My second day in Santiago, Cuba, after buying a cheap omelette out of a side window of a zapatería (shoe repair shack), I headed in a random direction hoping to find some early-day music. I eventually happened upon a music school, where a tall Afro-Cuban guy with holes in his shirt and a kind smile offered me “the best coffee in Cuba.” He poured a Dixie cup from his friend’s thermos while we listened to another guy play guitar and sing. Through brief conversations, I quickly found Ernesto, holes in his shirt and all, to be one of the most fulfilled people I’ve ever met. Something about him was just so happy. Now in his late 30s, he had only been playing music for a few months, but the passion and enthusiasm that he brought alongside his guitar (on which only three strings remained) blew me away. Eventually we moved to the piano room. The guitarist sat down at the piano and played with confidence while the rest of the crew smiled and sang Buena Vista Social Club classics. Eventually Ernesto asked if I played an instrument. After mentioning that I was once a serious drummer, he was getting ready to gather up a bunch of instruments when the owner of the music school decided to kick us out for not paying for studio time. On the street and instrument-less, the group of Cubans formed up a plan. “Meet at this address at 3,” Ernesto told me.
I had a choice here that I have faced many-a-time while traveling. Do I entrust the rest of my day to these locals, or pull out my guidebook and just mosey around town with my camera?
After a good meal and much internal debate, I hopped on the back of a motorcycle and showed the driver the address. For $0.50 I was there faster than I wanted to be. “You sure this is it?” I asked the driver, who nodded and cruised off. I stood on the curb, staring at the building for a while, perplexed. Finally, one of the women that was singing earlier showed up, followed by another and then one of the men. We walked up to the door of the seemingly abandoned building and knocked. Eventually, Ernesto answered the door to what I discovered was an abandoned elementary school. “Bienvenidos al corazón de Cuba (welcome to the heart of Cuba),” he said, beaming with pride.
Ernesto had turned a room and the courtyard of this dilapidated old elementary school into his home. A few worn albums hung on the walls above a hot plate and a jug of water. Partially broken instruments dominated much of the space around the torn up twin mattress on the ground.
Around the corner in the courtyard, the crew was quickly setting up their instruments. They looked a little embarrassed about the fact that they were having band practice in an abandoned school where their friend was squatting. I could tell they were trying to gauge my thoughts about it, so I assured them that I thought it was super cool and that in more than three weeks in Cuba, this was my favorite experience so far.
While they were tuning and warming up, Ernesto came out of his room with a truly worn-down set of timbales- Latin drums. A cowbell hung between two drums and what was left of a cracked cymbal. I helped him set it up, giddy with excitement.
“Listo (ready),” I said and the grooves began. As rusty as I was, it did not show too badly. After all, when in Cuba, one has no choice but to have son, salsa, chachacha, bolero, rumba and much more pulsating into every nerve ending constantly. The rhythms came naturally and without over thinking. This was the culmination of my newly acquired passion for Cuban music. From beginning to end of my trip, I went from being a terribly awkward salsa dancer (which I still mostly am), to dancing the salsa steps subconsciously while drumming along. The Cuban musicians were all laughing along while playing, and whenever I threw something creative or funky into the beat, they’d exclaim “Vamos Miami!” (this being the only U.S. city any Cubans concern themselves with). The smiles and laughs were contagious, and before I knew it we had been playing for two hours. Once things began to wind down, I became hyper-aware of how amazing this situation that I got myself into was, and did my best to commit every last detail to my memory. As we packed up, the group asked me if I would stay and be their drummer for Santiago’s Carnaval, the biggest festival in the Caribbean. I played through a few possibilities in my head, but decided I’d better not over-stay my visa in a country where I already was not technically supposed to be just traveling freely. “Well now you know where to find us,” Ernesto said, giving me a big hug.
With final goodbyes, it was bittersweet knowing that I would likely never see these people again. Although only having known them for a few hours, that was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. I had achieved authenticity in a different culture on such a high level, and that overwhelmed me with pride.
Check out this video of one of the songs we rehearsed:
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