With spring in full swing, Cuba is welcoming a series of events to keep visitors entertained and thoroughly amused, whether they come here for the music, the arts, the dancing, or, simply, the weather.
Any excuse is a good excuse to be in Cuba, and more so this May, when various music festivals from past and present join hands before giving way to the celebration of Cubadisco 2017, an annual event now in its 16th edition celebrating local music talent. The latter is the most important event of the year in the Cuban music scene, and as such will host a series of workshops, CD launches and special performances. Beyond that there´s the opportunity to immerse in local folklore in the eastern part of the city as the Romerias de Mayo unfold, and a chance to witness the country´s annual paragliding competition in the Isle of Youth.
This weekend in Havana – April draws to a close to the sound of jazz
As we wave goodbye to what has been a mostly wet and gloomy April in the UK, Cuba ends the month with plenty of music, in two very different genres. On one hand, we have the Chamber Music Festival showcasing the very best and finest of medieval sounds, and on the other, we have contemporary jazz rhythms that culminate in a big global party known as International Jazz Day (#jazzday) celebrated in Cuba for the first time ever and bringing together the best, most talented jazz performers in the world. Keep reading to see where to catch all the music action in Havana this weekend.
13th Chamber Music Festival (26th to 29th April)
The 13th edition of the “Festival de Musica de Camara” kicked off on 26th April at its main hosting venue – the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis, also known as the San Francisco de Asis Convent or the San Francisco de Asis Concert Hall. Foreign musicians from five different countries (Germany, Russia, Costa Rica, Peru and the U.S.) will participate in the event and offer several performances across the festival’s duration, joining local talent such as Cuban pianist Frank Fernandez, the Orquesta de Camara de la Habana, Orquesta de Musica Eterna, Ebanos de La Habana, Duo Ondina, Quinteto Ventus Habana and more. Over the next three days, chamber music takes over various concert venues in Havana, each as majestically colonial as the next.
Here are the main venues and concert details:
• Oratorio San Felipe Neri – concerts on 27th and 28th April at 7 p.m.
• Iglesia de Paula – concerts twice daily every day (from 26th to 29th April) at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.
• San Francisco de Asis Convent – daily concerts on all of the festival dates at various times
Women in Jazz - prelude to International Jazz Day (29th April)
Preceding the massive concert due to take place the following day (to a wide international audience as it will be broadcast life in various countries), this jazz special pays homage to women in jazz and explores the local transition from rumba to jazz, acknowledging the African elements that are a vital part of Cuban jazz. A band made up of five incredibly talented ladies will treat the audience to a full hour of passionate jazz renditions. Vocalists Zule Guerra and Brenda Navarrete will join Yissi on the drums and Bandancha for a soul-enriching spectacle that promises to be as captivating as it sounds. The venue is the Teatro Mella, the time 6 p.m.
International Jazz Day - hosted by Will Smill - (30th April)
The All-Star Global concert celebrating International Jazz Day in Cuba on Sunday 30th April is quite the big thing. Did I say big? I meant to say huge, enormous…of epic proportions! Why might that be, do you ask? Well, for starters it unites famous jazz stars from the world over under one single roof, for a performance that transcends time, generations, and even jazz itself; spanning different styles, cultures and languages. Then, there's the little fact that Will Smith will be coming down to Havana to host the event. Yes, you're reading right, this will be the first time the charismatic Hollywood actor and singer comes to Cuba and he will do so in full jazzing style.
This ground-breaking spectacle will be hosted at the Gran Teatro de La Habana “Alicia Alonso”, which happens to be the oldest theatre in Latin America and one of the world’s most historic, dating all the way back to 1838. Recently refurbished, it shines brighter than ever and I couldn’t think of a better stage in which to showcase local and foreign jazz talent to the world.
The event will be broadcast live around the world, to cities like New York, Paris and Tokyo. It will see over 50 of the world’s finest jazz performers take to the stage, representing 14 countries, namely: France, Chile, Germany, Russia, the United States, Italy, Brazil, Tunisia, Lebanon, Japan, Republic of Korea, Cameroon, China and Mexico. Top names in the world of jazz that will perform on the night include Cubans Chucho Valdes and Bobby Carcasses, John Beasley, Quincy Jones and Esperanza Spalding from the U.S., Cameroonian, Richard Bona, plus many more.
Romerias de Mayo in Holguin (2 – 8th May)
This peculiar celebration exclusive to the eastern city of Holguin (home to the popular Guardalavaca beach resort) is one of the oldest traditions that townspeople have fought to preserve throughout the years, though it no longer has the strong spiritual drive it once did.
