Rhythm of life

From salsa to son, timba to rumba, Gabriel Wilder follows the irresistible sound of Cuba's hottest music.

There is music everywhere in Cuba, people say, and everybody dances in the street. Well, yes and no. There is music everywhere: the jangle of traditional son bursting from cafes on a hot afternoon; the thunk-thunk-thunk of reggaeton blaring out of cars; the bop-bop-bop of congas being played in a living room; saccharine Latin pop blasting from a balcony as a woman does her laundry. There is so much music, in fact, that sometimes one wishes for just a moment's silence.

Last year, when I was in Havana, a band used to rehearse in the apartment below me. I was there primarily for the salsa, so it was just my luck they were a rock band, whose repertoire included a power-ballad version of a bolero made world-famous by the Buena Vista Social Club, Dos Gardenias.

So yes, there is music everywhere, but dancing in the street? It's not even true that everyone knows how to dance (another oft-repeated phrase).

A trip to Havana allows you to immerse yourself in a rich variety of sounds and performing arts and, should the mood take you, to dance, too. The mood has taken me many times and I have been drawn to Havana again and again. It's a long way to go for a dance but the omnipresent tropical rhythms, along with the city's timeless ambience and warm but com-plicated people, have an irresistible allure.

Since its settlement by the Spanish in 1512, Cuba has become one of the most musically prolific nations in the world. The ensuing centuries saw African rhythms combine with European musical traditions (primarily Spanish and French) to create more than a dozen new forms.

In the '40s and '50s three of these - mambo, conga and cha-cha-cha - burst out of Cuba and swept the world.

In the '90s it was the turn of son, a provincial music developed in the late 19th century that hit its stride in Cuba the 1920s. It became a worldwide phenomenon when American musician Ry Cooder went to Havana and recorded an album with forgotten stars of the genre. Buena Vista Social Club sold more than 6 million copies and won a Grammy. The film by Wim Wenders, documenting the album's creation, was nominated for an Oscar.

It had been many decades since son was widely heard in Cuba but the government, no slouch when it comes to tourism, realised quickly that the sudden boom in holidaymakers was a direct result of the success of Cooder's album.

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You don't have to go far to find son in Havana any more; it spills out of cafes and bars in the city's two main tourist areas. Songs from the album are played with verve and feeling by small conjuntos (salsa bands), who follow Compay Segundo's Chan Chan with My Way or Yesterday. The music may be authentic but the experience is not: you'll find few Cubans here and it's possible you won't be allowed to dance. "No se permite bailar", dancing is not permitted, reads a sign outside one such restaurant.

To hear son in a more lively environment, head for Salon Rosado Benny More, known as La Tropical, in suburban Havana. The open-air venue has been a favourite playground for Habaneros since it was opened by an adjacent brewery in 1904. All the top bands have played there during the past century and it continues to hold an important place in Cuban culture.

On Sunday afternoons a band plays traditional music, usually son, to an audience keen to keep alive the accompanying form of dance, which is more refined than the raunchier "casino" style of dancing that accompanies timba, Cuba's fiery, funky form of salsa that is son's hyperactive grandchild.

You can find timba at La Tropical at night. Last year, in honour of the birthday of "El Tosco", a musician often credited with creating timba, there was a concert at La Tropical featuring all the top groups. It started at 3pm. I arrived at 9pm and found the place a madhouse outside: throngs of people milling around, police helplessly trying to contain them, gridlocked cars beeping their horns after disgorging Cuban girls with elaborate hairdos, skin-tight jeans and skyscraper heels.

Two roadies invited me into the backstage area with them. As I stood behind the stage slapping away persistent mosquitoes, I looked over the heads of the playing musicians at the seething mass of people in the multi-tiered venue. They didn't stop dancing until the birthday boy's band finished at dawn.

Timba groups dominate the other live venues but they also host R&B, son, hip-hop and reggaeton (a Puerto Rican hybrid of hip-hop and dancehall). These clubs have two sessions a day: in the afternoon (5-9pm) and at night (11pm-3am). The matinees are a bargain, never more than $CUC10 ($13) admittance, and they're an unforgettable experience.

Manolito y su Trabuco, one of the country's top five salsa groups, play every Thursday afternoon at Cafe Cantante, when they are not on one of their frequent tours to Europe, Canada or South America. There is an open invitation at this gig, which is regularly crammed with locals and tourists, for musicians from other groups, and other genres, to drop in and play. I worship weekly in this dark, underground nightclub, a stone's throw from the enormous expanse of cement that is the Plaza de la Revolucion, where Castro, not so long ago, addressed the faithful thousands for hour after hour.

The high level of musicianship across all genres is partly due to the government's commitment to culture in all its forms; barely a week goes by without some kind of celebration of the arts. The online magazine Cuba Absolutely lists 25 festivals this year, including celebrations of ceramic and digital art, the life and work of Ernest Hemingway, Latin American film, Spanish culture and traditional music and dance.

One of these, Cubadisco, a week-long celebration of all forms of music and dance held every May, is a must-see for the music aficionado. It kicks off with an awards ceremony, a slickly produced event held in the fabulous '50s white and powder-blue Karl Marx Theatre. The following week is packed with events; you can spend days immersed in music and dance, much of it free.

