By Mayté Solano Gómez
Cuba is an island of great musicality, where different cultures are part of the roots and traditions of this people and get together to bring to life a symphony of musical creations.
We have internationally renowned composers and performers and genres that go from the most classical to the most popular music, considering art all of them. Instrumentally, the López Gavilán family has been awarded multiple times. In Jazz, Chucho Valdés has obtained the Latin Grammy Award, as has the Van Van, a distinguished band of Cuban popular music. The island has genres such as Rumba, recognized as Artistic Heritage, which has Los Papines as its main exponents, awarded with the Latin Grammy. From contemporary popular music, Gente de Zona has performed numerous songs with world-famous singers, such as Enrique Iglesias, Marc Anthony and Laura Pausini.
Lets find, after learning a little bit about traditional Cuban music, the best places in Havana to enjoy of it.
Learning a little more about traditional Cuban music
Danzón, Son, Rumba, Mambo, Timba and Bolero are considered to be the main exponents of traditional Cuban music. Among them, Son and Bolero (or Filin) have lasted the longest in the taste of Cubans and have evolved into other genres, while maintaining their essence.
This musical genre arose in eastern Cuba, in the 18th century, among the most humble layers of the population. This is why it was banned, initially, in elegant dance halls. It is considered one of the first genuinely Cuban musical styles, not imported or copied from the Spanish colonizers.
It has two modalities: The Son Montuno (from the country) is more active, with an accentuated movement of the torso to the sides, deep bends of the legs that cause a constant raising and lowering of the body, and the frequent action of the arms up and down. In the Urban Son the movements are more leisurely, smooth and elegant and the social dance position is more upright. Knee bends are less pronounced and there aren´t continuous arm movements.
The National Septet of Ignacio Piñeiro is one of the main representatives of Son in the first moments of its diffusion on the island. He is also the creator of “Échale salsita”, probably the first time that the word salsa was used to describe Caribbean music.
In the world, the Son is commonly confused with the typical Salsa of Colombia or Puerto Rico. Although it gave rise, among other genres, to Salsa, Son is characterized by being more leisurely, with a basic step in harpsichord time. His dance resembles, more than Salsa, the Casino, both for the musical times it includes, and for the design of the steps.
Son is performed by traditional groups not only in Cuba, but in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Among the most remembered soneros are Ignacio Piñeiro, Benny Moré, Faustino Oramas and the Trio Matamoros. In addition, Son gave rise to other genres, of which Timba is one of the most current and popular in Cuba.
In places like Miramar Music House, Galiano Music House and Plaza Music House you can dance to the rhythm of live Cuban Timba, performed by the best bands in the country.
In September 2012 Son was declared a cultural heritage of Cuba.
Although Bolero takes its name from the genre brought to Cuba by the Spanish, the one performed on the island and which is part of the most traditional music, has characteristics that make it typical.
Born in eastern Cuba, Bolero has its origin in the 1880s. It has merged with other rhythms, generating new subgenres that keep it in the preference of Cubans, especially the older ones. And, despite being a romantic, slow and lilting rhythm, dancing it is easy, but also sensual and fun.
One of the most important influences for Bolero came from North American music, specifically jazz, thanks to which the Filin (Feeling) arises. This subgenre, which emerged in the late 1940s in the popular Callejón de Hamel, meant a transformation in the way of composing and interpreting these songs. They become intimates, full of images and more poetics. More than singing, it is expressed, it is said, giving freedom to the interpreter.
In Cuba, the main exponents of the Bolero and Filin have been, among others, Beny Moré, Barbarito Diez, Vicentico Valdés, Celia Cruz, Omara Portuondo, Elena Burke and César Portillo de la Luz.
What are the best places in Havana to enjoy traditional Cuban music?
It is the space to enjoy the performance of former members of musical projects such as Buena Vista Social Club, Afro-Cuban All Stars and the Tropicana Cabaret, grouped under the name of “Legendarios del Guajirito.”
