Tourist packages usually live very little to the imagination. They’re full of heavily-trodden places and they assume that all personal tastes can be standardised. That’s why I’m always trying to step out of the mould when visiting a new place. This is not to mean that tourist packages don’t show you the true picture, but they’d certainly be much better if they were periodically re-thought to meet the changing needs and interests of different visitors.
Today I want to tell you about one of those experiences that you won’t find in a brochure and won’t stumble upon easily unless armed with prior knowledge and interest. Casa Odette in Nuevo Vedado, is one peculiar house where frequent concert-dinners are organised with the performance of some of Cuba’s finest musicians. It’s there I found myself heading to a few days ago, in the company of a good friend. We wanted to explore whether this could count as an unprecedented adventure to write about and recommend to British travellers visiting Havana.
Inside Casa de Odette
In only 10 minutes we had reached the venue in an “almendron”, the name Cubans use to describe old 50s cars. The municipality of Nuevo Vedado is chock-a-block full of spectacular mansions that once belonged to the affluent classes who lived here prior the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
This is our first impression of Casa de Odette: the architecture. The house is a gem that dates back to the first half of the 20th century, elegantly decorated and simply gleaming in every way. On the walls an impressive collection of paintings by famous contemporary Cuban artists adds colour and ambience to the place, it all looks tastefully arranged. We find ourselves in a stylish house where good taste abounds, no doubt.
My friend* and I make our way to the terrace next, where a beautiful garden opens up to reveal the most charming of al fresco dining settings. It was here that we spotted a group of U.S. music teachers who had come to Cuba to participate in the last edition of the Jazz Plaza Festival, dining on delicious traditional Cuban fare. The neatly arranged tables under the open sky, the cosy lighting provided by strategically placed lamps along with the excellent ventilation and the humidity of lush ornamental plants, all conspired to create a haven where subtle pleasures were the key elements of a memorable evening.
A star-struck garden party under the stars
During our walk along the terrace we came across some famous musicians. They were sharing snacks and drinks in an informal and relaxed way. They greeted us as we passed their way, as if they had known us all our lives. This is a rare luxury; I say to my friend. We’ve only seen most of them on TV or at big festivals, but they’re no more than talented people who were lucky to one day become amazing musicians. Yet they certainly don’t act like the big stars they really are, at least not on this occasion.
Once seated a waiter asks what we’d like to drink. The menu features Cuban all-stars like Mojitos and Cuba Libres. Odette herself, the kind and cultured hostess, chats with all of us, keeping a close eye on every detail of this special evening.
After getting into the spirit and downing a few sips of our drinks, we watch the musicians make their way to the stage. By stage I actually mean an area of the lawn where a drum kit, a piano, a bass and various microphones are placed. La Academia is playing, a band founded by talented jazz artist Ruy Lopez-Nussa and featuring stars spanning various generations. After the second or third song, the band becomes some kind of swaying tentacled creature. Musicians come and go, every two or three songs a new pianist replaces the previous one and the drummers switch places to play in turns. We are witnessing a unique, one-off, completely unrepeatable show and it seems to get better and bigger with the buzzing energy and great atmosphere that Casa de Odette exudes.
The U.S. musicians we had seen dining earlier are performing guests and they take to the stage too, in perfect harmony with their Cuban counterparts, fully synchronised despite not having previously rehearsed - they’re in full swing like pals they’ve known for ages.
There are around 20 musicians in total and spontaneity is the name of the game. There’s no set list, someone from the group just strikes up song and the rest back him up. That’s how you are gifted with the rare privilege of listening to unedited tunes from an eclectic violinist such as William Roblejo, or a classic like “So” from Miles Davis in a jazz session of less than two hours, where everything is 100% refreshing and natural.
Laughter, affirmative looks and winks are exchanged among them, and the pleasure of communicating in the same universal language of music enlightens the evening for over yet another hour. When most of the visitors pack up and head to their hotels for the night and there’s but a few diners left on the terrace, the Cuban musicians keep the show going and the music flowing. For the sheer joy of it, it seems, they keep strumming their instruments in pure delight.
The key to getting there
You must know that such a special show only takes place once a month at Casa de Odette. And right as we were suspecting, once it’s over, you leave, with a very special energy, buzzing with positive vibes. That’s why my friend didn’t hesitate for a minute and took the opportunity to have a chat with Odette as we were exiting.
As these shows are not open to the wider general public, and these impromptu performances are certainly not mainstream, you need to book your place ahead. This one of the most exclusive experiences to be had in Cuba, as it’s organised only when the minimum number of guests have reserved a spot.
It includes a few important extras such as pick-up and drop-off to and from wherever you’re staying at in the city, so that all you’ll be worrying about on the day is fully enjoying a magical night with plenty of flavoursome Cuban food and skilfully prepared cocktails. As we exited Casa de Odette we were floating on a cloud. It’s really an uplifting experience like nothing else to be found in Cuba… yet