With a religious backdrop that nowadays is more about the joy of getting together and celebrating old traditions than about worshipping or upholding Christian values, Holguin has been proudly celebrating the centuries-old pilgrimage of Romerias de Mayo since 1752, the year in which the town obtained the Title of City from the hands of its first ever Lieutenant Governor, who arrived in the company of five Franciscans. The story goes that one of them, Friar Antonio Josep Alegre, who went on to later be called “Alegria” (the word for “joy” in Spanish) marked the occasion by carrying a giant cross to a small elevation known as “Cerro de Bayado”, but now more commonly referred to as “Loma de la Cruz” (Hill of the Cross), so that it could be observed from various points in the city. Soon after the locals started making the ascent to pray to the cross and be granted miracles and so every 3rd May Holguin kickstarted what came soon to be known as Romerias de Mayo (May Pilgrimage).
If you want to get lost in the crowds and be part the processions that take hold of the city during a whole week of parades, music bands, street dancing and colourful entertainment, then the first week of May is a great time to be in Holguin. With the celebration revived in 1994 by the local organisation “Hermanos Sainz” (Sainz Brothers) under the motto: “Porque no hay hoy sin ayer” (something that loosely translates as “Because there wouldn’t be a today without a yesterday”), proud Holguineros take to the street every May to unite the old with the new, the past with the present.
The so-called “Romerias” start on 2nd May with the beautiful car parade that runs from the city’s central park to the Bosque de los Heroes (Heroes’ Forest), ending at midnight. The following day in the morning the romeria’s opening parade starts, dragging the entire town behind, and carrying the symbolic “Hacha de Holguin” (a massive house-size sculpture representative of the city) and finishing up with a concert at the top of the Loma de la Cruz. Simply put, no one barely sleeps here for a week and the whole town is in party mode until 8th May, when they lower “El Hacha de Holguin” and a tree is planted so that this tradition keeps growing.
Alternative Music Festival “Un Puente Hacia La Habana” (8th to 14th May)
Celebrated simultaneously across various cities in the island, the sixth edition of a music festival dedicated to uniting foreign musicians with their Cuban counterparts in the alternative sounds scene; will take over Havana, Varadero, Villa Clara and Cienfuegos on a week-long of performances and one-off concerts.
“Un Puente Hacia La Habana” (A Bridge to Havana) aptly describes the idea behind this music festival’s concert, which acts as a bridge between countries to foster cultural exchanges with other cultures and regional music. This year, the festival is dedicated to Colombia, and as such Cuban and Colombian musicians will share the stage in a series of public shows. If you want a taste of what lies in store you can check previous editions of the festival on Spotify’s “Un Puente Hacia La Habana” album.
Where to enjoy it live? If you’re in Havana head to the Teatro Nacional de Cuba’s Café Cantante “Mi Habana”. If in Varadero head to Casa de la Musica de Varadero, if in Cienfuegos make it to the Teatro Tomas Terry and if you’re in Santa Clara make your way to the Universidad de Villa Clara. Oh, and Havana’s iconic Plaza de la Revolucion will see some concert action too, but do check out the venues yourself to find the exact dates and times for each show. Or ask around, in Cuba there’s always someone keen to point you in the right direction.
Cubadisco 2017 (14th to 21st May)
Although this annual music event celebrating local talent is celebrated nationwide, it is the capital that hosts the largest variety of events, workshops, seminars and live performances. It offers space for music industry leaders to engage and debate on a variety of topics; from the evolving of music teaching methods to examining the impact music has on newer generations, to what extent it can be considered part of a nation’s heritage and. This year’s International Cubadisco Fair will be dedicated to France, with plenty of French-inspired exhibitions, performances, media screenings, guided visits, concerts and more. Beyond the French theme, some of Cuba’s most talented musicians will join fellow international counterparts for the Cubadisco Awards Gala. Expect to see impromptu stages with live concerts on the streets, stalls selling CDs and new CD launches and presentations.
If you love Cuban music, it’s a great time to be in Havana and absorb this musical fair’s buzzing atmosphere. The main venues hosting special Cubadisco-related events and concerts are: Casa del Alba Cultural, Sala Avenida, the Karl Marx theatre and Teatro Nacional.
Heartbeat – a dancing extravaganza by Litz Alfonso (13th to 28th May)
The internationally acclaimed Cuban choreographer, Litz Alfonso, director of the world-famous Cuban dance company and dance school that beas her name (Ballet Litz Alfonso and Litz Alfonso Dance Cuba School) has put together an exquisite production that will grace the halls of the Gran Teatro de La Habana “Alicia Alonso” from 13th to 28th May.
