Capsule version: artistically just wonderful. Sociologically, less so; but some very good stuff nevertheless. Onward fearless reader …
RANDOM OBSERVATIONS -- OR MAYBE NOT SO RANDOM …
· People are fascinated when I tell them I live at some 2500 metres above sea level.
· The “taxis americanos” –“American” taxis. I.e., those Detroit cars from the ‘40s and ‘50s which so tapped into some vein of USian nostalgia when Rye Cooder’s ineffable Buenavista Social Club hit the scene. I was told that they are now legal –that is, people can get a license to drive them as taxis (the government always gets it cut, whatever its ideology, apparently)—which is good for the economy; but on the other hand it is AWFUL in terms of pollution. Which in general is pretty bad: a vehicle passes belching clouds of black smelly smoke and you practically asphyxiate, agghh.
· In the Customs Declaration you fill out on the plane, one of the things one must declare is Pornography.
· THERE IS NO PICANTE! When I ask for a bit of chile pepper or salsa it prompts an almost terrified reaction ;=))
Commentaries of César, the guide who picks me up at the airport, who does speak Russian (I figured him for 55-60 years old):
· For a while you didn’t see a single Russian here. Now they are coming in droves. “One must visit Cuba to see socialism still in action”.
· They don’t teach Russian in the schools any more; those who did speak it are losing it now for lack of practice. Now, in the schools, they teach English.
This is definitely something new: it seems cellular technology has arrived in Cuba. Or at least it’s now commercially available – at least in La Habana, and for the people who can afford it. The people I asked said that it’s terribly expensive but yes, it’s useful and it’s an improvement.
Yes, it has changed, and a lot. But also, not so much. Completely possible that this is a face of La Habana which I didn’t see before. (Altho’ I don’t think so: I wandered about in La Habana Vieja --Old Havana— in 2002 when I was last here and it wasn’t anything like what I’m seeing now.) I sense that somehow more value is being given now to the past. Perhaps art has always known this, in a way. I am dying to see the casco histórico, the Old City.
I arrive pretty exhausted from having arisen at 4am; it’s been a long time since my very light breakfast. The before-mentioned señor César, from the tourist agency which seems to collaborate with the Festival, came to pick me up at the airport. He brought me to the hotel. Which is a delight: one of those buildings from the early 20th century, very prettily restored, on the very edge of Old Havana.
I get oriented a bit; take a shower; and hunger sets in. The concierge recommends the Hotel Sevilla, right around the corner. It’s expensive: a baguette-type ham sandwich costs some 80 Mexican pesos (which is a lot). And it’s not a baguette of the kind to which I’m accustomed in Mexico: no lettuce, tomatoes, onions, all the rest. The bread is delicious, all warm with the cheese melting on it. I ask about the possibility of some hot sauce and the waiter visibly shudders.
What connections between Mexico and Cuba! The trio which is the Live Music sings standards like Guantanamera … and María Greever melodies (these are standard, and gorgeous, tunes which are part of every singer’s repertoire in Mexico). This sympathy between Mexico and Cuba should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been in either country. It blooms in part from the shared European -and particularly from the Spanish- heritage. The part of Mexico which, I feel, it’s always been so difficult for the US to acknowledge and understand – in part, I believe, because the US is still grappling with its own European heritage. All the architecture is redolent of Moorish influences, like what I saw in Sevilla. The floor of the patio where I eat my sandwich is of clay tile, the pieces interspersed with bits of the painted Talavera tile as they do in Puebla and all over Mexico: I feel as though I could be in Mexico.
|The view from one hotel-room window: the Parque de la Revolución|
|The view from the other hotel-rom window.|
The sandwich is accompanied by some vegetables: green beans, beets, roasted red peppers. All canned. Not bad, but canned. My first reminder of Cuba’s agricultural poverty as compared with Mexico.
I order a limonada (limeade) to go with my baguette and the flavor of the lime is different from the Mexican limes I’m used to.
