Hot in Cuba - Jazz Plaza Festival in Havana, ZZ Top and Christmas concert

As every Thursday I'm back to introduce you to Cuba's weekly calendar of cultural events as they unfold over the next seven days. This time around and very hot on the barometer scale (almost to imploding point) we kick things off with the opening of the 31st Jazz Plaza Festival in Havana which will be wowing audiences at 9 p.m. with its dazzling opening gala. Elsewhere in the capital we also have a special Christmas classic music and opera concert in Havana's Cathedral and two rocking concerts by ZZ Top not to be missed! While the rest of the country remains much quieter this week, there are still a few recommendations if you happen to find yourself in Varadero or Viñales.

Hot in Cuba - Jazz Plaza Festival in Havana, ZZ Top and Christmas concert

The hottest thing in Cuba right now, clearly outshining anything else that may be going on (unless you really don’t care about jazz at all, and if so, there’s still plenty of salsa to enjoy) is the 31st Jazz Plaza Festival in Havana, the country’s biggest and most internationally recognised annual jazz event, uniting some of the best jazz musicians in the world for four days of outstanding one-off performances, special collaborations between different solo artists and bands. So, if you can spare one night out of your Cuba holiday between now and the end of this weekend, I recommend you make it to at least one of the many jazz performances scheduled over this short four-day period, any of them will do as they are all fantastic artists, but if you want to go for the big names, I’ll detail further down below which are the biggest acts not to miss in this year’s edition.

Elsewhere, to comply with our usual events calendar format, in this week’s blog you’ll also find the day-to-day music goings on of Havana’s evening and nightly scene and you’ll also come across some recommendations of where to head to this week if you’re an art lover or if you want to catch a theatre performance. If you’ve got little ones there are some puppet shows to take them to in Havana and Matanzas, as well as weekend circus performances. All in all, a well-rounded week of events for all - keep reading for the details.

31st Jazz Plaza Festival in Havana (from 17 – 20 December)

With big performances including that of the veteran Cuban king of jazz (and several times Grammy award winner) Chucho Valdes, the great Arturo O’Farrill from Mexico or Bobby Carcasses, this year’s edition of Havana’s biggest jazz event will sure pack in a powerful punch.

It all gets started tonight with the opening gala ceremony kicking off at 8.30 p.m. The place? The Teatro Mella. The performances? A one-off special led Ernan Lopez Nussa and his trio accompanied by legendary jazz band from New Orleans, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, bringing the a once-in-a-lifetime chance to catch the joint performance of exceptional jazz musicians from very different backgrounds, playing different jazz styles. Tonight will be your chance to enjoy the live fusion of Latin Jazz with traditional Hall Jazz – a signature style that is the trademark of this veteran New Orleans jazz band with over 50 years of history.

Closing off this year’s festival on Sunday 20th December, the lady with one of Cuba’s most famous and easily recognised voices, Omara Portuondo (part of the Buena Vista Social Club) will be belting out her soulful blues in the company of Bobby Carcasses, Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sanchez and Cuban pianist Harold Lopez Nussa.

But what will be happening in between? Well, plenty, that’s for sure! The jazz schedule over the next four days is packed with exceptional performances by invited jazzists from all generations, from all over the world. My personal picks? Decidedly Billy Gibbons’ (from ZZ Top) solo guitar performance with his new afro-Cuban inspired sounds (that inspired his recent album, Perfectamundo). It’s scheduled for Saturday 19th December and other performances planned for that very same night include those of pianist Roberto Fonseca and jazz band Temperament. More highlights? Well, I wouldn’t say no to seeing skilled saxophonist, Cesar Lopez play live, along with Habana Ensemble, flautist Orlando Valle, the “tresero” Pancho Amat (joined on stage by his son Daniel) or American trombone master, Steve Turre and percussionist, Robbie Amin, also flying the U.S. flag. They will all perform this Friday 18th so make sure you put all these names high on your list of priority performances to catch in the next three to four days.

But what will be happening in between? Well, plenty, that’s for sure! The jazz schedule over the next four days is packed with exceptional performances by invited jazzists spanning all generations and coming from all over the world (over a dozen of different participating countries to be precise). For a full low-down of what will happen where and when as part of this year’s Jazz Plaza Festival, check the full calendar here. Just to give you the heads up, the main haunts hosting the festival’s jazz events include (listed in the order of importance): Casa de la Cultura del Municipio de Plaza, Teatro Mella, Fabrica de Arte Cubano, the Tito Junco Hall at the Centro Cultural Bertorlt Brecht, Pabellon Cuba, Teatro America, Café Miramar and Salon Rosado Benny More.

ZZ Top to perform two live concerts at Maxim Rock and FAC

With not one but two concerts planned to take place, ZZ Top will sure be rocking Havana like no other U.S. rock band ever has over the last few years.

