Havana and all that jazz

At a convent in the old part of town, Andra Jackson moves to a new beat at summer music school.

As the festive, hip-moving rhythms of a Cuban band spilled from the CD player into my lounge room one night last year, I mused: "Wouldn't it be wonderful to be in Cuba, learning to play like that?"

Four months later, I am in Havana studying and playing Cuban music on my saxophone.

From an internet search I select the Cuban Music School and its jazz summer school, run by London-based Cuban music enthusiasts. This year the school featured master classes by Cuba's traditional music exponents, Sierra Maestra, who have toured Australia.

For anyone travelling solo, enrolling in an overseas course such as this is an ideal way to be independent and veer off the tourist trail.

It is also a safe and convenient way to travel to a country such as Cuba, plagued by communication difficulties and shortages caused by the US-imposed economic blockade.

These shortages are immediately apparent when I try in vain to buy tissues on arrival late on a Saturday night at Jose Marti airport in Havana.

My first taxi ride is in a sputtering 1950s Chevrolet with a tangle of wires dangling under the dashboard. The friendly driver worries that being a Sunday, there will be no one at the Convento Santa Clara in Havana Vieja (old Havana) where I'm due to meet the other course members. He goes in first to make sure I won't be stranded.

The convent – converted for classes and seminars – has a coffee lounge and dining room where we meet English drummer Clive Fenner, who founded the course, conductor and arranger Sara McGuinness and about 30 participants. From England there are music teachers, a psychologist, a journalist, a nurse, a church organist, academics and 60s pop singer Linda Lewis; five music teachers from Sweden; and a lawyer from Brazil.


I strike it lucky, assigned to one of the more comfortable home-stay apartments that has been restored post-colonial style with chandeliers, handpainted decorative edges around the ceiling, and a room with satin bed covers.

My host, Noemis, frustrated by her insufficient English and my lack of Spanish, assures me through the school's interpreter that I should feel free to use the parlour or play her piano.

What follows is a fun week with plenty of guidance. We have rehearsals of the full orchestra and smaller tutorials of instrumental groupings. Members of Sierra Maestra give tutorials on improvisation, percussion (playing the clave) and maracas. They sit in on rehearsals and help us interpret the Cuban rhythms, culminating in a heady concert at the convent where we play with the professionals.

The convent is located on Calle Cuba, winding, dusty and colourful. During music breaks we take walks in the neighbourhood, past crumbling buildings with washing hung overhead, exhanging greetings with friendly residents.

Each night we step out as a group, visiting places such as La Zorra jazz club, entered through a telephone box.

On our last day we join a suburban street party staged by a radio station in a rundown area of the city, where locals pour on to the streets and line their balconies and, like us, dance to the music.

The Cuban Music School in Havana has courses for $1260, including tuition, seven nights' accommodation and most meals; see jazzsummerschool.com/cuban. For dance and music courses see boogalu.com. For homestays see noemiswilfredo.altervista.org (about CUC30 pesos a night or $34).