Miscellaneous musings … Union Jacks, Traffic, the Havana film festival.

I know that the Union Jack has a kind of iconic fashion status like the stars and stripes of the US, and the well merchandised Cuban flag along with Che, however the recent appearance of fashion items boasting the Union Jack seems to be a craze here in Cuba.  I count at least 10 or 12 a day and if I head up town I see more.  When I saw a man wearing a huge Union Jack T shirt and matching espadrilles, I had to go and ask him, what is this obsession in Cuba with the British flag?  He said that he just liked it … the colours and the style.  His wife was laughing, saying he wants to be English but without any great conviction.  I am not sure what is going on but I am sure it is not a sudden and bizarre affection for my country, maybe random knock-off Olympic and Jubilee merchandise is pouring in and the Cubans with their love for bright bold colours and labels are snapping them up.  The following day I bumped into a whole family decked out in Union Jack attire, all with matching espadrilles and T-shirts, father, mother and son in pushchair.  I wish I’d had my camera with me!

One of the first things you notice about Cuba is the lack of traffic, but it seems that for various reasons to do with importation and good old-fashioned supply and demand, cars are now pouring into Cuba.  I am not sure who is importing them and re-selling them but things are changing fast.  These last few weeks I have actually been a little irritated by the traffic, which has never happened to me here.  Even when people are driving as though they are the only person on the road, you always have plenty of space to get round them, as they usually are the only other car on the road.  Now, they are still driving as though they are the only cars on the road, but they are NOT.

Like all transitions, I fear that there will be a rise in accidents, as people are now buying new cars, that can go faster, but they have not learnt the etiquette and safety measures of how to drive in a busier, faster world.  In fact yesterday I saw 2 bad accidents on the Malecon, one of them including a bicycle.  It made me reassess where I was going to go cycling on my new shiny bike bought at Marina Hemingway the other day.  The lack of road markings, pot holes in the road and a general inability to drive in lots of traffic are not helping the situation.  After 8 years of driving in Guatemala I am ready for anything and at least nobody is going to pull a gun on me.  Or at least not yet!

What I want to know is who are all these people buying cars and where did they get their money? Cars are changing hands at inflated prices.   Are they all bureaucrats cashing in on preferential deals while they still can?  Are they ordinary people with money wired from Miami or Canada or wherever?  I don’t know, but in the last couple of months the cars seem to have doubled on the roads and it does not appear that these cars are being driven by the most polite of Cubans.  I was commenting the other day that at least Cubans have to pass their driving tests, unlike in Guatemala where corruption is the usual way to acquire your driving licence.  I wouldn’t be so sure of that commented a wise Cuban friend with a knowing smile ……..

After having the UNESCO visit, hosting Cilect (meeting of international film school directors) and various Hollywood types turning up sniffing around Cuba and the film school we went straight into The Havana film festival which is now coming to an end and I shall be writing about it all soon …. as usual I never get to see any films as I have so many receptions and parties to attend with Rafa and juggling the family and all this has not been easy.  The children missed a day of school, Paulo got into trouble for forgetting to do his homework, I missed a parents meeting.  Never mind, only one week of school left and the Festival finishes tomorrow …..phew.  And Paulo came home with a school report that rocked as did Nico a couple of weeks earlier so all is well in their little trilingual world!

Tonight I am off to meet some British directors who made a road movie in Cuba.  I have not seen the film so I am hoping that they give me a copy and I can at least say I have managed to see one film!


Danay, Wichy and the new Cuban generation …

I have not had as much opportunity as I would have liked to dip into the underground music scene in Havana but sometimes I find, the good people in life, just come your way ….  I am realising that I have been lucky to have already met some major players and maybe 2013 will be my year of going underground.

Sometimes life as the wife of the director of the film school is all-consuming and added to that, three children under 8, who speak 3 languages.  They speak Spanish and French better than me so I have to make a stand and make sure their strangely accented English is kept up to date.  Needless to say I am kept very busy, and have to remind myself of a few little goals that I have of my own.

So far my experience with the new generation here in Cuba is a good one.  Not everything in Cuba is easy but when you meet these people you feel that the future is bright.  They are smart, educated, articulate, friendly, open and more than anything unpretentious (the thing I love the most about Cubans).   And although I am nearly old enough to be their mother, they don’t make me feel like that, and if I was their mother I would be quite proud of them.  Incidently, Danay and Wichy I think both live with their mothers!

I first discovered Danay Suarez last year, not long after we arrived, in a documentary on Cuban TV and was immediately smitten.  Her music, her look, her voice and her attitude.  I thought this girl is definitely well on her way and THIS is the kind of Cuban music I want to hear more.  I had already been lucky enough to hear the incredibly talented keyboard player Roberto Fonseca at a concert at the film school and was not so surprised to hear that Roberto was one of Danay’s mentors, friends and accomplices.  On top of everything Danay just has one of those voices that you would recognise anywhere and already I do.  She is definitely not just another hip hop artist.

Bumping into Gilles Peterson at the Biennial was another stroke of good fortune and I got to see both Danay and Wichy at the Cultura Habana party.  Check out Danay’s video of her track Yo Aprendi.  and her interview on Havana Cultura.

