If you thought we had been too quiet about goings-on in Cuba as of late, you were probably right. But then again, January is usually something of a hangover month for Cubans, one during which the sleepy population slowly starts awakening to the dawn of a fresh new year, and in this year’s case many were still adapting to the news of late Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s passing, an event that also marked a period of mourning for the island.
But we’re in February now, and, after turning over a new leaf, Cubans are regaining their energy to continue with the celebration of planned festivals, events and concerts. February, for example, is the month for celebrating the written word as the capital hosts the Havana Book Fair (Feria Internacional del Libro de La Habana) in quite a flair. Then there’s also a series of special performances by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, a one-of-a-kind congregation of proud Harley Davidson owners, a concert-packed salsa festival and the chance to attend one of many special renaissance and medieval music performances at various Havana venues. Oh, and if you ever wanted to know more about Havana’s centuries-old cigar tradition, or if you want an excuse to light one in the most glamourous of settings, there’s also the Habano festival to attend. Read on to see this month’s highlights in more detail.
International Book Fair 2017 – 9th to 19th February
As has been the case since 2000, for this year’s 26th edition of Havana’s International Book Fair, a.k.a. Feria Internacional del Libro de La Habana, an area adjacent to the photogenic Morro fortress will play host to the capital’s biggest book festivity. To be more precise, the venue is the fortress of San Carlos de La Cabana (more commonly referred to as La Cabana) and this year’s fair will be dedicated to Canada, as the honoured guest country.
In line with the Canada theme, some contemporary Canadian writers, like Margaret Atwood, will be coming down to Havana to hold seminars, give lectures or sign books. There will also be quite a few books written in English to peruse, although the majority, quite expectedly will be in Spanish. Regardless, visiting the fair is about far more than buying or browsing books; it’s an immersive experience for tourists and a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of how books in Cuba draw truly large crowds. Quite a few books on the life of late Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, will also be launched at this year’s fair, translated into various languages, so if at all interested in Cuban history, you’ll have ample opportunity to take your pick among many interesting titles.
Alternatively, there’s the confirmed participation of 35 countries in this year´s event, with 16 authors, 86 foreign exhibitors and 58 Cuban editorials. There´ll be special book presentations and book launches from renowned worldwide writers. Promoting cultural exchanges while instilling the love for the written word among participants, Cuba´s International Book Fair will move to the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba before its closing. So, there is one more place to enjoy it the book fever in Cuba, beyond Havana
Early Music Festival “Esteban Salas” – 4th to 12th February
For those with a taste for old time classics, and by old I mean going all the way back to the medieval and renaissance time periods, there´s one exceptional event on the Cuban calendar this month not to miss. Created to honour the memory of Esteban Salas, the first Cuban musician of whom there is record of printed scores, the Esteban Salas Early Music Festival (Festival de Musica Antigua Esteban Salas, takes over Old Havana presided by the Ars Longa Music Ensemble and organised the Office of the Historian of the City.
Having kick-started on 4th February with a show entitled “Carnaval” and which paid homage to the role of dancing as a gesture-sound manifestation through the ages, the festival includes a variety of special concerts held at various venues across the city, most notably the San Francisco de Paula Church in Havana, where Cuban organist Moises Santiesteban will play the Dublaine Ducroquet organ, one of the island´s oldest musical relics, dating back to the 19th century and preserved intact to this day at the afore-mentioned church.
Coming along to participate in this international festival, the New York Baroque Dance Company and the Mexican Tembembe Continuo ensemble will offer various performances alongside the Cuban Ars Longa Ensemble with an array of novohispano dances staged by the Mexican group, 17th and 18th century baroque dances from Europe performed by the New York company and Afro-Cuban dances presented by the Cuban ensemble. Beyond that, other invited guests include musicians from Austria, Germany, Colombia, Argentica and Italy.
If you want to be part of the early music festivities, the former church of San Francisco de Paula will be your safest bet, as it will host concerts most days, except on 8th, 10th and 11th February where the music will be moved to the Oratorio San Felipe Neripe (on Wednesday 8th and Friday 10th) while the Teatro Marti will play centre stage to only one performance on Saturday 11th with the presentation of “Los placers de la danza barroca” (The pleasures of baroque dancing) under the direction of Catherine Turocy and Walter Reiter and the participation of the New York Baroque Dance Company and the Ars Longa ensemble. The closing ceremony will be held at the San Francisco de Paula venue on 12th February and this 12th edition of Havana´s Early Music Festival promises to go out on a very high note indeed.
6th International Harley Davidson Concentration in Cuba – 9th to 12th February
Check out the real Cuban “Harlistas” (true die-hard Harley fans and vintage bike riders) at the biggest concentration of its kind in the island. Proud owners of original Harley Davidson bikes will be gathering at Cuba´s premier beach destination of Varadero, in the Matanzas province, for a three-day motor extravaganza to the sound of revving engines.
The sixth International Harley Davidson Concentration in Cuba invites all Harley owners, and not just Cuban ones, to join the rally and journey along the scenic Varadero roads on two (or three) wheels. Everyone is welcome and participation is not linked to any motorcycle club or official organisation, even bikers who ride other motorcycle brands are invited to come along and join in the fun for the ride of a lifetime, among like-minded bike enthusiasts. There’s an official link to check out if interested in participating (harlistascubanosrally.com) and to learn more about Cuba’s Harley Davidson aficionados, there’s an article offering photographic insight into the Cuban Harlistas while a new film showcasing original Harley Davidson vintage beauties in Cuba is on the works. The new Habana Riders is expected to start shooting in Cuba soon, so if you can’t make it to this year’s event to see the real thing in person, you can at least look forward to a new movie bringing it all to life soon.
