December – January – February 2020 Magazine
Chucho Valdés is an imposing man: tall, large, with big hands. If you also know his musical stature and the global impact of his work, it’s natural to be overwhelmed by his presence. Fortunately, the only thing between the first impression and a sense of ease is his smile. Chucho has a warm smile and is quick to laugh, and, at 78, he retains the curiosity of a child.
We’re in the studio of Osbel Concepción, for the photo shoot. With some trepidation, I spoke with Lorena Salcedo, his wife and representative: we were waiting for them with Cuban bread and cod fish — we wanted to use these two elements for the cover shot and I didn’t know what they’d make of the idea. Our proposal was a nod to “Bacalao con pan” (“Cod with Bread”), one of the earliest and most popular songs by Irakere1, and the first one where the group includes batá drums, an important contribution of Chucho and his jazz musicians. A year before founding Irakere, Chucho had experimented with Oscar Valdés on Afro-Cuban percussion and Carlos del Puerto on bass, in the already transcendental Jazz Batá album, where he used the Afro-Cuban drums for the first time.
To my surprise, Lorena and Chucho were enthusiastic, responding: “Sure! What a good idea! How do we do it?”
That simple, friendly man with a refined, Cuban sense of humor, is one of the most recognized jazz musicians in the world. He has just won his fourth Latin Grammy, for a total of ten Grammys overall. The album that garnered this recent accolade is Jazz Batá-2, which the outstanding Cuban musicologist Rosa Marquetti tells us about in the exclusive OnCuba interview in this issue.
Through Chucho Valdés, we dedicate this issue to music —the best ambassador of a culture—, and especially to jazz, an exceptional bridge between Cuban and American cultures. Long is the list of musicians from both countries whose reciprocal influences have given us sublime musical masterpieces.
OnCuba celebrates that exchange and is grateful for its beauty.
- The almost mythical musical group Chucho founded in 1973. Irakere means ‘vegetation’ in the Yoruba language.
September – October – November 2019 Magazine
“Havana is a female city.” That chorus of the song by Alex Cuba –a Cuban musician living in Canada— kept playing in my head while I came up with this issue of the magazine.
I always imagine Havana as a fertile woman with open arms and legs that receive us and wave goodbye. A city that begs you to leave it, with the same violence that it implores you to return.
When I talk about fertility, I don’t mean that Havana is the most populous city in Cuba. With more than 2 million inhabitants –3 million if we count its floating population (it’s the city that receives the most people from throughout the island)—, its population has been decreasing since 1996. The reduction in the birth rate and the negative migratory balance are the main causes.
In Havana culture abounds: there’s son, bolero, reggaeton, jazz, classical music, rumba, guaguancó and salsa. Contemporary dance, Spanish dance, and classical ballet are enjoyed. Neighbors play baseball, dominoes, soccer, basketball. Catholics, Yorubas, Russian Orthodox and Santeros all coexist. I grew up in Havana watching Russian, French, and Norwegian film cycles and, on TV, the latest out of Hollywood. I watched classic plays and a lot of Cuban theater. In Havana you can walk the streets and hear comments about the situation in Burundi or in the Amazon, quantum physics, baseball, or the lack of chicken at the ration store or the fact that toilet paper has been in short supply for months.
It’s impossible to identify an Habanera by the color of her skin, by the texture of her hair or by her physical features. There are all sorts of people. White-skinned people with Afro hair, brown-skinned people with straight hair, Chinese descendants, very dark blacks, and very blond whites.
That’s why I say that Havana is a fertile woman, full of spirituality and creativity. A city of deep beauty, which one must learn to recognize.
It’s one of the oldest cities in the Americas, and it turns 500 on November 16th. If you’re thinking of visiting, forget the classic photo of vintage cars. Get ready to live the intensity that this female city offers.