“I never said I was a rapper,” Danay points out. “I can rap and sing, but my real desire is to be a jazz singer, to develop that style. I haven’t done it because I don’t have the musical skills, but I’ll get there some day. I’ve got it inside of me.”

The next time I got to see Danay was at an intimate concert in Casa de Las Americas in Vedado thanks to Darsi Fernandez of SGAE who invited us.  She is certainly more than getting there in her musical ability.  The mixture of her petite frame, pretty dress and undeniable raw talent and soul, it was hard not to compare Danay with the great late Amy Winehouse.  But a little bit of me thinks that Amy must have known or heard Danay, rather than the other way round.  There was a lot of Cuba in Amy Winehouse.  I’m not sure if she visited Cuba, but if she had she would have fitted in just fine, and just maybe, just maybe, the Cuban way of life could have saved her life …….. who knows.

I met a young Cuban photographer Alejandro at the film school a few months back.  I liked his work so much that I asked if I could buy one of his photos.  Since then we have kept in touch sharing ideas and gossip.  Through a contact of mine, Alejandro is now working a lot for Cuba Absolutely (a good English language online magazine) filming and putting together some great interviews for them.   One sunny afternoon Alejandro called me and said he was in my neighborhood doing an interview and he could pass by to say hi.

We ended up having a late lunch and coffee and talking until he had to leave.  It was only then that I discovered he was on his way to Santa Fe to interview DanaySanta Fe is a little town on the beach just outside Havana close to my house.  I asked if I could tag along.  And this was how I found myself sitting on Danay’s bed looking at all her press clippings and chatting about her career.  Alejandro spent a couple of hours interviewing Danay in her mother’s little apartment and I was absolutely charmed.  As we all got into my car to drive back into town after the interview, my only comment was …. que linda persona.  What a lovely person!  Later that night I was hosting a party in the house and there was a call for me.  It was Danay to apologise for not making the cup of tea she had promised me in her house.  Don’t worry I said I hope we will have plenty of time to share a cup of tea in the future.

Wichy de Vedado has an equally friendly reputation.  The amount of people in Havana who have told me that Wichy is their friend. I was beginning to think this guy is the most popular man in town!  Check out the music and the comments in the Havana Cultura page ……

Wichy de Vedado is a really nice guy. Yes, you expect him to be dangerous or obsessive or at least to have a giant ego, but he isn’t and he doesn’t. Wichy is friendly and open-minded and, yes, he’s modest when it comes to his mixing skills and to the success he has achieved because of them.

 Do you see why such information should never be shared? If people knew what Wichy was like they would no longer be content to admire him from a polite distance. They would rush into the DJ booth and attempt to shake his record-spinning hand. Instead of dancing and looking aloof they’d slap him on his back and tell him how much they enjoy his music. And his reputation as one of the sub-zero-cool pillars of Havana’s underground electronic music scene would be damaged beyond repair. And his records might skip.

As I am not very cool.  I am the person that jumps dances behind the decks to shake his hand, or at least give him my opinion on his good music and how much I have to share with him.  And the thing is about Wichy, I think he actually does want to listen to this seasoned British raver and share a bit of my music.   Or maybe he’s just too damn polite 😉

Anyway, we are having a big party in our house on Friday.  It’s been a while. The graduation party of the students was the last one in June.  So with this party I am hoping to bring together a few new and old friends from the film school, the visiting teachers, my friends in international press, Habana friends and a few musical talents.  Rafa has promised me that he is trying to get hold of a new 17 year old Cuban singer called Annie to see if she will sing in our back garden.  So lets see.  I promise I will report back.  In the meantime check out Danay and Wichy with your super fast internet connections …. they’re worth it.

I just called Danay to see if she was coming and she told me she will be in Brixton.  So anybody reading this in London.  Get your spontaneous selves down to Brixton on Saturday night and think of me when you are dancing!





New Brits ….. rabbits, quails eggs and aubergine gratin

Last night we were invited to a party at the beautiful Vedado residence of the new British Ambassador.

It was my first official invitation to an embassy actually in my name  …..   The party was essentially an excuse to meet the new ambassador and his family, who I had already met briefly outside the French school gates and at the reception of the Guatemalan embassy a few weeks before.

Tim Cole and his family appear to be exceptionally down to earth and normal, and the party was fun, the excuse being an Olympic handover to the Brazilians.  So a bunch of miscellaneous Brits and Brazilians were hanging out in the gardens with a smattering of Cuban Olympic stars.  I already knew most of the Brits but met a very nice teacher from Wolverhampton and the head of Virgin holidays who lives in Varadero (all inclusive beach holiday central).  There was a very large Cuban wrestler with an impressive neck measurement, a female Asturian bag pipe player (I was informed), a few friendly journalists and us.    After a short speech the Union Jack Umbrella baton was handed over to the Brazilian Ambassador as the Scotch Eggs and mini Roast Beef and Yorkshire puddings were whisked past my nose.

