By Muriel J. Smith
Photos by Tricia Curtin and Nancy Zockoll
They’re a musical group, the Cuban people. They love to dance, are proud of the salsa, automatically start to move rhythmically whenever they hear music, and can dance at outdoor restaurants on cobblestoned streets with abandon and joy. There are plenty of discotheques and nightclubs in and around Old Havana, and it seems that 90 pesos, about $10 American, is the going fee for entry. The one evening our group of six Americans and eight Cubans decided to go, the club had had a fire earlier in the evening, so the club part was closed. The restaurant, however, was open, but we opted to move on.
There is no doubt there are two different and distinct styles of living in Cuba.
We visited a couple known for their highly popular version of jazz and bebop music, their studio and home on the second floor of a walk-up apartment where the electrical wires for the entire building are exposed and tied together along the walls, their tiny living room cluttered with too much furniture, tables,… and a piano! Charming, talented, and eager to interact with American guests, the couple, both African, talked about the many nights they are away on tour throughout Cuba, bringing their music and videos into clubs and cheering crowds.
But they also wanted to talk about the racism they believe exists in Cuba. “There has never been a black president,” they said, adding they felt uncomfortable and alienated as blacks in a country that to me, seemed a beautiful mixture of skin shades from deep ebony to fair, with numerous shades of blacks, browns and tans in-between.
However, because they were eager to talk about racism, and because I am from New Jersey, I couldn’t refrain from asking what they knew about Joann Chesimard. At first, the man said he could not understand, however, when I explained she was the murderer of a NJ State policeman many years ago who was enjoying asylum in Cuba after her escape from an American prison, he nodded knowingly, and commented, “Black Panther. I don’t know much about them, but they’re all dead.” That ended the conversation.
They love their art as well. One of the planned visits for those of us who were there while two Red Bank Catholic High School teens brought American friendship through volleyball matches, was to the spacious, beautiful home of Edel Bardon and his wife, Marina. Edel is an artist of great renown in Cuba, and a much sought-after instructor. Their home is on the tenth floor of a luxurious apartment overlooking the Atlantic Ocean; the elevator from the lobby opens to a small corridor with several apartments, their closed doors behind beautiful wrought iron gates that still allowed privacy if the inner door were opened for fresh air. The huge living room, which runs the length of the house, is also Edel’s art studio where students gather to not only see all of his magnificent work on display, but to learn technique and style. That’s where we were introduced to one of the top professional dance instructors in Cuba, and spent an hour while this very patient and very dexterous dancer taught us the basics of salsa.
Salsa claims some roots in Cuba, though Puerto Ricans take pride in ownership as well. A fusion of guitar, African percussion, and jazz, it’s also been known to incorporate rock and roll and cha cha, mambo and bolero as well. Regardless, it’s fun, quick moving, and easy to learn..at least from the pro who taught us!
Edel and Marina live in this top floor apartment with a magnificent outdoor deck with their son Pablo, a highly skilled photographer, and daughter, Lucy, a serious student of the English language delighted to be able to practice her very well honed skill in both speech and translation. We were invited for dinner after enjoying cocktails and conversation on the outside deck at the Bardon home, and Marina’s parents, her mother a retired dentist, joined in preparing a delicious and unique buffet dinner of salads, vegetables, loin of pork, fruits and sweets for dessert. Marina showed me the tiny, immaculate kitchen where she prepared the sumptuous repast for two dozen or so of us, including the pressure cooker she said is a godsend, and the dishwasher that doubles as a clothes washer! The three bedrooms where the family sleeps are aligned on the opposite side of the living room, and each is filled with both Edel’s artwork and Pablo’s photography. A fourth bedroom, for guests, is tucked behind the kitchen.
Music and art are alive and well on the streets of Havana as well as in ramshackle homes and elegant apartments. It might be one of the reasons the Cuban people, in spite of their communism and poverty, still appear to be happy.