Category Archives: Cuba

Patrón Perfectionists 2019 SA cocktail competition finals has highest number of female finalists, but won by Cause & Effect mixologist David van Zyl!

On Thursday evening I attended the 2019 Finals of the Patrón Perfectionists tequila cocktail competition at Cause Effect Cocktail Kitchen and Cape Brandy Bar in the Waterfront, after a first part of the event had been held at Foliage in Franschhoek earlier in the day. Despite the largest number of female finalists over the past three years of the South African participation in the competition, the 2019 SA finals was won by David van Zyl, mixologist at Cause Effect Cocktail Kitchen! Continue reading →

My Top 21 recommendations for what to see and do in Havana, Cuba!

I arrived in Havana on 3 July 2019, with no preparation of what I wanted to see or do, except that I wanted to learn to dance the Salsa. I was lucky that a slightly out of date ‘Cuba’ Guide by Lonely Planet was lying in the lounge of the San Lazaro BnB I stayed at. I annexed it for the more than three weeks that I stayed there, and found useful background information in it, but perhaps it contains too much information, not just focused on Havana, my only destination in Cuba, therefore making a large part of the book irrelevant to me. Much more useful was the Guidebook ‘300 Things to love about Havana’ by Heidi Hollinger, focused on Havana, divided into the various suburbs of Havana, with an address, a good representative photograph, and largely accurate in its descriptions, even if published in 2018. 
 

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Ernest Hemingway: an earnest author as well as drinker, a man’s man, who has left his mark on Cuba!

I have a fascination with the late author Ernest Hemingway, referred to as ‘Papa’ in Cuba, but I have yet to read one of his books. In Havana I followed in the author’s footsteps yet again, after having been ‘introduced’ to him in Pamplona in Spain whilst walking the Camino in 2018. My interest in him is growing, and I will look to buy his books on my return. There is no doubt that Hemingway may be equally or better known for his drinking and hanging around in bars as he is for his books!
 

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Cuban Salsa grew from a fusion of other dance styles, no one is too old to dance it!

I decided to spend close to a month in Cuba, to learn to dance the Salsa in the country from which elements of it originated. It was an interesting experience, learning more about Cuban music, that Salsa is a ‘commercial’ overarching name for a dance incorporating steps from a number of other dance styles, and that I had to come to the conclusion that I do not like most Cuban Salsa music. I was told that Salsa has no age limit, one never being too old to dance, it even being used remedially with older persons. 

 

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Restaurant Review: La Guarida in Havana dishes up more than the ‘Strawberry & Chocolate’ Oscar nominated movie!

From my Havana Guide Book as well as recommendations I learnt that La Guarida was deemed to be the best restaurant in Cuba. As I wanted to try out only the best the city had to offer, the BnB Manager Alain booked the restaurant for lunch on the special Cuban public holiday of 26 July, an apt day to celebrate my interesting stay in and imminent departure from Cuba.
 

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Sweet Service Award goes to Fusterlandia; Sour Service Award goes to Hotel Inglaterra in Havana!

The Sweet Service Award goes to Fusturlandia, and its creator José Rodrigues Fuster, for creating the most visually dynamic suburb in north Havana, created with sculptures and tiles, creating a tourist destination that benefits his neighbours in the suburb, who all have tiny shops on their properties, selling arts and crafts. Fuster himself makes his money by selling paintings and some ceramics, not taking an entrance fee. A visual and sensory delight in Havana.  
 

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Casa Abel Restaurante Cigar Bar unique restaurant in Havana, Cuba!

Initially in my 25-day stay in Havana I avoided eating any meals at restaurants, based on what I observed when I walked past many of them in Old Havana  in the main, and looking at their menus. As Abel Exposito is the father of the San Lazaro 115 BnB owner at which I stayed, a few street blocks apart in the same street, I decided to add Casa Abel Restaurante Cigar Bar to my list of chosen three restaurants to eat at in my last week in Havana.   