This afternoon, my wonderful chef will arrive to concoct my randomly acquired food into delicious dishes for the rest of the week.  So this morning, I had the pleasure of planning menus knowing that I shall not be the one that cooks it.  How fantastic is that domestic arrangement?  And the fun is that in Cuba you just never know what we will get our hands on.  It is a bit like Ready Steady Cook in your kitchen once a week.  This week we have a very large rabbit so I have two rabbit recipes one with white wine, thyme, cream and garlic (Jamie) and the other with olives and tomatoes (Delia).  I bought some quite expensive baby aubergines a couple of days ago and intend to have them deep fried in olive oil with a yoghurt dip and then make the rest into a parmesan bread crumb gratin.

Recently I have also had an abundant supply of quails eggs, which hard boiled and chopped up on a lettuce based salad … rather delicious, or just dipped into mustard mayonnaise.  Saskia eats them likes sweets some days when she gets back from the nursery.  And then a few shortbread biscuits that we can eat with Vanilla icecream and a strawberry coulis.  The good frozen strawberries appeared again in 70 supermarket last week.

Later I am meeting with Amado my diminutive 80 year old upholsterer as I have finally found some material in Havana Vieja so he can do my art deco chairs and sofa.

Rafa is off to Margerita Film festival tomorrow with strict instructions to find a Zara and buy himself some clothes.  I shall be filling the house with friends to keep my children amused and eating lots of rabbit and aubergine ……………….. happy that life is slow and easy in Havana. 🙂

Next week will I get to do a one week workshop on script writing ……………….?  Or is that just pushing my proverbial luck!?

The Cook, the thief, his wife and her lover …….. in Cuba.

As I was thinking about writing this post, the Peter Greenaway film title that I stole for this post title kept playing around in my head all jumbled up and back to front.  I think Peter Greenaway has visited the film school and if not he should be invited.

I have a new cook, there was a thief about, I am a wife but I don’t have a lover, although in Cuba a lot of people do …………. anyway on on ….

The boys have broken up from school and a lot of our more wealthy friends have left for the summer to their properties in Europe along with most of the diplomats and bureaucrats.  Luckily we have enough Cuban friends and enough going on that I don’t feel too lonely and abandoned.  A little bit of breathing space ……… and now with our new air con in the living room, things are looking up!!

I escaped for a few nights to a global city alone, such things have hardly been heard of in our house!  I enjoyed walking the beautiful streets without having to keep my eyes on 3 little naughty heads, lunching in cafe terraces, visiting several galleries, finishing conversations with adults, topping up my fashionista desires ……… bliss …….. but that is another story for another time.

I returned to three happy but slightly resentful children, a husband ready to offload all his problems and trials and tribulations of being a single Dad and director of a film school ……… and yet another robbery in my house.  We let our defenses down for a moment, and of course I wasn’t here to keep my castle safe!

So there was the usual  ……why on earth did you let these people into our house?  Because I wanted to get things done well you were away. ……. conversation.

On the few occasions that I have left my husband alone since we met, he is always intent on improving the house and/or my car for me while I am away, which can often lead to conflict as I like to be heavily involved in the style of said improvements and also who they are done by.  He is then hurt, as he says he does everything to make me happy …… hmmm.

Anyway some workmen came to my house from the film school and were in my bedroom fixing the air con or pretending to fix other things and some cash walked.  Not helped by the fact that we live in a cash world in Cuba and do not have a safe.  Luckily we were approaching the end of the month and we did not have that much cash and they were decent enough to leave us some.

The film school was supposed to find us a safe but failed to do so.  I have now taken all matters into my own hands and decided that the only people who come into my house will be friends, family or people invited by me who have already had my tough character analysis test. I want to be independent from the film school in all matters of administration and maintenance of my home.  Apart from anything else they all like to have a good snoop and gossip is rife in any institution and all over the island.  ‘tonces no mas!

To this end, I now have a new housekeeper and cook who is proving to be a great investment.  Just as well as I had 9 adults and 9 children in my house over this weekend at various stages and I managed to just about feed those who were hungry.  Mercedes lives nearby, is a hardworking, organised women who is transforming my kitchen into a place of homemade cakes and shortbread cookies and cottage pie and it is only week one!

After a few weeks of struggling alone with some help from my young babysitter Claudia, I decided that I needed to get on with finding another nanny before the long summer holiday began, still slightly reluctant to use my children as guinea pigs, but it seems it is the only way.  Take them on a trial basis and see how it goes.

Still not convinced about the latest.  I am trying someone who lives very close by, 5 minutes walk away, but although she seems very sweet and a good person she also gives the impression that she has really suffered a hard life, and that life has worn down her spirit.

I want to say to her …….. hey lady lets laugh and smile and skip with the children, lets make up fun games and holiday adventures.  I am sort of hoping that we might be able to cheer her up a bit but she told me the other day somewhat despondently that Saskia has asked her why she had such a big belly!  I was at the time playing footsies with a giggling Saskia throwing her around the bed.  On the one hand I felt bad, but on the other I was marvelling at my 2 year olds communication skills and astute observational abilities.

