Music and Dancing Havana – Jazz, Clubs and Salsa Lessons

by thewokabout
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To dance is Divine, To Salsa is Sensational

May 2015- Music is everywhere in Cuba, and is a destination in itself. “Come with me to La Sauce. The Los Van Van is playing,” invited Jennifer, one of the coolest people I’ve met in Cuba. So one balmy Saturday night, we headed into the depths of high class residential district Miramar.

It was another uniquely Cuban experience. American Jennifer and Asian me stuck out like sore thumbs in the long waiting line outside Le Sauce

Twice the age of local club goers, and conservatively dressed against the backdrop of sequins, halter and tank tops and super short flirty dresses. So, typical of Havana, we are picked up by a “protector”, a young chef in his mid 20s. I was completely reliant on Jennifer’s fluent Spanish and experience (having filmed documentaries and is a historical society member). However, I’m slightly uncomfortable as we’ve never clapped eyes on this young man before

But she reassures me. “Don’t worry, he’s not a Jinetero or a creep,” she said after rapid fire conversation. “The kid will fend off the bad guys,” she assured me. He paid his USD $4 without asking us for a handout, and later, protected us from a beefy and pushy drunk who pursued us for ten minutes until we jumped in a cab.

An electrically-charged air of expectation blankets the crowd as we shoulder through the standing room only open-air venue. We’re all extremely lucky to catch this act – in demand from Habana to Tokyo – and we know it. Los Van Van is iconic and truly beloved, breaking out with their 1974 album Transito, but still innovative and churning out hits today. 

The local audience was visibly moved and sang to older classics and new releases alike while the salsa beat drove the dancing to a frenzy. Le Sauce resembled a moving battlefield, one where tightly packed combatants are shoving to get close to the stage while grinding against each other.

The band’s driving force is four key vocalists – Mandy Cantero belted out his solo, like a fearless young Tom Jones, while Yeni Valdez’ s “La Keratina”, a humorous commentary on the trend for the Afro Cubans to straighten their hair, drew roars from the audience. Los Van Van’s amazing vocals and harmonics, arrangements and dynamic fusion of salsa-hip-hop and rock is irresistable. Each 10-minute number had the same explosive energy beginning to end. So much so the band blew out its massive amps halfway through the show and there were a few hair-raising moments as the techs scurried to fix the problem.

“Ugh, I hope this doesn’t turn ugly,” Jennifer whispered as she nervously eyed the crowd of over 500 crammed in a space designed for half the number. She’d been to concerts where melees and police batons have broken out. There were a few isolated arguments – and some the young Habaneros seemed to turn amorous, pugilistic or both when drunk. We all sighed with relief when the music came back on and the crowd resumed their gyrations in the heat of the Cuban night. 

Le Sauce — Calle 9na. No. 12015 entre 120 y 130, Cubanacan Playa, Miramar, Havana, Cuba (+53 7 2047061) 
Bellita y su Jazz Tumbata band at Jazz Club

WORLD CLASS JAZZ FOR A SONG – Jazz Cafe and Havana Club

The Octopus’ hands are a blur as he plays the congo with his left and bass guitar with his right, while working the bass pedals simultaneously. The audience gasp and shriek encouragement. Even playing double time, he doesn’t miss a beat – he’s gotta be seen to be believed.

One of double acts nightly at Jazz Cafe, Vedado with “The Octopus” at the drums, Bellita at keyboards and vocals

It’s Friday night and I’m in the front row at the intimate Jazz Cafe, where for just US $ 10, I get to enjoy a different world class jazz band a night. Plus all the alcohol (fantastic, strong mojitos and refreshing Crytal beers) and food (tolerable sandwiches and regrettably awful seafood) I could possibly consume.

