Oh, Havana, oh, Havana...

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by: Mónica Sera Luaces


Oh, Havana, oh, Havana, who doesn’t dance and who doesn’t enjoy, folks, in Havana![i]

The musical outlook of the First Habanarte Festival has had different scenes, all of them located at the downtown of Havana. In Centro Habana, Habanarte had an important scene in the Music Hall Havana. The program of the EGREM (the Record Company that sponsors every musical show) added to the Festival on its usual hours, and with some peculiarities, due to the kind of event. The Music Hall Havana sold tickets abroad for all who were not in Cuba and wanted to make reservations in advance; this offer included a 50 %discount of the actual cost. This way, the Habanarte Festival was inaugurated at the Music Hall Havana with performances of Van Van and Habana de Primera, two dance bands that joined to the usual gatherings, and started this Art Festival in Havana.

These two dance bands nowadays represent the timbero movement in Havana: the new representation of the Cuban rhythm, a sociocultural phenomenon that makes up a dance style, fashion and language of Cuban culture, expression of the new generation of Havana locals, due to its success and peculiar sonority of its exponents. Habana De Primera, a new dance band, founded just seven years ago, is the most popular dance band at the parties in Havana; in its songs we can find scenes of everyday life of Havana-dwellers. Habana De Primera, as well as Los Van Van had distinctiveness, in both bands it stands out the use of double meaning, cunning, irony, and local customs in their songs. Their lyrics become chronicles about Cuban reality; their texts show a social circumstance and deal about funny subjects of daily life.

Los Van Van, throughout 45 years of foundation, have preserved songo, an Afro- Cuban rhythm that comes from son, originated from the 70’s, and whose origin is  generally attributed to the percussionist and drummer José Luís Quintana Fuentes, alias “Changuito”. The songo by Los Van Van is essentially a rhythm, though many tend to consider it a genre because it allows the inclusion of other contemporary no-Latin styles like jazz and/or funk. It was performed for the first time in Havana by percussionists and the Changuito’s band, Los Van VanIrakere and others. Songo is the rhythm come from the son and is predecessor of timba or “Cuban salsa”, a kind of salsa-son, but a Cuban tone. Timba is a modern style of playing son montuno, and now it has become the rhythm most performed by Cuban dance bands, mainly from Havana, because people in the provinces are more attached to traditional genres.

One of the first bands that played a timba was Nueva Generación band, better known as NG La Banda. Its director, José Luis Cortés, known as “El Tosco”, has been considered as one of the founders of the new rhythm/genre. This band is considered by many as the creator and promoter of the timba, which is motive of a lot of controversies and criticisms by some sectors of the Cuban society and intellectuals.

It was by a song that deals about the neighborhoods of Havana, which thanks to its composer, Fidel Morales, El Tosco starts what we now know as timba. In this song he mentions some of the most distinctive neighborhoods of Havana city, with some features of its dwellers; let’s recall some pieces of the lyrics: “...the Cerro has the key, Buena Vista, what a swing!, Who do eat squid?, people from Miramar, Guanabacoa, Coa Coa,…”. This song, popularized by the singer Issac Delgado, member of NG by then, is pioneer of the “timbero” movement and we still heard it on his performances; it gives us a very marginal perspective of Havana and it sounds similar to what other “timberas” bands perform in the present musical scene of Havana.

In the program of the Music Hall of Havana, there also performed Havana Show with its Project of dancers and “reguetón” singers, as well as NG la BandaCharanga LatinaManolito Simonet and his Trabuco, and Azúcar Negra, all of them are “timba” bands, and in the same way they play in their songs the underground views of Havana, and above all, the most popular and marginal. These bands have incorporated, through their chorus and refrains, in the cultural imagery of Havana very popular phrases like “There are a lot of nuts in Havana”. This is the chorus from a song by Manolito Simonet and his Trabuco, which starts saying that to live in Havana is “the privilege of living in the city of swing where you never sleep, where you stay all night up, you dance till dawn, you play domino, and you have a good reason to eat pork stew, a doctor plays baseball, and all of the sudden he hits a home run, that’s why I love Havana, because there are a lot of nuts like me in Havana…”

