Letter from Havana

By David Romtvedt


In June I was in Havana as part of a four piece band that included my friends Mona and Ryc, and my David Romtvedt 4 daughter Caito.  We were traveling under the auspices of Cuba AyUUda, a First Unitarian Church of Portland program meant to build mutual understanding between Cubans and Americans.  The problem with going to Cuba to build understanding is that the United States government has for nearly fifty years conducted a blockade against Cuba that includes forbidding travel to that country by US citizens.  So if you’re American you can’t go to Cuba to do anything. 

But there are loopholes.  The U.S. Treasury department authorizes certain travel “licenses.”  Americans can go to Cuba to attend international conferences, do academic research, or carry out cultural, educational, and religious projects.  Or they used to be able to.  The administration of George W. Bush canceled almost all licenses except those granted to church groups engaged in full time evangelical missionary work.

David Romtvedt 3 So that was us—missionaries.  Granted, our evangelical efforts were colored by our Unitarian sensibilities.  I, for example, am a Buddhist Unitarian and I know several Agnostic Unitarians.  There are Jewish and formerly Jewish Unitarians.  Our neighbor calls them Junitarians.  A Unitarian friend was at a church conference and was asked by another conference attendee which church she belonged to.  My friend said she was a Unitarian and the other attendee said, “Oh, why bother?”

Our evangelical mission was simple—friendship.  That’s how Mona put it and she meant it.  We would make and be made into friends through music.  During our stay, we performed twice at a downtown senior center.  The program occupied a rundown building with the barest of facilities serving some of Havana’s poorest people.  But there was an open courtyard made beautiful by the sky and a covered dining area where elders had lunch.  Another covered area had a TV and a number of rocking chairs.  We began each of our two concerts in the courtyard but as the afternoons went on the clouds built up and there was thunder and lightning that shook the air then heavy rain.  We ran for cover and kept playing, taking pleasure in the momentary relief from the heat.

At Havana’s first Presbyterian Church, we played the Mexican song “La Bamba” with the Cuban group Son Norteño.  The dancers were from Cuba, the United States, Haiti, Guatemala, and Switzerland.  Outside, it was raining again.

On Father’s Day we were part of a three hour long concert in the courtyard of the Sociedad Catalana.  No rain that day.  Our band knew one song from Cataluña—“La Cirereta”—so we let fly only to learn that no one in attendance could speak or understand Catalan.  But it didn’t matter.  For a few hours we were all Catalan.  And we made some friends.  
A Model
On 28th Street between First and Third avenues in Havana’s Miramar neighborhood, there’s a 1/1000 scale model of the city.  It’s called simply La Maqueta—The Model.  La Maqueta is twenty-two meters long by ten meters wide.  It weighs six tons, took ten years to construct, and fills an airy open hall that was built solely to house it.

La Maqueta’s construction team of designers, architects, and model makers wanted their miniature city to look and feel real and so, even though the buildings are apparently too small to show windows and balconies, they include the metal water tanks that are on every rooftop and that provide water for showering when the city system isn’t functioning.  One friend tells me that in summer, he tries to take three or four cold showers a day and he’s still hot.  

La Maqueta is built on thirty-nine separate panels that provide a 220 square meter surface.  Havana is laid out on 144 square meters of that surface.  There’s a bit of ocean included and some land surrounding the city.  But mostly La Maqueta is buildings, each of which is color coded to reveal three historical periods.

Everything built in the Colonial Era from the beginning of the 16th century to the end of the 19th century is brown.  Buildings constructed from 1900 to 1958 are ochre and everything built from the Revolution in 1959 until the present is ivory.

It’s tempting to interpret this symbolically.  So much in Cuban life is colored by suggestion, undercurrents, and innuendo, by conflicting dreams and visions.  The buildings grow ever lighter in color as we come to the Revolution—brown to ochre to ivory.  Ivory is the color of an elephant’s tusk and elephants are among the world’s most long-lived animals.  Perhaps ending with ivory, nearly white–the color of light and truth–means that the Revolution can and will persevere in spite of the United States blockade that now after nearly fifty years is eligible for inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest continuous blockade of one nation by another in history.

