This time we hit the road with the gramophone in my backpack. We’re heading for Santa Clara, a city found right in the centre of the island, less than two hours away from two other popular tourist destinations: the city of Trinidad and the Cayo Santamaría key. On this occasion we make the journey to Santa Clara in order to enjoy the weekly. Thursday night performance of the city´s young troubadours who get together at El Mejunje, Cuba´s most authentic bohemian locale. El Mejunje stands out for being the island´s most original and folkloric gathering space, where Cuba´s hipsters like to hang out.
First up, let´s explain what lies behind this cultural centre´s name. The word “mejunje” in the Spanish language is typically used to describe a brew, paste or concoction made by mixing a wide variety of ingredients together, many of dubious appearance and often unknown. Just like a strange, atypical mixture, the variety of artists and intellectuals that come together in this cultural joint offer their unique outlook on life through artistic expressions and through avant-garde performances with self-written lyrics by self-made songwriters.
If you favour a subdued and intimate interaction between the performer and the audience over loud and rambunctious salsa or reggaeton performances full of light, pomp and flair, then you should make a stop at El Mejunje a priority during your time in Santa Clara. More specifically, you should clear your schedule on a Thursday night to enjoy a show by La Trovuntivitis.
La Trovuntivitis is Nueva Trova’s most recent and creative generation of Cuban troubadors, offering you a selection of inspiring lyrics accompanied by the sound of expertly strummed acoustic guitars. In the background, you´ll find an energetic interacting audience who eagerly sways along, sometimes in a sort of trance, to the passionate songs that tell of the unique privileges of living in Cuba, and being able to dream of a better country.
The Nueva Trova, created in the 1960s by Cuba´s pioneering troubadour Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés, is a social music movement with songs that place a strong focus on the local community and the resulting lyrics have practically become the day to day “soundtrack” of Cubans throughout these years. But this is a music style that transcends language and it´s not just for Cubans to enjoy, so you can forget all about the fact that you don´t speak Spanish. It won´t be a limitation at all. You might not understand the lyrics, but you´ll feel the same way I do when Iistening to English songs by Cat Stevens or Kate Bush; at the end this is about music at its purest and rawest, able to transmit the most revealing aspects of your own existence.
Two rare words
One day these original bunch of Santa Clara singers and songwriters arrived at El Mejunje wearing very dark sunglasses. It was because their eyes were swollen from conjunctivitis. One of them; Roly Berrío began to joke around with the words trova and conjuntivitis (conjunctivitis). In doing so, he cleverly combined them into one; and thus Trovuntivitis was born, and behind it, the perception of trova as a “spiritual swelling” that is extremely contagious.
Mejunje, which in Cuba is used to refer to a mixed beverage or soup-like concoction, was the word actor Ramón Silverio had been searching for after thirty rears to name this cultural space.
In 1985, Silverio asked state officials permission to use an old and abandoned colonial building in ruins. His purpose was to create a site in which to develop a cultural project that gathered all the arts with an inclusive perspective. Ever since, El Mejunje’s weekly programme alternately includes theatre, visual arts, love songs, artistic games for children, heavy metal concerts, performances by transvestites and quick-change artists, as well as chamber music. But what has really given fame to El Mejunje, is its Thursday nights trova sessions.
Going for a stroll in Santa Clara
Upon arriving in Santa Clara, we head directly to the centric Parque Vidal (Vidal Park), where children ride bicycles while adults chat and help themselves to cooling pina coladas. Just in front of us and to a side of La Caridad theatre, you’ll see a wall which the young people who gather there have named el malecón (sea wall), but only to humorously fight off the misfortune of living in a sea-less city.
Probably the most famous site in the city is the mausoleum where Che Guevara’s mortal remains, rest in peace. We can get there in five minutes and later have dinner at La Aldaba paladar (privately-run restaurant), which I love.
Later on, at around 10 p.m. we make our way to El Mejunje, located on Marta Abreu St., just two blocks away from Parque Vidal. Entry costs us 5 CUP each (a mere 25 cents CUC each, the equivalent to less than 20 pence). Upon crossing the threshold, our senses get into full stimulation mode. The coffee shop, the colonial bricks, the graffiti art on the walls having survived for such a long time; it’s as if we were walking into and old theatre, packed with spirits that live through and for the arts.
Guitars, verses, joy
We walk into the patio which is filling up. There are all sorts of people here; artists, students and tourists staying at nearby Cayo Santamaría (an hour-and-a-half away).
The first performer is Leonardo García; a crooner, a sensitive poet telling us about life’s small details. Alongside Leonardo, the other troubadours present here tonight include; Yaíma Orozco, Roly Berrío, Yordan Romero, Raúl Marchena and Alaín Garrido, all of whom join in the chorus.
It must have been the speed at which time flies by
The music sneaking in among the cigarette smoke and the murmuring
and this contagious joy.
Next up is Yordan Romero, the author of the lively guaracha style of music with iconic songs like “Asando maíz”, with provocative lyrics that have people dancing and singing along. The night wears on and La Trovuntivitis is like a multi-head medusa; voices flowing in and out and rhythms complementing one another.
We head to the bar for some “Bruja” beers; brewed in this province, and listen in on some young people talking about La Trovuntivitis:
“Hey brother, the lights had to be turned on Santa Clara. Lots of troubadours have emerged in our country after Nueva Trova founders Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés. For example; Los Topos (The Moles) in the 1980s, with guys like Carlos Varela and Santiago Feliú; or the singers and songwriters from popular band Habana Abierta in the 1990s. But up to now brother; in the 21st century, Cuba outside Havana had never witnessed such a strong trova movement as this, with so many “monster” (by this they mean monstrously good) composers and such a creative and polyphonic musical concept."
The night closes in
Around 1 a.m. Roly Berrío is singing. Subtle, hilarious, provocative; with an unsuspected ability for singing and playing the guitar, Roly is one of the most singular singers and songwriters of his generation. The picture he brings to my mind is that of an Isabelline actor, acting out his songs.
Only songs flow out of me
instead of lies
with which I make you laugh.
I lean into a light
which is all yours
and barely mine
After Roly wraps up his performance, everything seems to float. People look into each other’s eyes and smile, confirming that it’s still possible to enjoy art with such passion in the 21st century; in a place where artists and the audience come together in one unique mejunje. With that same passion we’ll later follow the guitar sounds in Parque Vidal, where the party for this city’s devoted trova lovers, will continue till dawn.