Cuba is an island of music. We took advantage of every opportunity to explore different elements of this musical heritage. We spent many hours in cafes and lounges, selected primarily on the basis of the music they offered. Although this mandated many, many drinks, we made the necessary sacrifice to enjoy a broad range of Cuban tunes. This included many on Obispo Street and many return visits to the Inglaterra hotel.
Most dinner, and some lunch restaurants also had music, but little of this “mood music” or “tourist music” was to our taste. We were almost afraid of going to some restaurants for fear of being forced to enduring “Guantanomera” one more time. (Joyce said that if she heard it one more time, she would strangle someone.)
But in addition to the bars, lounges and restaurants, we also visited two specialty music venues: Each with very, very, different musical experiences.
Legends de Guarjirato
Legends de Guarjirato is a Cuban musical review that is sponsored by the Buena Vista Social Club (a club and a performance we thoroughly enjoyed during our previous trip to the island) and the Cuban All-Stars, which sponsors tours of some of the island’s most famous musicians and singers. Unfortunately, only tickets that included dinner were available on the night we wanted to attend. As one would expect, the food was overpriced and disappointing. Even the servers were unable to describe the food properly. For example, although Tom’s lobster salad and ham (which was portrayed as roast pork) were acceptable, the pasta primavera (which was supposed to have been lobster ravioli) was inedible. Nor was the dessert much better. While we had a hard time getting the three drinks that were included with the ticket, they couldn’t really ruin mojitos, or even pinot coladas.
We, however, were there for the music. The pre-main event dinner show consisted of a group of musicians, who couldn’t quite follow the same beat, playing a range of popular and show tunes. Not very good, but not offensive.
The main show, meanwhile, was totally professional. A band of eight and plus approximately six singers that occasionally performed together, but usually came on stage separately for solos. In fact, the band, as good as it was, served primarily as very competent background for the soloists, each of which was introduced by name and of whom video clips of their previous performances was projected on a screen above the stage, during each of their performances. And performances they were. These soloists weren’t just famous singers (and in one case, a drummer), each was also a showman, singing, dancing and joking (in Spanish, of course, so we never got the jokes) with the crowd. A number went down into the audience to collect (voluntarily or not) accompanists who joined them on stage to gyrate along with them during the performance of their songs. One performer, who looked like she was about 75 years old, jumped around like a teenager and paraded through the audience, periodically sprawling out on male audience member’s laps, before moving on. The drummer, meanwhile, put on an amazing show, beating every type of drum and other percussive surface available (including a short period of tap dancing) with his sticks, his brushes and every part of his body (hands, knees, feet, head, etc.) in what was probably a 15-minute drum solo.
Overall, that was probably the highlight of the evening. The show ended, as did the Social Club show, with guests joining the singers in a dancing march around the room, to the rousing finale by the band.
The band and all the soloists were very good and virtually all of the soloists were hams. They put on a full-throttled show that lasted almost two hours (not counting the one-hour dinner, pre-show). Although it was professional, and we personally found it difficult to really engage with the show. While undoubtedly good, we didn’t leave with the sense of joy that we felt after our Buena Vista Social Club experience in 2012. Or, for that matter, from some of the performances that we saw this trip at bars or in two Trinidad music clubs.
Our other major show was a totally different experience. One that, despite our initial reservations, we thoroughly enjoyed.
Cabarat Tropicana is the most famous of Havana’s 1940s and 1950s entertainment venues—a nightclub and casino at which the most popular entertainers of the day performed and that staged some of the most extravagant stage shows in the world. Although the Communist government banned gambling, it amazing allowed the world famous example of excess—and one with ties to the Batista regime—to continue to operate. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that it draws up to 1,000 high-spending quests (with an average entry price of $85 dollars) per night. But whatever the reason, we decided to see for ourselves what a world-famous Tropicana show was like.
Although we entered with great skepticism, we were quickly won over. Perhaps it had something to do with the stage-side seats that we sprung for, or the glass of sparkling wine we got upon sitting down and the half-bottle of 7 year-old Habana Club rum that we received before the beginning of the show. Or perhaps it was the lavish, forested outdoor setting of the venue. Or perhaps it was the wonderful music, the extravagant, yet seductively revealing and sexy costumes, or the precision dance routines or the extravagant staging in which what appeared to be close to 100 excellent dancers bounded across four stages and that surrounded the audience, and in the aisles between the tables. Or perhaps the singing performances (combined, of course, with the ubiquitous dancing) and the occasional acrobatic acts that demonstrated the incredible strength, balance and versatility of some of the performers.
Whatever it was, the show captured our attention from the first number and held it all the way through the over-the-top finale. This is one “tourist-type” show that we recommend you see at least once. Note: The venue is a ways out of the city. If you go, hire a taxi to take you and pick you up in advance. We paid approximately $30 for the rides.