Hot in Cuba - Omara Portuondo, X Alfonso, Ballet Nacional de Cuba and New Year concerts

We're back again this week to bring you the hottest events in Cuba's cultural calendar this week, from its nightlife scene and weekly line-up of evening acts to special one-off concerts like the one led by X Alfonso tonight at FAC or the one soon to be staged by Omara Portuondo at the San Francisco de Asis Square and also including a spectacular ballet performance by the island's prestigious national company. So you can see that even though most Cubans are busying themselves ahead of New Year's Eve celebrations they're still devoting some time to the arts in as many ways as possible. Proof that in this island music and flair are two things that are never laid to rest.

Hot in Cuba - Omara Portuondo, X Alfonso, Ballet Nacional de Cuba and New Year concerts

Last week we were forced to skip our weekly cultural blog as due to the festivities and public holidays nothing much was going on in the island apart from the usual salsa nights at most of the countries various Casas de la Musica. Most popular music bands in Cuba were on a festive break and the best places to be were probably at special Christmas gala dinners held at hotels, hanging out with locals in seasonal celebrations held across many of the new private restaurants, clubs and bars.

But a week on and everything gets revved back up to full gear as preceding (and following) New Year’s celebrations there is quite a selection of acts to catch, the best of which I’ll be detailing today. Keep on reading for the very best of this week’s cultural calendar in Cuba.

And, for the first time, this week we publish the Hot in Cuba blog on Wednesday instead of Thursday. Why, you ask, and to that I swiftly reply: because of a performance taking place tonight that no one who truly wants to get a well-rounded taste of modern Cuban pop-rock music should miss – yes it’s a one-off gig put together by various contemporary Cuban musicians: the legendary afro-rock and hip hop artist, X Alfonso, young queen of the percussion, Yissy Garcia, and talented musical brothers David and Ernesto Blanco.

Concierto La Flota – on tonight at FAC!

Probably the hottest event in this week’s line-up when it comes to 100% Cuban contemporary music (versus the more traditional tunes performed by another of this week’s hottest acts, Omara Portuondo) the “La Flota” concert being staged at Fabrica de Arte Cubano tonight is certainly a must-see! Kicking off at 11:30 p.m. this one-off concert will see the union of four different contemporary Cuban musicians, each with its own different style but all uniting as part of one single band for one night only. Getting together to perform the very best Cuban pop-rock with some of their most famous tunes as well as some unpublished, never-performed-before ones, this foursome will treat the audience to a powerful mix, the likes of which had never joined forces before. On one hand you have the award-winning peculiar musical stylings of X Alfonso, famous for fusing hip hop with afro-rock. On the other you have the young jazzist and percussionist Yissy Garcia on the drums, accompanied by two brothers with a talent for fusing rock guitar sounds with traditional Cuban music: David Blanco and Ernesto Blanco. It’s a powerful mix – don’t miss it!

Omara Portuondo at Plaza San Francisco de Asis

Her name alone might not make you instantly think this is a performance you have to see, you might not be familiar with who she is based on her name alone and you might not draw the instant link that this is the lady that famously performed among all the male stars that made up the Buena Vista Social Club (of which many official members are now deceased). Well, indeed that’s Omara, know and loved by all Cubans as the veteran voice of traditional Cuban music and boleros. And she’ll be giving it her all for a one-night-only special in a very public stage – no other than the centric San Francisco de Asis Square in Old Havana, accompanied by the national orchestra – Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional. As you’ve probably guessed and is usually typical with these kind of open-air concerts, attendance is absolutely free yet you will have walked away from here feeling as though you’ve experienced something truly priceless.

It’s taking place this coming Sunday 3rd January 2016 at 8:30 p.m. and you better be there, as her concerts are few and stretched far between during the year and where else in the world would you get to see her without paying a hefty entry price? With a longstanding (and seemingly never-ending) career that has withstood the test of time and spanned over half a century, this grand 85-year-old dame shows no sign of ever slowing down or easing into old age. In fact she’s due to perform in various stages across Asia and Europe from March next year onwards, including London’s The O2, Barcelona’s Auditori Forum and Vienna’s Wiener Konzerthaus in April. But before all this happens, if you’re in Cuba this Sunday, don’t miss the chance!

Ballet Nacional de Cuba at Gran Teatro de La Habana

To close off the weekend with a big bang and start the new year in style, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba will be giving two special performances at the Gran Teatro de la Habana – one this Friday and another on Sunday; both at 5 p.m.