This rich dance extravaganza, created in collaboration with award-winning Cuban saxophonist and international Latin Jazz star, Cesar Lopez, will pay homage to the 25th anniversary of the Ballet Litz Alfonso’s foundation, an academy that has flourished and gone from strength over the last decades. Litz Alfonso’s dance company is the first in Cuba to have performed at the Latin Grammys, after having choreographed the music video for Enrique Iglesias’ massive 2015 mega-hit “Bailando”. It has also been the first ever Cuban company to perform for an entire season at New York’s New Victory Theatre at 42 Street and Broadway. So now you understand why I’m super excited about this new show and highly recommend all visitors to Havana between 13th and 28th May to get tickets as soon as possible. They will run out fast!
Cuban Jazz with Real Project in Havana (18th May)
Presenting their debut album “Mal Tiempo” (which could be interpreted as either “Bad weather” or “Bad time”), the joint efforts of Cuban jazz drummer Ruly Herrera and Cuban jazz band Real Project will delight an eager audience at El Ciervo Encantado on Calle 18, between Linea and 11 in the downtown neighbourhood of Vedado.
After winning the Cubadisco 2015 award for its accompanying documentary, Jazz and Making Of, this one-off concert offers jazz lovers a rare opportunity to see this group of rising stars share the stage to give a rendition of their Mal Tiempo hits. The time is 8:30 p.m. and you can buy tickets at the door.
12th National Paragliding Championship in Isle of Youth (10th – 18th May)
Despite it now celebrating its 12th edition, this is one annual sports competition in Cuba that not many know about, mainly because it happens in the more remote offshore island known as Isle of Youth, found just south of Cuba’s eastern coast. Beyond its wild pine tree forests, this little isle is also famous for being home to some spectacular scuba diving sites and its international PADI diving centre at El Colony. But come 10th May paragliding athletes will be battling it out to earn themselves the winning title.
Spread over 8 days, the competition, in compliance with the Federacion Cubana de Vuelo Libre (Cuban Free Flight Federation) encourages nationwide participants to try their luck on a competitive sports level whilst aiming to further develop and promote Free Flight in the country. As part of the competition, there will also be shows, culminating in a special celebration dedicated to Mother’s Day (which in Cuba happens on the second Sunday in May). If you happen to stop by the Isle of Youth for some treasure-island style diving this May, this is one special event on the calendar not to miss.
Cuba 1963 (on display until 28th May)
A collection of rare photographs taken by Marc Riboud in 1963, four years after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution will be on show at the Fototeca de Cuba until the end of this month, giving onlookers a unique glimpse into the Cuba of the early 60s and his leader, Fidel Castro, who held a private audience with the photographer and was himself photographed in his green military uniform (which he rarely took off during his many decades governing the island).
Take a nostalgic journey back in time and follow in Riboud´s steps as he snapped up images of the island´s youth, its beautiful women, street posters of Mao and Lenin (some of which may still stand in place today). He masterfully captured not just the images, but the movement, the freedom of Cuban people’s expressive gestures, the lights of the harbour and the beautiful Cadillacs whose silhouettes transport us back in time to an era that in Havana never seems not too far away.
French Cinema Festival (28th April until end of May)
The 20th edition of the “Festival del Cine Frances” in Cuba is currently taking hold of Havana this May, and will do so until the end of the month with a variety of special activities organised around French cinema, from old classics to contemporary independent films. To celebrate the occasion as many as 17 new films will be screened at a variety of Havana’s cinemas, including children’s animated films, cult comedies and documentaries paying homage to French film directors. It will all be subtitled in Spanish though, so if your French isn’t up to par then you’ll have to rely on your ability to read Spanish.
Participating cinemas in Havana include: Cine Riviera, Cine Yara, Multicine Infanta, Sala Charles Chaplin and Cine La Rampa, with the latter showing films by French directors Agnes Varda and Jacques Demi, in a special homage to them both, to whom the festival is dedicated. On the occasion of the celebration of these two French filmmakers, the Museo de Bellas Artes will also be hosting a special exhibition dedicated to Varda, named “Varda-Cuba-Cine”, on show until 10th July. It consists of a series of photographs exhibited at Paris’ Georges Pompidou museum last year, now in Havana for a limited time. If independent European films are your thing, you now know where to head to in the Cuban capital this month.
Is that it? Coming up next month…
If this month’s edition of the Cuban events calendar wasn’t enough to get you excited to venture to Cuba, perhaps a few hints for next month’s edition will whet your appetite. For one thing, we have what can be described as Cuba’s most international (and several times Grammy-winning) hip hop group returning to Havana for a spectacular concert. The members of Orishas (all of whom now live in different countries of the world) will unite once again and return to their homeland for a show-stopping concert of epic proportions. It will be free to attend for all and will take place at the University of Havana, meaning streets will be blocked by crowds. I’m heading to Havana next month, and I know where I’ll be on 2nd June! Till then...ta ta!