Anyway Elena is a black lady, an afrocuban who studied Russian and spent 5 years in Kiev only to return to Cuba just as the Soviet system was getting the hell out and leaving them with the worst economic moment in post-revolution Cuban history, the infamous special period.  Suddenly nobody wanted to learn Russian or bother speaking it too much when she returned.  The Ruskies were gone and it seems that Elena has been sad ever since at her bad luck.  Although she did tell me that she loved living in the Ukraine.  Maybe she fell in love with a Ukranian who stole her heart forever.  I wanted to say to her, well your belly’s not that big and you’ve still got a great pair of legs but in these situations it is best just to keep quiet I find …………..

Anyway a few more parties to organise before the end of the film school term, the graduation party being one of them.  Juju, our beloved nanny of 7 years, who nobody has come close to replacing, is arriving from Guatemala at the end of July for a holiday and by the first week of August Rafa will be free ……… and we have to plan some Cuban adventures.

Where shall we go? Colonial Trinidad?  Maria La Gorda beach?  Cayo Coco?  Exciting, cultural Santiago, the other side of the island, is calling me, but 12 hours in a car in tropical heat with 3 kids means I fear I might have to delay that one.  But I want to dance to more Rhumba, meet a few more Cuban DJs, teach some recipes to my new cook, spend quality time with my children (woops I suppose that should have been first!), try to make my husband forget about the film school for at least a couple of weeks and entertain any pale faces Brits that make it over my Caribbean way.



Gilles Peterson, the Bienal and the art of dancing

Rafa was in Venezuela signing some important film agreement and the Bienal was in full swing.  The biggest art show in town, and its not just about art.  There are some crazy performances, lots of good music, a few parties ………. and of course plenty of art to keep everybody happy from the most commercial to the most ridiculous.

I managed to get to La Cabaña, the old fort over-looking Havana Vieja, on Sunday with the boys, where most of the art of the Bienal was being displayed in various interlinking rooms of the huge venue.  The boys were more interested in the cannons and climbing the walls of the fort but some of the more impactful visual stuff grabbed their attention.  A room of mirrors, a room of wooden boats standing on their sides of varying sizes, some amazing interactive sculptures in the courtyards and various other cositas like the painting of the crying boxer!

Unrelated to the craziness of the Bienal, I bought a photo of the Malecon from a student of ISA.  He arrived a little late round to my house where I was waiting with the photo for him to sign and me to pay.  He told me that a whole street in Havana Vieja had been closed as naked people sprayed bronze walked up and down.  He had been taking photos of the nudes and the faces of the Cuban public, who although used to seeing scantily clad people walking around town, were rather aghast at the nakedness!

I headed out to a party of an artist friend in his beautiful house in Vedado with some friends.  We stopped off at the National Hotel to pick up a journalist on the way and had a quick drink on the garden terrace overlooking the bay before heading back into the leafy residential streets of Vedado.  When we arrived the beautiful ruined house was already full of people and the music was pretty good out in the garden.  I bumped into Havana friends and foreign journalists and people working at Havana Club rum (who seemed to be sponsoring a lot of stuff), lots of artists and random music people.

I was just thinking I should be getting home when I saw a very familiar face across the room.  I had this strong feeling that he was British and that I knew him.  A friend of a friend from London maybe?  I approached him and asked him where he was from.  England.  What are you doing here? I’m a DJ and I’m playing at the inauguration party tomorrow.  Excellent I thought, as he slipped out the door alone, no DJ gang to be seen.  That’s Gilles Peterson, said a friend.  I knew he looked familiar!

I managed to case the party and find 3 invites for the following night for myself and a couple of friends.  With Rafa out of town I set up my young babysitter and her mother in the house so I could dance all night!  And it was worth it, I needed to dance.

Gilles is a name in the UK.  He has been a bastion of late night Radio 1 for what seems like the last 15 years.  His serious of albums titled Worldwide where all about mixing world rhythms with his own take on drum and bass.

He recently visited Cuba and cut a record with some famous musicians and DJs and put his finger on the pulse of new Cuban music. I am still not in a position to say if he got his finger right on the pulse, but I like Gilles.  He does his own thing and he appreciates differences.  I kept bumping into him at the party and he was always alone.  People watching, absorbing the atmosphere.  He didn’t need to have a crowd of people around him and was happy to talk to anybody and everybody.

The venue was the Sala Rosada de La Tropical, a huge outside venue with a sweeping staircase going down to the auditorium.  It was a hot night and everyone was quite sweaty dancing.  I can’t believe I was worried about my hair before I went out because by the end of the night it was a rather attractive sweaty wet mass and for some reason people kept taking my photo.  Gilles had introduced the evening ….. Gilles Peterson presenta La Havana Cultura Band, some live music from Danay Suarez, Osdalgia, Roberto Carcasses amongst others.  Gilles himself rolled out a pretty good set and the Cuban DJs that followed also kept me dancing.  Names to look out for Wichy de Vedado and DJ Simbad.

To wrap up with a quote from Mr Peterson:

“Having spent the last three years travelling regularly to Havana I’ve understandably become more attached to this fascinating, almost otherworldly city. I’m also slowly getting to grips with the relationship music has here with the spirits and its people… the drum goes deep.”
Gilles Peterson

The Drum goes deep …………. I like that!


