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All That Jazz in Havana

By: Sarah Cherres

Monday January 6th, 2020

Growing up multicultural, it became very evident early on know how important music is to Cubans. There was never a birthday party or holiday celebration without music during my winter visits to Miami. My big Cuban family always managed to work in dancing and celebration into everything they did. As I have become more familiar with Cuban culture, I also have a better understanding of how important culture and education is to Cubans.

Cuba has an endless supply of talent in the realm of culture, especially when it comes to music and art. Music for Cubans is second nature. Whether it’s Afro-Cuban Jazz, Salsa, or Punto Guajiro, there is always a form of foot-tapping taking place. In Cuba, it is widespread to find street musicians playing a single instrument or an ensemble playing a full set alongside stilt walkers at one of Havana’s famous squares. In honor of the upcoming Havana Jazz Festival, in this blog, I’ll share with you a little more about the history of Afro-Cuban Jazz.

Beginnings of Afro-Cuban Jazz

Afro-Cuban Jazz is considered one of the earliest forms of Latin Jazz. In the beginning, Afro-Cuban Jazz was more popular in the United States than in Cuba. Sources say that both Jazz in Cuba and Afro-Cuban Jazz in the U.S. developed parallel to each other. Some of the early adaptations of Afro-Cuban Jazz went down in history as originating in New York.

Mauro Bauzá and his band, Machito and his Afro-Cubans, are considered pioneers of the genre. The group adopted the musical style in the 1940s. Bauzá’s band also received credit for the first Afro-Cuban Jazz single called “Tangá.” The song has several musical improvisations. Because the genre originated during the time of segregation in the U.S., the band often received requests to remove Afro-Cuban from their references. They always declined the requests and preferred not to play at these venues. The catalysts of Afro-Cuban Jazz, however, date further back.

Slave owners were afraid their slaves would start uprisings, so they were allowed music as recreation. Many may not know that once slavery became abolished in Cuba during the late 1800s, many black Cubans migrated to New Orleans, LA, in the United States. During a period, people could also commute between Havana and New Orleans by ferry. This exchange originated many musical collaborations and blending of sounds.

Some of the instruments used for earlier Afro-Cuban Jazz were the drums and the bongo. Later, through more exchanges, other instruments like the congas and saxophone were added. Rhythms for Afro-Cuban Jazz come from the clave, which is a rhythmic pattern, and the habanera, the first written music rhythmically based on an African motif. The habanera has been credited to Cuban musician Miguel Failde and dates back to the late 1800s. Cuban motifs were incorporated in African-American music when the habanera gained international popularity during the 19th century.

Cuban Jazz, meanwhile, was also forming in Cuba during the 1920s. In the beginning, the bands played North American Jazz and popular Cuban music. The first contributor to the Afro-Cuban Jazz movement was a band called Irakere. Amongst its members were pianist Chucho Valdéz who served as director, and Paquito D’Rivera, a saxophonist who also served as Assistant Director.

An interesting fact is that some of the members of Irakere did not like the mix of Afro-Cuban elements and Jazz. They felt they were covering up their real love for Jazz. Other famous Cuban jazz musicians include pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, saxophonist Tony Martinez, drummer Dafnis Prieto, and award-winning Afro-Cuban jazz singer Daymé Arocena.

If you would like to learn more about the African influence in Cuba, you may want to consider an Afro-Cuban Cultural Immersion Tour. This 5-day/4-night, all-inclusive tour in Cuba includes visits to the slave routes and an exploration of Afro-Cuban dance, music, religion, and culture. This type of program also consists of the top Havana highlights, cuisine and cigar samplings, and a panoramic tour of Havana on a classic convertible. It is the perfect blend of culture and attractions on the beautiful Island of Cuba.

Coming up in January – Havana Jazz Festival

This year the 35th Havana Jazz Festival will be taking place from January 15th – 20th, 2020. The festival saw its origins in the late 1970s, as a group of Cuban musicians performed in the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza in Havana. Based on the success of the first iteration of the event, the festival continued. Eventually, Cuban musician Jesús Valdés Rodríguez, better known as Chucho Valdés, became the artistic director of the festival, as well as president of the organizing committee.