In the Mexico City airport I changed 650 Mexican pesos for US$50. Here, they are worth 43.40 CUC, the present currency of this island. I now see they won’t last any time at all.
The waiter, in our conversation, comments about Central Americans --to butter me up? really his convictions? – that Central Americans let themselves be humiliated, that they don’t have the same pride and guts as Cubans and Mexicans. He says nothing about the terribly miserable and sad history of those countries, who’ve been condemned to one humiliation after another.
CONCERT ON SUNDAY … in a former Spanish casino, now Palacio de Matrimonio (literally, Marriage Palace) and with a concert-hall: the Sala Ignacio Cervantes. Dazzling acoustic. One of those programs where there’s a little of everything.
What sticks in my memory … Giving a hug to the tireless director of this Festival, Guido López-Gavilán, after –yikes!—ten years … which seem like ten minutes because I swear he doesn’t look a year older; meeting Jorge Beritán, who takes care of the Festival’s Public Relations; and then … the young trio (fl-vc-pf) for their commitment, their ensemble, their interpretation: it’s clear that they’re interested in doing more than just playing the notes, they want to offer something more. And they do. Unusual to hear this kind of interpretive commitment on the part of such a young ensemble. Maestra Rosario (I remember her from my two previous visits). Swiss flutist Antipe de Stella with an astonishing piece for solo alto flute by Yoshihisa Taïra of Japan. In this and in the 4pm concert I’d attend on Monday, the level of the Cuban performers –almost all quite young— is uniformly high. I heard one or two out-of-tune notes, but no more. As in my first visit I am astounded by the level of training.
Hordes of cyclists in the hotel lobby. According to the bellman they are going around the entire island: some 1,000 kilometers.
In the gardens of the UNEAC –Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (Cuban Unión of Artists and Writers) where they bring me to have some practice-time, on the same Estonia piano on which I swear I rehearsed with Patrice Michaels ten years ago; I see a cat, a chocolate-colored car who comes out to sun itself in the beautiful gardens. It must live here because although it’s thin it doesn’t have that starving look of a street-cat, and it seems to feel at home here.
|In the gardens of the UNEAC, a portrait of the great Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén|
|entrance to the music offices of the UNEAC|
|These beautiful, peaceful gardens right in the middle of La Habana|
Near the hotel where I’m housed –Paseo del Prado con Colón, on the very edge of Old Havana— I see quite a bit of construction and TONS of restoration. From what they tell me, the UNESCO money (which comes to La Habana because some eight years ago it was named Patrimonio de la Humanidad, a World Heritage Zone, just like the magical city of Guanajuato, Mexico in which I proudly make my home) is what makes this possible. There is no other money to do this.
Night of Monday 26
I’m struck yet again by the presence in concert music of popular music elements, how porous that membrane is between the two. Cf. Suite a Compay Segundo –homage to the great singer- by Erden Hernández, for guitar with ensemble of winds. I suppose one could call this nationalism but I suspect that would be too facile. My intuition tells me that it has to do with something much more subtle –as is, for example, Horacio uribe’s use of certain folkloric elements in his music, not as a call to nationalism but rather for their rhythmic richness in a particular moment of the music. This goes much further but I’ll get into it some other day.
The eminent Mexican musicologist Yolanda Moreno Rivas writes of how a kind of pure nationalistic current was useful in its moment; but how with time it became a limiting element for the music. I don’t recall at this moment whether she talks about this in Rostros del Nacionalismo (Faces of Nationalism) or in Música del Siglo XX en México (Twentieth-Century Music in México) and haven’t time to track down the citation (although I believe it’s the latter book). I believe a nationalistic reference isn’t necessarily timeless; it may refer very specifically to a certain epoch, and thus it may not necessarily be recognisable for the succeeding generations. I really do want to write more about this … we’ll see when!
No one criticises the regimen, at least that I’ve heard. But the kid who interviews me the day before my concert comments on the sense of isolation because they can’t download large files of audio or video from the Internet; or sometimes even scores. He turns off his recording device before he says this: coincidence? I say that over time there’s no way to limit access to information, and even less to art. I think that’s true: Solzhenitzyn’s writing got out of the USSR, as did Shostakovich’s music; to cite two important examples. And now even less, with the Internet, even with these problems. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.
