In January 2001 photographer Phil Metzidakis and I traveled to Santiago de Cuba in eastern Cuba, in the company of a group of artists, students, and performers. It was part of an exchange program that allows Americans to learn some of the dynamics and intricacies of Cuban music and dance.
Some of our richest experiences took place in the Casa de la Trova, a world famous informal performance space very much in the spirit of the Buena Vista Social Club.
The Streets of Santiago
There are no new spare parts in Cuba. Things tend not to get thrown away but rather retooled, recycled, broken down into spare parts. Walking along the street in downtown Santiago de Cuba – the country’s second largest city – you’ll see repair shops for electronic appliances and sidewalk locksmiths. And on every other corner there seems to be someone painstakingly refilling disposable cigarette lighters with butane.
Lots of smokers here, lots of exhaust fumes coming out of the flotillas of buses and trucks that badly need valve jobs. And then there are the cars: vintage Pontiacs and Chevys – relics of the fifties, lovingly maintained. You’d think you’d entered an automotive time warp. God knows how many miles those odometers have cranked.
My favorite sidewalk attraction in Santiago was an informal shooting gallery a few enterprising guys had set up, using BB guns and strings of tin cans.
Although the government pays a small stipend to individuals who hold down “officially recognized” jobs, it’s often not enough for people to survive on. Resourceful Cubans have found supplemental income by creating a subculture of unofficial jobs and services, from car repair to cooking.
If you have genuine Cuban pesos, as opposed to tourist pesos, you can buy an inexpensive snack from a street vendor. In Santiago there are relatively few souvenir shops and nothing much to shop for – T-shirts, curios, some clavés (smooth hardwood sticks used as percussion instruments), maracas, and the bottle of rum and box of cigars an educational visa allows you to bring back.
The Casas de la Trova
Americans may only visit Cuba with special visas. Tourists come from South America and Europe mostly, and what draws many of them, including me, is Cuba’s most popular export these days – music. Since the release of the Buena Vista Social Club CD and documentary film, sales of Cuban music have been booming around the world.
Although the Buena Vista club no longer exists, its spirit lives on in the dozens of clubs that can be found in virtually every major Cuban city, including the Casas de la Trova (state-sponsored music salons). One of the most famous Casas is in Santiago, on Calle Heredia, and it became my favorite haunt.
A trova (as in “troubadour”) is a form of ballad. At the Santiago Casa, a cadre of musicians and ballad singers perform nearly every afternoon and evening. There’s a nominal entrance fee for tourists, and Cubans pay a few pesos to get in.
Inside the Casa there are two performance venues. A “main room,” with a slightly raised proscenium and rows of chairs and benches, seats about a hundred people. Another 60 can be entertained in the more informal courtyard area, out in the open air. In between the two is a bar where you can purchase soft drinks. Adjacent to the main room’s stage is a funky greenroom, complete with water cooler and musical graffiti, where performers warm up and tune up.
It’s considered an honor to play at Santiago’s Casa de la Trova, and the quality of the musicianship is high. The audience is a mixture of local people and tourists. The atmosphere is informal. It’s not uncommon for people to get up and dance, particularly in the evening, when the music tends to be a bit more upbeat.
In the afternoon ballads rule, with soloists and duos, accompanied by guitar and clavés, singing tunes from the pantheon of great Cuban poet-composers. Portraits of the greats – Pepe Sanchez, Nico Saquito, and Miguel Matamoros, among others – fill one of the walls. It is Matamoros’s songs that I hear again and again, in particular the haunting “Black Tears” ( lyrics).
Origin of the Casas de la Trova
To the performers who play here and the fans who return, day after day, to hear their music, the present-day Casa de la Trova is a bit like a communal home away from home. But audience and musicians alike speak with great affection of the older, original Casa, on whose foundation this one is built.
Although little more than a shack, the primo Casa had a laid-back charm that still draws sighs of wistful nostalgia from the old-timers. Maria Ochoa, sister of the Buena Vista group’s Eliades Ochoa and one of the Casa de la Trova’s most popular singers, told me, “In the old days, anybody who had a guitar, who wanted to just go on stage and sing a troubadour-style song just did it – it was open.”
“The old place became really popular,” Ochoa continued. “People would spill into the street and fill the street, and so it grew into what it is now. The new building is about five or six years old. But everybody preferred [the old place]. It kind of pulled you in, in a sweet way. There was no programming. Whoever felt like playing that day went. It had a special feeling.”
To sort out the history of this place, I sat down with Luisa Blanca, director of Santiago’s Casa de la Trova. She’s been working in some official capacity with traditional Cuban musicians for the past 33 years.
