The acrylic Coke bottles brazenly alternating with inverted Havana Club bottles couldn’t help but snag the attention of passersby. It was just one of the paintings, drawings, handicrafts, and other works of art being hawked by their creators at the weekly art fair in the park near the Hotel Santa Isabel. Some of it was angry, some flirted with kitsch, some was skillful, but all of it was fascinating.
Detouring around a Latinized version of Van Gogh’s demented sunflowers, you might find yourself in front of a small canvas of decaying Vedado district mansions, or just to the side discover a stand displaying purses made from old license plates. A sweetly fragrant breeze drifting up from the river would bring you complicated musical threads from a band nearby. If you turned toward that throbbing Latin beat, you’d find yourself staring at a sultry Mona Lisa painted in lush Cuban hues, a sexy portrait with silvery bombs raining from the sky behind her enigmatic brown-skinned beauty.
Havana: an old city, a partially crumbling city, a hot and humid city in which bare skin is always in fashion, a city rich with music and art.
A little hot and tired after exploring the provocative beauty of the art fair, you’re ready for a cooling drink. In Havana, it’s always time for a refreshing mojito and where else to indulge yourself but at the roof bar of the Ambos Mundo hotel, the very place where Ernest Hemingway stayed before he bought his villa out on the bay?
To reach the hotel, you navigate wandering streams of pedestrians of all shapes and colors. Most of them are attached to someone else, part of a couple, family group, cluster of friends: fingers clasped, arms entwined, hands on shoulders, waists, hips. These are lusty people who make physical contact easily and take pleasure in showing off their bodies, but you have no problem with the short shorts, tiny skirts, tank tops, and clinging tee shirts of the Cubans. Before you leave the island, you’ll probably adopt the style, yourself.
Crossing the Cathedral Plaza, you find yourself absorbed into a crowd swaying and clapping hands to the intense beat of an Afro-Cuban band. A buxom black woman in a white, ruffled, multi-layered costume is dancing with heavy-footed fervor, a fat cigar wedged between gold teeth. Her bare feet slap the paving stones, her large buttocks gyrate, her dark hands pummel the air, and her shoulders, elbows, and white-turbaned head move in hypnotic patterns to the strenuous rhythms. Later, you’ll learn that she’s an incarnation of a Santeria priestess, a Cuban adaptation of a Yoruba West African ritual – magnificent and life-affirming.
Maneuvering through the crowds, making your way past faded colonial buildings, eventually you reach the Ambos Mundo. Inside, the narrow elevator cage clanks up to the roof, already busy with people drinking and swaying to a band playing near the bar. You can’t walk anywhere in Havana without hearing the sophisticated, intoxicating beat of salsa rhythms along the streets and plazas, in restaurants and hotels, from balconies and open windows.
You find an empty chair at the end of a long table around which nearly a dozen Cubans are squeezed together. The white-shirted young bartender already has set up a row of tall glasses, sugar, mint, and lime juice waiting for ice, soda water, rum, and eager hands.
As you sip your mojito, one of the Cubans at the table leans over: “While you’re here, don’t miss the Bienal – artists from all over Latin America, Africa, the tropics, many developing countries. Their work is exciting, very political.”“Can art be political?” you ask.“How can it not be? Everything is political, from the second we’re conceived. Before.”
Splintered bits of Havana’s skyline vibrate around you in the slowly fading light. The city is so busy pulsating with its own life and rhythms and colors that it hardly acknowledges you’re there. You can join in the fun, or not. You think of when you walked past the crumbling mansions along the Malecon by the bay. Waves battered and splashed over the seawall with a sound like music. With a groan, a rusty wrought iron balcony separated from a house, falling to the pavement in front of you.
The next day, you figure that you might as well wander through the Bienal exhibits in the high-ceilinged rooms of the Art Center deep in the old town. A local man sees you pondering an aggressive arrangement of radio and television parts, mannequin limbs, weapons, and fake blood.