Various responses when I comment that my last visit was ten years ago. “Ten more years of decay”, says more than one person, in a disgusted tone. I ask one man –an educated person and in the arts world— if he doesn’t see improvements. Yes, he says, but only in certain parts of La Habana; the less-touristic areas are more deteriorated than ever. I ask a 20-something taxi driver how he sees all the restoration activity (because of the UNESCO money). He says very emphatically that in his view it’s exceedingly important, because “this is our history and our vision of the future”. Nevertheless, he opines that it’s urgent to move the economy along because it is exhausting to spend so much energy to resolve niggling little things. We talk a little about the importance of hope, that you can’t get discouraged; about what an inspiration it was for Mexico when Brazil paid off all its external debt, how Lula made it a goal to eradicate profound poverty and in large measure achieved that. When he lets me off near the hotel he says, with a big smile on his face, “It’s really been a pleasure talking with you señora, may it go very well with you”.
I see how Guido López-Gavilan and his Festival team have to struggle –just one transport, for example, for all the various visiting artists— and I think, Here too the government needs some educating about how the arts can function as a stimulus to the economy, not to mention the spirit … Here, for goodness’ sake!
Tuesday 27 November
I jot in my notebook:
“In just a little while, my concert, the première here in Cuba of five pieces of Song of the Monarch. Tomorrow AM, my talk about the project and in the afternoon, two concerts. I hope there’s time to go to Old Havana! If would be cool to go with some other people but if it doesn’t work out I’ll go and wander around by myself as I’ve done so often”.
So OK, my concert. An incredibly beautiful space, the Lesser Basilica of the Ex-convent of St Francisco of Assisi. Yet another sign of how the recuperation of this city’s history is bearing fruit. Extraordinary acoustic, one could even say divine, haha. They’ve brought over the 9-ft Steinway from the Teatro Amadeo Roldán, bless them, a gorgeous instrument. It is the first time in my life, I think, that I’ve seen a woman piano technician. She is a tall, extremely thin woman, silent and dignified, almost in another world.
|The long view ...|
|St Francis with an ethereal dove on his shoulder ...|
Outside, on the street ...
And the concert ...
An incredibly warm reception, from a public not only multigenerational but also, from what I saw, multinational. It seems that no one doesn’t love these pieces. The organizers told me that because of the limited funding situation I was limited to a 30-minute program … so I battled mightily and came up with one that in that tiny time represented at least some of the magnificent diversity of music that has resulted from my request to 17 composers of six countries:
Marcela Rodríguez “Todo en fin, el silencio lo ocupaba” (2010)
(México, 1951) [Musa: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz]
Horacio Uribe El viaje nocturno de Quetzalpapálotl (2010)
Tomás Marco Nymphalidae (2010):
(España, 1942) Tres mujeres para la mariposa Monarca:
La mariposa de Malinche; La mariposa de Sor Juana;
La mariposa de Adelita
Paul Barker La Malinche (2010)
(Gran Bretaña, 1956)
Silvia Berg El sueño … el vuelo (2010)
(Brasil, 1958) [Musa: Frida Kahlo y su Casa azul]
Toda la música encargada por Cervantes para Canto de la Monarca
Estreno en Cuba de toda la música
Marcela Rodríguez piece is full of mystery, tension, and those eloquent and famous silences of Marcela’s –famous, at least, since Entre las ramas rotas (Among the Broken Branches, the extraordinary piece she wrote for Rumor de Páramo)--; it closes with an enormous fortissimo cluster in the lowest part of the piano, which makes not only the instrument but the whole hall vibrate like a gigantic organ. Then Horacio Uribe’s El Viaje Nocturno de Quetzalpapalotl (The Night Voyage of Quetzalpapalotl); Quetzalpapalotl is a creature of the animistic Nahuatl religion, half-bird and half-butterfly, into which metamorphose women who die in childbirth and warriors who perish on the field of battle. Those three miniatures of Tomás Marco (Spain), in spite of their great brevity, are packed full of layers of subtlety and meaning … the more I play them the more I’m aware of this.
