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!

Monday, September 15, 2008


One muggy afternoon, I found myself on Calle Obispo, a rather busy street in Central Havana. As I was walking leisurely, ice-cream cone in hand, I stumbled upon a music shop, Longina Música, that sold both records and instruments.

As I entered the store, I immediately saw a series of ornately crafted drums. These drums could easily be mistaken for sculptures: one drum depicted a little man whose head was the top of the drum, another drum was of a screaming face, and another had complex lattice of woodwork around the body of the drum. It is too difficult to describe phenomenal details of these drums; I would recommend scrolling down to the bottom of this entry to see the photographs.

The master behind these ingenious creations is Eduardo Cordova Reyes, a native of Havana. From an early age, Mr. Cordova studied music, most specifically drums and percussion. At some point in his late teens, he became interested in wood crafting; and eventually, he fused his two passions, and began crafting drums and percussion instruments.

Most interestingly, Mr. Cordova uses his dreams as inspirations for the visual blueprints of his instruments. Through an academic lens, this concept is pretty fascinating to think about; nonetheless, after viewing some of Mr. Cordova’s drums, it all makes perfect sense. His most famous drum is entitled, “El Tambor de las Siete Bocas” (“The Drum With Seven Mouths”) – not the most creative of titles, but the fact that his drums even have names underscores the notion that his drums actually are more artistic than practical. As the name indicates, the drum has seven different faces; and actually, there are seven different (drum) heads on the instrument, so the player can play on any of the seven heads.

Over the course of this past year, I have encountered some amazing drums; and with that in mind, I can firmly assert that Mr. Cordova’s creations have the most intricate craftsmanship I have seen. The drums are more akin to artistic sculptures than musical instruments: he truly has crafted some very special instruments. According to the music shop owner, Mr. Cordova has won several international awards for his craftsmanship.

Much to my dismay, Mr. Cordova was out of town – at a workshop in Italy. I was able to chat with the music shop owners about Mr. Cordova's work, so I was able to learn a bunch about him. A couple years back, a Cuban magazine called Tropicana Internacional, published a pretty extensive interview with him; and somewhat ironically, the article was entitled, “Cordova: el arte del tambor” (or, in English, “Cordoba: The Art of the Drum”).

If you would like to learn more about Mr. Cordova’s drums, definitely check out his MySpace account, http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendID=102788605, or you can read this article about his life, http://www.archivocubano.org/ravelo.html. Just a heads up, the latter is only in Spanish…

Sadly, I was unable to purchase a drum, as I was weary of bringing back anything from Cuba to the States. That said, I was blown away by what I saw, and those memories are enough for me…

Longina Música is located on Calle Obispo No. 360, between Calle Habana and Calle Compostela.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


After my brief stay in London, I flew to Havana, Cuba, for the final leg of my Bristol Fellowship. On the plane ride back to my usual hemisphere, it was hard to believe that my year of research was almost complete.

Like my transition from Japan to India, at first, I had a bit of difficulty adjusting to life in Cuba. Simply put, I had had such a positive experience in Morocco – both in terms of my research and my social life – that I actually did not want to leave Morocco at all! Either way, after a restless flight, I found myself in downtown Havana.

Truth be told, I am not in love with Havana. While the city is aesthetically pleasing, there is so much hustle in Havana that it can be quiet a hassle to walk the streets alone. Needless to say, it is a fascinating city in itself; it truly is like stepping into a time capsule, as the majority of the cars are from before 1959 (not to mention most of the buildings look like they have not been restored for five or six decades).

Access to the internet in Cuba is limited, at best, making it impossible to update my website while I was in the country. Furthermore, as a citizen of the United States, my visit to Cuba was, technically, illegal; so I did not want to attract any unwanted attention.

Over the forthcoming days, I will post more on my musical experiences on the island. Without a doubt, I attended some incredible shows; I can boldly assert that Cuban rhythms are the most enjoyable in the world. Videos and (more) photographs to come…

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Just hours after the post-party for L’Boulevard Festival ended, I flew from Casablanca to London – in a not-so-direct manner, as I had a layover in Rome. I spent three days in London, in order to gather the proper documentation to enter Cuba. (Actually, the gap between the flights turned out to be essential, as my bag was lost by the airline!)

Coincidentally, Radiohead, one of my all time favorite bands, was in town, playing two shows in Victoria Park; and naturally, I attended both concerts. I actually got a free ticket to the second show; perhaps I just have very good music-karma.

While these experiences had nothing to do with the fellowship per se, Radiohead’s drummer, Phil Selway, has always been at the forefront of pushing the creative envelope for drums and percussion. Phil is best known for his integration of acoustic and electronic drums. Furthermore, unlike many popular rock drums, Phil often employs odd time signatures to his beats.

Both shows were outstanding – I have no doubts that Radiohead are one of the best live bands out there, if not the best. The highlight of both shows came during “Bangers & Mash,” as Thom Yorke, the lead singer, played drums on an auxiliary kit and sang. Most definitely, the prospect of two drummers on one song makes me smile.

And, might I add, Thom has some serious chops! Enjoy the photographs.