Mexicans, Scorpions and decapitations

I flew off to Guadalajara film festival for the third time last week.  Leaving my Saskia for the first time with her brothers and her adopted Cuban family.  Two nannies and Rafa’s driver, Mario.  In fact they all had a pretty good time.  70 photos from their jaunt around Habana Vieja.  They went to the park of inflatables, the museum of classic cars, pizza for lunch, Paulo and Nico carried by the men on stilts through the streets, donkey rides in the park…….and more.

When I managed to get a call through on Friday evening from Mexico, Paulo told me calmly that he had been stung by a scorpion at school and was taken to the hospital to have an injection.  Why do these things always happen when you are away?  He was fine and quite proud of how brave he had been.  All told, it had been little Nico who was the most upset for his big brother.  Bless my little emotional one!

We arrived in Guadalajara late on Thursday night as we had missed our connection in Mexico City.  We couldn’t find any of our friends to play with, as they were all staying in different hotels and they thought we were staying in their hotel.  We found out later that there was a welcome committee in the bar of the Hilton Hotel waiting for us until 3am!

Anyway, not realizing there was a party a few metres from where we were standing, we went off to a party for the press in a cool bar, but full of such young people that we began to feel old and the night had got off to a bad start.  We did not have our festival credentials as we had arrived so late, so Rafa who never pulls rank, reluctantly used his name to get us into the party, however the initial reaction of the revoltingly obese head of press for the festival (his stomach moved independently from the rest of his body) was so bad mannered that we could not get into the mood even when we had our free passes etc.

Usually in Guadalajara the Mexicans are so smiley and hospitable so we have got used to always feeling like VIPs.  But once again it was fun at the festival and we met old friends, made new friends and I managed to watch two films.  United Kingdom was the invited country and their had been a homenaje to Mike Leigh who had already been and gone, showing his latest film at the opening party.  The British Council party had passed and although I thought I was going to be bumping into my folk all over the place, it wasn’t like that at all.  I hardly even heard British music!

I was determined to make it to one film from the British contingent and noticed that at 4pm that day there was an interesting documentary on Andrew Logan that sounded just like my cup of tea, and it certainly was.  Who is Andrew Logan?

A wonderful man, in my humble opinion.  For those who are not familiar with the name, you will certainly be familiar with his style and influences. I found this quote about him on Wikipedia and it serves as a good introduction to this wonderful character.

Andrew Logan’s work blends camp pop-art and neo-romanticism to form a quintessentially English ‘eccentricity of vision’.

The documentary The British Art of Showing Off, by Jes Benstock was very well put together and served as a retrospective of the man and his art with a good dose of English humour.  Synopsis from the catalogue read:

British Artist and living legend Andrew Logan, loved the world over by celebrities and misfits alike, takes us under his glittering wing and inside his outrageous, anarchic and spectacular costume pageant: the Alternative Miss World Show.  Using live observational camera, archive and exuberant animation, this documentary charts the mounting of the 2009 Show, interwoven with its history, the rise, fall and rediscovery, of both the event and the artist at its centre.

As I sat in the over air conditioned theatre I chuckled away to myself and felt truly proud to be British watching some very famous eccentrics and admiring, once again, our ability to laugh at ourselves and not take life too seriously.

I hope I would get a chance to meet Andrew after the film but outside the cinema their was a narco battle taking place all over the city.  Two weeks before there had been 8 decapitated bodies found and the police had finally, that day, nailed one of the top guys.  Because of this, his gang was setting fire to buses all over the city (25 I think!).  They were decent enough to get all the passengers off first though, a little touch of humanity in the madness.  For that reason Andrew and Jes had not made it down to talk after the film.  I managed to get a taxi and head back to find my slightly concerned husband waiting for me in the Hilton bar.

However, I was lucky enough to meet Andrew and Jes, the director, later at the Gay party and awards held in a club close to the festival.  The Gay party was good fun and we had a handful of friends to help us along with our plastic pints of Tequila and sprite (yeah really elegant!). There were two dancers who came with their prerequisite 6 pack bodies but were on the podium, dancing badly like a couple of bored toyboy housewives and spent most of their time picking their skimpy underwear out of their bum in a very uncharming fashion.  I am sure that if Andrew had organized the entertainment it would have been much more fun.

The closing night entailed another walk on the red carpet in my new woman shoes (with a heel!) and a great Danish film called Superclassico.  We arrived back in Cuba on Sunday afternoon like true Cubanos with a suitcase full of nappies, cereal, tortillas, shoes, pesto,  ……… and the rest.

I found my 3 children utterly charming and wanted to stay up chatting with them all night about their adventures, thinking maybe it is good to have the odd little break from being a mother ………. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that.  Paulo and Nico also had really good school reports from the French School waiting for us that brought proud tears to my eyes.  They are well on their way to being trilingual, the clever little things.

Next trip we are all off to Guatemala for a wedding and a step back in time, but got to organize another party, and looking forward to the French food tasting evening on the roof terrace of the Sevilla, (very posh hotel in Habana Vieja).


Finally Los Van Van get to play

Due to the rain at the Film School’s 25th Birthday party in December, Los Van Van did not get to play.  The students put on some great tunes and we still danced until breakfast, however Los Van Van honoured their promise to play at the Film School and finally came back last Friday.  Two nights before, the heavens had opened with another terrific downpour and Rafa was convinced that they were never going to get to play, but although the sky was grey over the sea when we woke up that morning, the island climate was kind to us.

