It’s a matter of senses. The same way a smell can bring back a childhood memory, music can make you travel thousands of miles. Bearing this in mind, I would love to share with readers seven carefully-picked songs inspired by beautiful Cuban cities. They are all some of my favourites, the amulets that transport me - as Cuban writer Jose Lezama Lima said - whenever I wish to travel without leaving my seat.
Seven cities and soundtracks for fly-and-drive in Cuba
“Barrio Barroco” by William Vivanco
Just like the impressive Sierra Maestra Mountains that surround it, an almost supernatural geological force seems to run through the city of Santiago de Cuba. I assure you that something inside you will change once you see it. Being in Santiago is like travelling to the heart of the Caribbean and experiencing all it has to offer: the relentless sun on your skin, the mixture of traditions and architecture, the upbeat life of an intense city, filled with contrasts but overall the musicality and refreshing character of its people.
This song captures the spirit of Santiago like few do: cultured and popular, old and new, sophisticated and “vulgar”. A worthy representative of Santiago’s trova music, the record describes the light and shadows of Cuban life from a positive perspective, always in favour of happiness and exuding joie-de-vivre. Quoting Vivanco’s lyrics:
“I’m from a baroque neighbourhood with hints of spirituality, baroque sun, baroque sea, that lives the best way it can as it is.”
While visiting Santiago, I recommend to listen “Lo tengo to pensao” CD (Bis Music, 2002) among which the song “Barrio barroco” stands out.
“Cienfuegos” by Benny More
If you ask about Cienfuegos anywhere in Cuba, people will answer “Oh yes, the Pearl of the South, stunning city” - and they would all be speaking the truth. Bathed by the azure waters of the Caribbean Sea and boasting a beautiful bay, Cienfuegos was built upon a centuries-long blend of Arabic, French, Spanish and African cultures. You cannot leave the city without observing the lush facades of Punta Gorda’s mansions and the baroque charm of the Palacio del Valle, or without strolling down the city’s ample promenade known as “El Prado de Cienfuegos” and interacting with “cienfuegueros”, romantic people that look to the sea in search of answers.
An unquestionable genius of Cuba’s all-time music, the great singer Benny More, was one of the characters that fell deeply and forever in love with Cienfuegos. “El Benny” (as he was lovingly called by his fans), used to write songs for every city that marked him. “Cienfuegos” tells the old tale of the young traveller that like Orpheus decides to remain in one place after falling in love. With a natural instinct for music that led him to lead a jazz band without even knowing how to read musical notes, “El Benny” treats us with this sparkling gem, a classic, as Cienfuegos still is (as the song says) “the city I like the most”.
You shouldn't miss “Cienfuegos” video and “El legendario idolo del pueblo de Cuba” CD (Tumbao Cuban Classix, 2003)
“Habaname” by Carlos Varela
The Malecon seawall is possibly the most spiritual place in Havana. From that very spot, in front of the sea and the fresh afternoon sky, you can observe the inevitable contrast between the ocean’s different shades of blue and the eclecticism of an architecture that defies time. You will feel the city’s soul on your skin, a soul that finds its best medicine in its songs.
When the Cuban “trovador” Carlos Varela published his song “Habaname” in 1994, the city lived one of its worst moments in the midst of a deep economic crisis. Young people went to the Malecon to talk about their dreams and forget (at least for a while) about the material deprivation they suffered. But not everything was lost. The young “trovadores” of that time began to release brilliant songs and we breathed again with “Habaname”. From its opening melancholic chords, this musical jewel takes us back to the mysticism of a city that despite its decline will always be our first love.
Looking at a photo album,
of the old capital,
from remote times,
of colonial Havana.
My father left his land,
and when he got to the Morro,
Havana opened its legs,
and that’s why I was born.
In this ocassion, listening to “Como los peces” CD (BMG Ariola, 1994) is highly recommendable. Pay special attention to “Habaname”.
“A Bayamo en coche” by Son 14
Bayamo is the cradle of the Cuban nation. It was the first city taken by the Cuban “mambises” (Cuban independence soldiers) who fought for independence from the Spanish metropolis in the 19th century, and also the first one to be set on fire by its own people who preferred burning it to surrendering it to colonists once more. In this city, the patriotic musician, Perucho Figueredo, composed the National Anthem. You will find remembrances of Bayamo’s glorious past in the historic part of the city as well as in its beautiful boulevard.
Like in many other cities, horse carriages are one of the main means of transport in Bayamo. This was precisely the inspiration for the great pianist and composer Adalberto Alvarez (today one of Cuban music’s grand maestros) who wrote his super classic “A Bayamo en coche” (Going to Bayamo in a horse carriage) in 1978.