“The Casa de la Trova was founded as a cultural place on March 19, 1968, because our singers, which we call trovadores, didn’t have a place to sing,” Blanca said. “They used to play in the middle of the streets, parks, squares. There used to be a café here where singers would come too. Not only singers but carpenters, plumbers, people who worked for companies. When they finished work they would gather here and sing together. Sometimes they didn’t have instruments to play.”
“And this happened until the triumph of the revolution in 1959. The government recognized that the musicians had kept the tradition of music alive at the trovas house. So [the government] made a donation of a neighboring barbershop and gave that to the cafe, so that it could expand.”
“They founded the Casa de la Trova precisely on March 19 because that’s the anniversary of the birthday of Jose Pepe Sanchez. He was [one of] the [foremost] early players of traditional Cuban music, and he wrote the first bolero composed in Cuba, named ‘Tristessa – Sadness.’”
“A bolero,” said Blanca, is “a style of music with very romantic lyrics; couples dance very close to boleros. And every March 19, we celebrate national festivals of trovas.”
“The people who founded the cafe that became the Casa de la Trova in Santiago kept Cuban music alive – not just boleros but canción and danzon, which gave birth to son.” (For a taste of son, arguably Cuba’s most popular form of music, listen to the Quinteto de la Trova’s “La Rosa Orientale” audio clip below.)
“This place has great importance, because many of the greatest composers, mainly the first composers of traditional Cuban music, came here to sing for the first time. And others have carried on with much love. They put their heart in what they’re doing,” said Blanca.
Sounds of the Casa
So take a front-row seat and spend a few minutes at Santiago’s Casa de la Trova. There’s no amplification here, and no windowpanes. The sounds of the street waft through the Casa and blend in with the music. After a while it’s as if the buses and ambient conversations are part of the sound mix, part of the experience.
Song: “La Rosa Orientale – Eastern Rose” (4:48) Performers: Quinteto de la Trova; Composer: Ramon Espigul
Song: “Guantanamera – Woman From Guantanamo” (4:05) Performers: Xiomara Vidal, Irene Jardines, Lourdes Martuto, Araelis Romero, Daisy Isalque, and Nancy Lavanino Guitarists: Gabino Jardines and Raul Campos Composer: Joseito Fernandez, incorporating lyrics from José Marti, Cuba’s national poet
Song: “Lagrimas Negras – Black Tears” (4:32) Performers: Latin Voices; Composer: Miguel Matamoros
Song: “El Fiel Enamorado – The Faithful Lover” (4:36) Performers: Informal Ensemble; Composer: Francisco Portela
The View from the Stage
Many of the performers at Santiago’s Casa de la Trova are classically trained. All the female vocalists are former members of state-sponsored choirs and madrigalistas.
Latin Voices and the Informal Ensemble (hear audio clips above) are good examples of daytime entertainment at the Casa de la Trova. Along with the beautiful harmonies, listen for the flawless guitar work of Gabino Jardines and Enrique Monet. The Quinteto de la Trova (hear audio above) is more typical evening fare. At the time of this writing (Summer 2001), they are on tour in Canada.
Many of Cuba’s musicians are justifiably wary of being taped. In the past their performances have been recorded without their knowledge or consent, albums have been released, and they have received no share of the royalties. U.S. record companies must do business with Cuban musicians indirectly, via international partners.
All the musicians, and indeed all the Cubans I spoke with, yearn for the day when relations with the U.S. can be normalized. In the meantime, as difficult as things can be in Cuba, it was great to experience it without the trappings of Americanization – the inevitable McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Starbucks franchises.
Speaking Through Song
Cubans are often gregarious people, and a microphone can open many doors via that most intimate of mediums – sound. Paradoxically, however, a microphone tends to keep you and your personality at a certain distance from your subject. And no one in Cuba is likely to really open up.
There is a tacit agreement that certain subjects are just not broached. Even so, art, especially music, can successfully avoid the dangerous shoals of any literal conversation. It can cut to the chase of what really matters – usually matters of the heart.
All the passions, fears, pathos, resignation, and frustration are there – without the particularities of politics. Unencumbered by words or literal meanings, you can read between the lines and feel the intent, like a map of the heart.
— Jim Metzner
One in a series of archival articles originally produced in 2001.
My thanks to all the musicians at Santiago de Cuba’s Casa de la Trova, Jack O’Neil, Robert Mann, Rob Norris, Omu, Cutumba, Chris LaMarca, and most especially, to translator and photographer Phil Metzidakis.
For nationalgeographic.com: design by Jennifer Kolansky, programming by David Logwood.
Map of Cuba by National Geographic Maps.
Pulse of the Planet is made possible by the National Science Foundation.
This feature originally appeared on NationalGeographic.com and appears here with their kind permission.
© 2001-2007 Jim Metzner Productions. All rights reserved.