Wherever you go in Cuba you are greeted by music - salsa bands are everywhere in restaurants bars and the street, Cuban pop on TVs in snack bars, street musicians, loud music blaring from houses at any time of the day or night or even from many of the small bicycle taxis. The love of music and dancing is one of many things that is unique to Cuba and makes for a special holiday.
On our first afternoon in Havana we followed a friendly street hustler to a nearby bar where he told us a member of Buena Vista Social Club was about to start playing. We were in no position to know if any of the band members really were from Buena Vista but the music was great and we were hooked, it set the tone for the rest of our trip.
The following afternoon we spotted a guy playing the guitar on the front step of his house and we stopped to take his photo. Turned out Thomas was a sailor turned music teacher and he quickly had us doing the chorus to one of his songs, right there on the street. Cuba seems to be full of these serendipitous moments and it's up to you to pick which ones to go along with.
In addition to Salsa and Son (a predessor to salsa) the other distinct sound is Rumba, Afro-Cuban music which evolved from ritualistic drum rhythms brought to Cuba by slaves. Rumba is closely linked to Santeria, a religion with African roots and specific dances are performed by band members. In Havana there is a great rumba session on Sunday afternoons on Callejon de Hamel. The music and dancing was pretty raw and the audience enthusiastic in spite of the rain. In other places we also saw some more polished folklore rumba shows put on for tourists.
Wherever there is music dancing is not far away... You see people breaking into dance at the drop of a hat. In Trinidad we took a couple of salsa lessons to get us started. There is live music every night outside Casa de la Musica in the centre of town and sitting there on the stairs with a mojito in hand and watching people dance makes for a wonderful evening.
Our favourite place in Trinidad was Casa de la Trova, a more intimate venue with a roster of bands playing salsa, son and trova (melodic guitar tunes). The music is infectious, it grabs you and moves your feet but quickly spits you out again if you cannot keep up with the rhythm. After our first dance lesson we went along with the intention of practising what we had learnt however we fell at the first hurdle - the music is fast and without the teacher counting 1,2,3,5,6,7 we never got going. The next night we regrouped and psyched ourselves up to have another go and this time at least we made it onto the dance floor. Watching the ease with which everybody dances makes you desperately keen to do the same.
In Cuba everybody - man, woman, young, old, round, big or skinny, knows how to dance. We saw grandmas and great-grandmas get up and twirl in complicated routines and nobody puts in a halfhearted effort. On New Year's Eve we got a lesson from Lissette and Ricardo at Hostal Cuba 215, the Casa Particular where we stayed in Santa Clara. They kept saying that once you know a couple of basic steps the rest is pure show however like learning to drive a car, you need to practise those steps until they become automatic and only then can you really start dancing.
Another part of Cuba's love of dancing is the cabaret. We enjoyed Cabaret Parisien at Hotel Nacional, the old hang-out of Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway and Lucky Luciano with his gang. The show is glitzy beyond anything we've ever seen however the energy of all the performers and their costumes blew us away. While the Parisien is one of the most glamorous shows, many smaller cities also have a cabaret and there are several other options in Havana.
For anybody who loves music and dancing, I cannot think of anywhere better to go. We will leave Cuba with plenty of son and salsa CDs and a real desire to learn how to salsa properly. Maybe we will return to Casa de la Trova in a few years and finally be able to take our place on the dance floor with a bit more flair...