One of the greatest Cuban 70’s hits, the song fired up the national music scene and drew the attention of international Salsa singers, including Ruben Blades and Willi Colon. Filled with puns, good humour and vibrant notes close to Latin jazz, “A Bayamo en coche” is a favourite song at any Cuban party's playlist.
You shouldn't skip "A Bayamo en coche" CD (Areito, 1980)
“Guajira Guantanamera” by Joseito Fernandez
Guantanamo, situated in the oriental end of the island, is one of the lesser known cities in Cuba. Neighbouring locations like Baracoa or Santiago itself outshine it. Nevertheless, this city inspired one of the world’s most famous songs “La guantanamera”.
This beautiful song of rural spirit that we have all sung at one point, is the musical epitome of all Cubans. Although there are many theories and arguments (that even made it to court) about who really composed the tune, history and law favoured Havana’s Joseito Fernandez. Before composing his biggest hit in 1928, this musician had to work as a shoemaker and sell newspapers to make a living.
Always dressed with a traditional “guayabera”, white trousers and a hat made of fine material, Joseito added verses to his song according to his mood and daily events he deemed interesting. Although he became immediately popular in the island, he would have to wait until 1963 for his song to reach international recognition thanks to Pete Seeger’s (American folk singer) rendition of it in Carnegie Hall, New York.
Seeger included some of Jose Marti’s verses in his version, which made the song even greater. “La guantanamera” can be sung in a political event or a romantic serenade. Every time I hear it, I feel as if it was Marti himself who sings to me, the brave leader that had once journeyed through its lands and possibly even fallen in love with a “guajira guantanamera” when he returned to Cuba to fight for freedom.
Don't miss out “Guajira guantanamera” video and “Joseito Fernandez y su Guantanamera” CD (Egrem, 2002)
“Pensamiento” by Rafael Gomez Mayea (Teofilito)
“Rafael, take this fruit and think about me, even though I don’t think about you.” This phrase was all Teofilito needed to compose a song at a party for a young girl that celebrated her sixteenth birthday in 1915.
Back in that time, women used flowers’ names to play truth or dare and the birthday girl received the name “Fragrance”. When it was Teofilito’s turn to play he sang a few verses that still symbolize today the romanticism of his city, Sancti Spiritus: “Thoughts/ tell Fragrance/ that I love her/ that I can’t forget her/ that she lives in my soul/ go on and tell her/ tell her I think about her/ even though she doesn’t think about me.”
Located in the centre of the island, Sancti Spiritus is not only one of the first cities founded by Spanish colonizers in 1511, but also a city that has respected and impeccably preserved their ancestors’ patrimony. The best example of this is Trinidad. Teofilito’s song shelters in its melodies and lyrics all the elegance of a magnificent past that refuses to disappear.
Go ahead and load up your mp3 player with “Pensamiento” (Maria Teresa Vera’s version) audio, or if you want to go further, listen to "Trova Tradicional Espirituana" CD (Bis Music, 2010)
“Rucu rucu para Santa Clara” by Irakere
When a city like Santa Clara is portrayed in a song like “Rucu rucu…” the result becomes part of its people’s DNA for a long time. Santa Clara is the most important city of Cuba’s central region. It is loved and admired by many people all over the world as the place the Argentinian warrior Ernesto “Che” Guevara defeated the dictator Batista’s army with his troops in 1958. This city is also famous for its animated cultural scene, for incredible spots like the “Mejunje” and for the beauty of its people.
In 1985, the local and young flute and saxophone player, Jose Luis Cortes crated the musical arrangements for the song and handed it to the great Chucho Valdes. In little time, “Rucu rucu..” became a national hit.
Irakere, the band both excellent musicians belonged to at the time, were possibly the most important group in the history of Cuban music. They were the first Cuban band to win a Grammy and marked a new era not only in Afro Cuban jazz but also in popular Cuban dance music. "Rucu rucu…” is a fine example. To this day, no Cuban can help standing up, singing and dancing the moment that Chucho raises his hands and points at the piano, giving the musicians and the public the signal to begin chanting “Santa Clara, Santa Clara, tomorrow I’m leaving with Cacha to Santa Clara.”
“Rucu rucu a Santa Clara” will definitely rock your world. You'll find it in "Bailando asi" CD (Areito, 1985)
Now that the play list is loaded, lets go to Cuba!
Now you're ready to hit the road. So call up a few of your favorite travel buddies and stay tuned during your trip. These are just some of the great Cuban travel songs you can look for if you want to find some musical travel inspiration.