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An introduction to the Music of Cuba, Salsa in particular!

I naively arrived in Cuba with the idea that all Cuban music is based on Buena Vista Social Club, my benchmark of it, but it was described to me as ‘traditional’ music. I had to come to the sad realisation that I don’t much care for Salsa music, not having been to a Salsa dance class before arriving in Cuba. I also learnt that if I do not like the music, I cannot dance to it. 
 
 
 
I researched the history of Cuban music from the ‘Cuba’ Lonely Planet Guide, which describes it as ‘rich, vibrant, layered, and soulful’. Influenced by its proximity to Latin America, with some European and African rhythms too, as well as American, Haitian and Jamaican music influences, a number of dance styles evolved from the musical fusion, including Salsa of course, having its home in Cuba, son, rumba, mambo, cha-cha-chá, charanga, and danzón. Children can dance perfect Salsa steps at an early age already, and no one is self-conscious about dancing here. 
 
The dance style that was Cuba’s National Dance was the Danzón, in 1879, introduced in Matanzas. Dancers danced as couples rather than in groups, as was the fashion of the day before then, it was a slower dance, and the music was instrumental only. It grew in the addition of conga drums and vocalists. It evolved into charanga, more often danced by the ‘moneyed white society’. 
 
Slaves arriving in Cuba from Africa introduced rattles and basic batá drums, adding rhythm to religious music. It is described as being ‘rhythmic yet highly textured’. It evolved into rumba, in the 1890s, emanating from the Havana docks, where workers created beats on packing cases, adding vocals over time, becoming the ‘voice’ of Black Cubans. Three dance styles evolved out of the rumba, the ‘overtly sexual dance’ guaguancó, the slow dance yambú, and a fast and aggressive columbia dance. Over time the rumba styles merged with son, and that again into son montuno, the foundation of Salsa. By the 1930s the Son sextet of guitar, a three-set double string guitar tres, double bass, bongo, and two singers, expanded into the addition of a trumpet. Over the next two decades the bands expanded in size, with horn and percussion add-ons. Cha-cha-chá emerged in 1951, originally referred to as mambo-rumba. 
 
Salsa had its origin in ‘Latin New York’ in the Sixties, a blend of son, jazz, and rumba, ‘a new brassier sound’. Celia Cruz was referred to the ‘Queen of Salsa’, taking the music with her to ‘self-imposed exile’ in America, and therefore not being as well-known in her land of birth as elsewhere in the world. Los Van Van was one of the most influential salsa bands, formed by Juan Formell in 1969. I love sipping chilled pineapple juice in the trendy music bar VanVan in Old Havana, created in honour of this band. It is said to still perform around Cuba. It even won a Grammy in 2000, for its album ‘Llego Van Van’. In the past forty years modern Salsa has been influenced by hip-hop, reggae, and rap. 
 
Oddly, the Lonely Planet guide book does not mention Buena Vista Social Club, which put Cuban music on the (Western) map, if I am a sample of one. 
 
Right at the beginning of my stay I attended a ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ show at El Guajirito, a total tourist rip-off, at an entrance fee of 30 CUCs which included three drinks, with only one hint of a Buena Vista Social Club song right at the start of the show. The package at 60 CUCs comes with very poor Dinner, and the reader is highly advised to not support this tourist trap. Luckily I was advised to not book the Dinner part of the show. Walking up and down the most popular tourist pedestrian mall Obispo and around the Central Parque area, where bands spontaneously play at hotels, restaurants, and Bar venues.
 
I often heard the music of Buena Vista Social Club performed, by the band on the right, at the Opera Bar and Restaurant. It may cost one a drink at the venue, and a donation and/or the purchase of a CD at most to hear far better quality traditional Cuban music. 
 
Other instruments I saw in Cuban music bands in Havana were the violin and flute. 
 
The link between Cuban music and Salsa will be explored in a separate Blogpost. 
 
 

Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chrissy_Ulmenstein