A band on stage in Havana.
Getting Funky in Havana. Credit: Lilien Trujillo Credit: Lilien Trujillo

The Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) is a central Havana cultural venue. Located in a renovated factory near the Almendares River, it is the brainchild of musician X. Alfonso, a descendent of Cuban music royalty. His family, including his veteran musician parents, performs together as Sintesis, a group that fuses Yoruba chants and Western sounds, for which they recently won a Latin Grammy.  So when the FAC issues a call to “Get Funky in Havana,” people show up.  

The occasion was an astonishing assemblage of musicians from New Orleans and Cuba. Cuban and US based musicians still do not share stages easily or often, and the historical musical ties between New Orleans and Havana made this really a special event. 

Special too was the return of several beloved Cuban musicians currently living in the US. Journalist Lorena Aleman Massip christened the event “el funk del apocalipsis” – the funk of the apocalypse, coming as it did on the heels of “almost three years of a half-buried national culture.” Aleman Massip is referring to the exodus of musicians and other cultural figures, but “half buried” explains a lot about life in Havana these days. 

A massive gasoline crisis has reduced public transportation and cheap collective taxis. People are simply not moving around like they used to, they can’t. Havana’s streets are almost deserted at night, and darkened by reduced streetlights. 

Along with public transportation, municipal services like garbage collection have been reduced, the results are visible everywhere. Wildly inflationary food prices show no signs of slowing down. There are more basics available now thanks to the legalization of small and medium size businesses that import food and basics and sell them at impossible prices. In almost every block someone has turned a front porch or garage into a little store selling mostly useful things imported from abroad. (Some items contain the familiar Costco Kirkland brand name). Imagine eggs, or powdered milk costing almost half a monthly salary. In one upscale private store, I found Parmesan cheese, previously a rare find in Havana, at a price I could barely imagine my Canadian professor’s salary. Cuba recently appealed to the UN’s World Food Programme for assistance, for the first time ever.  

The Getting Funky event at the FAC took place coincided the 39th annual Festival Internacional Jazz Plaza. Between the two events, a more beautiful musical immersion is difficult to imagine. But the effect of all this spectacular music was jolting. It sometimes felt a bit like being at a great party in a house that is slowly burning. The music was intensely beautiful. 

Cuba’s downward economic spiral, which has created unprecedented increases in the price of food and transportation, has made daily life – at least for most Cubans – intensely insecure. The country is also experiencing a massive migratory wave, including musicians, from well-known figures to young ones just starting out. Yet as a trombone player from beloved jazz fusion band Interactivo told me when I expressed my sadness that the group was no longer together in Havana due to migration, “I still have brothers here.”  

Brothers and the occasional sister graced the many stages of the Jazz Festival, which featured musicians from Cuba, the US, Europe, the Caribbean, and Canada. Many countries, including Canada, have been the beneficiaries of this migratory musical wave, as recent arrivals join a rich Cuban-Canadian music world. Cuban trained Quebecois trumpeter Rachel Therrien, for example, along with drummer Michel Medrano and saxophonist Nestor Rodríquez, both Cubans resident in Montreal, gave spectacular concerts in Havana. Therrien was even featured at a National Theatre tribute to Cuban legend Bola de Nieve, playing alongside many Cuban stars. Edmondon’s Jerrold Dubyk and his jazz band played extremely tight sets to an appreciative young crowd in two venues.

Despite being drained of so much of its young talent – in music as much as in many other fields – Havana continues to occupy a central place in global music creation. Perhaps in recognition of the migration of so many musicians in recent years, tributes to Cuban musical history were everywhere at the Jazz Festival. Rising star Rodrigo García, the son of singer Rochy Amenerio, created a stirring tribute to the trova (folk) music of his parent’s generation, with a dozen well known singers performing some of Trova’s greatest hits, backed by a full orchestra. The tribute to Ignacio Villa (Bola de Nieve) a legendary Cuban pianist from the 1950s and 60s, was organized by young saxophonist Michel Herrera. I enjoyed yet another tribute to the music of the Buena Vista Social Club, headed by famed tres guitarist Pancho Amat. It was beautiful, though why a “tribute” was necessary in a country where traditional music never left is a good question. 

 Musical mixes were also everywhere: I watched American Aaron Goldberg and Cuban Rolando Luna have a 20-minute piano conversation on stage at the National Theatre, on two pianos. I also saw a similar mesmerizing conversation between Cuban classical pianist José María Vitier and Afro Cuban jazz percussionist Yaroldy Abreu on congas and cajon.  

Along with streetlights, transportation and trash collection, music venues have also suffered recently, and several large state-owned theatres have yet to reopen post pandemic. What has emerged in their place are some new private bars, where jazz musicians especially perform nightly on exquisite rooftop patios. Most charge a cover of 500-1,000 Cuban pesos ($2-to-$5 USD, street exchange rate) prohibitive for those earning a Cuban state salary, and far more expensive than state venues were before the pandemic. 

 I saw a beautiful photo exhibition at the National Theatre during the Jazz Festival. “Havana Jazz Portrait” by photographer Lilien Trujilo Viton featuring photos of musicians at work, most of them taken recently at various Havana rooftop jazz bars. As Trujillo Viton visually documents the growth of privately owned jazz venues, she captures their beauty as well as their new significance. They evoke another era of Havana’s musical history, the 1950s, when foreigners were often more easily found in music venues than Cubans. On the other hand, a musicologist friend told me that for musicians, the new private bars are far less censorious than state-owned venues. 

Musicians such as Roberto Carcassés, who recently relocated to Spain, have suffered censorship at state venues by managers who, as he put it in a recent interview, act as though they are owners, rather than public administrators. Private bar owners are less concerned about what musicians say about Cuba when they are overseas.  

Yet there are still sufficient large, inexpensive state venues to accommodate Jazz Festival crowds. The Festival took place in both Havana and Santiago de Cuba. In Havana, it encompassed a dozen different state-owned venues, and ticket prices were within the realm of affordable – even if transportation costs were impossible. All the concerts I attended included a mix of Cubans and foreigners, mostly Cubans. Most nights ended with outdoor concerts by wildly popular Cuban dance bands: Los Van Van, Habana d’ Primera, Bamboleo, Alain Pérez.  These concerts ended around 5 a.m., just in time to scramble to get to work. 

No one I spoke to has much imagination, and certainly little optimism, for Cuba’s future, at least in political or economic terms. The program notes Rodrigo García penned for his tribute to Cuban trova of his parent’s generation evoked the central place of music in Cuban history: “I grew up believing that music could change the world.” 
What will Havana look like for the 40th Jazz Festival next year? Walking through Centro, a densely populated central Havana neighbourhood, I came across some extraordinary graffiti.  On the side of what appeared to be an abandoned building, I read “Save me. I can still make history.” I share journalist Lorena Aleman Massip’s question as she reflected on the delirious night (“crazy and apocalyptic”) when Havana and New Orleans shared a stage: is a massive collective desire enough to resurrect a half-moribund culture?

Karen Dubinsky

Karen Dubinsky has brought Queen’s university students to Havana for a course on Cuban Culture and Society for 15 years. She is working on a new book on Cuban Canadian cultural exchanges.