June – July 2019 Magazine
A graduate of the teacher-training college of Havana, my grandfa-ther, Nano, taught mathematics to thousands of people. I suspect that he was an unforgettable teacher. When I tell people my last name, sometimes I’m still asked if I’m related to Mr. Arboleya.
He was born in Batabanó, a humble fishing village south of Havana. He was the only one of his many siblings who managed to study and have a career. He established his family in El Pilar —a “hot neighborhood” in Havana— where he earned the re-spect of the people. On the street people called him “Maestro” (Teacher).
My grandfather’s gift was teaching, so he didn’t think twice, at age 50, about participating in the literacy campaign in a little vil-lage in the interior of Pinar del Río. His 12- and 13-year-old children did the same. He had a reputation as a “tough guy”, but if you didn’t learn mathematics with him, you could give up the battle.
Every year my grandfather, my sister, and I made the same tour of Havana. He took us along the Paseo del Prado, we sat on a bench, and he recited different poems by José Martí. Each year he told us a different story that placed a young Martí sit-ting on that bench and each year, my sister and I believed him. Little did it bother me when I learned later that, although Martí must have walked along the tree-lined dirt road that was, in his time, the Paseo del Prado, he never sat on that bench. The Paseo we toured, with its beautiful central promenade, its stone and marble benches, its lampposts and its laurels, was inaugurated on October 10, 1928, thirty-three years after the poet’s death.
We left Prado and went down Empedrado Street toward Plaza de la Catedral. Abuelo made up stories along the way, mixing the sublime with the ridiculous, talking about José de la Luz y Cabal-lero, Cecilia Valdés, Conrado Marrero, or Mongo Tres Chapitas.
When we were approaching the Plaza, before our much-antic-ipated lunch at El Patio, my sister and I prepared for embarrass-ment—which we later remembered with mischievous complicity. Abuelo stood in the center of the imposing Plaza de la Catedral and dedicated a song by El Benny at the top of his lungs: I don’t know / I can’t tell you how it happened / I can’t explain what hap-pened / but I fell in love with you….
José Martí: poet, cultured patriot, a free and sensitive spirit, loyal, white son of Spaniards, the soul of Cubans’ thirst for inde-pendence. El Benny: self-taught musical genius, drinker, dancer, good friend, sharer of everything he had, black descendant of the king of a Congo tribe, his voice was deep.
Every year Abuelo would tell me “Come on, let’s go eat the best bread croquettes in Havana.” In fact, he was teaching me about the place where I come from.
April – May 2019 Magazine
Havana is a living city, seemingly preparing for its next conquest. The city entrenches itself, suffers, smells, breathes, screams with joy and pain, enjoys, gussies up, and heals itself. Havana rules itself, and it sets its own pace.
In an interview with OnCuba, the Official Historian of the City of Havana, Eusebio Leal, defined Havana as “a state of mind.” I would agree. The Havana of the International Film Festival, in December, is flirtatious, showy. The Havana of the Ballet Festival is refined and subtle, it wears heels and suits. The Book-Fair Havana is tumultuous, warm… And Havana during the Biennial is a captivating, roving party.
Organized by the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center, the Havana Biennial is one of the most important cultural events on the island, and has a significant impact on the contemporary visual arts scene in the Americas and the world. The first Biennial took place in 1984. Although since its fourth iteration its periodicity changed to a triennial celebration, it still retains the name by which it became known internationally.
Beyond its main venues —the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center, the Hispanic-American Cultural Center, the Center for the Development of the Visual Arts, the National Museum of Fine Arts, and the University of the Arts—, several years ago the Biennial surpassed its physical limits and turned the city into a great art gallery, spilling onto the Malecón and other public spaces.
The event has traditionally been designed from different central themes that guide the curatorship of each edition. Some recent theoretical references were “Tradition and Contemporaneity,” “The Challenge to Colonization,” “Art-Society-Reflection,” “The Individual and his Memory,” “Dynamics of Urban Culture,” “Artistic Practices and Social Imaginaries.” This year’s is “The Construction of the Possible.”
