Hearing Damage in havana

It was unmistakable--nothing sounds like African drums exploding from a room too small to imprison their rhythm. The drummer kept a steady beat underneath a mad solo, adding pops and cracks and making those drums ring in ways that frighten small children. All without losing a beat.

Then a sax jumped in, then a guitar and a voice singing with the bittersweet urgency of a man sinking in quicksand crooning the last words to ever come out of his mouth. But they were in Spanish, and were lost amid the swirling noise so that the voice became another instrument in the mix. It was energetic. It was loud. It sounded like Afro-Cuban music meeting a garage band in an alley with motorcycle chains and tire irons. And it was beautiful.

So I followed the music through the Miramar district of Havana, Cuba, around a corner and up to a concrete apartment building. I scaled a cyclone fence, scampered across the courtyard and ran into the building before the song could end.

It came from the third floor, and during a lull I knocked hard and explained in broken-terribly broken-Spanish that I am a journalist and would like to listen more formally than loitering under an open window. The door opened and a man ushered me inside, leading me through a humble apartment with little furniture to a bedroom where the bed stood on end in a corner to make room for the band. The space was the size of a jail cell-not the cushy American kind, but the cramped, dank kind you don't hear about because no one ever comes out of them alive. But this was, after all, only a bedroom, in which were four Cuban musicians and a snake pit of tangled cords. There was no room for the singer, who set up his microphone in the hallway.

“"What's the band's name?" I yelled. "Urbanos!" the drummer screamed, then kicked off another tune...”

They played another song straightaway, before introductions. The wall of sound from the amps in the corner and the drums all around me--a set in one corner, congas in another--upset my balance. I leaned heavily against the doorframe. It was loud. Very loud. And very good, with a blend of percussion, brass and vocals that was truly inspiring. It would have been just as inspiring from four hundred yards away. The song ended. "What's the band's name?" I yelled through our temporary hearing loss.

"Urbanos!" the drummer screamed, then kicked off another tune. The singer yelled "Maria!" and launched into what seemed like his favorite tune. I recognized it as the song that led me there in the first place; only it felt different at pointblank.

After a few more numbers they unplugged the amps and covered the drums, and met on the porch for a group photo. Their manager explained that they each play with other bands, and have only come together in the last two months. "They fuse international music with Cuban music,” he said, accounting for the occasional metal riffs and random pop vocals. "And they're damned good!" I added, inappropriately loudly. No one noticed.

I was in Cuba to study the music scene, and trace Hemingway's legacy from the Floridita to Cojimar to the Finca Vigia. But there was only so much rum I could drink, only so many days in the week, and I was fast running out of time. There is never enough time, least of all when you're on assignment.

My last night in town found me wandering alone around the Plaza de la Dignidad, taking in the 138 black flags waiving under powerful spotlights. They obscured the upper floors of the US Interests Section, which is a tall, ugly building completely ill-fitting the tall, ugly Soviet-era concrete buildings around it. The sight was intense, and moving, and not friendly to anyone with a balance problem or already tremulous grasp on reality. Here was our official presence in Cuba, behind a tall fence, scrolling anti-Castro and anti-socialism messages across floor-to-ceiling windows high above. It explained the flags, and the occasionally chilly reception when someone thought I was American. But my name that week was James Dawson, from Toronto, eh? Go Maple Leafs.

Leaving the Plaza around 10:00pm, I walked through a residential area until lured towards a great hedge by truly impressive percussion. There was a path through the foliage that led me to a small café ten yards from the street and far off any tourist map. The prices were in local pesos--different from my "tourist pesos"--and I was the only gringo for miles. It was perfect.

A man clasped a hand around my shoulder and said his name is Luis, and "Today is my birthday!" That's normally a come-on for a peso or a drink, but it actually was his birthday, and there celebrating with him were eight Cubanos and two musicians--one man on bongos, and another on guitar. They were Afro-Cubans and played with the spirit of ten generations of musicians, with the fire of ancestors defying slavery, and the power of the Cuban people to endure the Spanish. Their music is one of hope in the face of dictator after dictator, life in the face of death--a fusion of African Yoruba religious music and Spanish guitar and language. Salsa, the chachacha, and Latin jazz owe their roots to Cuba and this musical heritage. Our entertainers were more than musicians; they were links to the past and embodiments of the indomitable Cuban soul. We tipped well, and passed around bottle upon bottle of Havana Club rum.

"On my birthday," Luis told me, "I smoke cigars!" and he produced two Cohibas--Winston Churchill's favorite. He gave one to me, and together we smoked the finest cigars in the world, drank the smoothest rum, and danced to the richest music. That night I touched the face of Havana.


I report on sports, travel, and local news. I'll cover anything, anytime, anywhere. Let me know how I can serve your publication.


My fine art photography is on permenant display at Cuban Pete's in Montclair, NJ, and is represented in numerous private collections. I do commercial, documentary, fine art, and other photography by commission.

Creative Writing
Petronas Towers

I write commissioned biographies and other works of any length (from short narratives to full length books), and have several book-length manuscripts currently under consideration.

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