Cuba's digital destination
I came to Havana to record an album that reflects the impact of hip-hop, R&B; and Jamaican dancehall on Cuban music. I’m also making a music travel documentary as part of a series called “International Radio 1”, which is me and other Radio 1 DJs reporting on different music scenes around the world.
My connection to Cuba is the music. I used to go to Ronnie Scott’s in the 80s and heard amazing Cuban jazz musicians like Irakere ? their cut of “Chekere Son” is a club classic for me. Cuba’s got a deep tradition and, through the music, I’ve been fortunate to be able to get beneath the surface and connect with the spirit of its people.
My first visit, in 2008, allowed me to take in this grandiose, weathered and largely decaying city and hook up with a new generation of young artists who have created their own agenda.
Despite President Barack Obama relaxing US pressure on Cuba, the impact of the embargo is still obvious. Not even a funky old Chevy to pick me up at the airport ? I’m disappointed. The journey into Havana is quick ? there’s no traffic. I check in at the Hotel Saratoga (Paseo del Prado and Dragones Street; +53 7 868 1000; hotel-saratoga.com), a neoclassical-style building which has a great little bar, the Anacaona, named after a women’s orchestra that played there. I’ve hardly showered before darkness drops like a cloak over the city. There are a few street lamps here but they’re prone to being extinguished by the regular power cuts.
After finalising our schedule, I check out Havana’s Jazz Caf? (third level of the Galer?as del Paseo shopping mall, open noon-2am daily). You have to make your way past ladies of the night on the stairs. The cafe books top musicians and the vibe is good, even if the sound system’s not great. That said, it’s better than at another jazz club, La Zorra y El Cuervo (The Fox and the Crow), on La Rampa (155 Calle 23, open 9.30pm-2am daily), which you enter through a red English telephone box. It is one of the worst-designed clubs I’ve seen, but people seem to love it. At weekend matinees, called Afternoons of Remembrance (Saturday and Sunday, 2.30pm-7pm), bands play music from the 60s and 70s.
I’m an early riser. It’s already hot and I’m off for a run. I leave the hotel, run past the imposing government buildings down the Prado ? a Barcelona Ramblas-type avenue ? to the sea and up along the Malec?n. That sea spray helps me survive, even if it is a little salty. When I reach the Hotel Nacional de Cuba (Calle 21 y O, Vedado; +53 7 836 3564; hotelnacionaldecuba.com/en), I double back. I feel good, and ready to start work.
I’ve got about a week to produce this album for my Brownswood label (brownswoodrecordings.com). It’s a collaboration with Havana Cultura (havana-cultura.com), an impressive art project run by Havana Club that showcases the work of artists living in the city and around the world.
Our first stop ? and home for most of this trip ? is Egrem, the legendary national recording studios in downtown Havana. It’s where all the major figures of the Cuban music scene have recorded, including Benny Mor?, Arsenio Rodriguez and, of course, the Buena Vista Social Club.
That evening we drop into the best live venue in Cuba ? Casa de la M?sica de Centro Habana (Calle Galiano, Miramar; +53 7 862 4165), which is managed by Egrem. It’s the official venue for all the hot salsa and timba bands, and I get to check out Los Van Van, one of Cuba’s major timba acts led by the legendary Juan Formell. There are matinees at the weekends, which are good for hip-hop and rap.
Thanks to jet lag, I’ve come to love walking around different cities at the crack of dawn, and Havana at 6am is priceless. It’s always good to chat to the doormen and newspaper sellers. But music is the lifeblood of this city.
The biggest music on the street is reggaeton (where reggae and dancehall meets bomba, plena, salsa, merengue, latin pop, cumbia and bachata, hip-hop, contemporary R&B; and rap), and the organic sound of the rumba, but as people get more access to the internet, Cuba is becoming part of the wider world. The Havana Cultura website has put us in contact with lots of incredible musicians, singers, poets and rap artists, including a remarkable new voice in Danay and Ogguere, arguably Cuba’s finest hip-hop crew.