Uribe, Berg, and Barker are the ecstatic pieces of Monarca: they transport us to some other region. Barker’s La Malinche, of almost Lisztian virtuosity, is his own version of a Concert Aria from his ‘80s opera of the same name. Berg’s El sueño … el vuelo (The Dream … the Flight) is one of those pieces which no one is the same after hearing. Even people who don’t know the story behind the piece sense that something extraordinarily special has happened. OK, OK, someday soon I will tell that story. Remind me if I forget, dear friends and fans!
With all due modesty I report that many people commented on my interpretaion, and the fact that I played all the pieces from memory except Rodríguez. I was happy.
I include this link because my own photos of that exquisite hall –not to
speak of those taken by a very amiable member of Maestro Guido’s staff-- turned
out MISERABLY. If I’d known that
Andrew Rudin was such a sensational photographer I’d have asked him to be at my
side during the entire week ;=)):
|Post-concert, with (L-R) Jorge Beritán and Maestro Guido López-Gavilán|
Encounters with colleagues: Cruz López de Rego, rudin, reise
One of the things I like most about the Festival environment is the interaction with colleagues from other countries and other areas of music. I have colleagues who arrive, do their thing –at least a concert, maybe a class or whatever- and bye-bye. It’s true, sometimes one’s schedule is such that there’s simply no time to do more … but I vastly prefer to immerse myself in the particular ecosystem of the festival in question if I possibly can: go to other concerts, chat with colleagues and students. In this case it was an enormous pleasure to meet composers Cruz López de Rego of Spain and Andrew Rudin and Jay Reise of the US. I knew of López de Rego through Cecilia Piñero but we’d never been in touch. Beside her work as a composer she is currently president of Mujeres en la Música (Women in Music) based in Madrid. What a shame that I had to leave on Friday 30, that very evening her music was scheduled to be presented!
I knew that some colleagues from the US would be there, playing works of George Crumb, and supposedly they knew that I’d be playing; but it was not until my (first) half of the concert was done and they came backstage to congratulate, that I realized that one of them was US composer Andrew Rudin; and he, that the pianist was Ana Cervantes! We’d met through some musical discussions on FB and it was somewhere between comical and magical to meet that night in, of all places, La Habana.
I knew nothing (shame, shame) of Jay Reise and it was a real pleasure to hear his piece El vuelo de la golondrina (The Flight of the Swallow) for flute and piano in the concert of Orchestra 2001 (O2001). This ensemble, effectively, has specialized in the oeuvre of George Crumb: and their concert consisted of two works of his (Dream Secuencia, 1976 and La noche de las cuatro lunas, 1969), with Reise’s piece in between. Reise and Rudin each had studied with Crumb, each in his own fashion; thus their presence in the Festival. In contrast with Reise, Rudin never formally studied with Crumb –who joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) after he had graduated; but in his part of the O2001 talk the following morning he talked about how at a certain point in his creative life Crumb became a very strong inspiration for him. Reise, in contrast, was a university student of Crumb and now directs the School of Music at UPenn.
Airport and city dogs
Is it my imagination? Lately it seems that the baggage takes EONS to arrive. Now that I have my two canine companions, by the time I’m returning from a tour I miss them an awful lot, so I have taken to passing the interminable wait for checked luggage observing the dogs whose job (and play) it is to sniff the arriving luggage. The first time this happened was arriving into the Mexico City airport from Brazil in September 2010, ca. 6am. It was a blonde Lab, her tail wagging enthusiastically and her eyes so alert and intelligent; her human companion looked like a real tough guy, to judge from his swat-type outfit, lean and tall and deadly serious … but there was a moment in which my gaze intercepted his as they connected with his dog’s eyes, and suddenly he seemed much more human, as the ghost of a smile flitted over his mouth.