One Cuban wag wondered why the model buildings weren’t painted the colors they really are.  That’s how David Romtvedt 2 it’s done in analogous scale models of New York and Moscow—a green building is green and a blue one is blue.  Of course, the wag knew very well that most buildings in Cuba haven’t seen fresh paint in a long time.  Exterior walls often have great flaking areas that reveal splotchy layers of paint going back through the decades.  There might be bits of new paint covering a cement repair job.  On some buildings the paint is entirely worn off.  And some have dabs of new stucco that have never been painted.

If the designers had wanted to accurately represent Havana’s buildings, someone would have spent many hours sitting with a tiny paintbrush placing bits of color in a thousand different spots on the miniature walls—blue, rose, white, gray, or cantaloupe.

Another inaccuracy is revealed by the lack of both ruins and restoration.  Havana is filled with tumbledown buildings but there are no tiny piles of rubble on La Maqueta.  Meant to reveal the forward thinking momentum of the Cuban capital, the model has been seen by some as a monument to Cuban government inefficiency and failure.  But the real Havana isn’t only a display of ruins.  All along the Malecón—the city’s waterfront—there’s remodeling.  Buildings that were falling down around themselves have not been bulldozed to make way for the outlet stores of the global corporations or the high-rise condos of the real estate developers.  Instead, they are surrounded by scaffolding and once lovely two and three story residences are being made so again.  Mixed in with these houses, there are a number of stylish restaurants and bars and, yes, piles of rubble.  La Maqueta reveals neither the collapse nor the renaissance of the city.

Miniature Havana is surrounded by a mezzanine level viewing area where one can stand and look down through a telescope or rented binoculars.  An eager visitor might imagine herself standing on a mountaintop looking down at the real Havana.  There’s something deeply surreal and Cuban about this experience—there’s no mountain around Havana to look down from.  And what about all those buildings with water tanks but no windows or balconies.  It’s beautiful, idealistic, slightly nutty, unsettling, and oddly confident.  You can push buttons and certain parts of the city light up.

Mona, Ryc, Caito, and I went to a performance at La Maqueta given by a children’s guitar orchestra.  We had met the orchestra director Vidal Tarín Palacio and he’d invited us to the concert.  Arriving only a few minutes before the performance began, we found the hall packed not only with the parents of the guitar students but with hundreds of other parents who were there for the presentation of awards being given as part of a multi-school drawing and painting contest devoted to the theme of protecting the natural

When we walked in, Vidal waved and motioned us over.  Because all the seats were taken, he had extra chairs brought in and set up as a new four seat front row.  We felt quite sheepish about this—the foreign North American visitors pushing their way to the front.  The Cubans behind us smiled and shook hands.

“Really, we don’t want to sit in front of you.”  We said.

“No, of course not, but please sit in front.  It’s okay.  You are our guests.  And musicians.  Wonderful.  Please sit down–no problem.  What kind of music do you play?”

There was a clown with big orange hair and shoes that were two feet long, a red ball nose and a floppy hat, a painted on smile and a polka dot tie.  He called the children’s names and handed them award certificates while making jokes and waving his arms.  The woman who directed the project told us art can be a way to heal the damage we’ve done to the earth.  We make art from love, she said, and it is only through love that we will protect the air and water, the trees and fields.  She said it again and again—“only love can save the earth.”

After the presentations for the youngest children, Vidal’s students played.  Then there were awards for older students.  Each set of presentations was followed by the clown leaping forward, calling for un aplauso fuerte—a big hand, and then telling the audience that “no se detiene la música.”  In English, we might say “on with the show.”

Vidal’s student orchestra included twenty-five guitarists, three violinists, and one trumpeter.  They played with feeling and I was reminded of the earlier statements that it was love that would save the earth.

