Song in the heart of Havana


Julie Miller writes about Havana’s Art Festival in this article for Australia’s

THERE’S a ruckus on the corner near Havana’s Parque Central.

Curious onlookers line the footpath, children clambering on to walls for a tippy-toe view; while a lone motorcycle policeman rides up and down the deserted Prado in uniformed officiousness, siren blaring.

We see placards, hear chanting then drums, the hypnotic Afro-Cuban beat so essential in Cuba’s soundscape. Suddenly we’re engulfed in a parade, a bipedal flotilla of fantasy creatures adorned in body paint, whirling and gyrating to the timbal pulse. Some wear masks, blue and ochre phalluses covered in dots; while centre-stage is a Christ-like figure, struggling under the weight of a crossbar.

It’s then we notice the various stages of nudity; bare chests and buttocks, g-strings and loincloths offering scant protection. Two masked entities approach a young mother cradling a newborn, running their hands over the sleeping child, mother unperturbed by the blessing of naked spirits.

“Que es esto – what is this?” we ask a man blithely leaning against a wall, holding two fluorescent blue birthday cakes. “Biennale,” he replies. “The Havana arts festival.”

It seems fitting that the Cuban capital’s most vibrant celebration of artistic expression has chosen the city’s main drag for its launch; for it’s on the streets of Havana that the theatre of everyday life is played out, the most entertaining, colourful and intriguing offering in the city’s compendium of tourist attractions.

Here, on rutted cobblestones flanked by mildewed Belle Epoque apartments and a riot of jumbled electricals, families congregate for weekend chitchat, kids kicking balls as they dodge fruit and veg vendors and Soviet-era Ladas spewing forth a half-decade of engine filth.

Prowling touts harangue passing tourists, trying to lure them into private paladar dining rooms; while outside the telecommunications shop, a line snakes around the corner as habaneros queue patiently for mobile phone credit a telltale sign of a nation emerging from a 50-year slumber.

From the grandiose Capitolio Nacional – it’s hard not to see the irony in its uncanny resemblance to the US Capitol Building – to the neo-baroque Gran Teatro de la Habana, the tree-lined Prado is a riot of architectural gems, an eclectic mishmash of styles reflecting the city’s position at the Caribbean crossroads.

This wide boulevard is also a veritable outdoor auto-museum, brightly hued Chevys, Cadillacs, Dodges and Buicks from the 1950s lining its kerbs – all magnificent, few roadworthy, but truly a sight to behold. Many bear official “taxi” signs, but all are available for hire, owners capitalising on gawking tourists looking for a classic Cuban photo opportunity.

We clamber into (the doors don’t open properly) an old blue Chevy convertible, a behemoth lovingly polished, despite its cracked leather seats and gaping rust holes, for a half-hour joyride, our driver singing along to Cuban pop music on the tinny radio.

Wind in our hair and petrol fumes in our nostrils, we cruise the Malecon, the famed 8km drive along rocky Havana Bay. A hangout for fishermen, teenagers and romantics, this sweeping promenade in many ways resembles a bombed-out Campbell Pde in Bondi, crumbling Art Nouveau apartment blocks under scaffolding both a reminder of former glory as well as the potential for gentrification.

It’s easy to imagine a future of Miami-style hotels, Starbucks and chi-chi cafes; but for now, revolutionary murals featuring Che and Fidel stand firm in the ongoing battle against globalisation.

Dominating the eastern end of the Malecon is the imposing Hotel Nacional de Cuba, built in 1930 as a copy of Breakers Hotel at Palm Beach, Miami.

For 20 years, this hotel represented the Americanisation of Cuba, hosting celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando and Ernest Hemingway before gaining notoriety as a Mafia hangout as the city succumbed to gambling, prostitution and vice, endorsed by Fulgencio Batista’s increasingly corrupt government.

In many ways, the Nacional became a symbol of Castro’s revolution of 1959, the hotel and casino reassigned to government officials as a backlash against decadence. Restored in the 1990s at a cost of $US64 million ($61.5 million), however, this Moorish gem is again a showpiece of Havana’s hospitality industry.

Back in Habana Vieje (Old Havana) we swap our ’50s mechanical beast for Shanks’s pony, trawling cobbled streets agog at the sheer splendour of this historic precinct. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982, there are more than 900 buildings of historical note in this quarter, many of them now housing grand hotels, galleries or restaurants in an ongoing restoration project.

Even if you can’t afford to stay in one of the quarter’s many hotels – though at about $US85 for a single, even they are not expensive by Western standards – it’s worth a look, with hotels such as Hotel Florida and Hotel Raquel breathtaking examples of meticulous, sympathetic renovation. From the daily secondhand book market on Plaza de Armas, to curiosities such as a pharmacy museum or museum of chocolate, Habana Vieje is a wanderer’s delight; but it’s on the streets themselves, not behind closed doors, that the real entertainment takes place.

Outside La Bodeguita del Medio, one of Havana’s many legendary bars frequented by Hemingway and said to be the birthplace of the mojito, a toothless bespectacled crone sucks on a cigar, begging for a coveted Cuban Convertible (the tourist currency) in payment for a photo opportunity.

Another man approaches outside a department store with near-empty shelves. “Che Guevara says we must swap pesos,” he says. “My peso for your peso. It’s Cuban tradition.”

“Che said that?” I tease. “One of my pesos, worth 25 of one of yours? I don’t think so.” Frankly, Che would have been turning in his grave at the unsocialistic greed Cuba’s dual currency has created, a symbol of a dogged regime on the brink of inevitable change.

But there’s one aspect of Cuban life that the spectre of globalisation will never rend asunder – its music. From salsa to son, marimba to hip-hop-inspired reggaeton, an infectious beat permeates every decaying crevice of old Havana. No need to book for a formal performance; music is there for the taking, an inescapable treasure and the heart of this lusty, raw and vibrant street culture.

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