Written by Tiempo Libre
Cigars, white rum and latin jazz rhythms, Cuba is a multi sensory experience. Castro tried to tame this country's passion but the population just found their freedom of expression elsewhere – and a lot of people seem to have found their freedom in music. Every trip to Cuba needs a perfect backing track, and Jorge Gomez, from twice Grammy nominated Timba band Tiempo Libre, who have just released an exciting mash up of classical and Afro-Cuban music called Bach In Havana, has lent us his insiders eyes and ears and shares with us some of his most memorable Cuban experiences. Including the best places to be moved by those intoxicating Cuban rhythms.
World Reviewer: You're cool locals - what are your three favourite bars/ cafes/ restaurants/ places to hang out?
Well, the places where the Cubans go, they don't have a lot of atmosphere, but the music is caliente - in particular, in places like La Casa de la Musica. There are two of them - one in Miramar and one on Neptuno y Galliano. When I was living in Cuba I always went to the one in Miramar because it was closest to my house. Those are places for timba - the kind of music we play. It's usually crowded and steamy with lots of hot dancing and cold beer. For a bit of a change, there is El Gato Tuerto (the One-Eyed Cat). You'll get all sorts of music there - from jazz to bolero to trova - and a very interesting crowd.
My favorite place for music is UNEAC - the building that houses the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba. A couple of times a week they have music there. You sit outside at little tables under these amazing Banyan trees and listen to music - usually rumba - and sip your beer or rum. And, of course, you dance! If you are lucky, you might hear the rumberos - Yoruba Andabo - play. My father was the president of UNEAC many years ago when I was still a little kid. So, the place has lots of memories for me, as well.
You cannot go to Havana without going to the Malecon - the famous seawall that is probably the most iconic image of Cuba. The Malecon is the place we go to romance our girlfriends, to hang out with friends, to play music, to fish, to relax, to dream, to make offerings to the orishas (the deities of Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion), to look out into the sea and imagine what it would be like to live in America….
WR: You've probably been on tour around Cuba and played in some interesting places - what are your three favourite live music venues in Cuba? And what was your favourite place to visit?
You know, music is all over Cuba - in the clubs - but also in people's houses and in the streets. For instance, in Santiago de Cuba (in the far eastern part of Cuba - the opposite end of the island from Havana), during Carnaval (in July) people come out into the streets for a huge musical party. Everyone plays music - musicians and non-musicians - everyone grabs anything that will make noise and they go out into the streets to play and dance the conga.
In our new album, Bach in Havana, we start off with a conga (the dance form, not the drum). The rhythm is absolutely irresistible. It is impossible not to be caught up in the frenzy of this infectious music. Many years ago, Desi Arnaz Jr's father was the mayor of Santiago. He banned the conga because it made people crazy and sometimes riots broke out.
If you are looking for a more mellow musical experience, you can also go to La Casa de la Trova in Santiago.
In Santa Clara, there is this incredible little place called El Mejunje. It's down a dusty little street - it's nothing but a courtyard behind a wall that gives onto the street. You really need to know it's there and know where you are going. But there is some great music that goes on there - mostly traditional stuff - "son" -played by the old-timers. You can get some rum served in little paper cups and sit and listen. I once heard Los Fakires there. I think they were even older than the guys in Buena Vista Social Club.
I remember being in Matanzas many times. Matanzas is about 2 hours from Havana and it is, in a way, the centre of "rumba" in Cuba. Los Munequitos de Matanzas and Afro-Cuba de Matanzas (two amazing rumba groups) are based there. There is an incredible theatre in Matanzas called El Teatro Fausto. Inside, there are beautiful concerts of classical music and jazz. But right outside the theatre, they close the plaza for huge concerts - Los Van Van - the most famous band in Cuba - fill the place. I've been both performer and listener - both inside and out of Teatro Fausto. I love it!
When I am not playing or listening to music, my other passion is nature. So, I love going to really remote places and exploring. In the eastern part of Cuba (in the direction of Santiago) are the highest mountains of the island. And Pico Turquino is the highest peak in those mountains. When I graduated from college, I went with a bunch of friends, hitchhiking out to the East and then backpacking up Pico Turquino. Believe me, in Cuba there is no such thing as camping gear - no hiking shoes or lightweight tents, nothing. I remember hiking up with a huge load on my back, the blisters on my feet were massive , at night I absolutely froze. It was the most painful, uncomfortable - and ultimately magical and exhilarating - experience I have ever had. Reaching the top was nirvana! I also loved what, at that time, were truly virgin beaches - in Puerto Escondido, Jibacoa (near Matanzas), Guarda la Vaca (in Holguin).
WR: You've probably been really busy with the album, but where did you go, and what did you see on your last holiday in Cuba? Or if you haven't had a break in ages where would you like to go or what would you like to see?
Last November, I went back to Cuba for the first time since I left 13 years ago. I was in Havana the whole time. Needless to say, I went back to my old neighbourhood - in the area called "Playa" . I saw old friends, went out to La Casa de la Musica. But one of my favorite days was going to the restored area of "Havana Vieja" - to the Plaza de la Catedral. A cold beer and people - watching at a café in the Plaza were a huge pleasure - one I could never have had when I was living in Cuba. Later, we went browsing in the book kiosks nearby. And from there, to a paladar, for a good meal.
WR: What's your favourite memory of travelling or holidays as a child?
In the summer, as kids, we lived for the weekends when my father would say "let's go to the beach"! My friends Pucho and Alejandro would sleep over with me. We would get up really early in the morning, around 5am, load up the car with food - rice and beans and tamales and a Russian version of Spam! - plus rum for my father - and lots of water. And we would drive an hour and a half out to a beach near Pinar del Rio - in the far western part of the island. The adults put up hammocks and chairs and umbrellas and started to play dominos or read. The rest of us, the kids, played in the ocean all day long. We would get back late at night, full of sand, dark with sun, exhausted from the heat. We would fall into bed without saying a word - out cold, in a sandy bed.
At other times, we would go camping in Pinar del Rio. It's an area with lots of natural beauty - caves, waterfalls, a mix of sea and rich, green vegetation. It's also well-known as the place where tobacco is grown - the tobacco for the Cohiba cigar !. A very beautiful - and very important - region! Our sax and bass players are from Pinar. ..
Yes - we did our own timba/modern version of"A Bayamo en Coche". Bayamo is an old city in the eastern part of the island. We also play our own high-voltage version of "Guantanamera" - which, of course, originally had to do with the city of Guantánamo. Mostly, we have written songs about our NEW home city - Miami.
WR: And what is the single Cuban experience you think people should definitely have when they visit Cuba?
That's easy: find a friend, buy some rum, look for some great musicians - and dance! It doesn't matter where or with whom, but if you go to that beautiful island and don’t dance, you'll have missed the soul of Cuba.