The first of these two performances is not only special because it will be the very first of the year, right on 1st January, but also because it coincides with the reopening debut of the Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso, which had remained closed for three years due to extensive renovation works. To mark the occasion the Cuban Ballet Company, which calls this theatre its official home, will be in charge of the reopening ceremony with a dancing gala entitled “Triptico Clasico” and which will be staged at the Sala Federico Garcia Lorca. This tryptic performance includes first act of Giselle, the second act of Swan Lake and the third act from Coppelia. Whilst the vast majority of us won’t be able to attend the first performance on Friday as it will be dedicated to all the people who in one way or another contributed to the restoration of the theatre (and therefore tickets for this performance are not for public sale) you can most definitely (and I urge you to) get your hands on a ticket for Sunday’s performance – be hasty though, these sell out fast; really, really fast! Tickets are sold at the Gran Teatro’s main ticket office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. – hurry down there now!

More public concerts - Havana d’ Primera or Pupy y los que Son Son

Cuba is definitely celebrating the start of the New Year with in a big musical way with more free concerts in a day than you could wish for, but you’ll have to choose as the two I’m announcing now take place at the same time – they’re both on at 9 p.m. on Friday 1st January.

My personal recommendation? Head to the Malecon-facing Tribuna Antiimperialista to enjoy Havana d’ Primera’s performance with Tania Pantoja. Not only is the location highly popular and centric, this is the best Cuban salsa of today performed live for free! On the downside, you can expect it to get significantly busy with large crowds. Most likely, streets and avenues will be closed down to accommodate the huge crowds, so if you don’t mind being a little squashed by all means join in the mob…or, alternatively, if big festival-style concerts aren’t your thing, step back a little and listen to it from a more prudent, less crowded distance.

To welcome the new year and also celebrate the 57th anniversary of the triumph of the Revolution, two salsa bands will be joining forces to get the crowds dancing at Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano – the island’s largest baseball stadium – in yet another centric location a bit further down from the iconic Revolution Square. In this concert, David Alvarez and his group, Juego de Mano, will be performing alongside Pupy y los que Son Son for an energetic salsa evening that will get everyone dancing all night long.

The Arts – Expo in Camaguey and Habana Sensual

Not much new is going on in Cuba’s arts scene when it comes to exhibitions, but there are a couple of recommendations I would suggest for those art-starved tourists wanting to catch something special before it’s over.

Firstly and most importantly, the biggest of artistic events in Cuba this week is a new large-scale exhibition in the province of Camaguey, celebrating local artists and artisans with a collection of works entitled “Concierto a Dos Voces”. The name of the exhibition, which translates as “concert for two voices” or “concert by two singers”, comes from the fact that two local artists join forces here to present their creations: Marbelis Hernandez Dominguez and Hector Gerona Alonso, both members of the Cuban Association of Artisan Artists of Camaguey (Asosiacion Cubana de Artesanos Artistas de Camaguey). You can expect to find a wide diversity of artisan works made with locally-sourced materials that include vegetable fibres, coconuts, bone, guira, leather and seeds.

On the other end of the spectrum and in a completely different city, the photographic exhibition “Pasajes Adyacentes” (translating as “Adjacent Landscapes”) will be on show until tomorrow, 31st December, so you only have one more day to see it at the Sala Emilio Roig of the Palacio Lombillo in Old Havana. The collection consists of a series of visually striking photographic works where the spectator can take a peek intro alternative realities created in micro-spaces that can only be accessed through boxes of light.

And, as one exhibition ends another one gets ready to takes its place. Coming soon Palacio de Lombillo, a personal photographic collection entitled Habana Sensual (Sensual Havana) by Cuban photographer, Gabriel Davalos will be on show starting next week on Friday 8th January at 4 p.m. Shown only for a limited time, you’ll be able to enjoy these evocative photographs until 8th February. This rather unique collection consists of 26 photographs showing Cuban dancers perform through the streets of Havana. You could even be lucky enough to walk away with one of these originals for free as the photographer will be putting one of his pieces up for grabs in a prize draw. You can also buy the book with all the photographs for a reduced price.

For Families – Circus Fun all around

For the littlest ones tagging alone on your Cuba holiday this week there isn’t a lot going on for them this week, but still Cuban families have an option or two for entertaining their children during the end of year school break.

Your best option as a family in Cuba this weekend is to go to one of the special performances by the Circo Nacional de Cuba to welcome the New Year in true pirouette-esque style. To ensure no one in the family misses out on the action, there are three daily performances scheduled for Saturday and Sunday 2nd and 3rd January; the first starts at 11 a.m., the second at 4 p.m. and the last one at 7 p.m. Where? At the Carpa Trompoloco in the Playa municipality.

Alternatively, if you take your little ones to the Havana zoo this weekend they can enjoy yet another circus performance, this time with a strong focus on magic tricks. It starts at 9.30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

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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