Wednesday, October 8, 2008


Walk down almost any street in Santiago de Cuba on any summer day, and you will encounter live music in some fashion. Whether it be a solo trumpeter performing in front of a park bench, or a full son cubano ensemble blaring out of a “casa de música,” in the summer months, Santiago D.C. is just teeming with live music. For clarity: “son,” like mambo, rumba or salsa, is a subgenre of Cuban music. Son, however, originates in the Oriente, and thus is most popular in the Santiago D.C.

Throughout Santiago D.C., there is a mixture of famous, marquee music halls, and smaller, lesser-known venues. Located in central Santiago, just a block from Parque Céspedes, Casa de la Trova (House of the Ballad), is one of the more popular music halls.

One evening, I ventured to Casa de la Trova, with a French friend and a Cuban friend. The band was enjoyable; however, as the Festival del Caribe had ended the night before, there was not much of a turn out, in terms of the crowd. That said, as a drummer, listening to Cuban rhythms is always an entertaining activity.

Below are some assorted pictures from Santiago D.C. My personal favorite is the graffiti “Soy un tambor” (“I am a drum”) that I saw in a park near La Gran Piedra (The Big Rock), a popular attraction on the outskirts of the city. More to come…


Below are a collection of videos from the 2008 Festival del Caribe in Santiago de Cuba. Please see the previous post to read more about festival. The final three videos are from the Burning of the Devil ceremony, which marked the culmination of the Festival del Caribe. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 2, 2008


After spending several weeks in Havana, I departed on a fourteen-hour bus ride to Santiago de Cuba, in the Orient. Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second-largest city, holds a special place in Cuban history, as it was the city where Fidel Castro proclaimed victory of the Revolution in 1959.

Santiago de Cuba has a very laid-back, relaxed feel to it: there is a notable absence of the daily hustle found in Havana. Aesthetically, Santiago almost looks as if it were a Cuban (mini) version of San Francisco: the city is set on a hill that overlooks a bay. The endless rows of pastel colored houses and overhanging telephone lines also radiate a “San Fran” feel.

Every mid-July since 1980, the city hosts la Festival del Caribe, the Festival of the Caribbean – it is also known as the Fiesta de Fuego, the Fire Festival. The festival showcases the music, dance, and other various cultural intricacies of each of the countries in the Caribbean. For one week, Santiago de Cuba is overflowing with people from all of the Caribbean: it is a wonderful means to bridge cultural gaps among the people from different Caribbean countries. Each year, the festival is “dedicated” to one country, and this year, Mexico was country of honor.

The week-long celebration includes countless activities, but the final day of the festival, which features an elaborate parade, is the true highlight of the week. Each country participates in the parade; showing off the country’s respective music and dance. Because Cuba is the host country, throughout the procession, there are representatives from all of the provinces of Cuba – compared to the singular group from every other country.

The procession commences in the late afternoon and stretches until just after sunset. The heart of the festival is located in the plaza in front of Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Asunción.

Most certainly, the music during the procession is outstanding: it is such a neat juxtaposition to hear all of the respective rhythms from each of the Caribbean countries. While each performance has a strong emphasis on dance (and the extravagant costumes that go with it!), the music truly is the focal point of the parade. As true with all parades, drums and percussion are the cornerstone of the musical ensemble.

While I will readily admit that the majority of the rhythms of Caribbean music do not greatly differ country to country, there are many notable differences in style and form among each country’s respective music. It is impossible to pinpoint my favorite performance, although I thoroughly enjoyed the cavalcades of Brazil, Trinidad & Tobago, and the Dominican Republic. The procession of Trinidad & Tobago was especially memorable, as there was a large truck with a full-kit drummer and steel drummer playing on the back.

On that note, I’m sure I will never forget the fire-breathing roller-skaters, or the cross-dressing drummers that played tin cans and boxes. (Words cannot describe; see pictures below…)

As the sun began to set, the streets became more packed and packed: it felt as if the entire city was partaking in the festivities. After the parade-portion of the festival ended, the festivities culminated with the Quemando del Diablo, the Burning of the Devil.

The march from the town hall in the center of the city to the effigy, located near one of the ports about a mile away, was epic, to say the least. Just before 9pm, a twenty-foot, wooden effigy of Lucifer was set ablaze. Drumming, singing, and dancing around the burning flames continued well into the night.

Below are just a handful of pictures from the Festival del Caribe/Fiesta del Fuego. Videos will be posted shortly.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Tucked away in Central Havana – not too far from the Malecon Boulevard –, Callejón de Hamel is one of the truly legendary music venues in Cuba. Unlike the Buena Vista Social Club, a members-only club, Callejón de Hamel (Hamel Alley) is open to the public, and in turn, stands out as of one of the staples of the Cuban music scene.

Founded in the early 1990s by Salvador Gonzales, a local artist, Callejón de Hamel aspires to promote the artistic abilities of the Afro-Cuban population.

The physical space itself is extraordinary: murals, sculptures and assorted artistic-creations are scattered throughout the alley. At times, the vividly bright colors are mesmerizing.

Although events are also hosted on Friday and Saturday, Sunday is the most bustling day at Callejón de Hamel. Every Sunday, different, local rumba artists perform free concerts for the public.

Rumba is one of the most distinct musical genres in Cuba: while it is difficult to define rumba, as it simply needs to heard to be understood, in essence, rumba is a heavily African-influenced Cuban music.

The offbeat rhythms of rumba (as in, rhythms that do not hold a steady two-four beat) make the music very unique, rhythmically. As a drummer, rumba is so engaging because the percussion section is not locked down to a steady beat. That is to say, the rhythm of rumba music is very “free” and “open” – in a sense, the rhythm of rumba has the same sort of mobility that a melody typically enjoys.

The performance I attended was very enjoyable; although, truth be told, it was not the best rumba performance I saw in Cuba. Surely, Callejón de Hamel is an “authentic” Cuban experience; nevertheless, as it is listed on Lonely Planet’s “Must See In Havana” list, the place is, not surprisingly, swamped with tourists.

This over-exploitation explains why the “premier” rumba players no longer perform at Callejón de Hamel. That said, the space is stunningly beautiful, the music is enjoyable, and I have never been to anywhere quite like Callejón de Hamel. I wholeheartedly recommend a visit to the place.

By showcasing the most talented Afro-Cuban artists and musicians, Callejón de Hamel promotes the development and growth of the creative arts in Cuba society. Despite its recent “guidebook celebrity status,” Callejón de Hamel is an integral part of the Afro-Cuban community and well-worth a visit!