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Hot in Cuba - Jazz Plaza 2016, Havana Film Festival and Rumba in El Palenque

December may be a chilly month in the UK, but Cuba’s as hot as ever during the festive season. Free from mass commercialisation it may be, but full of charm and warmth nevertheless, making it all the more special to visit at this time. Despite the island having only started recovering from the death of its historic revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, the country is looking forward to seasonal festivities and going full steam ahead with plans for festivals and special events.

Hot in Cuba - Jazz Plaza 2016, Havana Film Festival and Rumba in El Palenque

Cubans may still be grieving the loss of their legendary leader, Fidel Castro, with his sudden departure on 25th November still raw and aching, yet as soon as the official period of mourning ended last Sunday, all previously suspended events, parties, activities and festivals are back in full swing to lighten the mood and help Cubans get into the festive spirit.

If you’re lucky enough to be heading to Havana this December, there’s plenty in the way of cultural events to enhance your visit, from the debut of contemporary ballet pieces by Carlos Acosta’s dance company to unique opportunities for enjoying the best and finest of Latin American cinema and catching some jazzy tunes throughout the Jazz Plaza festival, there’s more than one place in Cuba to catch live action this December and more than one way to do so.

Jazz Plaza Festival 2016 (11 – 19 December)

Now in its 32nd edition, the Havana International Jazz Festival, also known as Jazz Plaza Festival has become one of the biggest jazz events not only in the Caribbean but in all of the Americas, with talented jazz musicians from the world over making frequent appearances and jazz lovers from all corners of the world flocking down to the Cuban capital for a week-long jazz extravaganza that takes over the city’s theatres, music halls and open-air concert venues.

Centric to all the jazz action are two of the city’s favourite jazz hotspots, two smoky, rum-soaked joints in Vedado that are permanent hosts to the country’s best jazz performers: La Zorra y El Cuervo and the Jazz Café. If in Havana during Jazz Plaza 2016 this December, you can bet that either of these venues (plus many more around downtown) will have a packed schedule of performances throughout.

But for the first time in its history, the Jazz Plaza Festival won’t be exclusive to Havana. In fact, its 2016 edition will actually kick off in Santiago de Cuba, and the festival will be celebrated in both cities simultaneously. Havana and Santiago will each have a presiding guest of honour, with veteran jazzist and five-time Grammy-award-winner Chucho Valdes overseeing the festival in Havana, and contemporary local jazz legend Roberto Fonseca, presiding things in Santiago.

All in all, the event will bring to Cuba talented musicians from over 10 different countries with big names from the U.S. including E-Collective (who will perform alongside Chucho Valdes), The Snarky Puppy and the Christian McBride Trio. Also participating in this year edition, Malian musician Fatoumata Diawara from Africa, will be performing with Roberto Fonseca while other international confirmed guests include Third World from Jamaica, Canadian Doug Martin, Stefan Jonson from Sweden, Colombian group Michel and his Latin Jazz, Austrian quartet Michaela Rabitsch, and the Supernova Jazz Trio from Argentina.

If in Havana or Santiago between 11th and 19th December 2016, you’ve got a date with jazz, you’ve got many in fact, dotted along virtually every corner in the city, from crammed yet atmospheric jazz joints and cafes to impromptu open-air jamming sessions along the Malecon. Don’t miss it!

38th Havana Film Festival (8 – 18 December)

One of Latin America’s oldest, most prestigious and biggest film events of its kind, starting 8th December 2016, the Havana Film Festival will kick off a ten-day journey of film screenings, special lectures, seminars and award-winning ceremonies to celebrate Latin America’s finest film productions. With the iconic Hotel Nacional being this year’s host in conjunction with the Casa del Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano, those wishing to participate in some of the official events need only ask at either of these two venues.

Throughout the festival’s celebrations, local cinemagoers and tourist visitors alike will be able to choose from 13 different cinemas across the city in which to enjoy special screenings. This is when having a knowledge of Spanish comes in really handy, although some film screenings may come with English subtitles. Again, if interested it won’t hurt to ask around. Cubans are usually more than eager to lend a hand. The full schedule of cinema screenings hasn’t been published yet, but check back in a few days to find out more day-by-day details. Once they’re listed you’ll be able to find screening timings on http://habanafilmfestival.com/calendar/

This year’s edition will also pay homage to the lifetime achievements of late Cuban president and revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, who not only was behind the creation of the festival itself, he also was its biggest sponsor and promoter since its foundation. Honouring his ongoing efforts to advocate for culture and filmmaking as a way of liberation for Latin America, the festival will pay homage to Fidel with the screening of “La Batalla de Jigue” (The Jigue Battle), a film that tales the tell of the rebel fight against former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, a battle ultimately won, as everyone knows, by Fidel’s triumphant revolution.

Dancing Flair

If music is what moves you and dancing is what you most enjoy, whether that means indulging in a bit of body swinging yourself or watching others expertly perform choreographed numbers, you’ll have a few extra special occasions to treat your senses to some outstanding dancing numbers, from folkloric moves with a bit of Cuban rumba to classic ballet dancing and a generous sprinkling of Spanish flamenco flair. Keep reading to find out where to catch the best dance performances in Cuba this month.