In Cuba, the same interminable wait. Here, the dogs are not Labs or Dobermans or any of those tough-guy dogs, but ¡¡Cocker Spaniels!! Adorable ones with long hair. There are three of them, each with a human companion. There they are, with their fluffy tails wagging, paws with the same silky fur –like Hobbit feet?, I ask myself in my sleep-deprived state- with great delicacy sniffing where their humans indicate.
In the beginning I was struck by the fact that I saw no dogs. Later I realized that they were almost ubiquitous but more, it seemed, in Old Havana, and not where I was housed. I was astonished at how well cared-for they looked: silky pelts, very friendly, good-humoured. None of that famished and mangy look which often (although less lately) we see in Mexico; where , the truth be told, there is more food. It’s very clear that someone is taking care of them: they’re not street dogs.
In Mexico, on the way home, it’s a Beagle, very polite and lively and with a kind of light knapsack on her back; her name, according to her human, is Chevy.
Wednesday morning, bright and early, my talk. It’s in the UNEAC, on The Process of a Commissioning Project. It was a small audience but a very attentive one. I talked for about a half hour, a version of my article which was just published in the Journal of the IAWM (Journal of the International Alliance of Women in Music). The main points: the selection of a good central axis for such a project and the differences, in that respect, between Monarca and Rumor; the administrative and logistical aspects in addition to the central creative work; but more than anything, the idea of that singular relationship between each composer and the “Muse” which she or he elected. It doesn’t sound like much but it’s consumed the last three years of my life!
I started out saying that I wanted this to be interactive, encouraging the audience to come at me with questions and commentaries. And so it was: most of the people who came were young composers. We talk about inspiration -- some of them are quite young— and I, of the parallels between my need to be with the instrument every day and the importance, for them, of being with the pencil –or meta-pencil- every day. I mention that poem of Thomas Lux which I so love, An Horation Notion. They ask, but if you don’t have the inspiration of a theme which an interpreter like you proposes? Well, I say, then you yourself must invent it. The important thing is to be with the work every day.
So The Question arises, the one which always does: [in the course of a commissioning project] Have I received pieces which I didn’t like? And what do I do?
I say, Yes. With Rumor there were two pieces with which, in spite of my very best efforts, I was never able to bond: one which (I had to conclude) was not written for me, and another which was not written for the piano (marimba, at the time, was my conclusion). I told the story of when I did a similar talk at CalArts in 2009 in which, responding to the same question, I spoke of how I battled with that issue. That with the Rumor pieces I felt a kind of paternal responsibility, as though –having invited these pieces into the world—I had the responsibility to maintain them in the world until they attained the age of majority, or something of the sort. I recorded those pieces and I believe I did a respectable job –I recounted—but I never, never had FUN playing them. In that moment, there in CalArts, I heard a little voice, sweet and courteous, speaking up from the back of the group of some 90 students. It was composer Anne LeBaron --whose extraordinary Rumor piece, Los murmullos, still garners rave reviews everywhere I play it—and she says, Well, you could always give those pieces up for adoption, couldn’t you?
An Epiphany Moment. It sounds crazy, but I’d never thought of it exactly that way before. In one fell swoop she liberated me from the weight of that paternal responsibility.
Curious, how that question –what do I do if I get a piece which I don’t like— is always posed with great delicacy, as though suddenly we were talking about some very intimate and sensitive issue. Well, think about it – we are. I guess this is something else I need to write about.
They ask me, at the end, How does the composer know if his or her work will please the interpreter? Oh my goodness, now we surely have strayed into very sensitive territory. Well let’s face it, I say, there are no guarantees; and yes, it’s not easy. This is why I pick my repertoire with enormous care – and by the way, that’s the case whether the composer is living or dead. If it doesn’t resonate with me, how the hell am I going to communicate it effectively to the listener? I emphasize that for me the style or language of a piece matters not a fig: what DOES matter is that authentic voice about which I’ve written before. It’s the only way I can be faithful to the composer’s voice -- and to my own as an interpreter. So I say to them, I think that you as composers must take into account the voice of the interpreter who asks you for a piece, to the extent possible.
