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Tuesday, April 30, 2002

¡Ay, Cuba! You have to be willing to go with the flow in Cuba, because the plans you made the day before will often mutate into something completely different. Kurt Vonnegut wrote: "Strange travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." Today, I had been invited to a descarga at the house of Rene Beltran, a well known flute player and current leader of Las Estrellas Cubanas. Coincidently, he was the profesor of Manolito Simonet at one time. These days he drinks a bit. The descarga had been arranged by Leonel Cuesta, the rumbero from Callejon Hamel. We got to Rene's house about 2:30 to find him passed out in bed. Leonel got him up, and everyone was teasing him mercilessly. "¡Está muriendo!" Rene saw none of the humor in the situation.

Leonel and I split and walked around Centro. It was too damn hotI asked Leonel where we could buy a couple of beers. We walked through a maze of alleys and tiny streets to the house of a chica linda who sold us a couple of cold beers. I asked her which Orisha her bracelet was for, and she said Yemeyá. I asked where I could buy them, and she and Leonel offered to take me to the market where the Brujo had a stall, selling beaded bracelets for twenty-five Pesos each. I bought two to take back and one for the chica for helping me.

Leonel invited me to a concert of Rene's group that night at the Tropical. My main plan for the night was to hear Klimax at the Casa De La musica, but Leonel assured me that the concert was at eight, and there would be plenty of time to get to the Klimax show afterwards. The tragedy was that back at my room, I called the Casa De La Musica to confirm the show, and found out that Klimax's gig was a matinee, and had ended around the time we were walking around Habana Vieja to see the Brujo. ¡Que cosa! Piloto hadn't mentioned that it was an afternoon gig when we talked on the phone. Or maybe he did. Who knows? My Spanish gets markedly worse on the phone with a Cuban, because then I am lacking the gesturing and miming that goes along with face to face conversing. Well, hopefully I would get another chance to hear them. Klimax is one of the most amazing bands.

I got to the Tropical around 8:30, but no one was there, except for a few of the musicians. When someone tells you that a show starts at a certain time in Cuba, you need to add three or four hours to come up with the actual starting time. Rene and Leonel arrived, and Rene still looked close to death. I've never seen anyone so hungover.

People started to arrive for the show. There weren't that many of them, and there were no tourists other than a middleaged German man escorting his mulatta girlfriend. The Tropical is a huge open air club, and it was a beautiful warm tropical night with a full moon. Around ten, a skinny MC in a shiny blue tuxedo and bad toupee announced that tonight was a gran espectáculo at the Tropical, and that was the beginning of a Vegas-style variety show with an endless procession of cornball acts: showgirls, a lip-syncing drag queen, comics, a magician, on and on. It was like something out of a David Lynch movie, all the way down to the red curtains at the back of the stage. We were at Club Silencio. "¡No hay Banda!"

Between acts, the MC recited poetry very dramatically, accompanied by cheesy taped music. It was too strange—completely surrealistic. Finally, Las Estrellas Cubanas came on, playing traditional Charanga music. Rene still looked like death itself, but he played well. The rum had loosened my inhibitions enough to the point where I grabbed one of the showgirls (now wearing street clothes) to dance.

So even though the day was nowhere near what I had expected, it was a great day, an excursion into everyday Cuban life that most tourists don't see. I was starting to feel as though I could just disappear in Havana and become a Habanero. No hay banda—it is all an illusion.

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Useful phone
numbers in Havana

Casa De La Musica

Salon Rosado (Tropical)

Habana Cafe
(Hotel Cohiba)

Copa Room
(Hotel Riviera)

La Zorra Y El Cuervo

Jazz Cafe

(easy to memorize!)


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