Everyone knows Cuban’s have the natural ability to move their hips and body to the rhythms of any music, although witnessing it and feeling it in person whilst in Cuba makes it that much better.
Upon arriving in Cuba, you soon realise music is a way of life in Cuba, with background melodies playing from speakers in the restaurants as you enjoy a meal or wandering the streets of Havana listening to music spillover from balconies of local residents’ above. There is an upbeat vibe about the country, with Cubans using music to display their happy, joyous and dance culture.
The communist-run country has been through a turbulent history; due to the US imposing a commercial embargo in 1960, the island nation seems locked in that era as if they stood still whilst the world developed around them, which is still how you witness Cuban today. Yet this does not deter the locals from expressing their cheerful nature and sharing happiness with each other, plus anyone else willing to partake.
My introduction to Cuba’s music scene started on my first afternoon in Havana, at the historic and well known Floridita Bar & Restaurant. Made famous for being Ernest Hemingway’s local bar in the 1930’s and it’s “the” place to grab a Daiquiri, which made me feel like a typical tourist on the first day, yet I didn’t care. I wanted to immerse myself in the musical culture. The bar is mainly popular for tourists, although don’t let that deter you, as locals are mingling with tourists. Everyone is there for one purpose, to enjoy the live band, dance salsa style, sing and be a part of the overall atmosphere.
For a communist country, Cuba has very relaxed laws regarding liquor, which came as a surprise for me at Playa Del Este.
Not long after arriving in Havana, I caught the public bus across to the local Havana beach of Playa Del Este, which offers picturesque white sands and crystal clear waters, as you come to expect from the north side of the island. This beach is enjoyed by locals, especially on weekends, for family and friend gatherings or parties. After placing my bum on a rented lounge chair, I laid back, listening to the waves hitting the shoreline. Shortly after, the natural beach melodies started to be overshadowed with Latino style tunes, echoing from a portable music player. I noticed it was a family celebrating a birthday, as they had a cake to honour the day. I happened to see adults sitting on the sand with a beer in hand or even carrying beer into the ocean when they decided to go for a swim, which came as a surprise, as I wasn’t accustomed to relaxed liquor laws at beaches. All the family danced the afternoon away whilst drinking and laughing in celebration.
In the evening back at Havana, strolling along a side street I hadn’t ventured down before, I stumbled past an open plaza playing American style modern music, with a mixture of local children, teenagers and adults all dancing, sharing in the atmosphere together. Gazing around the plaza, I noticed it was surrounded by buildings housing restaurants with balconies overlooking the open public square. The superb location I thought to take in the atmosphere for the evening. Thankfully, a table was vacant on the balcony, where I perched myself on the wrought-iron seat I got comfortable. Sipping a Pepsi, which was the first time I saw a mainstream cola brand sold in Cuba, and nibbled on a vegetarian tortilla and potato croquettes. The lack of culinary delight was offset by the musical display below in the plaza. A great evening to enjoy local cultures.
Once you arrive in Trinidad, if the music in Havana has not captivated you by now, then Trinidad will surely seep into your bones. Music in any form in Trinidad is alive and well
Live bands are generally playing a variety of music at most restaurants and bars across the city. Most nights, if you head to the Casa de la Musica, grab yourself a position on the stone staircase, to listen to a live band, or join others in a dance. If this isn’t you’re style, you can head down to the lower open square where tourists congregate to chat, play music on their phones and dance the night away. It’s a great place to meet like-minded tourists from around the world and exchange stories and must do’s whilst journeying around Cuba.
I had heard of a nearby nightclub with a different style about it… Disco Ayala “nightclub in a cave”. Now, this I had to see, and for someone whose nightclub scene is not quite over just yet (hopefully a few more years to go!), was an incredible experience.
After paying the CUC $5 entry fee, I was delighted I had made the walk up the hill to the club; although breaking my sandals along the way on the cobblestones streets, it was still worth it. The club saw a good mix of locals and tourists all having a blast and dancing the night away. Be prepared to sweat inside, as there are no fans or air conditioning, or possibly there was; however, I was distracted with dancing the night away whilst trying not to lose my broken sandal!
I ended up stumbling back into my Casa around 5 am, and unfortunately, having to wake my Casa owner to unlock the front door. He was very polite and accommodating to my very late arrival home; he even offered me a coffee, which I politely declined, explaining I desperately needed sleep instead. I continued to stroll to my room whilst hanging my head in shame with embarrassment.
The last opportunity to experience Cuban’s nightlife came in Cienfuegos a few nights after Trinidad, where newly made friends suggested I meet them at a local discotheque for an authentic club for locals to show off their dancing talents at Club Benny More. I happened to turn up on a Thursday night which meant “student” night, so a bargain entry fee of CUC $1, although the patrons were definitely older than students, either that or the Cuban’s don’t hold their age well!
I was once again reminded of the relaxed drinking laws in Cuba. At the bar, instead of buying a usual glass with a nip of spirit mixed with soft drink, as most cities across the world offer, instead here you purchase the full spirit bottle at the start of the night, then buy soft drinks throughout the night, then you’re free to mix your own drinks as you wish.
Yep, you heard that right, you the patron, mix your own drinks!
No responsible serving of alcohol here; however, most people were pleasantly handling their liquor very well, which came as a surprise. My friends saved me a seat to the side of the dancefloor, a prime position as they knew what lay ahead for the night. At first, locals were mingling and chatting amongst themselves; come midnight, the mood increased to a party vibe as a singer approached the dancefloor to pump the crowd up. Speaking in fast muffled Spanish over the speakers came a request for two people from the audience for a dance-off competition. Sure enough, the competition got underway. The couple definitely knew their dance music and could move their bodies as the crowd cheered them on for encouragement, although they didn’t require it.
After an hour of the competition and a winner was announced by handing over a bottle of liquor, the dance floor opened up for everyone. Like in Trinidad, there were no fans or air conditioning, so once again, be prepared to sweat. I seemed to have a dance-off with a local woman at one stage, not sure how it kicked off; however, we both had some fun. For female tourists, be prepared to be approached by local men, whether you welcome it or not. Some men are happy for you to dance with them then walk off, not expecting anything more, so be prepared for some high energy dancing.
Even if you’re not into the club scene, head to Club Benny More, sit back and witness Cuban’s culture of dance.
I once again had to knock on my Casa’s front door at 5 am to let me in and apologise for the lateness of my arrival back “home”. Thankfully this was the last time I had to apologise to a Casa owner, as I stumbled into my room then crashed out on my bed to recover.
I always enjoy live music in any form; however, I wasn’t expecting to experience so much travelling around Cuba. It made my trip that much more enjoyable and fun, plus I was fortunate to see the other side of Cuba being nightlife that not all tourists go out of their way to experience.
When you’re exploring throughout the day in Cuba, ask locals when you can find local bars that offer live bands, eat at a restaurant balcony that plays local music, or locate a hidden discotheque for high energy dance vibes. You wouldn’t be disappointed with music in any form in Cuba.