The 13th Havana Biennial is celebrated from April 12 to May 12, 2019, with the intention of turning the city into a cultural corridor where creators and audiences interact.
With the participation of artists from all over the world, and the inclusion of Cuban creators from within and outside the island, without distinction of expressions, techniques, or formats, and constantly seeking a closer approach between the residents of Havana and those who visit it, the Biennial is a party for the imagination and the senses, a living stage of the best that contemporary visual art can offer.
If you want to get to know a fresh, provocative, challenging city, visit Havana during the days of the Biennial.
February – March 2019 Magazine
If you plan to travel to Cuba in 2019, I suggest you pay attention to everything you see, hear, and feel. It’s not every day that you’ll have the opportunity to visit a country in transformation.
The draft of the new Constitution of the Republic of Cuba was discussed throughout the island in 2018. A commission of the National Assembly of People’s Power, the highest legislative body in Cuba, prepared the preliminary draft of the Constitution, which was then approved by the Assembly, and put to a people’s referendum between August 15th and November 15th, 2018. The final version will be submitted to a referendum on February 24th.
According to official data, 8,945,521 people attended the government-organized discussion meetings. Just over half of their proposals were accepted, resulting in 760 modifications. Despite some criticism of not establishing clearer rules about the consultation, there is no doubt that there was massive participation by the people. And for the first time since the revolution in 1959, Cuban emigrants were also invited to opine on a national matter along with the rest of their countrymen, although they will not be able to vote in the referendum.
The draft of the new Constitution continues to declare the island a single-party socialist State, establishing that the president is elected by the National Assembly. Among the most important changes, it incorporates, for the first time, the “Socialist Rule of Law,” a proposal that extends citizens’ rights and guarantees. It embraces a more inclusive definition of marriage; it prohibits discrimination based on gender identity, ethnic origin, and disability; and it establishes more rights in the criminal process. Another significant change is the recognition of private property, which has already existed for several years.
The current Constitution—approved in 1976 and modified in 1978, 1992, and 2013—established that the president presides over the Councils of State and of Ministers. The new proposal creates the figures of President of the Republic (Head of State), elected by the deputies of the National Assembly, and Prime Minister (Head of Government), appointed by the Assembly at the nomination of the president. New term limits were also established for all government positions: up to two terms of five years each.
If approved, as everything seems to indicate, Cuba will begin 2019 with a new Constitution. Those of us who know Cuban society know that the most tangible change will depend on the legal and executive implementation of the principles established in the Magna Carta. Therefore, 2019 will be another year of diverse, intense, and contradictory discussions, from within and outside a country in transformation.
December 2018 -January 2019 Magazine
Right now I am thinking about how the 100th issue will be, but just over six years ago I was imagining the 50th issue of OnCuba.
The first issue circulated in March 2012, two years before the December 2014 announcement by presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro, who simultaneously and after more than a year of secret talks, revealed to the world the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, a dialogue that would again become complex after Donald Trump assumed the U.S. presidency in 2016.
With a national distribution in the United States, OnCuba Travel is a permanent invitation to visit Cuba, it’s a bridge, a link between two neighboring countries, so close and so distant. We are not a conventional travel magazine, because conventional has not been the trajectory of our peoples, who have had to seek new paths in order to get to know each other. Nor is Cuba a conventional country, and we like to discover it and to show it as it is.
Perhaps because we reached this 50th issue we wanted to take a look back at our culture. Here we offer a very brief tour of Cuban photography and posters, and we venture to make a list of the top 10 best-of-all-time Cuban baseball players. We take a tour of the streets of Santiago de Cuba with Maestro Leo Brouwer; we visit the recently restored Capitol building in Havana; we unveil secrets about the food at La Bodeguita del Medio; and Christopher Baker, a U.S. journalist and photographer who knows the island like the back of his hand, tells us what he loves about it.