Salsa Festival of Havana – 20th to 27th February
Prepare your dancing shoes if coming to Havana during the last week of February! All salsa-dancing enthusiasts will have numerous opportunities in the Cuban capital for honing their skills and showing them off at various dance halls throughout the city with the celebration of this popular festival’s second annual edition. There’ll be dance workshops held at the Comodoro Hotel on 21st and 22nd February, special performances by internationally-acclaimed dance teachers, street comparsas, and live music pretty much everywhere, from clubs to bars and open-air, impromptu stages.
As published by Prensa Latina, the festival’s producer said of this year’s event:
"We want everyone to have the opportunity to enjoy a festival that matches the quality of others held around the world. We want it to be an event with quality and very affordable prices."
The biggest event of this year’s salsa festivity will be on 23rd February at the Parque Metropolitano de la Habana, with a mega-huge concert by a variety of famous salsa Cuban bands, from the legendary Van Van to Manolito Simonet, Adalberto Alvarez y su Son and more contemporary groups like Havana d’ Primera, Maykel Blanco y su Salsa Mayor or the ever-popular NG La Banda. This is one outdoor gig to firmly jot on your Cuba holiday agenda (if you’re lucky enough to be enjoying one at the time).
Habano Festival 2017 – 27th February to 3rd March
One of the year’s most special events, and one with the biggest international attendance is the Habano Festival, locally known as the "Festival del Habano". Now in its 19th edition, one of the world’s most prestigious cigar events, and that gathers cigar aficionados and connoisseurs from the world over, the Habano Festival will kick off on 27th February to end the month with a glamorous welcome gala at Club Habana, known as Welcome Night and treating guests to the best live music, the most outstanding Cuban gastronomy and the chance to sample an ample variety of beverages and food delicatessen from various corners of the world.
During the festival’s five-day programme, new cigar products will be launched, most of which will be exclusively available for sampling throughout the event. As part of the many activities planned, participants will be able to fully immerse in Cuba´s decades-long cigar culture and will get to visit harvesting farms, factories and witness the art of hand-rolling up’close. This year’s starring brand will be H. Upmann, which will be presenting its first “Gran Reserva Cosecha 2011” (Great Reserve of 2011) a new line of cigars that will position itself as the brand´s most exclusive, premium product.
The festival includes guided visits to Pinar del Rio, home to Cuba´s finest tobacco plantations (with visits to Vuelta Abajo included, so that participants get to meet and greet the best growers in the region) as well as a visit to the H.Upmann and La Corona factories. There will also be master classes and conferences led by renowned world experts in the Habanos´ ample variety of products, an International Seminar opening on 1st March, the 16th International Habanosommelier competition and the Habanos Awards 2016, with its traditional “Subasta de Humidores” (Humidors Auction) the proceeds of which will be destined to funding Cuba´s public healthcare system.
An entirely new product going under the name of "Quai D´Orsay" will be launched on the evening of 1st March at the Salon de Protocolo of El Laguito, a famous cigar factory in Havana. Montecristo will also introduce new vitolas to their regular series.
To round it all up, there will be three nights of parties with live music, international performers and the finest Cuban food. If you want to be among the 50 nationalities who come down to Cuba for this special event, now is the time to book your pass for this one-of-a-kind, smoky-eyed festival. Places for each activity are limited and their price range between 40 CUC for cigar factories tours and 85 CUC for visits to tobacco plantations, going all the way up to 700 CUC to attend the closing evening gala. If you want to sign up for either (or all) of these activities, you must send a written request to event organisers or log into habanos.com for more details.
Newcomers – launching in February until further notice
The two events that follow on my top pick for this February are ongoing and have no expiry date, at least none published so far. Both initiatives will nicely add to Havana´s nightlife scene and live classic music repertoire.
National Symphony Orchestra to offer concert matinees on Sundays
The Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Cuba, one of the oldest and most significant music institutions in the country has planned a matinee of concerts to be held at the Teatro Amadeo Roldan every Sunday at 11 a.m. Delighting an audience of classic music lovers to a variety of music productions each week, this initiative has no announced final date, which is why I assume the National Symphony Orchestra will be offering live concerts indefinitely, or until further notice. So, now you know, if in Havana and thirsty for a classic music reverie, make your way to the Amadeo Roldan on a Sunday morning and you’ll be treated to the sublime sounds of one of the island’s most talented classical music companies.
Havana Queens Party – a thrice-weekly dance show at the Habana Libre
An energetic and vibrant company composed of young dancers is taking to the stage every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at the Habana Libre Hotel’s “Canitas Salon” to offer the audience with some pretty spectacular dancing entertainment amid drinks and tapas.
Founded in April 2012, "Havana Queens" has its own unique style and a rather extensive repertoire of acts, encompassing everything from traditional Cuban salsa dancing to Spanish flamenco, folklore and African movements and rhythms with international twists. By merging this many dancing styles they’ve created a signature choreography that contains various genres at once. This is one of the many reasons why should come and see them live, I guarantee you’ll be enraptured by their diverse music selection and the talent of the skilful dancers. With three weekly performances starting at 9:30 p.m. you’ll have plenty of opportunity to catch them in Havana.