Conner Gorry’s best live music venues in Havana

From Grammy winners to surprisingly accomplished minstrels plying the Malecón, Cuba is such a music Mecca. I think it’s fair to say that if you don’t experience music that moves you in the hips, heart, or elsewhere in your island travels, you’re missing the point. Unfortunately, not all the venues around town match the quality of the music being made, to say nothing of the technology and people hired to run it—audio equipment and lighting design can be nothing short of horrendous, for example. Innumerable are the live guitar solos I’ve heard here, with the player in complete darkness. While he (or she) shreds, colored lights and smoke swirl around the rhythm section simply marking time while virtuosity is on dark display elsewhere on the stage. Then there’s what we call ‘ambiente’ in these parts, the atmosphere of a place, which can make or break a venue in terms of audience experience.

But certain Havana venues have terrific (or at least sufficient) technology and the people to run it and/or such a great atmosphere it compensates for other shortcomings. Though it’s hotter than Hades, summer is a great time to be here since cultural offerings are in full swing, with many free concerts, interesting music festivals, and visiting musicians—both foreign and Cubans who spend a lot of time touring off-island.

Maxim Rock
Bruzón #62 e/ Almendares y Ayestarán, Plaza de la Revolución

Located in a quiet, off-the-tourist-track neighborhood behind the Terminal de Omnibus, this club run by the Agencia de Rock must have had design input from local moshers and music makers: the audio and lights are some of the city’s best, there is plenty of room to stage press and head bang, and there’s awesome air conditioning—what Cubans call el pingüino—the penguin. It’s also big enough to accommodate those who just want to hang back and out. Since the legendary Patio de María was closed, this is the best place to see hard rock and metal bands like Zeus and Hipnosis.

Salón Rosado de La Tropical
Ave. 41 e/ 44 y 46, Marianao

There’s something extra special about outdoor venues, and this salsa palace in Playa is an all-time favorite. Whether you hit the big open dance floor or overlook the scene from one of the balconies above, this place has an unrivaled energy. While regguetón/cubatón and timba are standard musical fare here (think El Micha; Paulo FG; Pupy y los que Son Son) rock and pop acts—Interactivo, Descemer Bueno, Raúl Paz—also gig occasionally at the Salón Rosado. This is also HQ for the annual Pro Electrónica Music Festival; this year’s event takes place on July 13 (7pm-11am) and features dozens of electronic acts from around the island. This venue has a strict ID and search policy, so it’s best to travel light and carry some form of identification when heading for a night out here.

Calle 88-A #306 e/ 3ra y 3ra-A, Miramar

This is the city’s first private music club, an arrangement made possible thanks to Cuba’s ongoing economic reforms, and it combines comfort, quality music, and a chill atmosphere brilliantly. It’s snug—the stage accommodates a trio comfortably, a quartet if the musicians squeeze in a lo cubano—but design elements like dropdown noise- and echo-dampening panels mean it has terrific audio, plus the musicians who play here (Harold López-Nussa; Oliver Valdés; Aldo López-Gavilán) are among the country’s best. It can get loud with chattering youth and there are some seats with blocked sight lines, but you can’t have it all—or so they keep telling me.

Teatro de Bellas Artes
Trocadero e/ Agramonte y Ave. de las Misiones, La Habana Vieja

This theater in the Museo de Bellas Artes/Cuban Collection is a sweet, intimate room where the wall between musicians and audience is regularly toppled. The roof used to leak right into the fifth row, but since that was fixed, this is one of the city’s top venues featuring all musical genres. Judging by the big names who play here, it’s also a favorite of local musicians: I’ve seen memorable shows in this theater by Omara Portuondo, Tesis de Menta, and Yasek Manzano, among many others. Buy tickets in advance for big name acts since the theater only seats 200 or so and will sell out (it’s not uncommon for the stairs and aisles, as well as the seats, to be packed).

Café Cantante Mi Habana (Teatro Nacional de Cuba)
Ave. Paseo esq. a 39, Plaza de la Revolución

There’s always something grotty and off-putting about basement clubs and this place in the nether regions of the Teatro Nacional fit the bill perfectly until a recent major overhaul. I’m surprised how nicely this club cleaned up; it actually feels hip, which has been a slow learning curve for state-run establishments. The air condition works, there’s plenty of seating, good audio and clean sight lines to the stage. Los Kents (rock ‘n roll covers); Qva Libre (wildly popular rock/fusion); and Santiago Feliú (trova superstar) have regular gigs here.

Conner Gorry is author of the Havana Good Time app (for iOS and Android) and Here is Havana blog.

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