A night in Havana, when the music is hot

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Love it or leave it, there’s no place quite like Havana. And especially old Havana, when December comes and the annual jazz festival begins. There’s always a little music mixed in with the clink and clatter in these sometimes chaotic streets. But at this time of year, there’s music everywhere.

This is not a jazz festival like any other. It’s hard to find a schedule, there are no posters lining the streets, and it’s even hard to find the venues where things are supposedly happening. But never mind – just take a stroll through Habana Vieja, as the locals call it, on a Tuesday night and there’s music everywhere.

Wandering down Calle Obispo, the town’s main tourist street, on a warm night in Havana, it doesn’t take long before I hear music pouring out of a doorway, and slip into an empty seat at a place called Lluvia de Oro, or Golden Rain.  There’s a band playing fast, hard Latin music, for a mixed crowd of tourists and locals sipping their Cristal beers.

lluvia de oro bar havana

The singer, a stocky fellow in the traditional white guayabera shirt, fills the cavernous room with his emotional singing. And now and then he grabs a woman from the crowd, pulls her out front and they dance, swaying to and fro in that smooth, sensuous motion. Then another woman takes a turn, as the piano player pours out long arpeggios and the rhythm players tap out the unmistakable Caribbean beat that marks Cuban jazz.

Drop a peso in the hat that’s passed around, and I’m off down the street, looking for a place to have some dinner. The obvious choice is Café Paris, where the instruments are already set up on the makeshift stage and the crowd is waiting in anticipation.

The food is good, and as the band strikes up, I order my second glass of wine – I may be here for a while. This is a more mellow-sounding mix, a guitar leading the way with the double strings of the tres adding a brittle, distinctive tone. The singer, and older man in a black shirt, sings classic Cuban songs in a deep, penetrating voice that makes the small room vibrate.

An again, it’s too good a beat to resist, and a young black woman sitting with her gringo boyfriend gets up and begins to dance by herself. A minute later, a young Cuban man jumps in and spins her around the tiny dance floor as her boyfriend looks on. I’m waiting to see some tension arise, but they clap hands: some people just aren’t dancers, and the mood is too good to spoil.

Cafe Paris Havana

It’s time to settle the bill again, and move on to the next musical feast. It appears down a side street a block or two away, where a crowd on the patio outside an Italian restaurant is being serenaded. Just a trio with guitar and saxophones, but they add some cool jazz to the warm night.

Then I’m on my way home, to my casa particular near the Plaza Vieja, the place where Havana began. But wait — I hear music again. As I turn the corner, there’s a dozen people gathered in the street outside a bar called the Café Taberna. Inside, a full-on Cuban jazz show is happening, with two veteran singers, a couple of dancers and a full horn section.

A big crowd, mostly tourists, is moving to the beat, and now and then one of the dancers pulls someone out of their seat for a turn on the stage. Outside, the crowd peeking through the windows doesn’t wait for an invitation – they’re already dancing.

The horn section takes some solos, and the singers sing harmony with a precision I wasn’t expecting, Cuban music being more about that one, expressive voice. There’s more dancing, some more audience participation, they sing Guantanamera for the big finale, and the show is over.

Cafe Tabrna Havana

It’s been a good night in Havana, full of great music and fun, and I never went near the Tropicana or the others of its ilk. That’s the way to enjoy Cuban music, on the street or in the local bars and clubs. And it’s not just a night-time thing: the next day I stop into La Bodeguita del Medio, the legendary, photo-filled bar where Hemingway used to drink his mojitos. And as I sip mine in the tiny front bar room, a small band with two girl singers squeezes into a corner and launches into an impromptu set.

Havana is many things: monumental, beautiful, dusty, confusing, there are too many adjectives to count. But on a warm night in December, it’s musical, with a rhythm that comes from the beating heart.

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Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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