We are sitting on the tarmac, a tiny plane glimmering in the heat of the Cuban sun, surrounded by palm trees under the faded red gaze of the Jose Marti airport. Uniformed workers in head-to-toe khaki escort us off of the plane and onto a large, crowded bus taking us to customs. I shuffle my ukulele around on my back to better squeeze myself into the mass of people, all of whom seem as silent and as apprehensive as I am.
The bus lurches to life, and the strong smell of diesel permeates the air as I stumble into an elderly Cuban woman. She looks up at me quizzically, and I apologize in elementary Spanish. Her look completely changes, and her whole face lights up when she sees what’s on my back. “Que es esto?” she laughs and points to my instrument. I smile, “Un ukulele, es de Hawaii!” We both laugh, and my anxiety eases.
The taxi ride to Habana is full of flashing slogans in red, white and blue. “Yo Soy Fidel” “Socialismo o Muerto” and “Seguimos in Combate” cover the walls. Centro Habana is chaos; it’s narrow and hung with the scent of diesel; people are everywhere and roads are sprinkled with clusters of dogs and cats, bike taxis and children playing soccer and utterly overwhelmed tourists stumbling from street to street. It’s beautiful, exactly like the pictures, and everything about Centro Habana overwhelms the senses. Gerardo, who owns the family home we’re staying in, greets us and begins speaking rapidly in Spanish, commenting on our government, waving his arms, showing us pictures of his grandchildren and occasionally looking at my friend and me as we pretend to nod in understanding. Halfway through explaining why Cuban coffee is the best in the world, he stops mid-sentence when he sees our instruments. My friend has brought a mandolin and I my ukulele. We were soon to find out most Cubans had never seen either of these instruments, and Gerardo begins yelling and gesturing, “Ustedes son musicos! You are musicians!” We nod, and he throws his arms wide, “Play me a song!” he yells in Spanish.
The first thing I hear when I wake is a song. It’s the perfectly projected, melodious and resounding call of the man selling bread. He could be on Broadway. His voice is clear and loud and unwavering, waking up the small sleeping dogs in the alley corners and the pelicans nestled by the harbor. This almost unsettling clarity that cuts through the streets was something I experienced over and over in Habana — the bread man’s song, the ice cream man’s song (who, instead of a truck, had a taped-up box on a bike with a tiny speaker playing ‘Oh Susanna’ on repeat) and the man with haunting eyes playing the maracas and belting out traditional songs for drunken tourists.
Music was everywhere, so we rented bikes to find it all. There is a John Lennon Park in Vedado, a short ride outside of Centro Habana. It was unveiled in December of 2000, on the 20th anniversary of Lennon’s murder. During the ’60s and ’70s The Beatles were banned from Cuba, but now a sculpture of Lennon sits on a bench in the park, beckoning you to sit and have a chat with him. A Cuban woman is there day in and day out to put eyeglasses on his face for pictures and to make sure they aren’t taken.
La Zorra y el Cuervo, “The Vixen and the Crow,” is an intense, late-night, underground jazz club whose entryway is a large red telephone booth with “Jazz Club” written on it and a descending stairwell leading you to the venue underneath. The music is more unreal than the entry, with mojitos and Cuba libres being dealt like cards and tempos and notes being hit like balls at a driving range, just cracking and soaring over the crowd. We got to see Bellita, a powerhouse female vocalist and pianist who made us sing along while her husband played one-handed bass and she accompanied on Keytar. We both left barely understanding what we’d just heard.
The best meal we ate was pizza at the French Cuban consulate. We were the only ones there aside from the bartender, a jovial musician and the cook. As an American, I’m used to what I consider to be timely service, but timely doesn’t really exist in Cuba, nor do phone service or internet, so you have no choice but to enjoy the moment with no anticipation of the next. No one’s noses are in their phones; nobody is talking about their boss on a blue tooth at the self-checkout. You’re exchanging stories or you’re sharing songs.
The musician began playing, even though it was just my friend and I, and he handed us some instruments — maracas and an African clave. He began playing the song “Chan Chan,” popularized by the Buena Vista Social Club. The song has sensual undertones and a haunting melody. Chan Chan can be heard all over Habana.
As my friend and I stumbled our way through the song with abysmal rhythms on our unfamiliar instruments, the musician would come by and shout instructions at us in Spanish, “BOP BOP BOP!” he would yell in time, and we would immediately lose rhythm as he walked away. It seemed like a long time since we’re ordered food, and I looked around to see where the waitstaff was. At that moment, the bartender and the chef dance their way out with their own maracas, singing loudly along with the musician, laughing and dancing around the restaurant. Who cares when the food comes?
The “Malecon” is a sea wall stretching all along the coast, shielding Centro Habana from the sea, which is studded with boats and fortresses and diving pelicans. Cubans cannot afford to go out; they don’t pay to go salsa dancing, and they don’t go out to eat. They buy a bottle of Havana Club and congregate by the sea, and this by all means is a fantastic idea. Crowds of people play music, call to their friends, laugh as the sea shoots over the wall and catches passersby unaware, and lovers embrace in plain sight.
It’s as rhythmic and romantic as the music coming from all directions. My friend and I had written a song just for this moment, a song just for Cuba, a song about how everything longs to be something or somewhere else. Watching the Cubans walk by smiling, I’m not sure they shared the same sentiment, despite the poverty that permeated every street of the city.
We began tentatively playing the song, and immediately two young Cubans walk over with wide eyes, Elsbeth and Leroy, their brilliant smiles friendly and inviting. They carry an African clave, a Guiro, and a bottle of rum. “What is that?” they exclaim in Spanish, laughing and pointing to our instruments. We explain as best we can, and others join quickly — George with a guitar and cigarette hanging from his mouth and Erasmo, who recites us spoken word poetry in Spanish in between songs, and a crowd that eventually includes musicians from Cuba, Canada, Bologna, Columbia, Barcelona and Canada. Everyone is smiling, laughing, singing and sharing rum. What song did we all play together, you ask? The answer is easy: John Lennon’s version of “Stand By Me.”
Sarah Napolitan is a singer-songwriter, traveler and school psychologist for the Neshaminy School District. She is the head of Sarah and the Arrows, an all-female folk/bluegrass band who have played at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, local venues and live on WXPN (www.sarahandthearrows.com). Sarah lives in Mt. Airy with her two cats, a guitar and, of course, a ukulele.