As part of the celebration of the Jazz Plaza Festival (although they won’t be strictly performing jazz) they will be in Havana to treat Cuban rock fans with two outstanding performances; one at the Factoria de Arte Cubano (FAC) and another at the capital’s house of rock – Maxim Rock. Trouble is no one seems to have published when exactly either of these concerts are taking place, the closest I’ve gotten to finding out is a source that says one performance will take place tonight at 11 p.m. at Factoria de Arte Cubano and the other concert will be happening Saturday 19th December, presumably at Maxim Rock one although it doesn’t specify…but since no more venues have been announced…it has to be that one right? Well, if you’re in Cuba and keen to attend either of these concerts, your best bet is to get out there and find out for yourself.

Special Christmas concert in Havana’s Cathedral

From jazz to classical music, although not just the instrumental kind, a special concert to spread a bit of festive Christmas cheer will be staged tomorrow, 18th December at one of the most centric (and historic) addresses in Old Havana – La Catedral de la Habana (the Havana Cathedral). To put everyone in the holiday mood, the Schola Cantorum Coralina presided by musical director Alina Orraca, accompanied by organist, Moises Santiesteban and the talented Soparon, Milagro de los Angeles, will be offering an exceptional Christmas concert to elevate the spirits with the spiritual themes and melodic tunes. Even if you’re not particularly keen on Christmas festivities or hate the idea of traditional Christmas carols, this is something quite, unique, special and out of the ordinary (especially in Cuba where Christmas celebrations are very low-key), so if in Havana, I wouldn’t miss it.

Havana’s Daily Music Scene: day-to-day guide

Thursday 17th December - What’s on tonight

Well, if you aren’t overwhelmed by the jazz performances you can attend tonight (there are over twelve venues in the city hosting special jazz concerts by various worldwide artists, including the much-awaited festival opening gala, and the first of ZZ Top concerts at the Fabrica de Arte Cubano at 11 p.m.) there is some alternative Cuban music to be enjoyed.

To salsa the night away head to Casa de la Musica de Miramar tonight to catch one of the irresistibly, feet-tappingly good performances by Alexander Abreu y Havana D’ Primera – on at 11 p.m.

For something a bit mellower but equally exciting and a lot more unique, Cuba’s excellent vocal group, Vocalite, will be performing at the Centro Cultural Bertolt Brecht from 10 p.m. Even if you’re not normally into that sort of thing, I still highly recommend it as their public performances are rare to come by and they promise something truly special – don’t knock it until you’ve seen them, it’s amazing what they do with no other instrument but their voices and hands!

If you want to precede either of the above acts with some rocking tunes then El Submarino Amarillo is the place head to first, with a performance by Cuban rock band, GENS on at 9 p.m. you’ll still have time to catch the others after this one, so you don’t really have to miss out on anything!

Friday 18th December

You can check out what’s on this Friday’s jazz scene with the link I provided earlier to the full festival’s four-day programme, but if you want my recommendation of what I’d go see tonight (seeing as there are over ten venues hosting different acts, the amount of choice might overwhelm you a bit) is definitely the presentation by Cesar Lopez and Habana Ensemble, joined on stage by a quartet De Camara with Pancho Amat as the invited performing guest. This will be followed by a joint performance between Maracas, Brian Lynch and Steve Turre. It’s on at Teatro Mella at 9.30 p.m.

If you fancy digging into the roots of authentic afro-Cuban rumba then you could start things early by catching a performance from Rumberos de Cuba at 5 p.m. The place to be at? The group’s usual home at Jelengue de Areito.

For some rock ‘n’ roll and the chance to see the locally loved Cuban rock group, Los Kents, perform, you have a date for 9 p.m. at El Submarino Amarillo.

For the best of salsa you should discard every other place in the capital but the Casa de la Musica de Miramar, where Jose Luis Cortes y NG La Banda will be performing some outstanding salsa tunes (the quality of which has been awarded with Grammys). Their show kicks off at 11 p.m.

Saturday 19th December

Tonight is the big night where ZZ Top are supposed to rock the stage at Maxim Rock in Havana, but I haven’t been able to find at what exact time this is happening so try to ask around if you’re in this Saturday and this is something you don’t want to miss.

Elsewhere, the party and music scene this weekend in Havana atmosphere is quite subdued but that’s only when it comes to anything else other than jazz which still fills every major theatre and music venue in the city.

If you want to escape the jazz buzz you can do so by heading to the Casa de la Musica de Miramar at 11 p.m. to salsa dance the night away to the tunes of Lazaro Valdes and Bamboleo.

Alternatively (and a much better option in my humble opinion) head to Factoria de Arte Cubano at the same time (11 p.m.) to catch one exceptional performance by Sintesis, a group famous for having revolutionised Cuban music with their fusions of innovative rhythms and sounds that mix traditional, contemporary and classical influences. The most avant-garde musical style in Cuba – don’t miss it!