We meet at Egrem under the guidance of our 27-year-old musical director ? the globally acclaimed jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca. Though I’m here to work, I still feel drawn to do the odd touristy thing. In the evening, I enjoy drinking daiquiris at El Floridita in Habana Vieja (Obispo No 557; +53 7 867 1299; floridita-cuba.com), one of Hemingway’s favourite haunts.
A rumba session spontaneously gathers momentum in the studio ? it’s wicked. We decide to get the rumberos into the studio and get busy on the track. That night I walk to Las Vegas (Calle Infanta No 204; 00 53 7 836 7939; open 10pm-3am), an old cabaret venue. More echoes of downtown Barcelona. Normally, it’s electronica and techno ? check the resident DJ Dark from Doble Filo.
Callej?n de Hamel is an alley in central Havana that reminds me of the Pelhourinho district of Salvador De Bahia in Brazil. The place is alive with colour and it’s mostly down to the neighbourhood being claimed as a physical, living canvas by resident artist and sculptor Salvador Gonz?lez. There are brightly coloured murals and objects that celebrate Afro-Cuban religion. On Sundays they have big, open rumba sessions; Salvador is always around. You can meet and buy art works direct from the man himself. I got a couple of great pieces, but a word of warning: you need a special contract signed to get the artworks out of the country.
The food in Cuba is typically Caribbean and can be quite bland. Anyway, here’s a couple of places to check:
La Guarida (Calle Concordia No 418; +53 7 863 7351; laguarida.com) is a paladar ? privately owned restaurants found in the living rooms of ordinary families trying to make an honest dollar. It’s down a dimly lit backstreet, and you have to go up three flights of stairs in a former mansion that is now subdivided into flats. The four inter-connecting rooms of the restaurant are crammed full of bric-a-brac, and it’s a great place to have a special meal. Juan Carlos Tab?o used the house as a set for his 1994 film Strawberry and Chocolate. Unfortunately, there’s no serious wine list. For that sort of thing, you need to go to another paladar ? La Fontana in Miramar (Calle 3A No 305; +53 7 202 8337), on the posh side of the city, where the embassies are. La Fontana is like being in a great spot in Miami ? the main restaurant is outdoors and has little ponds with fish, and round the back there’s a great bar. But my favourite place is El Aljibe (Calle 7; +53 7 204 1583/4), which is also in Miramar; it does the best chicken, rice and beans in town.
At the studio we have Chucho Vald?s’s sister, Mayra Caridad, guesting and putting a twist on “Chekere Son” and Fela Kuti’s “Roforofo Fight”. It’s a rum-fuelled session and the results are blazing ? Nigeria meets Cuba. There’s not much time to walk around the city, but I am taken to the most glorious, hidden, enchanting garden called Los Jardines de la Tropical (Avenida Tropical y Rizo; open 9am-5pm, Tue-Sun; free), where a ballet group is rehearsing. Don’t ask me how to get there, but be prepared to land in the set of a Guillermo del Toro movie ? all grottoes, mazes and pavilions set amid the overgrown vegetation.
Old Havana has been tidied up and restored to its previous grandeur for the tourists ? old-school baroque Havana meets Disney. I check out the Havana Club museum of rum (Avenida del Puerto 262; +53 7 861 8051; havana-club.com; open daily from 9.30am-5.30pm), housed in a renovated 18th-century colonial townhouse, where you get to understand the roots of the drink and down a cheeky mojito.
From there, we travel to Santa Maria beach (Playa del Este), about 30km from the centre. Looking across the beachfront, it’s a picture postcard tropical Caribbean paradise but it is surrounded by Costa Brava-type hotels ? a reminder that tourism brings a pile of unwanted cultural baggage that is inevitably balanced against the euros.
It’s the last night and I play a DJ set at the Turf Club in Vedado (Calle Calzada). It’s a bit like going into the 606 Club when it used to be on London’s King’s Road ? a small, tight doorway in a residential area. Inside, there’s room for about 100 people. It’s a mostly white, educated, studenty crowd. The ceiling is low, it’s sweaty and the vibe is good. The perfect culmination to one very hectic mission.
? International Radio 1, a new four-part Monday night series starts on 4 January at 9pm on BBC Radio 1.
? Havana Cultura ? a double CD ? is out now on Brownswood Recordings.