Rumba Afternoons in El Palenque

In celebration of the remarkable fact that Cuban Rumba was recently included in UNESCO’s World Heritage list as an “intangible” asset, I want to encourage all visitors to Cuba this December to make it to a live rumba performance and tick off another UNESCO marvel off their list.

If in Havana, the place to head to is "El Palenque", where every Saturday of the month the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba gets together to put on an incredible show full of creative flair and contagious rhythm. From 3 o’clock in the afternoon, every Saturday, "El Palenque" opens its doors to its biggest rumba extravaganza, with invited guests like Yoruba Andabo, Clave y Guaganco and the legendary Munequitos de Matanzas, all of whom will treat the audience to an energetic, sensual and theatrical performance of rumba music, singing and dancing. This is a date on the calendar to heavily underscore: three hours of explosive dancing and singing that’s as alluring as it is intoxicating. A truly unforgettable, 100 % Cuban experience you simply cannot afford to miss.

Flamenco Nights with El Tablao

Every Wednesday and Friday this month, from 10 p.m. until 12 a.m. a big flamenco extravaganza takes centre stage at the Gran Teatro de la Habana with Reynier Marino’s “El Tablao” dancing ensemble. A fine flamenco dancer himself, not only in Cuba but in the whole world, Marino used to work with the late Paco de Lucia and has seamlessly put together an exquisite production showcasing the best and finest of this Spanish art in motion: flamenco dancing.

Be carried over by the sound of rhythmic castanets, sultry guitar strummings and soulful voices that pull at the heartstrings, while feasting your eyes on the swaying motions of beautiful dancers, passionately (and artfully) moving their arms and hips to the pulsing tapping of their feet on the “tablao”. It all starts with the sound of guitar chords, “palmas” (clapping), and “cajon” beating breathing life into a flurry of ornate frilly dresses swaying their way to the dance floor. Get your hands on tickets while you can, they’ll be on sale from the Gran Teatro’s box office.

Dance Style Fusion with Acosta Danza

Classic ballet, contemporary dance and folkloric dancing all come together this December as part of accomplished (and now retired) Cuban dancer, Carlos Acosta’s new mega production “Temporada de Otono” (Autumn Season) which brings together a series of world premieres, including “Hokiri” by French choreographer Mickael Marso and “Babbel 2.0.” by Catalan choreographer Maria Rovira and “Derrumbe”, produced by Cuban choreographer, Miguel Altunaga.

Staged on 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th December at El Gran Teatro de la Habana, you’ll have to head to the theatre itself to find out the exact timings of each performance as this information has not been widely publicised online.

The second part of this late autumn production will be Tocororo Suite, created by Carlos Acosta and mixing elements from classic ballet and folkloric afro-Cuban dancing. Bringing to life daily aspects of Cuban life through the mix of contemporary moves and classic components, Tocororo Suite has gone around the world showcasing authentic, raw Cuban culture and proving a massive award-winning success among worldwide audiences. These tickets have famously sold out like hot pancakes, so if you want to catch one of these performances, time is of the essence!

Fine arts

If you’ve got an eye for the beautiful, the unique, the quirky, the evocative, the spiritual and the whimsical, you have a place in Cuba, a country that inhales and exhales art through its every pore. There’s always a variety of exhibitions to check out throughout all of the island’s many galleries, the list would go on and on and you’ll come across many on your way around town. These are my top three art exhibitions for the month.

Levitacion – a personal collection (until 18th December)

If you want an encounter with authentic Cuban art, head to Galeria Origenes inside Havana’s Gran Teatro de la Habana to peruse a beautiful art collection by local artist Moises Finale. Entitled “Levitacion” (Levitation) this personal selection of works includes unique creations that incorporate colossal fabrics, metal artwork, acrylic paints, sequins and blacks, whites, reds and yellows. This unique blend of colours and materials pays homage to the author’s most spiritual side, evoking a levitative state that carries you through his works.

Alfonso Llorens exhibition in Matanzas (until 16tth December)

If you happen to be spending sometime beachcombing in Varadero’s warm waters this December and you enjoy a good art exhibition by a contemporary local artist, it may be worth it for you to make the short journey to the city of Matanzas and stop by the UNEAC centre to enjoy an exhibition by Alfonso Llorens, an artist whose works mainly centre around reproducing the natural beauty of Matanzas lush landscape and beachscape. The selection of pieces on show are truly beautiful pieces, and if I were you I’d make the 40-minute car ride from Varadero to enjoy them, and also, while you’re at it go on a tour of this pretty, mostly (and unjustly) overlooked Cuban city.

The Unusual and filigree creations at FAC

If you want to feast your eyes on an attractive selection of captivating photographs by a wide-ranging selection of Cuban artists, the trendy, hippy venue of Factoria de Arte Cubano, or FAC as most people call it, is the place to check out this month. With a title that roughly translates as “the odd” or “the unusual”, this carefully curated collection is highly evocative and thought-provoking. It will be presented on Nave 1 (this complex is split into different sections called “naves”).

Once, you’re done soaking the art of these photographs you can follow it up with a sculpture collection by contemporary Portuguese artist Susana Teixeira, who is also exhibiting her latest works on Nave 1, and that of other artists from her native land. As part of the exhibition, “Filigrana Hoy”, Teixeira will also be hosting a series of workshops about working with filigree, with professor Ana Campos giving a masterclass. 

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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