In particular, it is an issue I would like to dedicate to those who have worked at OnCuba over these years: the founding team with designer Laura Díaz and photographer Alain Gutiérrez; proofreader José Mayoz; the commercial team with Yohama Hernández, Natasha Vázquez and Haylenis Fajardo; designers Jorge Rodríguez (R10) and Idania del Río, and translator Rosana Berbeo. I thank them for being an indispensable part of this path, and I thank the spectacular team that works on the magazine today.
And I also thank OnCuba’s readers for allowing us to share, think, and enjoy. We open the pages of our magazine as if they were the streets of the island. On each one of them, as Eliseo Diego said, we find an invitation to “pay attention. To pay attention… to what God gave us as an inheritance.” Happy 2019!
October-November Magazine 2018
One of the things one takes wherever one goes is the culinary culture. And notice that I use the term culture on purpose, because it’s not just about the foods and their preparation, but rather the way we relate to food and the moments for eating.
I don’t like generalizing, that’s why it’s very difficult for me to say, for example: we Cubans love black beans, because I’m sure there will be some, as Cuban as myself, who can’t stand them. Even in Cuba – a small island of just 110,860 km2, that is, some 88 times smaller than the United States -, in all the regions people don’t eat the same.
In my home it’s usual to sit at the table, especially during the last meal of the day, which we usually have between 8 and 9 in the evening, and no one can sit down shirtless (one of my father’s strict rules). On Sundays we have lunch together, like other many Cuban families.
Almost all the Cubans coincide in certain customs, like that of offering coffee to visitors; it’s practically the first thing we do when someone calls on us, it doesn’t even matter how close they are, or the duration of the visit, to all of them we offer coffee.
At least in my case, with my emotional memory that shoots up rapidly with the smells, the aroma of the cumin, of the Cuban coffee (strong, intense), the one that is mixed with peas…makes me feel close to home. Perhaps it is why, to placate the nostalgia, many of those who leave their country, not just Cuba, open traditional food restaurants.
I believe that to know a place, to try to really get to know its people, it’s necessary to taste their food. Ever since “self-employment in Cuba” was approved, that is, the development of the private sector, restaurants have been the most popular businesses. With this boom in “paladares,” as private restaurants are called on the island, there has also been a palpable development of Cuban gastronomy.
I invite you to read in this edition of OnCuba Travel about the current Cuban cuisine, its challenges, its development, its special characteristics and Cubans’ cultural relations with food.
It was September 20, 2009, it was Havana, it was Revolution Square, it was 2:00 pm…. We had gotten dressed in a white T-shirt, just like other thousands of persons, and we had been waiting for hours for the concert to start, in that Square that I had never seen so full before.
All ages, colors, lineages, languages and origins were there, and when the music started my daughters moved to the same rhythm as that grey-haired man who only a few minutes ago looked like he was going to faint, exhausted by the heat, sitting by the sidewalk; and I moved and sang the same song as the lady who before looked so circumspect, so whitely dressed, trying to not stain her wardrobe, all the time watching out for that, until the strains of that music were heard. What a strange thing! I thought, for a few minutes we had something in common.
After two hours, Juanes, Olga Tañón, Los Orishas, Silvio Rodríguez, Luis Eduardo Aute, Miguel Bosé, Síntesis…and others had passed by there. Two hours from the concert, with the September heat among that indescribable multitude, no one was wearing anything that was completely white, and the feet didn’t resist. There was a deathly silence, and my daughters begged that we already leave, their nine and 10 years couldn’t withstand more. We advanced a few steps, a voice was heard and afterwards an unmistakable “tumbao”. The two of them stopped dead and turned around, I thought they had recognized the band and asked them: what does it sound like? “It sounds like Cuba, that sounds like Cuba,” they told me in the midst of the euphoria of thousands who turned around and jumped like us when Los Van Van started playing “Dale con el corazón, muévete, muévete.”