After the concert, we arranged to meet with Vidal at his house for a guitar lesson focusing on Cuban music.  Vidal is serious and dignified, maybe even a little somber.  He sees himself as a shaper of young musicians, that is, of young citizens.  He transmits to them the proper way to interpret music, the proper way to live.  He is their model.

Part way through our lesson we stopped for coffee—intense sweet shots of espresso.  I got to talking with Vidal about “Guantanamera,” the tune that is the unofficial Cuban national anthem.  Everywhere we went, Cubans listened appreciatively to the mix of American musics we played—Cajun two steps and waltzes, Texas polkas and cumbias, Appalachian ballads, swing and jazz tunes, bossa novas, cowboy songs, and Basque-American fandangos.  People told us how wonderful the music was.  But everywhere, after a few tunes, someone would ask, “When are you going to play ‘Guantanamera?’” 

“We don’t really know ‘Guantanamera.’  We’re here to play music from our country.”

The person speaking would nod and say, “Yes, yes, of course, but when are you going to play ‘Guantanamera?’”

Vidal told me that “Guantanamera” could be played using many of the traditional Cuban rhythms–son, guajira, bolero, even cha-cha-cha but whichever rhythm you use, you must play the song with only three chords.  That’s how it was written and to show respect to the composer–José Fernández Diaz–and to the song, it should be played with the simple three chord structure that Fernández Diaz intended.  Many Cuban musicians add a number of other chords more reflective of latin jazz harmonies but this, according to Vidal, is a rotten idea.  It’s not about finding sophisticated modern harmonies but about honoring the music by playing it as it was meant to be played. 

The original lyrics for “Guantanamera” were about a man making a pass at a pretty country girl—la Guantanamera.  No one sings those lyrics anymore.  Instead, people sing words that are based on poems in the collection Versos Sencillos (Simple Verses) by Cuban nationalist poet and independence hero José Martí.  I try to imagine what could be our unofficial national anthem in the United States.  The closest thing might be Woody Guthrie’s “Roll on Columbia, Roll On” which was written in the early 1940s.  The Bonneville Power Administration was producing a movie that would encourage rural northwesterners to electrify their homes and farms and buy their electricity from Bonneville.  The BPA paid Woody Guthrie $270 to write songs for their film and one of those was “Roll on Columbia, Roll On.”  It’s a beautiful song even with the irony of being commissioned as part of a promotional campaign.

José Martí’s Versos Sencillos make up an entire book and so there are hundreds of possible verses for “Guantanamera.”  Some of the ones that are most often sung include:

Yo soy un hombre sincero de donde crece la palma.
Yo soy un hombre sincero de donde crece la palma.
Y antes de morirme quiero echar mis versos del alma.
Guantanamera, guajira, Guantanamera,
Guantanamera, guajira, Guantanamera.

Mi verso es de un verde claro y de un carmín encendido.
Mi verso es de un verde claro y de un carmín encendido.
Mi verso es de un ciervo herido que busca en el monte amparo.
Guantanamera, guajira, Guantanamera,
Guantanamera, guajira, Guantanamera.

Cultivo una rosa blanca en julio como en enero.
Cultivo una rosa blanca en julio como en enero
Para el amigo sincero que me da su mano franca.
Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera,
Guantanamera, guajira, Guantanamera.

Con los pobres de la tierra quiero yo mi suerte echar.
Con los pobres de la tierra quiero yo mi suerte echar.
El arroyo de la sierra me complace más que el mar.
Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera,
Guantanamera, guajira, Guantanamera.

The words mean:  I’m an honest man from where the palm trees grow and before I die I want to send forth these verses from my soul.  My verse is light green but it’s also flaming red.  My verse is a wounded deer seeking refuge on the mountain.  I cultivate a white rose both in January and in July for the true friend who, with candor, offers me his hand.  I want to share my fate with the poor of the earth.  The mountain stream pleases me more than the sea.  Then of course, there’s the chorus— Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera–woman from Guantánamo, country woman, woman from Guantánamo.