For those who like dance popular music, the Music Hall Miramar was also an available scene within this Habanarte Festival. There they performed dance bands like Habana CAdalberto Álvarez and his SonPedrito Calvo and la Nueva Justicia, and Bamboleo, besides Habana De Primera and NG la Banda that play for the second time for those who couldn’t go to the Music Hall Havana or those who just prefer to dance again with them. These dance bands are the ones that now dancers enjoy the best, Yuli, director of Habana C, combines dance music and ballads, and sometimes, timba with reguetón. Adalberto with his Son is considered as the group director who has the best sonority for dancing “casino”, because he updated the son, and achieved to reinsert this dance genre from Cuba to the atmosphere and sonority of international salsa. Out of his musical repertoire, it has inserted in very popular way the expression: how much you like to pretend you are from Havana, to refer to people who are visiting Havana or those who now took up residence in Havana. This expression is included in a chorus of one of the most popular songs at the present and that made dance the people who went to his performance in Habanarte. Pedrito Calvo and la Nueva Justicia has taken up again a song that he made popular with Los Van Van, when he sang in that band. Now, with La Nueva Justicia he sang “Havana bears no more” again, a very popular expression used to signify that something is too much to bear. But, undoubtedly, “El Fotingo de Caridad”, first single of the CD Vengo con la Justicia (I come with the Justice), is the song the public like the most because it works with the double meaning of the word    “fotingo”, which defines a kind of old automobile very common in the streets of Havana that also means women’s buttocks in a popular argot.  

Other spaces added to this musical party of Habanarte. The Yellow Submarine Club opened its doors for the public who prefer Rock and Roll. This is a usual space for Cuban rock, mainly, although there also perform different bands and artists that play other kinds of musical genre like new age, blues, R&B, punk, pop and alternative music. It is decorated with images of The Beatles and some lyrics of their songs, the walls of the Club as well as the furniture, there it performed Ernesto Blanco, Gretel Barreiro and the bands Miel con LimónLa Vieja EscuelaLos Taxson, and Los Kents, which ended the Festival with their performance. Another scene for the performance of rock bands, is the Maxim Rock Theatre, there it performed Eddy Escobar with his bandEstigma DC, and Zeus, together with other bands, all of them exponents of Cuban rock, with distinctive characteristics that show a Havana that is no less popular, a “metallic” Havana, as it is said by those who like this style and trend of heavy metal and progressive rock in any of its variants like the thrash metal.

Habanarte also had a scene for genres like jazz, soul, funk, pop, trova, son, rap, and rumba, in the Gardens of Mella theatre. This space had very wide program, the afternoons for concerts of Habanarte were opened with the performnce of Francis del Río. In the Gardens we had the chance to enjoy the show of Francis who claims to know Havana by its folks. Havana is always present in his musical work and, although he wasn’t born in this city, he feels he’s part of it, because he knows very well the “night birds and social butterflies” of Havana, which are the singular characters he describes on his songs. As well, it performed D´Cora Son, Dúo JadeJóvenes Clásicos del SonHéctor Quintana, Deja Vú, and Bellita y su Rumbatá. Near the Gardens, the Raquel Revuelta Theater welcomed the performance of different artists like Gerardo Alfonso, Pedro Luis Ferrer, Tony Ávila and William Vivanco.

And, of course, these artists paid tribute to Havana again, since it is not only a usual space for their performances, but also a recurrent subject in their songs. Performances like the one of Gerardo Alfonso made us recall that picturesque image from Havana represented in “White sheets hanging from balconies”, or the one by Pedro Luis Ferrer that made us recall emblematic songs like “Havana is inhabited”, a song that meditates on a past time that is not so distant; it is a song that ponders with sadness about Havana dwellers of past times, and counts today Havana that seems to be “one, two and three and more”, his songs talk about Havana with its slogans, about lovers that go to the Seafront, and about the Paris gentleman, one of the emblematical characters of Havana from other times, and Pedro Luis Ferrer, pays tribute in other of his songs. “Farmers of the capital” is a song by D´CoraSon, which also portrays some typical characters that wander around Havana. “Son to the botero”, which tells us about a Havana style of taxis with a fixed tariff, old cars of American styles, so typical in the streets of Havana, it is another song that could be enjoyed in these musical spaces of the Festival.

So, we can say that a way to know Havana, or to have a street view of it, is by hearing the lyrics of many songs by artists and bands that got together in Habanarte. With such a wide musical program in this Arts Festival we can affirm what Irakere already sang: “…who doesn’t dance and who doesn’t enjoy, folks, in Havana!”

[1] Chorus of a popular song by the Cuban jazz band Irakere.




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