Various of them come up to me afterwards to say that no one talks about such issues and that my talk was very helpful. I hope so! This time I was concentrating so much that I totally forgot to ask someone to take photos, SORRY!
Casa de las Américas
That Wednesday evening, I returned to Casa de las Américas. Casa, for those who may not know, is a kind of casa –home—to artists all over the Iberoamerican world: writers, visual artists, musicians. It lends its space to the Festival de Música Contemporánea de La Habana (the Contemporary Music Festival of Havana). During the week of the Festival, this year, there are two concerts every day, one at 4pm and the other at 6 or 7pm. This Wednesday the 4pm concert was of electronic and electro-acoustic music. I have to say that almost all of the music impressed me greatly, in particular Juan Piñera’s piece Del espectro nocturno for guitar and tape, of which Luis Manuel Molina impressively performed the guitar part and which astonishingly –considering how fresh it sounded— dates from 1986; and the piece Ochosi of gifted young composer Maureen Reyes Lavastida. Keep this young composer on your radar!
The second concert took place in the Sala Che Guevara, another of those a-little-bit-of everything concerts: the Trio of Violas (Russia-Mexico-Cuba) with music of Boaz Avni, José Loyola, Frank Bridge y Dmitri Dudín; the impressive guitarrist Joe Ott with music of Joaquín Rodrigo (not exactly contemporary but certainly part of the canon); amazing young percussionist Eilyn Marquetti with works of Nebojsa Zivkovic (Serbia) and Roberto Sierra; and finally a young string orchestra whose conductor Daiana García can’t possibly have celebrated more than 25 birthdays. Bravi tutti!
It was in Casa de las Américas that I performed on my first visit to Cuba in 2001, under that enormous and beautiful árbol de la vida (Tree of Life), a gift to Casa from the government of Mexico. An absolutely Soviet piano, I suppose yet another Estonia; I remember thinking that it was a piano worthy of Bella Davidovitch, with her wretler’s arms. (It makes me giggle now, to think that just a few weeks ago I played an Estonia in the city of Aguascalientes in Mexico: badly maintained, badly cared-for, a very ungiving instrument in the words of Anne LeBaron, who accompanied me on that trip and with whom I did a wonderful pre-concert talk before playing her piece as part of a program of Monarca music there). It was on that first visit to Havana that I listened to and met Patrice Michaels, and also met María Elena Vinueza and Guido López-Gavilán. María Elena continues at the helm of the music area in Casa and it seems they are doing a lot of really good things, particularly in musicology. I am now reading the BoletínMusica (Music Bulletin of Journal) which they publish, with considerable interest. It was an enormous pleasure to reconnect with her and see a little of what they are doing there.
Thursday 29, master class
I’d offered to do a master class or a workshop with young composers and performers. They took me up on it, and scheduled a master class in the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory at 9:30 on Thursday 29. According to the schedule the class was to be one hour. As it turned out, it was almost three. There were twelve students who’d signed up: ¡TWELVE! Agghh, I said, I’ll have to be paying close attention to the clock … And in the end, I couldn’t hear the 12th one: the transport arrived (for the second time) and this time couldn’t wait 15 minutes for me. A shame, but oh well …
I was really impressed with the level of these students: almost all with a lot of chops. But what impressed me more was that almost all of them were really listening, thinking, questioning. Lots of kids everywhere with lots of chops: many fewer who are using other parts of themselves to really make music. They are almost all open, enthusiastic, CURIOUS. Here’s a legacy of the USSR which can’t be denied: this gift for identifying, at a very early age, musical –and dance!—talent, and directing those kids to the right kind of formation. And ¡caramba, what formation! All of them with relaxed attitudes at the piano, flexible and focused. I didn’t have to do relaxation exercises here, something which is almost always necessary. Those three hours just flew by …
As it turned out it wasn’t until Thursday that I really had time for the afore-mentioned wandering about in Old Havana … Wednesday, I ran off to eat with Cruz López de Rego, after my talk and that of O2001; we found a cute little restaurant which offered a prix-fixe menu (what in México we call a menú: in Cuba it’s a combinación). The food was really good and the conversation even better. I’d wanted to go with Cruz to the rehearsal of one of her pieces; but it didn’t work out because I wanted also to go to the two concerts in Casa de las Américas.
