You won’t find it hard to hear live music anywhere in Cuba. Bands of roving troubadours set up on street corners in every town and city, earning their living from the donations made by passers-by. Surprisingly, the best place to enjoy Cuba’s music scene is not Havana, but the country’s second largest city, Santiago de Cuba.
Ties to the Buena Vista Social Club
Arguably Cuba’s most famous musical ensemble, the Buena Vista Social Club, was established in 1996 to revive pre-Revolutionary styles of music. Though it took its name from a club in Havana, its most influential members had their roots firmly on the other side of the island.
The legendary Compay Segundo, whose song Chan Chan is instantly recognisable by millions, moved to Santiago when he was nine years old. His first job was performing with its Municipal Band. Fellow crooner Ibrahim Ferrer was born at a dance in a village not far from the city. When his mother died, he was forced to busk on the streets to earn a living from the age of twelve.
Today, though many of its members have gone to the great dance hall in the sky, some still tour as the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club. However, each night you’ll hear the lilting sounds of son, the predecessor to salsa, as well as trova, bolero and guajira late into the evening at the balconied Casa de la Trova. It’s Santiago de Cuba’s most famous music venue – even Paul McCartney showed up here once. Hours vary, but the EGREM website posts daily schedules for this and other music venues.
The French Connection
Less well known is the Afro-Cuban genre of music known as tumba francesa. It arrived in eastern Cuba as a consequence of the slave rebellion which kicked off in Haiti in 1791, then the French colony of Saint-Dominique. In the late 19th century, tumba francesa societies were set up. Today, three remain and one is in Santiago de Cuba.
The music relies heavily on the beat of a drum. Performances begin with a soloist, who sings in a Spanish and French patois called kreyoi cubano. Later, three tumbas, or drums, are introduced. The first, called the quinto, takes the lead; a bass drum known as a tambora is responsible for establishing a rhythm. Other percussion instruments such as the chachá (a shaker) add depth to the sound.
Dancers typically perform three toques – the masón, the yubá and the frenté. In Santiago de Cuba, a fourth exists, called a cinta. It takes its name from the coloured bands known as cintas which are tied around a tree trunk around which the dance is staged. Check local listings to see if there’s a performance by La Caridad de Oriente while you’re in town. Rehearsals often take place on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
Catch a live music performance
There’s no shortage of bars and music venues scattered across town. At the Casa de las Tradiciones, located in the El Tívoli barrio, you’ll find the heady blend of Cuban, African and Caribbean influences leads to the intoxicating variety of son, bolero, trova and rumba. Improvisation and spontaneity are the key; expect to be pleasantly surprised by the programme.
However, you don’t even need to visit one of Santiago’s many dedicated music venues to enjoy the sounds of Cuba. Musicians congregate on street corners and in shady plazas, striking up a tune for anyone who’s passing. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to walk on by – these impromptu performances will be one of the highlights of your trip.