Our first day in Varadero, Cuba we were standing on the sidewalk outside an outdoor café listening to lively Latin rhythms. Seven musicians, squeezed into an alcove against the building, projected loudly into the patio and the sound spilled out into the street. A woman walked over from her hotel, beer in hand, on the way to the beach. She stopped to listen. Since I was sharing the same general space as her, she commented in my direction in Spanish with a tone of surprise. “Look at that – seven musicians, even a contra-bass, and all of them happy. It’s so unlike Argentina.” Her foreign language just kind of washed over me, not sticking, until she mentioned my beloved Argentina. I wanted to know more about what she thought, to engage her in a dialogue well beyond my limited Spanish skills. With bits of the two languages we had in common, we briefly contemplated together. Why did music with the same black roots, evolving in two different countries, but with the same language, within different (but both difficult) political situations, turn out so different? One was simple and happy; the other, complex and melancholy. Maybe the threat of being ‘disappeared’ was far greater in Argentina and the angst was expressed in tango lyrics. Maybe the sun and rum makes one just want to gyrate on and on to monotonous salsa rhythms.
The woman repeated over and over, as if awestruck, as if she couldn’t quite believe it, how happy they seemed … how happy … Are they? What makes people happy?
Candombe, canyengue, milonga, all still showing their black roots, all up-beat, lively and joyous, took a turn about a century ago and became ‘white-washed’. The more staid and less life-positive tango survived. And, in the warmer island atmosphere tango was introduced in the 20s but eventually fizzled out while the Habanero rhythms lived on.
Music (and subsequently dance) is a creative expression of the heart and soul of people and their culture – whether happy or tortured. Although it makes one feel better to express in any form, those who create and express don’t always necessarily appear happy nor live a happy life. Making music of any kind makes one feel better for the doing of it, the listening of it and the dancing to it. Music is the universal language. Music helps build community.
The fellows in the alcove looked like they were enjoying themselves. Later, they expressed much gratitude when my partner (a musician who likes to support and appreciate other musicians) generously tipped them. Two main members of the group came over to us to introduce themselves and extend their thanks and wishes for our continued good health.
During a short visit to Havana I made a pilgrimage to the Casa del Tango. It shares a space with Salsa. We were greeted by a young woman from the Salsa side and when I told her I was only interested in the tango she went back and sat down without a word. There were a handful of young people on the Salsa side chatting and dancing. The Tango side was filled with memorabilia from almost 100 years of history in the city, but no music playing and no schedule of lessons. A web search promised a weekly performance on Monday nights. We had to return to Varadero so I never discovered if the demonstration occurred.
One evening, my partner called over the trio serenading in the dining hall and tipped them to play while he scrutinized a guitar, method and chording the likes of which he, in all his years of music, had never seen. The four became fast friends. The two guitarists didn’t seem particularly happy nor unhappy but the Afro-Cuban percussionist appeared quite unhappy, apparently suffering from sciatic pain.
There seems to be a belief (maybe it’s propaganda) that Cubans are happy people. Most of the Cubans that I came in contact with were in the tourism/service industry and dealing with impatient foreigners with attitudes of entitlement. I witnessed a lot of patience, not so much happiness. Our tour guides, drivers and hosts seemed as pleasant as people you’d find anywhere else.
We all make our own happiness; it has little to do without our external circumstances. It’s an individual characteristic and/or state of being. It’s not a ‘national’ state of being. Maybe musicians, as a group, are happier than most because they have chosen something to do that they love. But, I don’t think that Cubans in general are any happier (or unhappier) than people anywhere else in the world.