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The Nostalgia Machine: dance along the musical history of Cuba

This is my review of one of the best places in Havana to dance salsa and other popular rhythms. Every Sunday afternoon, La Maquina de la Melancolia (Nostalgia Machine) takes over El Sauce in the leafy Siboney neighbourhood to bring the audience good music from yesterday to dance to. From timeless salsa classics to live popular tunes of today, this is an open invitation for dancing under the stars as you're taken through Cuba's musical history.

The Nostalgia Machine: dance along the musical history of Cuba

Last Sunday, I went dancing with a group of friends to "La Máquina de la Melancolía" in El Sauce. It’s strictly a place for dancing: you have no other choice. Even the most reluctant in the audience have to stand up and sway along… while the more enthusiastic ones, like me, never actually get to sit down.

It’s 6 hours straight of dancing, from 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. A good selection of music from all times; special hosts; reasonable prices; a dance floor and, as it is an open-air setting, the opportunity to watch the colours of the sunset magically blending in the tropical sky… Can you think of something better?

I had been there before, but every time I go it’s different. On this occasion I was lucky to go with a friend who loves dancing like I do. Dancing alone is good, but dancing with a partner…Wow!!! Salsa turns spicier, hotter!!!

If it had not been for my dancing friend, I would have looked for another partner there. In Cuba you can ask anyone out to dance. There are always people happy to join you and, generally, such an invitation does not imply you are flirting. So, whether you like dancing alone or with a partner, in this place you are free to make a choice.

What to find in El Sauce

As my invitation is for dancing, I’m highlighting "La Máquina de la Melancolía", on Sundays from 5:00 p.m. Nevertheless, El Sauce offers a lot more than that. It is a famous cultural centre for Havana’s city dwellers (otherwise known as habaneros), noted for its concerts. Every night, from Tuesday through Saturday at 9:00 p.m., it opens its stage to outstanding Cuban musicians that perform live. Besides these concerts, on Thursdays they also offer a live stand-up comedy session and, on Sunday mornings, they offer a children’s show.

It is, indeed, a place with many options. In fact, if you‘re already planning to go to La Maquina you can kill two birds with a stone and also dine at the new Restaurant-Gallery while you’re there. Apart from tasting exquisite dishes from Cuban and international cuisine, you can enjoy the exhibit of excellent works of Cuban artists, with the colourful contribution of painters adding to the cultural atmosphere of the place.

Practical issues

For me, one of the greatest charms of El Sauce is the possibility of dancing outdoors in the open-air. The magic of the stars and the surrounding trees create a special ambience and energhy that I miss when dancing in enclosed spaces with smoke and distracting neon lights.

If you are staying in the Miramar district during your visit to Havana, you will be within easy walking distance to El Sauce. If you are staying downtown, you will have to take a taxi. Either way, it is not hard to get there as El Sauce sits next to easy points of reference such as Playa’s Bus Terminal, the Higher Institute of Art (El Insitituto Superior de Arte), Palco Hotel and the Conventions Centre. A taxi from all hotels in Havana’s downtown area will be around $10.00 to $15.00 CUC for a 15 to 20-minute ride. For the return, there are always taxis available on the street, mostly private ones. This has an advantage: you can bargain over the price, just never stick to the first figure. The best judgement is to bargain, bargain and bargain a little more.

The admission fee to "La Máquina de la Melancolía" is $2.00 CUC per person, which is about £1.50 when converted into Sterling. An added value to El Sauce is its prices, generally economic. The price of a beer, an important benchmark for us Cubans against which we measure the affordability of going to certain places, is $1.25 CUC. Don’t think like the old saying goes that cheap things turn out expensive. There’s nothing expensive there. It is one of the few good, nice and cheap options in Havana.

Although not necessary, you can make a reservation in advance. I wouldn’t personally recommend it for is the service is not very functional. You have to go there a few days before your chosen date, from Tuesday to Saturday, from 12 noon to 6:00 p.m. and make a reservation in person. You have to pay the full entry price in advance and provide the full names and ID or passport numbers of each person. It’s not the most convenient of ways to book ahead but nevertheless is an option to consider.

And then… the dancing

On Sunday, I went with my friends to "La Máquina de la Melancolía”, also known as a ‘discotemba’. This made-up Cuban term is used to describe the type of music played in these places, which covers the musical hits during the youth of the present ‘tembas’. A ‘temba’ is another local term, not pejorative, used by Cubans to refer to the forty and fifty-something. Therefore the tracks played here are usually 70s and 80s music.

I am 33 years old and you could perhaps wonder why I get enthused with a place for the middle-aged; and, I’m not the only one. Odd as it may seem, “La Máquina de la Melancolía” has managed to gather together people of 15, 20 and 30 years of age. Probably, it is its charm, the energy that flows throughout the place or the magic of its wonderful hosts: Luis Alberto García and Frank Delgado, two great characters of Cuban culture. Their excellent musical taste and sense of humour have become one of this place’s greatest assets. They both are a guarantee of a superb night out dancing and laughing to the music of yesterday and today.

I assure you: it is impossible not to dance here. The music selection at “La Máquina de la Melancolía” moves through times, genders and even emotions. I was listening to ‘Angel’ by Aerosmith and after that they changed to Yorubá Andabó with ‘Ponte pa’ lo tuyo’ (Get in on it!), a rumba song that was a big hit (among the country’s current top tracks) great for dancing along to. And so I did.

I thought I had reached a climax, and then they played ‘Sandunguera’, a classic from Cuba’s most famous, longest-living and most legendary salsa band; Van Van. That’s literally and figuratively striking another note! To me, ‘Sandunguera’ is pure retro, a true emotion. When I was a child and someone played some good salsa, my father used to ask me out to dance by saying: “Mari, move the sandunga!” Sandunga is, for us Cubans, a synonym of movement, wiggling, and joy. Every time I listen to ‘Sandunguera’, it sounds special to me. When this happens, it means you have captured the essence, the distinctive charm of “La Máquina de la Melancolía” which is to take you back to happy memories and special moments in your past. Everyone can find his/her own tune that takes them back, and believe me, it’s magic.

So, if you are in Cuba and you like dancing, don’t miss the opportunity to do so at El Sauce’s nostalgia machine; La Maquina de la Nostalgia. This is an authentic place where you can dance among Cuban dancers, far from the prefabricated circuits for tourists.

Maria C Ceballos

Maria C Ceballos

Salsa Evangelist

I love Havana and its nightlife secrets. Music and dancing are what create the perfect background...

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