Sway


The hand painted sign says ‘Casa de la Tradiciones’ but nothing else suggests that this house is a bastion of traditional Cuban music. Clinging to the sharp gradients of the Tivoli district in Santiago de Cuba, it looks no bigger than any of the other pastel two-rooms-for-everything constructions surrounding it. An old man sitting at the top of the houses rickety stairs dismisses our confusion by chuckling, “You found it.”

The music house has just two rooms and a miniature lean-to bar that serves only four drinks: cuba libres, mojitos, canned beer and white rum by the bottle. A kitchen, two toilets and a small courtyard complete the venue. Despite the size, the constant stream of new people all find space to socialise. This is a Sunday afternoon institution so they greet each other with the intimacy of a private house party.

A seven-piece female ensemble emerges from the building’s tardis-like depths touting an orchestra’s worth of instruments. Each member sports a satin pink corset and black thigh-gripping Capri pants. Their calves are wrapped in the ribbons that secure wedge sandals to rainbow pedicures. They are here to sing Son, a tradition form of Cuban music that combines the rhythms of Africa with the guitars of Spain and draws it all together with soul.

There are no formalities; the singer’s voice draws us in. The audience groans knowingly or laughs at bitter ironies; a master class in storytelling set to music. Some of us don’t even understand Spanish but we understand body language and the cadence of heartache, revenge, outrage and a wicked sense of humour. The singer’s voice reverberates in the small space with such power that everybody sways physically and emotionally in sync with her ebb.

The audience is never static throughout the two sets offered. Moaning, laugher, leaning forward for punch lines, comments to neighbours, comments to the singer (who delivers quick-witted responses like a comic pro) and a full acrobatic workout of facial features accompanies the rhythm. If the mood takes them, they dance. Bottles of white rum are brought and shot down fast to fuel the atmosphere.

No age barrier is applied to this behaviour. Lack of participation only makes you a target for rehabilitation. Everybody is pulled up to dance even if they lack the ability that Cubans seem to possess for sultry, sexy, syncopated swaying and swivelling.

Somewhere in the afternoon, the pink ladies give way to other performances. An old man takes the microphone in a way that suggests it is made of lead and swings the mood to one of contemplation with a haunting ballad. A great, great grandmother (or so I am told) picks up the tempo again with powerhouse force and then a duelling duo of guitars pick out a story. Everybody helps belt out the chorus lyrics.

Another shot of rum is offered, another beer is emptied. Impromptu salsa lessons are given because, “You need to move to feel.” Leaving is hard but keeping up is harder.

M Hillman

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