Revolution and rumba: Cuba in the 'special period'


I spent my first days in Havana walking down the broad, leafy streets of el Vedado, going past stores with long queues but little on the shelves. I passed jinateras, black women dressed in bright pink hot suits, hanging onto the arm of white tourists. I held my breath nervously every time I passed a group of men on the street, trying to ignore the penetrating stares and comments of "que linda" (hey beautiful).

Young children followed me, selling flowers or T-shirts to earn desperately needed dollars. I paused outside the famous Coppelia's ice-cream parlour, which had closed for repairs six months ago but showed no signs of opening again. As I walked through old Havana, the crumbling buildings seemed to symbolise the decay and stasis that pervaded the city.

What had happened to the Cuba that I had heard so much about, the rumba, son and cha cha cha in the streets, the "socialism" that had long inspired me? Was this the reality of the "special period", as Cubans continued to suffer under the economic embargo imposed by the United States?

Havana was getting me down, so when my friend Norma called and asked if I'd like to spend a few days with a famous sculptor friend of hers, Agustin Drake, in the neighbouring province of Matanzas, I accepted.

As I got off the train and walked towards the house of Agustin Drake, I imagined what the house of a very famous sculptor would look like. My imaginings were cut short as I came to a very small terrace house with the name "Agustin Drake" inscribed in fading colonial-style lettering on a small bronze plaque outside.

I went to knock on the large wooden door, but then I saw a small black man in paint-splattered overalls, the handyman perhaps, busy painting the outside of the house.

"Excuse me, but does Agustin Drake live here?"

The man chuckled to himself and, wiping his hand on his overalls, extended it to me.

"Let me introduce myself: I am Drake."

I blushed, but Drake continued, "Before the revolution, I was not recognised as a sculptor, so while I was sculpting I had to learn house painting to earn my daily keep.

"Black people were not recognised as artists. We were servants and domestic workers. Our music and art were heathen. But I guess the skill of house painting comes in handy now."

As he led me into his house, I noticed photos proudly exhibited on the walls: Drake as a young man at his art exhibition in Havana, Drake in the Soviet Union with Soviet artists and Drake shaking hands with Fidel.

"It was only after the revolution of 1959 that my art was displayed in galleries. I was given national recognition through government prizes and eventually sent overseas to represent Cuba."

The next room was obviously his workroom, crammed with rocks, shells, stones, flowers, plants and skins of all different hues, shapes and textures. His only tools were ancient wooden cutting and pressing devices and pliers that transformed his raw materials into beautiful sculptures of female faces.

"I am forced to make these ornaments to sell to tourists in Varadero so that I can earn dollars", said Drake, referring to the sculptures. "It is very different to the kind of art I was doing 20 years ago."

Drake pulled out an old dusty album and handed it to me. As I turned the pages, I saw something more than ornaments; I saw an art that was an expression of a black man's political voice.

There were sculptures in heavy white and black clay, Cuba before the revolution. Then there were sculptures in all shades of clay. Drake told me that this was his vision of a society where the world was not divided into black and white, where colour no longer mattered because the two colours had mixed and the world was populated with all shades of ochres and browns.

Drake made me a small cup of thick, strong Cuban coffee and we sat down to talk. He asked me my impressions of Cuba and I blurted out my response.

"It is so different from what I imagined. I imagined a place where you can see music on the streets. But the only place where you can hear 'authentic' Cuban music is in the big clubs and hotels which are off limits to ordinary Cubans. Artists and musicians can only survive by catering to the tourist industry like you yourself told me.

"I imagined a society where men and women, black and white, were equal. But I see so much machismo, as a woman I feel really intimidated walking down the street. And I see so much poverty, most of it among black people."

"We never said we had the perfect system", said Drake. "Nevertheless, socialism did a lot to address the institutional bases of racism and sexism, and to encourage the development of the arts. "Unfortunately, things are changing with the increasing reliance on tourism. But if you want to understand more about Cuban society, don't rely on surface impressions; go out and talk to ordinary Cuban people."

In the evening I went for a walk by myself along the beach front. Deep in my own thoughts, I lost track of time, and by the time I started back towards the city, it had already started to get dark.

As I approached the town, the hazy outlines of buildings and maze of streets didn't correspond with anything I remembered from the morning. I realised that I had forgotten to take Drake's address with me. Stopping two women on the street, I asked, "Do you know where a famous sculptor, Drake, lives?"

