Pursuits: Havana’s Symphony of Sound

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We were constantly called out by strangers: “Where are you from?” People beamed when we told them. “We love the U.S. I have a cousin in Queens. It’s cold there, yes? I would die. Please tell everyone that Cuba is beautiful. No Mafia, no war. Just Mojitos and salsa dancing.” Hand on stomach, the dance was demonstrated, the toe expertly twirled in the dust.

This was all part of the pitch. For the average Cuban, it is of course not just mojitos and salsa dancing. Every day is an act of improvised survivalism. But as visitors on this miraculous island, we followed the Christ of Havana’s lead and drank our fair share of mojitos. They went down like water. The food was almost universally forgettable, but this is not why you come to Cuba. You come to be transported. To dance, to twirl your toes in the dust. To soak in the jaw-dropping collage of colonial and Art Deco architecture, to ponder the sad-alien street murals by Yulier Rodriguez, to hear stories of a parallel world, a world that begins to slowly merge with your own.

And you come for the sound. Havana is a land of sound. Never have I been to a place whose identity is so entangled in its auditory fingerprint. The guttural putt putt of eight cylinder Cadillacs built before my father was born; the ocean rising and slapping at the Malecón like a newborn babe; the dip and pull of the timbale’s bell chattering at a bar across the street, tin tin — tin tin tin; the shuffle of a man demonstrating salsa for you on the sidewalk; the swish and chop of a broom on a doorstep; the plush boom of the ceremonial cannons fired every evening from the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña; the clink of ice cubes in the most delicious mojito de piña you will ever taste.

I could not help but think: Could this blessed collage of reverberations really be the site of those sonic attacks? Before I left for Cuba I had listened to a brief audio recording of what some of the diplomats had allegedly heard. It was unlistenable, like a cloud of cicadas on acid. A thromping high-pitched acoustic minefield. It cleaved open my consciousness, crushed my spirit, shut down all possibility. Sound can be terrifying.

It can also be beautiful. Our last night in Havana we went to see the eternal Roberto Fonseca and his band Temperamento at the famous La Zorra y El Cuervo jazz club. To enter, you must wait in line before descending through a replica of a red British telephone booth into a small subterranean space.

Mr. Fonseca and his bandmates slowly arrived one by one, greeting one another, testing their instruments, testing the wind, the mood. There was no rush. The music didn’t start until well after 11 p.m. Yet when that first note was struck, everything seemed to fade away: the city, the island, the ocean, the world. We were floating. The drummer was humble, incorruptible, generous. He dove back and forth with Mr. Fonseca, who dashed up and down his keyboard like a gazelle. The conga player, when his time finally came, let loose such an avalanche of rhythm the atoms in the room began to quiver and split. Tell me, is there a more ecstatic instrument than the conga drum?

Jazz, when it is good, makes all possibilities seem possible. And yet whatever is played at the moment also feels perfect, intensely true. This is what was meant to be. When the song finally ended, the world came rushing back, changed, unchanged.

We were in Cuba, still.

We took a breath and began to applaud.

Roberto Fonseca Live at Jazz in Marciac 2016 Video by Roberto Fonseca

Reif Larsen is the author of the novels “I Am Radar” and “The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet,” which was adapted into a feature film, “The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet.”


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