This is one of the best places in Havana to listen traditional Cuban music Located in Old Havana, the staff here wears traditional Cuban costumes, including the yarey straw hat common among the island’s peasants. In this restaurant, with authentic Cuban cuisine and cocktails, the artists will make you dance and sing to the rhythm of traditional Cuban songs such as “El Bodeguero”, “El Cuarto de Tula” or “Guantanamera”.
Taking into account the popularity of this place and the large influx of public, it is advisable to have prior reservations, in one of the 2 possible modalities: show (without dinner, but the cocktails offered by the house) and show and dinner (includes cocktails courtesy of the house). This last option, although more expensive, is always the best, as it guarantees a better location to enjoy the show.
A less-known variant, which, like El Guajirito, aims to show tourists the best of Cuban music, is the show of the Havana Queens Dance Company, which is presented at the Casa Miglis restaurant, in Centro Habana. With a greater variety of gastronomic offers of international cuisine, the show also includes more contemporary genres of music and dance. The group, made up of young dancers, has been awarded repeatedly in European countries such as Austria and Germany.
Contact the Cuba Casa team in Havana and they will help you to book the places of your interest, as well as Salsa classes.
Terrace of the Inglaterra Hotel
This hotel opened its doors in 1875. Since then it has welcomed several personalities, such as the Russian dancer Anna Pavlova, Isidora Duncan or the Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The outdoor terrace of this hotel, where the Gran Café El Louvre is located, is very popular nowadays. Here you can not only refresh yourself with cocktails, but also enjoy excellent traditional Cuban music with small-format groups (from trios to septets).
On the outdoor terrace of the Gran Teatro de la Habana “Alicia Alonso” you can also enjoy, from noon until the early hours of the evening, excellent traditional Cuban music with small groups.
This option can also be found if you walk through the historic center of the city. Places such as the terrace of the Ambos Mundos Hotel in the popular and central Obispo street, Santo Ángel and the Café Taberna in the Old Square and the Patio bar, in the Cathedral Square are ideal to enjoy live traditional music and good Cuban cocktails.
La Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita
Both the Bodeguita del Medio and the Floridita are internationally known for their ties to the famous North American writer Ernest Hemingway. This is evident in the phrase written by him, in his own handwriting, on one of the walls of La Bodeguita del Medio: “My mojito at La Bodeguita, my daiquiri at El Floridita.”
La Bodeguita del Medio, one of the most popular and one of the best places in Havana since its starts in the 40s of the 20th century, is currently internationally recognized for its mojitos and for its walls totally covered by the signatures of the great personalities who have visited the place for decades. Although not very large for the number of tourists that frequent it, it manages to accommodate a group that performs live traditional Cuban music. You can also find Cuban rum and cigars.
El Floridita is a much older bar, since it opened its doors in 1817. Also known as the “cradle of daiquirí”, this is the most widely served drink here. This place became the permanent homage site to Ernest Hemingway. On the one hand, the Double Papa is a variant of the daiquiri created in the name of the writer, who was affectionately known on the island as “Papa”. In addition, the bar has an exhibition of photographs of Hemingway with his friends, as well as a bronze bust of him located in what was his favorite corner in the bar, and a life-size sculpture where he is seen leaning on the bar.
The Gardens of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba
Emblematic hotel in Cuba, is considered a symbol of Cuban history, culture and identity. Located in the central area of Vedado, the gardens of this prestigious institution offer an impressive view of the sea and the Havana Malecón, especially during sunrise and sunset. Definitely this is one of the best places in Havana to taste good Cuban cocktails while enjoying excellent live traditional Cuban music.
Opened in December 1930, it is distinguished by its luxury, elegance and first-class services. That is why it is considered a National Monument and is declared a Memory of the World by UNESCO.
To close this article, we leave you a sample of musical themes, some of them dedicated to Havana, representative of the best of traditional Cuban music.
• Hermosa Habana (Beautiful Havana), by Los zafiros
• Sábanas blancas (White sheets) by Gerardo Alfonso
• Hoy mi Habana (Today my Havana) by Xiomara Laugart
• Habana si (Havana yes) by Los Van Van
• Lágrimas Negras (Black tears)
• Lágrimas Negras (Black tears) by Omara Portuondo
• Lágrimas Negras (Black tears) by Bebo Valdés and Diego el Cigala