Giggling and nudging one another, the two women looked at each other. "Yes", one answered, "If you like, we can take you to his house."

As we walked back into the town, the two young women talked away brightly, asking me all about life in Australia, and then I asked them about life in Matanzas.

They talked animatedly about their families and careers. One of them, Maria, was a violin teacher at the local institute of music, and the other, Laticia, was a ballerina.

When I asked them about how they survive under the dual dollar/peso economy, Maria said, "Without dollars, it is difficult. We only earn in Cuban pesos. We can't afford nice perfume, or clothes to go out in or make-up, which are all in dollars. But we can still pay rent in pesos, we can buy most of our food in the markets in pesos, and of course education, health care and child care are free."

As we walked back, they flirted with men on the streets, winking provocatively and carrying on a playful banter.

"Let's have some pizza and milkshakes", Laticia suggested.

"But I didn't think that food was easily available", I said.

We stopped at a local pizza shop. It wasn't immediately obvious, tucked away in someone's house, but when I looked I noticed that there were dozens of these "shops" along the street.

We had a filling meal of hot pizza, which was quite doughy bread with a very strong cheese on top, and washed it down with batidos, milkshakes of rockmelon, crushed ice and milk.

Afterwards I noticed groups of people standing around eating pizza, talking, smoking cigars and enjoying the evening. I was very attracted, not only by their engaging smiles and laughter, but by the variety of features, all shades of skin, types of hair and body sizes.

Among the women, garish, tight lycra clothing was very popular and was worn with confidence regardless of body shape or weight. Drake's vision of a multicoloured world could have been what I was seeing now, right here in Matanzas.

When I woke up the next morning, Drake was dressed in a clean shirt; he told me that he had planned to take me out for the day. Luckily I hadn't tried to imagine what the car of a very famous sculptor would look like. When we walked outside, there was a very small, brown, rust-covered, box-like mobile with large square windows, luckily large enough to jump through, because the doors didn't work.

We drove, or rather rolled, our way in his old car through a jumble of small pebble-lined streets, to an old building. As we climbed the large stone steps, I could already hear the pounding of rumba rhythms, and as we entered I saw a six-piece group of percussionists, playing to a group of nearly 20 dancers.

"They are the original Munequitos of Matanzas", Drake whispered in my ear as we took our seats at the front of the empty auditorium. "They rehearse here every day."

The dancers stood in a row, their knees bent, shoulders hunched over. Electric currents moved through their bodies, from the base of their spines to their necks and fingertips as they undulated with the rapid, precise drumbeats.

I watched entranced as they formed a circle and a man and a woman moved into the centre, playing with each other as the man tried to touch the woman's pelvic area. She teased him and twisted out of his reach each time. The atmosphere in the room was charged with catcalls, large whooping shouts and the hypnotic energy of the congos and the claves.

Drake wanted to leave after an hour, and I reluctantly got up and left with him, my heart still full of the drums and the rhythms.

As we got back into the car and drove around this area in the lower reach of the city, he stopped at a number of houses, showing me where particular musicians had met to rehearse and how each distinct rumba style had originated with different networks of urban black musicians. The rumba sounds I was hearing were the products of generations of evolution and development, a synthesis of styles and lived experiences.

From the lower part of the city, he took me to the upper part and showed me the Instituto de Artes, where he had been the director for many years. From the roof of the institute, he pointed out the city, his house, the buildings where we had gone for the rumba performance and the local church.

"See how different it all looks from up here", he said.

Driving up to the small chapel on the hill was quite an effort for the little car but, wheezing and puffing, it managed to get there. From the top of the hill, the view of the whole town was immense. Again he pointed out his house, the buildings of the rumba performance, the church, but also the Instituto de Artes and the upper part of the city where we had just been.

"When you are in one particular place, you can't see some things. Often just by moving, your vision and perspective clear."

The next day, I farewelled Drake. Standing on the major highway and sticking out my thumb, I made my way back to Havana by botella, the system of travel which requires cars, by law, to take hitchhikers.

As I passed fields and billboards of Che and Fidel, I thought about Cuba again. Drake had showed me the city, how it is the product of contradictory forces, how it has evolved historically and how we can see it from many different perspectives. But he also wanted me to understand Cuba in this way, and he showed me the dangers of a blinkered vision.