given month, this club offers up the best of Cuba’s top musicians. We heard Roberto Fonseca here. The basement room, which you enter through a London-style red telephone booth is small and low-ceilinged. Not really a bad seat in the house, but get there early and have a few drinks if you want to be close to the stage.
Calle 0, entre 17 y 19
Tel: (537) 836-0212
Within view down the hill from the twin towers of the Hotel Nacional, this multi-storied club is always packed. You are almost always certain to be surprised by who shows up on stage—either scheduled, or to jam with the featured artist. On our December 2010 trip, we heard Ela Calvo there; she’s performed with Omara Portuondo and the Buena Vista Social Club during their heyday, and she carries her 79 years like a much younger woman.
It is very crowded, and with big poles throughout the room and standing room only at the bar it can be a little hard to see, but the sounds wash over the entire room. 25 cuc fee.
1ra, esquina con Paseo
Tel: (537) 838-3302
On the second floor of a big-box-style store, reachable by a long winding ramp up to the Jazz Café, is one of the larger rooms in the Havana music scene. There’s a big bar with a TV going, and while the seating area is ample, it’s often filled up. A short walk across the Paseo from the Meliá Cohiba, it’s easy to get to or to find a taxi from late at night. We heard Roberto Fonseca here too. Not much atmosphere given the kind of exposed steel beam décor, but that doesn’t affect the music.
Av. 1ra, entre 16 y 18
Tel: (537) 204-4169
This is a large outdoor bar around a big pool. When we went, it was packed with an under-30 crowd of locals, all moving to the sounds of Kelvis Ochoa. We could have been in South Beach, not Havana. The music. The outfits. The beautiful people. Quite a scene on a Friday night.
The following clubs have not been visited. But they are on “the circuit” in Havana, and on any given night, you may find one of your favorite musicians, or a real star, on stage playing. We’ll provide numbers so you can call, or have your concierge call, to find out who is performing.
Casa de la Musica Centro Habana
Calle Galiano entre Neptuno y Concordia
Tel: (537) 862-4165
Casa de la Musica Miramar
Calle 20, No. 3308, esquina a 35
Tel: (537) 202-6147
Sister club to the downtown version of Casa de la Musica, Centro.
Teatro Nacional de Cuba
Calle Paseo y 39, Plaza de la Revolución
Tel: (537) 879-6011
There are two venues in this location: Café Cantante Mi Habana, and El Delirio Habanero.
Calle 72, entre 41 y 42
Tel: (536) 267-1717
This is an institution in Havana. The shows are true Vegas-style spectaculars. There are huge, two-hour dance numbers with music and other acts. Dinner is included with most of the higher ticket prices, but the word is don’t count on anything but very ordinary food. A bottle of rum is included. Make sure you opt for the 90 cuc ticket because that will be your only guarantee of getting a decent seat.
Calle O, esquina a 21 (Hotel Nacional)
Tel: (537) 836-3564
Another Tropicana-style cabaret show. The theater is at the Hotel Nacional. It’s a much smaller venue than the Tropicana, but would best be described as a dance and musical review. The word here is eat somewhere else, buy your tickets through the hotel for the show itself and enjoy the music while sipping on a cocktail.
Av. Paseo, entre 1ra y 3ra (in Hotel Meliá Cohiba)
Tel: (537) 833-3636, ext 2710
Situated 50 yards from the front entrance of the hotel.