The festival now takes place across several concert halls in downtown Havana. Impromptu performances also take place along the Malecón and other venues. Some of the famous musicians who have visited Cuba for the festival include composer, conductor, and singer David Amram, who composed the soundtrack for the movie Manchurian Candidate. Three-time Grammy and Tony Award-winning singer-songwriter and actress, Dee Dee Bridgewater, also frequents the festival. The Havana Jazz Festival 2020 lineup includes Chucho Valdés, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cimafunk, Carlos Varela, Anders Osborne, The Soul Rebels, Tank and the Bangas, amongst other artists scheduled to perform at the festival.

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Other Famous Performances in Havana

If you are musically inclined and would like to learn more about other famous performances in Havana, you may also want to visit the Tropicana Cabaret, the Parisien Cabaret, or the Vista Social Club. The Tropicana Cabaret continues to be reminiscent of the era of euphoria and excess of Cuba from the 1950s. Over 200 hundred performers – dancers and musicians – get onstage in full costume. The beautiful and historic outdoor venue has seen performances by Nat King Cole and Josephine Baker. Celebrities such as Rita Hayworth, Marlon Brando, and many others also frequented the Tropicana. For another spectacular performance, you may also want to visit the Parisien.

The Cabaret Parisien has some similarities with the Tropicana in that it also has a full cast in elaborate costumes. The Parisien is on the grounds of the historic Hotel Nacional in Havana. The venue is very charming when compared to the Tropicana, but it is still a Vegas-style performance in a more intimate setting. If you prefer live music and perhaps some dancing, you may also consider visiting the Buena Vista Social Club.

The Buena Vista Social Club is within the centrally located Meliá Cohiba Hotel. It is a highly interactive show. The performers are a combination of a full band with singers, a host, and a lively dance group with animated choreographies. The ambiance is relaxed and casual. The venue has several vintage artifacts, airplanes, and even a motorcycle. The walls of the club are also lined with portraits of famous people that have graced the club. If you want to dance, this will be a fun experience, since the dancers may invite the audience onstage to join in on the fun.

Getting to Cuba can be easy

As with any international travel, traveling from the U.S. to Cuba has specific requirements. U.S. citizens can travel to Cuba legally by purchasing a tourist card/visa, by selecting one of the allowed 11 reasons for travel, and by having available a full agenda that is relevant to their reason chosen for travel. Gathering these documents and selecting the right category can seem complicated. The process can easier and much more straightforward by working with a professional agency specialized in travel to Cuba like OnCuba Travel.

OnCuba Travel has a team in the U.S. and a local office in Havana, Cuba, close to the Malecón. The travel agents can also guide you to select excursions and other activities to meet your travel goals, with both your budget and timelines in mind. The agency can also help you arrange a car rental for pickup at the airport in Havana or transfers from the airport to your accommodation. The experienced agents at OnCuba Travel can also assist you in booking single services like hotels in Cuba or private homes called casas particulares, round trip flights to Cuba from Miami or other cities across the U.S., and other services. Contact the agency to get started with your travel plans.

Reminder! Don’t forget that the 22nd Habanos Festival is coming up in Cuba from February 24th to February 29th, 2020. Travelers can take advantage of available cigar and rum tours, like the one available through OnCuba Travel. The tour includes a day at the Habanos Festival, a behind the scenes tour of a real cigar factory, visits to the Cuban tobacco region, and a discovery of the history of tobacco production in Cuba. The all-inclusive adventure includes visits to several cigar Casa del Habano shops, including a stop at the majestic Hotel Nacional in Havana, and fabulous Cuban cuisine. It is a terrific opportunity to enjoy Old Havana, the resort town of Varadero, the verdant Viñales, Matanzas, and so much more. Contact OnCuba Travel to learn more.

Fancy a mojito?

Longing for some Cuban rice and beans? Are you looking forward to sinking your teeth into a piece of flan? Next time in the blog, we will do a culinary tour of authentic Cuban cuisine. I will go over some essential Cuban foods, drinks, and sweets a traveler must have during a visit. The history behind the origins of different plants and foods to Cuba is fascinating, and I cannot wait to share more with you. I will also include some recommendations of privately-owned restaurants called paladares to try for different types of cuisine and how to make the most out of an upcoming visit to Cuba.