So who are Los Van Van? (loosely their name could be translated as The Go-gos).  When I heard their name here in Cuba I thought they were saying the Bambams, which sounded to me like a caveman TV series for children and not one of the coolest bands on the island.  When I was telling Cubans and long term expats that Los Van Van were playing at the party I noticed a certain soulful reverence from most people as though I was talking about the Beatles or the Stones, and it seems that Los Van Van have been round for almost as long as those pop legends.  Formed in 1969 by their bass player Juan Formell and arguably Cuba’s most successful post-revolution band.  Their founder, is one of the most important figures in contemporary Cuban music.  Many other stars have passed through Los Van Van school of music before heading off for solo careers.

So we were in for a treat.  I managed to rustle up a few Habana friends to make the journey out to the Film School last Friday night, and we were not to be disappointed.  Teachers and students from all over the world, workers and their families from San Antonio de los Baños, all came together to dance and party with Los Van Van, a really wonderful cross-section of people and a great show.

The first thing that impressed me was the amount of people on stage.  As though some big impromptu family party had set off a musical event, from your old grandpa veteran to the new and young, hip-thrusting tight trouser wearing youngsters.

Using what is known as a charanga line-up (flute, string and rhythm) as its base, Los Van Van added trombones and were said to be the first Cuban group to use synthesizers and drum machines way back when such things were unheard of.   Initially, their sound was a fusion of  son montuno, rumba, and North American rock and pop if you can work that one out, and try and imagine what it sounds like. Later they incorporated funk, disco, and hip hop.  So with all that going on, you have a little bit of something for everybody and you could see that in the crowd, from grandmas to stunned toddlers in arms being rocked around by their parents.

Los Van Van are also known for their clever use of double entendres and word plays in their lyrics. Some of the stories in their songs span several albums!  Obviously most of this clever stuff went sailing right over my head but at one point Rafa said they were improvising and singing about him and the film school.  When he tuned into it, he was too late to hear exactly what!  Damn I thought.  I wanted to know just how cheeky they were!

In the end I liked Los Van Van.  Their performance and style was one of unpretencious good fun and good music with no rules.  Just join in and dance how you like ……and I did!  I even was dragged around in a conga at one point by one of the kitchen ladies!

Check out your local listings as maybe Los Van Van are coming to a theatre near you.  They spend a large portion of the year travelling the world and performing, so I consider myself very honoured to have caught them at the very Cuban and more intimate setting of the basketball court next to the swimming pool behind the student residence!

Ooh and the ham and cheese sandwich that Rafa and I had at the bottom of the basketball court around 1am was the best one of my life.  I was woken up the next morning by my really annoying mother’s internal clock at the usual time of 7 am (never mind  that the children were in Habana with the nanny) with a mild hangover, starving and dreaming about that sandwich.  Lots of bottles of rum were being passed around the dance floor that night!  When in ron ………….. and all that.  That’s my new witty double entendre that obviously nobody gets but me, but it makes me chuckle to myself as I neck someone’s proffered bottle like a true Cubana.

Anyway click here to check out some photos of the night by photographer Nicolas Ordoñez.  If I was not on dial up I would have endeavoured to upload them but this way you can check them all out.  See who can spot me in the crowd!

Cuba Heart & Soul

I was thinking about writing a blog about Christmas (or the lack of it) in Cuba, or an end of year summary.  Trying to round up my first impressions, but it just wasn’t forthcoming and I hate writing in a forced way.

Christmas came and went and the whole thing about the robbery, which I had managed to forget for a couple of weeks during the festival and the party, reared its ugly head again and I could not shake it off …….. that ugly head.  I was resentful with the police for not giving me the respect to talk to me, and the film school for not supporting me more, and Rafa for being defensive about my suggestions and opinions.  I think he was caught between the film school and me and a million other important pressing matters!  But the feminist in me was stamping her feet indignantly.

But luckily so many good things are always happening, and I have managed to finally put it behind me and stop thinking about it.  I do always carry around in my head so many impressions and thoughts about this place and my life that in the end last night I decided to write a few of my ramblings…………

My little life in Cuba

Already I feel as though I have a lot of people around me who care about me, and me for them, friends and helpers.

The international community of ex-pats and diplomats are a fun and varied bunch and there is always something going on.  The most elegant dinner parties to the most bohemian Havana nights.

When I arrived, I did not want to have so many people working for me in the house but now I do, as this is Cuba and if you can give anybody a job you can support a whole family.  But the big difference is that I now have people working for us who we chose and they are very much a part of our lives and the lives of our children.

You get involved with Cubans and their lives very quickly.  When you hear what little people earn in professional jobs working for the state it can be quite shocking, but despite their lack of remuneration, people in Cuba don’t look or seem poor.  Something is different.  There is a pride in appearance that I have not seen in many countries.  Cubans stand tall and proud.  Cuba does not seem like a country suffering poverty (the special period is well and truly over but not forgotten), just some kind of weird limbo of a war or a revolution that has gone on too long.  What is the next step for Cuba?  Who knows?  But there are so many good things here that I really hope do not disappear.  I am sure that it easy for me to say from my beautiful house in Flores and my charming and interesting existence, but still I feel things more than most people, and this country is already under my skin.

