Cuba 1974

By John Paul Jarvis




In the early years of Cuban tourism, a decade after the 1959 revolution, the beaches were spectacular and the purported first class accommodation was adequate. The country was still mired in the 1950s because of U.S. embargos, and anything new to the Cuban people was either forbidden, illegal or both. The island functioned with vintage cars ingeniously held together with bailing wire and pirated parts.

Travel to Cuba was only through formal tours closely chaperoned by educated bi-lingual guides and grouped for all travel or events.  It was basically tourist apartheid as we were studiously kept away from Cubans.

The Ministry of Tourism, had not figured out the food as the diet consisted of free-range chicken and shrimp; that’s it. They provided all activities and we were constantly reminded of the Communist government with posters and signs and propaganda.  The bon voyage pig roast was a special occasion because it presented a welcome variance in diet but equally due to the fact that a band was performing. The musicians arrived in a rickety bus accompanied by their own undercover chaperone, dressed in a suit at a beach resort, to prevent them from becoming “tainted” by Canadian tourists.

The afternoon preview set revealed a brass section of six horn players on every brass instrument you could imagine, percussion by a master drummer, stand up bass as well as the basso guitarrón, piano, and acoustic and electric guitars.  Each musician played whatever number of instruments the song dictated.  The sound produced was simply unparalleled and the intricacies of the melody were subtly rendered, and none of the musicians could read a note.  The songs were all by ear committed to memory, learned while listening to forbidden Florida radio 90 miles away.

A traveling companion had a small hand-held tape recorder and taped as they covered Chicago’s full repertoire with virtuoso solos.  At the first intermission the band, curious, gathered around and, through hand gestures, asked to hear the tape. This was the first time they had ever heard their sound played back.  They were knocked out, laughing like children, teasing to each other when they heard their solos blended with the group’s brassy sound.

That evening after two sets, they abruptly closed down the show and kicked everybody out of the beach pavilion at 11:00 p.m.  As we started to leave their suited minder indicated that the four of us should remain behind.  We bought much duty free rum that night, at $2 a bottle, and sat around a table in the shuttered pavilion while we were serenaded to some of the purist solos imaginable. They played a private concert until 3:00 a.m.

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