So Thursday I gave my master class as described. Then I breathed deeply and said, FINALLY!! My chance to be a tourist. I left a message for Cruz in her hotel; she was out. I set out to walk about as I like to do, looking at whatever caught my eye and taking photos in my somewhat inept way. Until I realized that I was ferociously hungry, and started looking for somewhere to eat. Suddenly I find myself right ouside the restaurant where Cruz and I had eaten the day before and I said, I give up, it’s cheap, it’s delicious, this is where I’ll eat. I enter … and who should I see but Cruz herself, comfortably seated at a table and looking like she’s just ordered! Happy coincidence! We had a lovely lunch, much less rushed than the day before, and then walked over to the 4pm concert at the Teatro Lírico.
Some street scenes ...
Some street scenes ...
|the beautifully-restored Palacio O'Farril ...|
|... and across the street, an old gentleman having his siesta on his balcony ...|
A really important change: When I was in Cuba in 2002, I peeked into a couple of vegetable and fruit markets. Admittedly, I didn’t explore them inch by inch, I just peeked in. And all I saw were four or five withered camotes (sweet potatoes) and a carrot or two, and that was IT. This time, in my little walk-arounds in Old Havana, I am amazed to see that there are people selling veggies in the street! These are not rich-folks or tourist streets: they look like very humble folks’ housing. Nevertheless, on Wednesday and on Thursday both, there they were, people with little carts walking around –with the silky-haired dogs—selling veggies: juicy green lettuces of some Black-seeded Simpson variety, it looked like; onions and carrots and radishes with the earth still clinging to them. I didn’t ask about the prices but I imagine that since they were being sold in that neighbourhood they must have been accessible.
When I was in Cuba in ’02 that was not permitted: verboten, camarada, it’s private iniciative. It seems to me an enormous improvement that someone can now harvest the greens from her or his own vegetable farm and sell them. Among other reasons, it’s a million times healthier diet, for heaven’s sake. I SO missed fresh green veggies during my time in Cuba that when I returned I went directly to the vegetable and fruit market and bought a kilo of broccoli, no kidding. And that night I made myself a large baked potato and a huge Greek salad, what’s more. The bad thing about them giving you your food in the hotel, which was my case, is that you are subject to the caprices of the chef in question, which in my case were not very healthy …
“Our history and our vision of the future”. During my five days in La Habana this became a kind of leimotif: that the restoration made possible by the UNESCO money isn’t just a quaint tourist device. Perhaps that was the idea in the beginning because the only way Cuba had to make money, when the USSR pulled out, was tourism. But it’s grown beyond that now, I think: now it has to do with the recuperation of their own history, by the people. And that’s incredibly important, it’s central. Terribly dangerous to ignore history, whether at a personal or a national level. The more you know the better, I believe. For whatever people, however painful it may be, knowing your history generates a sense of belonging and of empowerment. The problem is that governments don’t always like that empowerment part …
I see these people selling what seem to me to be the vegetables of their own gardens –or of someone’s garden, jiminy—there in the humble streets of Old Havana, and it doesn’t look like La Habana Disney, it looks like an authentic and healthy part of life as it might really BE, there.
In contrast, there was this rather discouraging article in the NYT, which a friend sent me after we’d talked a bit about my experience in Cuba: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/09/world/americas/changes-to-agriculture-highlight-cubas-problems.html?ref=todayspaper )
As I said: artistically wonderful, sociologically not quite. The young composers and performers whom I heard assure me through their music that musical formation in Cuba –at least in Havana—is alive and well. Plus everything I said about the rehabilitation of Old Havana, through the UNESCO. But the effects of persistent poverty leave their dent in humans as well as in buildings. And the effects of persistent ideological rigidity – of every kind. The more I think about it, fundamentalism of whatever flavour is very damaging. I’ll stop there.