We didn’t stop dancing until all those musicians (from here and there) finished singing Compay Segundo’s “Chan Chan” and José Martí’s Simple Verses in the style of Los Van Van, together with thousands of others. Some didn’t have the slightest idea what they were dancing and they hummed along, but continued dancing nonstop.
“For a single Cuban family”! was the last thing I was able to hear.
*The “Paz sin fronteras” (Peace Without Borders) concert, organized by Juanes in Havana on September 20, 2009, brought together 1.15 million persons, half of Havana’s population at the time. It is considered the third biggest concert in history, after the two held in Rio de Janeiro, the first by the Rolling Stones and the second by Rod Stuart.
June – July Magazine
When people visit Cuba they are struck by its very beautiful beaches; the beauty of its colonial cities; hills and rivers; the spectacular seabed along its coasts; and yes, of course, the old cars and the strange “exotic” mystic of living in revolution; but undoubtedly, what’s extraordinary about Cuba is its people.
Behind, in the middle, at the side, over, holding everything, are the people, with their lives, their joys, their loves, their miseries, their rhythm, their sorrow, their fears, their certainties.
I don’t believe we Cubans are “special” beings; we share much of the Caribbean spirit; of the Spanish traditions and soul; of the African essence; neither are we a compact mass, all Cubans don’t know how to dance, all of them don’t like rum, not all of them play dominoes or speak loudly, we are not all blacks or whites and, although we have the most “unanimous” Parliament in the world, nothing is more difficult than getting two Cuban to come to an agreement.
But it is true that when visiting Cuba one finds something that’s extraordinary in its people. Many say that it is the way of “sharing” the much and the little there is; others say that Cubans really know how to laugh and have fun (we also know how to cry and suffer); others have told me how close the people feel; others of the culture and the education they didn’t expect to find.
I still don’t know what it is, but something extraordinary happens to those who visit Cuba and interact with the Cubans, no one remains indifferent, intact. Things move, they shake.
There’s something else beyond governments, ideologies, life’s bureaucracy. I unquestionably and openly invite you to Cuba. Go with open eyes, ready to be moved, to listen, to observe and feel.
April – May Magazine
What people in each country eat says a great deal about their locals. We Cubans have a complex and central relationship with food. Our lives revolve around eating because of the many years of hard work involved in getting provisions. Feeding every day the family has aroused an imagination that borders on magic, frequently on madness. However, there’s always food at our parties, birthdays, celebrations and during all the pleasant times, food is frequently the central theme, or the pretext. We share our food like the most prized treasure and, no matter how little there is, if you get to a Cuban friend’s home at suppertime (even if you haven’t been invited), he will share with you what he has, he’ll just have to “add some water to the soup.”
In this edition of OnCuba Travel we are speaking about food.
When I think about the subject, my grandmother Elena’s black beans immediately come to my mind. She used to live in the countryside, more or less 40 minutes from Havana. My parents, my sister and I used to go see her on Sundays; I used to spend the entire trip thinking of the plate of black beans that was invariably waiting for me. The best black beans in the world!
To accompany them there could be pork, or chicken, and if things were bad: eggs. When it got “really bad,” just rice, but those beans that never stopped smelling of bay leaves, cumin and “ají cachucha” peppers where always present.
The best of the desserts was the guava preserves with white cheese which she used to make herself. My grandfather had a small farm with two or three cows that could only be used to produce milk, therefore grandmother made everything she could with it: white cheese, butter and…the caramel spread!
Food is so linked to our memories that we Cubans dedicate a lot of our conversations to it. My father says we are probably the only human beings on the planet who talk about the next meal while we eat.
Today Cuban food is varied. We don’t eat the same thing at home as in the restaurants, or in the city as in the countryside, or in the east, the center or the west of the country. Gourmet and Cuban cuisine take up special places in the hundreds of paladares scattered across the island…. The smells and flavors start being different.
For me still, each self-respecting Sunday has to smell of black beans with cumin.