This week I resume my story of my trip to Havana in December of 2000, including my fateful meeting with a certain wonderful artist who later became my wife!
Havana Diary pt. 4
With the urgent need for U.S. dollars, there is a large black market in Cuba, and almost everyone I passed in the street had something they were offering to sell, usually cigars or cd’s of Cuban music. Prices are not cheap, with the street price of a cd ranging from $15 to $20 dollars. Alex wanted to be my middleman in these transactions, and so when we ran into his friend Luis, a handsome young Cuban man who looked a little bit like a bronze Pete Sampras, he hastily arranged for us to go to his apartment around the corner. We squeezed through a half open doorway and climbed a narrow flight of stairs to a padlocked room on the second floor. Inside, Luis showed us his “studio”, a 6 x 8 room crammed with a flea market’s worth of used computer equipment that looked like it was held together with spit, tape and shoestrings, but functioned well as a makeshift operation for this bootleg cd factory. In a manner of minutes he could strip the tracks off of any cd, digitise them as MP3 files, burn them on to a new cd, and even provide a scanned colour Xerox of the album cover to slip into the jewel case.
Although many people I spoke to here liked the Buena Vista Social Club, or at least appreciated it’s benefit to worldwide interest in Cuban music and tourism, many more were also openly critical of the film as a very shallow picture of contemporary Cuban life and were not too interested in the “old-fashioned” music featured in that movie. “Imagine if someone came to America and made an album in which they ‘rediscovered’ Perry Como, and his music became hip again, and then they made a film about how neglected Perry Como had been in your culture. The movie was a typical ‘touristic’ view of our musical heritage.”
Alex and Luis were jazz fans, but they had never heard of Art Tatum, or even Keith Jarrett, and were more into the very modern synthesis of Salsa, Son, hip hop and house music performed by bands like “Orishas”, whose infectious groove blared from the thumping skin of Luis’ uncovered woofer as we sat in his secret lair. I bought the Orishas cd, and another by Los Van Van, for $20, and all parties were happy with the transaction. As quid pro quo for the tour, Alex directed me to a “paladar”, a Cuban restaurant, usually the front room of someone’s house set up to serve meals. We went to the “Aries” near the University, and I bought Alex and Nairobis dinner, Pollo Asada con cerveza fria.
The lack of paint and crumbling exteriors gives Old Havana a dilapidated quality at night that reminds one of the creepy Mexican border town in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. A vast film noir set of solitary street lamps, crooked half open doorways, fifties Chevrolets, and starvation thin dogs nosing around in vain search of a scrap of a meal.
A Touch Of Evil
At midnight the level of darkness and silence is different than any urban center in the West, a ghost town feeling of wide open empty streets, rubble strewn, entrenched, a permanent feeling of work suspended, mid-construction, frozen in the time line defined by the 40 year long embargo. Yes, CNN is available in Havana. But not Starbucks, The Gap, Nike, McDonalds, Anthropologie, Pottery Barn or any other sign of the omnipresent material culture that surrounds us in the first world. As in Vietnam, the ironic by-product that comes alongside the true suffering imposed by the U.S. economic embargo, is the purity and relief of a landscape uninfected with the homogenous layer of goods and signage and lifestyle imposed by capitalist free markets. When I first moved to Los Angeles, all I could see was the smog and I was sickened by it on a daily basis. But after years there, my perceptions, along with my lungs, mutated, and I became inured to the point of not noticing the air quality except on particularly bad days. In Cuba, I suddenly felt the same thing about the visual panorama of American life – the barrage of advertising images in the media and throughout the landscape had deadened my senses to the point where I was no longer conscious of the clutter, the constant low grade noise of commercial imagery that surrounds us. Cuba was a breath of fresh air for the brain as well as the soul.
TOMORROW: Part 5 of my Havana Diary