It’s my fourth visit to the club. I’m hooked on the variety of bands, the musicians’ laid back virtuosity and the ultra-cool vibe. Habana births new young and dynamic talent on a daily basis, it seems. Some of the bands at Jazz Cafe rotate nights with the other established government run jazz club – El Zorra y el Cuervo ( The Fox and the Crow) so check that you don’t catch the same act. The Jazz Cafe’s first showing at 8pm features a decent vocalist. But don’t bother unless you want to ensure a good table for the 11pm show – the place can get filled out by local celebrities and tourists when a hot act performs. 

One of the top draws is the dynamic Jazz Tumbata, led by vocalist and pianist Bellita. Bass guitarist and husband “Octopus” Miguel Miranda is always a hit with his crazy polyphonic. So nice I watched them twice!

Jazz Cafe’s lineup changes frequently – as musicians (and National Ballet dancers doctors on exchange programs) – and are amongst professional Cubans who travel relatively freely worldwide. Most of the musicians performing here have been to New York to Tokyo.

The two other bands I enjoyed here were from opposite extremes of the jazz scene. The minimal but technically dazzling Real Project was a young and upcoming modern jazz quartet with only two guitarists, a pianist and drummer. The slightly outdated Oscar Valdez at the helm of Afro-Cuban band Diakara was flamboyant and enjoyable but his attempt to showcase new talent in vocals and bass guitar backfired into a lack of cohesiveness. 

But over the course of a weeklong jazz binge, I found the venues only half filled and almost all the clientele were foreigners. “Ten dollars might be cheap for a tourist but it’s a lot for Cubans , ”Jorgito said. “Plus young Cubans prefer ragaetton and clubs where they can dance all night to sitting and listening.”

Buena Vista Social Club- yes, several original members are still alive and playing….

The Havana Cafe at the Melia Cohiba Hotel hosts the official Buena Vista Social Club. It’s definitely more commercialized and less gritty than the first world tour I caught in back in the late 1990s. Most of the Cuban musicians (led by Juan de Marcos Gonzales, Ry Cooder and Nick Gold) came out of retirement to take part in the 1996 album. They’re now playing in the jazz band in the sky. I’d the re-invented band’s farewell tour in San Francisco almost two years ago and the same survivors were still performing here. 

It was worth watching out of nostalgia and historical interest as Buena Vista – the album, and later the band – reignited love and international acclaim for Cuban jazz based on native son, bolero and danzon. The music is polished, the professional dance troupe is spectacular. But it lacks the rawness and electricity of less-established bands and is double the price of many other clubs so only older well to do tourists attend, which dampens the energy. 


I didn’t really think about taking dance lessons. But at cafes with live bands, couples will leap to their feet and salsa in complicated sets, while I spontaneously combust with envy, so I had to at least learn some basic steps. There are at least a dozen salsa schools in Havana Vieja so you’ll be spoilt for choice. All I had to do was follow where other Tripadvisors had broken ground. A well meaning friend introduced me to Mariana, who trains competitive dancers. Wow, she looks really professional, I thought, can’t go wrong, and booked two classes to start off. 

BIG mistake. Literally. The lady was extremely well endowed, which made her taking the male lead and my taking the female very uncomfortable and visually challenging. I couldn’t see my own feet! Mariana classes was my only brush with communism in Cuba. A perfectionist, she started off smiling but ended up snarling. Her frustration rocketed with each mis-step which only got worse, making me sweat and both lose count and any semblance of co-ordination.

So, as one does in Havana, I asked other friends who asked friends about classes and ended up with wonderful Arael, a bill collector (his card reads “Esecialista Comercial”) with a government company who who moonlights as a salsa dance coach.

An amazing dancer, he was also patient about breaking down the moves. It really helped to dance with a guy, and especially a partner without obstructive boobs. In two hours Arael got me to do an error free 8-minute partnered dance complete with Enchufle (Ronde high)turns and Dile que No passages. While having fun! 

Ariel, the superb salsa coach – One of the few photos on this site with me in it cos you know, it’s NOT about me…

If you’re looking for a great Cuban salsa coach in Habana – call Arael Atencio Cortiza ( mobile 5386-6049; home 7792-9398

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