It was clear we needed to learn to play “Guantanamera.”

Community Art
David Romtvedt 1 We were invited to play in Muraleando, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana.  About ten years ago, the residents of the area decided they wanted to enliven their neighborhood–especially for young people.  They started a cleanup campaign during which they hauled off seven dump truck loads of trash.  Then they began painting murals on the walls of house after house.  Now artists come from many countries to create murals devoted to peace and international friendship.

One mural includes a quote from Eugene Debs, the American social thinker who was sentenced to ten years in prison for giving a speech in June of 1917 urging resistance to the military draft.  From his prison cell, he ran for president in 1920 and received nearly a million votes.  None of the Cubans had heard of Debs.  When we explained who he was, everyone smiled and nodded.

Many Muraleando projects include tiles that are made in a local pottery studio by foreign visitors.  On the day we made tiles, I talked with the potter who directed the project.  He showed me a pair of large tongs he’d made from scrap rebar.  When we looked at his raku kiln, he told me he’d made the kiln frame also from scrap.  He apologized for the terrible welding job he’d done.

“It looks great.”  I said.  “And the kiln bricks look brand new.  How much does a kiln brick cost here?”

“Oh, maybe two dollars each.”

“They cost even more in the US.”

“Sure, but two dollars is a lot more to us.  Anyway, kiln brick is only available in Cuba for industrial purposes.  You can’t buy it–I mean me or any other potter.  You understand?”

“Yeah, sure, so what do you do?”

“People who work in a factory that uses kiln brick take one home now and again, you know, stash a brick in your lunch box when it’s empty.  Those bricks are sold on the black market and, voila, pottery.”  I was shaking my head when he said, “There’s more–listen to this.  We have a Cuban national craft show.  It’s a very big deal.  The Minister of Culture comes to the opening along with lots of important people in the government.  There are appetizers and wine and talk.  Everyone’s standing around eating and looking at the pots, admiring them.  Nobody says, ‘Hey, where’d you get all the kiln brick to fire these pots?’”  He laughed and we kept rolling out slabs of clay to make tiles.

We laid the tiles out to dry and walked over to a tiny park where Muraleando’s residents have put up a pole and painted the word peace on it in many languages.  Visitors walk seven times around the pole in one direction then seven times back the other direction asking for peace.

After circling the peace pole, we went down the block to the Muraleando community art center where free classes in ceramics, music, papier mache, origami, and creative writing are taught by neighborhood volunteers and University of Havana students.  When we arrived, several children gave speeches of welcome and presented us with origami flowers.  Three young girls lip-synced and danced to an American pop tune.  The youth choir sang two songs.  Then we began.  Near the end of our concert, we played a cowboy swing tune called “Moon over Montana” that we’d arranged with a traditional Cuban montuno descarga—an improvised rhythmic riff—at the end.  Our montuno was slightly cracked.  Still, when we got to it, one of the volunteer teachers, a young man named Mario, jumped up and sang improvised lyrics about the moon and Havana, and love and the end of racism, and friendship between peoples.  We sang the choral response, “La luna sobre Montana.”  Moon Over Montana.

Everyone laughed and cheered.  The younger kids told us that Mario was a rapper.  “Sing one of your songs, please.”  We asked.  

ario did and there was more cheering and we asked for another.  “I will if you’ll play along.”  He said.  So we accompanied Mario on alto sax, guitar, diatonic button accordion, and bass while he sang “La Más Bella,” about historical social injustice and the struggle for racial equality.

That seemed to be the concert’s end but people were reluctant to leave so we played a few more tunes then thanked everyone and put down our instruments.  Still, no one moved.  Mario asked me about rap in the US, especially gangster rap.  Why is American rap socially backward—elevating drugs and crime and street violence?  Why are the lyrics hateful toward women?   And why is this hip?”