Every year, the Cubadisco week ends with a free outdoor concert, held this year at the Anti-Imperialist Plaza (the space also holds political events). The program had announced that the five nominees in the awards' most prestigious category, musica bailable (salsa-timba), would play for free.

As with many events in Havana, this didn't come off quite as promised, though the evening wound up offering a more diverse taste of Cuba's musical delights: Rumbata, an Afro-Cuban folkloric group of drummers and singers, was followed by Orquesta Maravilla de Florida, a charanga group (containing flute and strings instead of brass) formed in 1948 but now comprising young musicians who put a modern twist on the classic sound. Manolito y su Trabuco, the winner in the category, closed the show.

Neither blazing incandescent lighting (designed to discourage fights) nor intermittent showers could dampen the spirits of the crowd.

You don't always get what you expect in Havana but you almost always get something great. Last year, a week celebrating poetry ended in a remarkable performance in Habana Vieja (Old Havana). At the sea end of Prado, a stately old avenue with a wide marble promenade in its centre, folkloric dancers and their band put on an electrifying performance as the sun set for the assembled, a mixture of locals and foreigners, and those watching from the balconies of nearby apartments.

The athletic dancers, dressed in a series of colourful costumes, performed dances of the orishas (gods), as well as a stunning choreography of maypole dancing at breakneck speed, never once getting tangled up in the poles' colourful ribbons. As darkness fell, the show drew to a close with a spectacular fire dance.

Afterwards, as the roadies packed up the gear, recorded salsa was played and those who weren't quite ready to go home paired off and started dancing - yep, we were dancing in the street.

FAST FACTS

What to hear

A general rule for going out in Havana is: be relaxed. It can be difficult to find out what's on and things often change at the last minute. Be flexible and you will see some great performances, even if they are not the ones you had anticipated. Outdoor shows are often cancelled if it rains or if it looks like raining but sometimes they go ahead regardless. If it's possible, call the venue to check what's on (you will need to understand Spanish and be persistent: phones aren't always answered). Otherwise, go anyway.

There are a slew of online event listings, none of them 100 per cent (or even 70 per cent) accurate. The H Magazine (www.thehmagazine.com/agenda/havana-listings.htm) is comprehensive: it lists the bands at nightclubs (including matinees) as well as films, art galleries, dance, theatre and literary events.

Afro-Cuban, rumba

Saturdays, 3pm: Conjunto Folklorico Nacional perform on the patio at El Gran Palenque, 103 Calle 4, between Calzada and Quinta, Playa, 836 9075.

Saturdays, 6pm: Yoruba Andabo perform at the tiny Club Las Vegas, 104 Infanta, between Calles 25 and 27, Vedado, 870 7939.

Sundays, from 1pm: Clave y Guaguanco perform in the closed-off alley Callejon de Hamel, between Aramburo and Hospital, in Centro Habana.

Son

Sundays from 1pm: La Tropical (Salon Rosado Benny More), corner of 41st and 48th, Playa, 209 0985.

In tourist bars and cafes in Habana Vieja and Vedado; follow the sounds.

Timba, salsa

Casa de la Musica, corner of Galiano and Neptuno, Centro Habana, 862 4165.

Casa de la Musica, Playa, corner of 25th and 20th, Miramar, 204 0447. Matinees 5-9pm (winter; 4-8pm); nights 11pm-3am. Mostly salsa, also Afro-Cuban, pop, R&B, reggaeton and hip-hop.

Cafe Cantante, corner of Paseo and 39th, Vedado, 879 0710. Matinees and nights. Mostly salsa, also son, Afro-Cuban, pop, R&B, reggaeton and hip-hop.

Salon Rosado Benny More (La Tropical): see above.

Flamenco, opera, ballet

Gran Teatro de la Habana, 458 Paseo de Marti, between San Rafael and San Martin, 861 3077.

Classical

Teatro Amadeo Roldan, home of the National Symphony, corner of Calzada and D, Vedado, 830 1011.

Teatro Nacional, corner Paseo and 39, Vedado, 879 6011.

Free concerts

These are held all over Havana. Check TV, papers, radio and the grapevine for details.

Getting there

Air New Zealand flies to Los Angeles via Auckland (from $2142 from Melbourne and $2042 from Sydney) and then with Mexicana to Mexico City.

Qantas flies to Mexico City or Cancun from Melbourne (from $2332) and Sydney (from $2232). This will take you with Qantas non-stop to Los Angeles and then with Alaskan Airlines to Mexico.

Japan Airlines has a fare for $1743 from Sydney and Melbourne: fly from Sydney to Toyko where you stay overnight at the airline's expense, and then to Mexico City via Vancouver. Mexicana has fares from Mexico City to Havana for $US379 ($454) and $US276 from Cancun.

LAN Airlines flies from Sydney ($2299) and Melbourne ($2399) to Santiago de Chile and then, every Saturday, to Havana. All fares are low season and exclude taxes.

Visa

It costs $55, is available from the Cuban consulate and is valid for 30 days. See www.embacuba.cubaminrex.cu.

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