I just watched an amazing documentary by an English director, Andrew Laing called Sons of Cuba.  It tells the story of 3 young Afro-Cuban boys training in the Boxing Academy in Habana at a time when there are big changes a foot (2006-2007).  The documentary is fascinating but one of the things that really struck me was the affection the boys had for each other and their coach and their families.  How they wanted to succeed so their parents and Cuba could be proud of them no matter that they will never be earning the huge salaries of a professional.  Tears and hugs and beautiful faces all mixed up in the macho world of boxing.  It could only have been in Cuba.

One thing I can say about the Cubans is that there is plenty of heart and soul on this little island despite the economic challenges of life and the heartache of broken families, people have a lot of love to give and take.  You feel and see a lot of humanity in Cuba.  Many people are complaining about the changes and that Cuba is changing fast, but I have nothing to compare it to, as I live in the present Cuba and can only compare it with the other countries where I have lived.  For me you just can’t beat the unpretencious warmth and spontaneity of these people.  I feel as though in some ways I have found my spiritual home.  I can be myself in Cuba.  I can talk straight, be emotional, be silly, be intellectual, be caring, be strong, be weak …….nothing will phase them.

As I was parking in Habana Vieja the other day I told the parking guys hanging out on the street that I wasn’t a tourist but a resident.  One of the most exuberant of them ran round the car to kiss my hand good-naturedly and tell me that Cuba needed more Cubans like me and my beautiful daughter.  (Silly I know but in 8 years in Guatemala the people seemed more interested in telling me that I wasn’t Guatemalan even though had gave birth to 3 half Guatemalan children there).  In the same week a friend from England was walking alone through a little park in Habana Vieja after a rain shower.  An old man got out his handkerchief and wiped the raindrops off the bench for her so she could sit down, without expecting a thank you or even acknowledgement.  These little fun and selfless acts make a society different.  Don’t you think?

Cubans are very laid back to the extent that at times they don’t appear to give a shit and then just when you are about to lose your rag they come all sweet and mi amol on you and you think, thank goodness I didn’t lose my rag.  Or maybe that is the whole idea and they have it down to a fine art!  And why the Cubans live longer than any other country in Latin America and quite a few in Europe I suppose.  (Women 80, men 77).  In Cuba people have learned to be patient, to resolve, to keep loving life.  No matter what you think about politics you really shouldn’t judge Cuba until you have seen it, smelt it, talked to it, shared its food, watched its films, danced to its music ……………

I was reading Matthew Parris,´ Parting Shots (The ambasadors’ letters you were never meant to see) when I arrived in Cuba.  The section about Cuba was written in 1970 by Richard Slater and includes the following comments …….

An initial impression which I find least reason to change concerns the quality of the Cuban people.  Good-natured, good-humoured, courteous and incorrigibly hospitable, they bear no resemblance to the mental picture I had formed before I came out. ………… The Cubans possess both dignity and charm in a marked degree, and this goes for the government as well as the people. ……….. The fact that the Cubans are a fundamentally decent and likeable people has in a way compensated for the unpleasantness of living in a closed society …………. My emotions have been engaged here in a way in which they were never engaged during my service in Moscow in the mid-fifties by the suffering of the vast amorphous mass of the Russian people, unknown and virtually unknowable.






Converted to la Rumba in just one night!

As I have had a good friend in town I have had lots of excuses to be a tourist and party a little bit more than usual!  Also the reason for my absence from the blogosphere.

Last Friday we had been tipped off by our musician friend Tony that there would be a good night down at the Palacio de la Rumba, and he wasn’t wrong.  After the usual fraught bedtime theatre of 3 children under 7, we managed to escape down the Malecon and after asking a couple of people we found the Palacio nestled in a small square in Central Havana.  We all paid 10 cucs entry, which although I am sure the locals weren’t paying, I really didn’t care and in my mind it was worth every centavo!

The venue was a little like an old style music hall with a stage, a dance floor and chairs and tables down the middle and some on raised platforms.  There was a bar running down one wall at the back of the room and a dickie bow tied waiter hovering.  Needless to say there weren’t many white faces in there but this didn’t seem to matter to anybody least of all us.  I did feel a little honoured to be there.  It was African Cuban music about as authentic as you could hope to find it, and although there were people dancing when we arrived there was a serious air of contemplation and appreciation.  The stage was full, around 12 people were playing, drumming and singing in a well practised, effortless way.

We got a bottle of rum and found ourselves a table.  The haunting soulful singing and distinctive rhythms soon got us in the mood, in fact all 3 of us were grinning like loons who had just stumbled upon a great party.  At one stage early on a Babalu (or Babulau) appeared behind us with his shell necklace and long beard he looked the epitome of Santeria wisdom.  A lot of the men were strikingly dressed in white with white flat caps setting off their dark complexions.

