Havana Report:  Jazz and the price of eggs

Visiting Havana during the 39th annual Festival Internacional Jazz Plaza sometimes felt a bit like being at a spectacular party in a house that is slowly burning.  The music was intensely beautiful.  Cuba’s downward economic spiral, which has created unprecedented increases in the price of food and transportation, has made daily life – at least for most Cubans - intensely insecure.   The country is also experiencing a massive migratory wave, including musicians, from well-known figures to young ones just starting out.  Yet as a trombone player from beloved jazz fusion band Interactivo told me when I expressed my sadness that the group was no longer together in Havana due to migration, “I still have brothers here.”  

Brothers and the occasional sister graced the many stages of the Jazz Festival, which featured musicians from Cuba, the US, Europe, the Caribbean, and Canada.  Many countries, including Canada, have been the beneficiaries of this migratory musical wave, as recent arrivals join a rich Cuban-Canadian music world.   Cuban trained Quebecois trumpeter Rachel Therrien, for example, along with drummer Michel Medrano and saxophonist Nestor Rodrigues, both Cubans resident in Montreal, gave spectacular concerts in Havana. Therrien was even featured at a National Theatre tribute to Cuban legend Bola de Nieve, playing alongside many Cuban stars.  Edmonton’s Jerrold Dubyk and his jazz band played extremely tight sets to an appreciative young crowd in two venues.  

Despite being drained of so much of its young talent – in music as much as in many other fields - Havana continues to occupy a central place in global music creation.  Perhaps in recognition of the migration of so many musicians in recent years, tributes to Cuban musical history were everywhere at the Jazz Festival.  Rising star Rodrigo García, the son of singer Rochy Amenerio, created a stirring tribute to the trova (folk) music of his parent’s generation, with a dozen well known singers performing some of Trova’s greatest hits, backed by a full orchestra   The tribute to Ignacio Villa (Bola de Nieve) a legendary Cuban pianist from the 1950s and 60s, was organized by young saxophonist Michel Herrera.    I enjoyed yet another tribute to the music of the Buena Vista Social Club, headed by famed tres guitarist Pancho Amat.   It was beautiful, though why a “tribute” was necessary in a country where traditional music never left is a good question.   Musical mixes were also everywhere: I watched American Aaron Goldberg and Cuban Rolando Luna have a twenty-minute piano conversation on stage at the National Theatre, on two pianos.  I also saw a similar mesmerizing conversation between Cuban classical pianist José María Vitier and Afro Cuban jazz percussionist Yaroldy Abreu on congas and cajon.  

Just before the festival began, the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) a central cultural venue, hosted an astonishing assemblage of musicians from New Orleans and Cuba, several of the Cubans non-resident.   Cuban and US based musicians still do not share stages easily or often, and the historical musical ties between New Orleans and Havana made this really a special event.   Cuban journalist Lorena Aleman Massip christened the event “el funk del apocalipsis” – the funk of the apocalypse, coming as it did on the heels of “almost three years of a half-buried national culture.”  Aleman Massip is referring to the exodus of musicians and other cultural figures, but “half buried” explains a lot about life in Havana recently.  A massive gasoline crisis has reduced public transportation and cheap collective taxis.  People are simply not moving around like they used to, they can’t.  Havana’s streets are almost deserted at night.  Along with public transportation, municipal services like garbage collection have been reduced, the results are visible everywhere.    Wildly inflationary food prices show no signs of slowing down.  There are more basics available now thanks to the legalization of small and medium size businesses that import food and basics and sell them at impossible prices.  In almost every block someone has turned a front porch or garage into a little store selling mostly useful things, most imported from abroad.  (Some contain the familiar Costco Kirkland brand name, for example).   Imagine eggs, or powdered milk costing almost half a monthly salary. In one upscale private store, I found Parmesan cheese, previously a rare find in Havana, at a price I could barely imagine my Canadian professor’s salary.  

Music venues have also suffered, and several large state-owned theatres have yet to reopen post pandemic.  What has emerged in their place are some new private bars, where jazz musicians especially perform nightly on exquisite rooftop patios.  Most charge a cover of five hundred to one thousand Cuban pesos (two to five USD, street exchange rate) prohibitive for those earning a Cuban state salary, and far more expensive than state venues were before the pandemic.   I saw a beautiful photo exhibition at the National Theatre during the Jazz Festival. “Havana Jazz Portrait” by photographer Lilien Trujilo Viton featuring photos of musicians at work, most of them taken recently at various Havana rooftop jazz bars.   As Trujillo Viton visually documents the growth of privately owned jazz venues, she captures their beauty as well as their new significance.  They evoke another era of Havana’s musical history, the 1950s, when foreigners were often more easily found in music venues than Cubans.   On the other hand, a musicologist friend told me that for musicians, the new private bars are far less censorious than state-owned venues.  Musicians such as Roberto Carcassés, who recently relocated to Spain, have suffered censorship at state venues by managers who, as he put it in a recent interview,  act as though they are owners, rather than public administrators.   Private bar owners are less concerned about what musicians say about Cuba when they are overseas.  

The Jazz Festival took place in both Havana and Santiago de Cuba.  In Havana, it encompassed a dozen different state-owned venues, and ticket prices were within the realm of affordable. All the concerts I attended included a mix of Cubans and foreigners, mostly Cubans.   Most nights ended with outdoor concerts by wildly popular Cuban dance bands: Los Van Van, Habana d’ Primera, Bamboleo, Alain Pérez.  These concerts ended around 5 am, just in time to scramble for busses to get to work. 

No one I spoke to has much imagination, and certainly little optimism, for Cuba’s future, at least in political or economic terms.  The program notes Rodrigo García penned for his tribute to Cuban trova of his parent’s generation evoked the central place of music in Cuban history: “I grew up believing that music could change the world.”    What will Havana look like for the 40th Jazz Festival next year?  I share journalist Lorena Aleman Massip’s question as she reflected on the delirious night (“crazy and apocalyptic”) when Havana and New Orleans shared a stage:  is a massive collective desire enough to resurrect a half-moribund culture? 

Karen Dubinsky has brought Queen’s University students to Havana for a course on Cuban Culture and Society for 15 years.  She is working on a new book on Cuban Canadian cultural exchanges.  She and Freddy Monasterio are the producers and hosts of Cuban Serenade a podcast on the history of Cuban music in Canada. 

Karen Dubinsky started visiting Cuba in 1978, and has lived in Havana intermittently since 2004. She is a professor in the Department of Global Development Studies at Queen’s University and co-teaches a course in Havana for Queen’s students. She is the author of The Second Greatest Disappointment: Honeymooning and Tourism at Niagara Falls and the co-editor of My Havana: The Musical City of Carlos Varela