An adorable mural on the outskirts of La Habana Vieja, on the way to my hotel, which shows that affection between Cuba and Mexico:
An adorable mural on the outskirts of La Habana Vieja, on the way to my hotel, which shows that affection between Cuba and Mexico:
The final surprise, and its miraculous conclusion:
The fact is that to go to Cuba you need bread. And I, as an independent artist and with no institutional affiliation, didn’t have it: I was able to go only because the FONCA (National Foundation for Culture and the Arts) of Mexico, bless them, gave me a little grant for my plane ticket. I arrived with US$50 which I got in the Mexico City airport and with 500 Mexican pesos which I took out of the cash machine thinking to make my return trip a bit easier. As it turned out it was barely enough even with breakfast and supper (such as they were) in the hotel.
To top it all off, it turned out that my Banamex (Banco Nacional de México, National Bank of Mexico) card didn’t work in Cuba. I think because Citibank has shares in Banamex, or now owns it, or who the Globalized Hell knows. So when I arrived at José Martí Airport at 3:40hrs on Friday morning, I discovered that if you want to leave his island, you have to pay! Yes, they charge an “airport tax” of 25 CUC (ca. US$30) to leave. By this time I hadn’t one single unit of any currency whatever on me, since I’d been trying fruitlessly the entire week to use my card. I used what I had left to leave a pathetic tip for the chambermaid and buy a coffee at the 24-hour hotel bar as I waited for the taxi.
So they tried, one more time, the Banamex card, and it didn’t work. Hmmm, I said, I wonder what I should do …
Just then the gentleman in charge of the Airport Tax Payment Window had a bright idea! He said, in his Cuban Spanish, Just a suggestion, señora … why don’t you seek out a Mexican who can loan you the money and then, once you are in Mexico and your card works, you can pay that person back? Lovely, I say, and thank you so much, but how exactly am I to find such a person? (with visions of myself going up and down the line of my fellow-passengers asking … what exactly? Jesus.) No problem! says the nice gentleman, just go over there to my colleague at the luggage check-in, and he will help you. And so it is. No sooner do I present myself and my dilemma to the check-in gentleman than he briskly walks over to the tax-payment window and in the most dignified and pleasant manner possible, approaches two Mexican ladies who in that very moment are paying their own departure tax. It turns out that they are two sisters, of that essential Mexicanidad (Mexican-ness?? How do I translate this untranslatable word??), intrepid voyagers whom it’s impossible to discourage, good-humoured and jolly, with a sweetness and wisdom that I will never forget. Yes, with great pleasure they will lend me the $25CUC (350 Mexican pesos, amigos, just so you know).
That last day, in spite of all the good and great things I’d experienced in the Festival, in spite of all the good stuff I saw in La Habana, I had begun to miss Mexico terribly. The end of the year, a year of much travel, mental fatigue? Who knows. The fact is that meeting those two sisters was one of those astonishing and incredible moments, which reinforced my faith in Mexico, that country which now is one of my TWO countries. I mean, her courage, particularly the courage of her women: that good humour and ingenuity which surely was an essential part of those Adelitas that Elena Poniatowska celebrates in Las Soldaderas. It seems not at all strange to me that some women axactly like these were part of those cadres. Too tired to say more: if you want more info check out www.cantodelamonarca.com …
So. We became friends, I and those two intrepid sisters from a town in the State of Hidalgo whose name didn’t properly stick in my head. When we arrived in the DF I gave them the last CD I had with me –I’d given away all the rest in the Festival—a copy of Amor de la Danza. I paid them back those 350 Mexican pesos and we shared a taxi from the airport to the North Bus Terminal. They left me with words of friendship, faith and happiness. Now we’re friends on Facebook. What strange and joyous twists and turns of life!