Maybe the party was finally over.  People were moving around when another staff member said, “but we haven’t sung ‘Guantanamera.’”  So we did.

“Finally, You”

Vidal’s thirty-two year old son Rayner showed us around Havana.  We hung out in cafes, went dancing, walked up and down the Malecón, and wandered around town.  We went to hear Rayner’s band at the cavernous Casa de la Música, a dance hall crossed with a Las Vegas hotel.  And we went to hear an acoustic trio in a tiny bar.

After our second guitar lesson with Vidal, Rayner walked with Caito and me back from the Plaza de la Revolución to the house where we were staying on the other side of the Vedado neighborhood.  Along the way Rayner talked about a song he’d written called “Amor en poco espacio” that he hoped we’d translate into English.  “If you want to have real success in popular music,” Rayner said, “Your song has to be in English.”  This idea annoyed me but Rayner only shrugged and said, “That’s how it is.”

It was a love song about a man who was madly in love with a woman whose face was covered with thousands of beauty marks.  We told Rayner that in English this image would seem not so much romantic as weird.  Maybe funny.  Americans think of a face enhanced by a single beauty mark.  And for many Americans, there’s a fine line between a beauty mark and a mole.  The lyrics also included references to the beloved’s underwear. 

“This will be a problem in English.”  We told Rayner. 

“Could the beauty marks be freckles?”
     There is that Count Basie song “Freckleface” but the connotations are very different from what Rayner imagined.  We sat laughing about the woman in her underwear and covered with a thousand moles.

“Maybe she’s at the doctor’s office.”

The song we ended up with was called “Finally, You.”  It wasn’t so much a translation as a reinvention of Rayner’s song.  Rayner said he loved the new lyrics but what’s not to love when a person doesn’t speak much English?

Rayner and Caito spent an afternoon at a friend’s tiny studio recording the song—Rayner on guitar, Caito singing.  The next day they invited me to hear what they’d done.  Rayner gave me directions–“The studio’s on 23rd in a big yellow house right next to a white one surrounded by flowers.  There’s no sign but you can go in the front door.  At the back of the foyer you step down and there’s an elevator.  Go up to the third floor.  The metal grate in front of the elevator won’t open but you can see through.  There’ll be a guard.  Tell him you want to go up on the roof.  That’s where the studio is.”

When I got to the house I saw a narrow circular staircase at the side of the entryway so I decided to walk up.  At the top I could see through an open door into what looked like a room at the palace of Versailles.  Instead of a guard there was a teenaged girl who asked me what I was looking for.  I explained and she unlocked the door.  I walked through what I decided must have been the private chambers of France’s Louis XIV, the Sun King, purveyor of absolutist rule and material splendor.  At the edge of the sitting room was another tiny circular stairway that led to the roof.  There were tables and chairs and at the edge of the rooftop, where it might easily be pushed off, there was a two room shed that had been built separately from the house.  The first room housed a couple of computers and sound boards.  There were several fans running at high speed all blowing on the equipment not the people.

Rayner’s sound engineer friend played me the piece then Rayner said, “It’s missing another instrument.  I think it needs button accordion.” 

“What?  Now?”

“Sure.  Why not?”

He opened the door to the studio’s second room, a tiny air conditioned space four steps below the first room, and he wrote me a chord chart of the tune.  The engineer handed me headphones, set up two mics on either side of the accordion, walked back into the first room, and, standing at the small window between the rooms, waved at me to play.  When the song ended, he started it again and waved at me to keep playing.  We did this three times and he said, “That’s good.” 

The next day we went back to hear the finished recording and make a CD Caito and I could take home to the United States but every time we started copying, the computer froze.  “It’s the heat.”  Rayner said.  “That’s funny that you use the word freeze–the heat made it freeze.”  After forty-five minutes we gave up, loaded the song onto a memory stick, took it to a computer at a friend’s house and burned a CD of “Finally You,” our small project devoted to Cuban American friendship through music.

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