UNESCO, Cuba and me.

Last week the Director General of UNESCO Irina Bokova visited Cuba and the Film School.  I was lucky enough to meet her and was not disappointed.  She was actually one of those terribly accomplished important people, who seems totally accessible.  I wanted to take her and her husband home for dinner and chat over a good bottle of wine and put the world to rights …. But no time for that.

Her visit to the Film school was a very exciting  and important first step towards the school becoming a UNESCO project, and it all felt so right.  Helped enormously by her words and her warmth.  She even got to spray some graffiti on the wall, as is the convention at the school when VIPs are visiting.  So not far from Steven Spielberg´s comments now sits a line from Irina reassuring the school that UNESCO is with them.  Soñar con el cine … imaginar UNESCO esta con ustedes.  Ir. Bokova.

The irony did not pass me by that Spielberg is a great supporter of the State of Israel and particularly the infamous wall, and Irina had been the first UNESCO chief to recognise Palestine, which in turn, led the way to the vote of acceptance of the State of Palestine by the UN, which happened last week.  Irina’s visit coincided with this historic vote and all week I felt as though I was a part of history in my small way.

UNESCO is already very involved in Cuba for all the right reasons and presently the only UN countries that vote for keeping the blockade are the US and Israel.  I do not profess to be an expert on the Israeli Palestinian situation but I think there are areas of great human rights violations and the figures speak for themselves no matter how you analyse them.  Lets face it, who would chose to be born in Palestine, it seems a bum deal.  Lets hope that their new status gives the Palestinian people a little dignity and identity, if nothing else.

Anyway, back to Cuba.  Everyone was very excited at the school and it was a positive day.  Later Rafa and I were invited to the reception in the garden of the beautiful house in Vedado where UNESCO is based.  There were lots of UNESCO and UN people, a few diplomats and important Cubans and it was here I got to meet Irina´s husband and chat.  He lives in Kingston, Surrey and works in London and his daughter is at Kingston University.  I imagine Irina lives most of her time on planes and in hotels.  Her short speech was inspiring and I felt a bit tearful by the end, realising that I am well and truly entrenched in this world of internationalism.  A British Guatemalan family growing up in Cuba studying at the French school, exiled from one country and not sure where we are heading next …………..

The rest of the week was spent cruising on this high of collaboration.  We enjoyed a relaxed dinner on the beautiful rooftop of a friend’s house in Miramar apparently very close to the vaults of Cuba!  Not something you think about too much in a socialist state, but I suppose everyone has their gold bullion.  Diago, a well known Cuban artist was there with some very interesting views on the future of Cuba that we are still absorbing.  Then on Saturday we had the big pre Christmas bash at the Norwegians.  The Norwegian Ambassador is openly gay so has the best parties in town, helped enormously by his very lovely Mexican husband Paco.  Paco had called me the week before to make sure I had my invite and I mentioned to him how I was looking for some Christmas Carol singing.  That’s a good idea, he said. I arrived at the party alone on Saturday night, Rafa was meeting me there from another reception in the film school.  As I walked in, the ambassador and Paco were talking to a group of Cubans (from the music department of ISA) who turned round and settled themselves before launching into Hark the Herald Angel Sings.  I felt as though my little Christmas wish had been granted and had to stop myself from singing along loudly like a drunken carol singer!

Now are preparing for the Havana Film Festival…………



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!