Monday 21st December

As the first day of yet another working week (that will nicely end with Christmas Day on Friday) things are much quieter in the capital’s music scene, what’s not to say the city’s entirely dead (because that never happens here!) but it does mean your options for a good night out are far more limited and acts start much earlier.

If you want live salsa you’ll have to head to the Casa de la Musica de Miramar at 5 p.m. this Monday to enjoy the intoxicating rhythms and voice of Wil Campa and his band.

If you’re up for a bit more live entertainment as the night progresses then you can head back to Casa de la Musica de Miramar to enjoy the traditional conga beats of Sur Caribe – their weekly performance is certainly not one to be missed or shunned!

Tuesday 22nd December

Things pick up slightly on the music scene tonight as you have a still limited but more exciting pick of venues to head to.

For a chilled afternoon enjoying the best of contemporary Cuban music with a twist head to the where the majority of locals will be at 5 p.m. – the Café Cantante Mi Habana, where you can get acquainted with Raul Paz and his infectious tunes.

You can follow this up with a little bit of rock if that’s what you fancy and get in the mood to enjoy some good rock classics from the onset of 9 p.m. at El Submarino Amarillo. GENS will be performing some great cover songs and rock classics as well as their own tunes.

To finish off the night with a bit of salsa make your way to Casa de la Musica de Miramar next. Pedrito Calvo y la Justicia will be putting on a salsa-tastic show at 11 p.m.

Wednesday 23rd December

It’s the middle of the week and already things are hotting up as though it was the weekend. There are many acts to be enjoyed today, you might just have trouble selecting which performances to attend. But I’ll do my best to help you out here and give you my top choices:

Start the afternoon by treating yourself to some of the best popular Cuban music of the moment with Qva Libre, a modern and lively group with a rather unique style and plenty of catchy tunes. Their performance is on at 5 p.m. at the Café Cantante Mi Habana.

Later on you’ll have the most two difficult choices to make - sorry I can’t pick this out for you as I don’t know whether you’re more into blues or traditional Cuban music with a twist). If you want to keep things contemporarily Cuban head to Sarao’s Bar at 10 p.m. to catch a live performance by Kelvis Ochoa. If instead you’re more into a mix of bluesy jazz with a touch of afro-Cuban roots and rap head to Centro Cultural Bertolt Brecht at 10 p.m. to enjoy a live concert by Roberto Carcasses & Interactivo.

El Submarino Amarillo will be hosting local cover band Los Tackson for a bit of rock at 9 p.m.

The Arts – FIART, glassworks by Murano and the Litz Alfonso Ballet Company

The last days of FIART are here, with the fair officially closing on 19th December, so if you want to make it to the Pabexpo to view the exhibitions you’ll have a few more opportunities to do so before it closes on Saturday.

Alternatively there are quite a few other smaller art exhibitions being shown across the country this week. For lovers of the decorative arts, the Exposicion Transitoria “Cristal de Murano” at the Museo de Artes Decorativas will be on show until the end of the month on 31st December. The exhibition consists of a rare collection of glass pieces from Venice, dating back to quite a few centuries.

Murano’s exceptional glassworks were coveted by Europe’s royalty during the 16th century and this special collection presented in Havana for a limited time are a collector’s dream fantasy.

Officially coming to an end next Monday 21st Decemeber there’s still chance for those interested to attend the Expo BE HUMAN at the Taberna Bohemia del Deivi in Havana’s municipality of Playa. The collection consists of several drawings and animations by local artist Ramiro Zardoya.

Last but not least, on the performing arts scene a special one-off show by the prestigious Litz Alfonso Ballet Company will be staged at the Sala Avellaneda of the Teatro Nacional on Friday 18th December and Saturday 19th December. Having returned to the island after a successful tour around the U.S. this exceptional dancing company will seduce audiences with its mix of classical and contemporary dances with choreographies that range from danzon and cha cha cha to more freestyle dancing, flamenco and other expressive dance forms.

Families with children – musicals and puppet shows

The Aladino musical I first introduced in last week’s blog is still on for one last performance scheduled for Sunday 20th December at the Anfiteatro Historico de La Habana. A show that’s as much for grown-ups as it is for kids, even though it has a late performance time at 9 p.m. you can still catch it and give your little ones the perfect excuse to stay up a bit later – they’re on holiday after all!

Also on Sunday but at a much earlier time (11 a.m.) the Jornada de Titeres de La Lisa will give little ones quite a selection of expertly performed classical puppet shows. It’s a bit off the beaten path as it’s in a municipality of Havana that’s quite far from centric areas, but it’s one of the most authentic ways to give your children an encounter with typical Cuban entertainment amongst ordinary Cuban children.

Susana Corona

Susana Corona

The islands' go-between

Having lived most of my life between Cuba and the UK and being half-raised in both island nations, I...

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