Early on there seemed to be some tacit rules about who was up on the dance floor and what was going on and I was happy just to sit there and lap it all up.  Couples would get up and dance as though they were conversing.  Both men and women had some kind of scarf which they would use to exaggerate their movements.  After a while the crowd that had collected on the right hand side would move across and all start dancing.  At one stage there was even a conga that filed all the way through the club, a million times cooler than one of those awful things done at drunken office parties and weddings.

The club was no smoking and people were not drinking excessively it was all about the music and the dancing.   At one stage a huge birthday cake appeared to celebrate the anniversary of one of the groups and I vaguely remember allowing myself to be lifted up onto the stage to join the celebrations.  I felt a bit like a gatecrasher but by the end of the night we were up there with the best of them shaking our booty to the rumba until closing time.  We bumped into some Belgian friends who had been in Havana to organise a dance event with the local people and through them I got the phone number of a dance teacher who came with strong recommendations.  She is a rather scary-looking Amazonian woman, helped by the 3 inch platforms she was wearing.  I am sure she will whip me into rumba shape in no time!

Suddenly at 1.30 we found ourselves in the square outside the club realising that it was all over and we had certainly stayed the course.  In fact I was rather glad that it finished, as otherwise I am not sure when we would have got home!  Our car was parked right outside, as is the luxury of no car Cuba, and we were contentedly whisked home through the empty streets down to suburban Flores and a last drink in front of the sea to discuss the fun we had had on our first official night out dancing!!!  Viva la rumba!

Next stop quiet and sleepy Cienfuegos, the cleanest town in Cuba!


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Cuban Police and me ……..

I have just spent 8 years living in a country where the police are ………… quite frankly a joke.  In fact, they are worse than that, they are a corrupt bunch of people who I would not call if anything remotely bad or good happened to me.  I just wouldn’t trust them one bit.  Also I knew someone who was raped by 3 policemen in Antigua and fled the country pretty soon with her daughter.  Do you blame her?  Rapists and the police have impunity in Guatemala along with a whole bunch of other low-lives ……..

By the end of my time there I had even stopped stopping for the police in Guatemala.  My opinion of them was so low that even if they tried to wave me over in the road I would just wave at them like a foreign loony without a clue.  One time I was involved in a police chase when I was taking the boys to their French class at Alliance Franςaise.  I had touched the bonnet of a taxi whilst virtually stationary at a T junction and the taxi driver wanted to get a few quetzales out of me for his already falling apart taxi.  I knew the drill and was so bored.  The taxi driver managed to flag down a police car and they chased me all the way to the Alliance.  I didn’t want the boys to be late and they LOVED being involved in a real life police chase.  They ran into their French class as though they had just been on the best fairground ride ever!

I then had to go through the ridiculous farce of paying off the taxi driver and the police as any other option just isn’t worth it.  At least the young police officer had the decency on this occasion to look a little bit ashamed.  So my boys have always known that we did not have much respect for the police in Guatemala!

So here I am in Cuba a country with hardly any violent crime and certainly not of the organised variety.  The police have a strong but unaggressive presence on the streets and I am glad they are there.  Having said that I have already managed to get stopped twice!  Schoolgirl errors, as really this is about the easiest city I have ever had the pleasure to drive around.

On my second Saturday I was suddenly filled with a desire to get out of the house and get Paulo’s hair cut before school began.  Off we went down Quinta with a vague idea that someone told me that there was a barber shop near Nautico shopping centre and supermarket.  Suddenly I saw it and swung across Quinta at the next opportunity.  Peep peep peep went the policeman’s whistle.  I was pulled over and a friendly policeman informed me that I had crossed a yellow line.  Never cross a yellow line in Cuba, is a bit like never eat yellow snow.  A good bit of basic advice.

The policeman asked me if I thought I should get a fine with a smile beginning to appear on his lips.  Please no I am new in town and my son needs a haircut and I’m having problems getting my electronic wing mirrors on my new strange car to open.  I promise I won’t do it again I was a bit confused!  After this he helped me to back the car out and showed me where to park and where the barber shop was.

The second time I was on Quinta near our house on my way to get Saskia from her circulo (nursery).  I have to say I am usually more bothered about going fast enough on Quinta as it says maintain your speed at 80 kph or 60 kph depending on which lane.  So there I was trying to maintain 60 but falling short when I got pulled over.  Maybe I wasn’t going fast enough I thought!  A few teenagers crossed the road giggling and shouting suerte! I had forgotten that that part of Quinta was in a school zone where you have to go 40 kph.  Quite right too.  I was terribly apologetic to the polite and professional young office saying I had 3 children of my own etc etc.  He asked for all my papers and when he realised that the car and the driver were in some ways connected to the film school he was even more friendly and kind.  Apologising for bothering me.  Not at all I said, el contrario! I think he even ended by sending greetings to the school and my husband.  Once I got on my way again they drove past me waving!

So what have I learnt.  Police in Cuba do their job but they are not officious nor heavy handed.  Do not ever cross a yellow line on the road and watch out for school zones.  And also that in a country that puts so much emphasis on cultural development like Cuba everyone knows the film school and our position here is a privileged one but in the nicest possible way.  Rafa is respected for who he is, and what he does rather than how much money we have or have not or what model of car we drive.