“You don’t like it?” he asks.
“I don’t understand it.”
“It’s not so difficult. For decades, centuries, the peoples of the Third World have lived with oppression and war, or the threat of war. Even to survive has been a battle. This is reflected in their art. Our art.”
Your new friend suggests lunch. Together, you walk down a side street, passing a yellow sign with large black letters on a wall: “La Verdad sobre el BLOQUEO debe ser conocida.” He translates for you: “Roughly, it is ‘The truth about the blockade must be known.”
“It is what we Cubans call the U.S. Embargo.”
“And what is the truth?”
“It also called is ‘genocide’ here.”
At the little café, an old man with a guitar appears in the open doorway as you eat a blockade “salad” of canned corn and canned peas. He is followed by a skinny youth shaking a pair of castanets, both of them singing. Their complicated salsa rhythms fill the café.
“Music,” says your companion. “One way we survive.”
Another day, your friend takes you across town to a narrow two block-long street where the facades have been transformed with wild splashes of color, stylized faces like African masks, giant fighting cocks, abstract patterns. The alley is littered with constructions made from scrap metal and pieces of decaying colonial buildings.
“Callejon de Hammel, a street of art, a celebration of Afro-Cuban culture. Most of it relates to Santeria.”
“More than that. A religion, a way of life. Mix primitive Christian beliefs with the West African gods worshipped by sugar plantation slaves, add rum and cigar smoke. Result: Santeria. In Santeria, drums and rhythmic movement send you into a trance so you can communicate with your ancestors and their gods.”
In a gallery, you discover images and figures representing Yoruba/Santeria gods. “There is Oshun, the river goddess, Chango’s favorite wife. Chango evolved from the Yoruba god of thunder.” Oshun, you are told, is the blood that creates human life – also Our Lady of Charity. “Two gods for the price of one. Just as Chango also is St. Barbara, because they’re both fond of hatchets. The Santeria gods have both African and Catholic identities. Gender is irrelevant.”
All of this comes together for you that night in a weathered colonial building in an old Havana neighborhood. In the once grand mansion, you discover in the dim light people sitting on folding chairs watching brightly costumed dancers. You and your friend sit near the front.
“Look!” he says. “Chango again. The other is Eleggua, the teasing god.”
Eleggua, performed by a boyish young woman in motley costume, prances and leaps, sits on audience members’ laps, snatches scarves or hats, then returns them to the wrong people, tossing her head back with silent, mocking laughter.
Female dancers in green, white, and red dresses prance and whirl, seducing bare-chested men who arch over them with erotic abandon. The dances convey a startling range of emotions and relationships: between men and women, between men and men, and between men and their masters. In one dance, both men and women wear wooden clog-like sandals, dancing faster and faster in ever more complex, violent rhythms. Your heart pounding, you watch the dancers shake their lean bodies, muscles rippling like waves, sinews twitching and writhing.
Then one group of barefoot men, chests and arms glistening, leap forward, rebelling against their masters, swinging machete blades. The female dancers flap their full skirts and stomp on the wood floor as the men slash the air with their shining weapons. The men toss aside their blades, replacing them with flaming torches. The Cubans in the audience respond powerfully to the furious dance, an emotional surge carrying them higher and higher.
“The rule of the Conquistadores must end, the people must rule.”
Outside, as you leave, you see on a bare wall, painted in red letters: “Viva Fidel!”
Looking up, you discover at an open window a caramel-skinned girl not more than nine or ten in a white dress with a red bow in her black hair, swaying and dancing to the music pouring into the street, a joyous smile on her round, brown face. And you walk on, glancing back toward the open window, where the little girl in white dances.
This, you feel, is Havana, Cuba, a part of the world that at last you are beginning to know and understand. It’s not what you thought it was, maybe not what you are thinking now, but it is amazing and wonderful and you want to experience more, know more.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, Published by Texas Review Press. Available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Texas A & M Consortium.