What is the most famous band from Cuba?” Sato San asked me over lunch.
It was our first day in the country and we were exploring Varadero. So far the famous beach town had offered little but street vendors and tourist traps. Even the locals had told us emphatically that this was decidedly not Cuba. We had found the least touristic-looking restaurant we could and had a meager lunch of bean soup, rice, and fried fish. Sustenance, not much more than that.
“Buena Vista Social Club,” I answered without hesitation. I had seen Ibrahim Ferrer, one of their original members, almost a decade earlier in Slovakia and was eager to see the entire band. More than a band Buena Vista was a phenomenon, I tried to explain to my captain. They were amazing. They had won international music awards, there was a film about them… Yes, they were definitely the most famous Cuban band.
After lunch we wandered back down the main strip and stopped in a dance studio on the way. One of Sato San’s main reasons for stopping by Cuba was to learn salsa after all. A slim woman sat behind a podium-like desk to the left of the entrance, her hair pulled back in an elegant bun. She was clearly a dancer.
There was a concert tonight that dancers from her studio were performing at. Buena Vista Social Club was playing with another salsa group at the open-air concert hall. Tickets were $5 CUC if we bought them at the dance studio but $10 CUC at the door.
It was at the other end of the island from Gaviotta Marina, where we were staying but buses ran late that night because of the concert…
She had me at Buena Vista Social Club. Getting to see them in Cuba? On our first day?! I couldn’t believe my luck.
After dinner we caught the bus to where the woman had said the concert hall was. It was the same double-decker bus we had taken downtown that morning. I confirmed with the driver that it really was running late that night. To my relief it was.
The streets of Varadero were uncannily dark as the bus rolled past. Some of the restaurants and bars had patrons in them, but not a streetlamp nor shop light was turned on. This didn’t seem like the Cuba I had heard so much about with its vibrant night life. Was there a power outage?
We arrived at the concert hall at 9:00. Right on time, or at least when the concert was supposed to start. We had to wait 20 minutes for the beautiful sheet-music metal gates to open. The box office wasn’t even open yet for Mori San and Taira San to buy their tickets! Cuban runs on the same time as most of Latin America.
The concert was more of a welcome to tourists and visitors to Cuba. Buena Vista Social Club preforms several times a week in Varadero but this was the season opening. Umineko’s crew sat in the second row of folding chairs sipped our $2 CUC mojitos, one of my favorite classic Cuban drinks, and watched welcome speeches given in Spanish, French, Russian, and English. Then came the fireworks kicking off the start of a new season.
Professional dancers, representing the dance school put on a show, followed by buxom women in feathered costumes I am pretty sure were strung together with red dental floss filing through the crowd and dancing with men in less-risqué costumes . The rest of Umineko was far more enthusiastic about the latter than I.
By the time the first strains of Buena Vista’s set started the venue was packed and we were on about our third mojito. The energy crackled as the dancers came alive with their fiery quick-footed salsa steps.
Whirling and spinning their bodies moved in perfect time to the spicy, sultry strains of music to stir the soul and show the essence of Cuban culture. The new incarnation of Buena Vista is as talented and dedicated as the great musicians who came before them. Trumpet solos to break your heart and move the feet. You can’t not smile when listening to the salsa-y strains of Cuban music.
We took a taxi back to the marina our spirits high. Everyone had told us that Varadero wasn’t really Cuba, but this had been a more perfect welcome to Cuba than I could have imagined. If this was the country I had heard so much about I couldn’t wait to see more of the art-music-filled country.
I gave the dinner that night a Latin twist: quesadillas and Latin Landfall Salad. We hadn’t gone provisioning yet and didn’t have many fresh vegetables left. This salad is fantastic for long passages because most of the ingredients are long-lasting or can be used out of a can. Not to mention that it’s extremely simple to throw together and tasty as well. You technically don’t need to use an avocado but it’s a lot better if you have one on hand.
Latin Landfall Salad
(Black bean, corn, avocado, tomato salad)
2 c (1 can) corn
2 c (1 can) black beans
2 c cabbage
1 c onion, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
1 avocado, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Juice from 2 limes
¼ c salsa
1 t salt
1 t pepper
Mix all ingredients (except avocado) in large bowl
Gently stir in avocado
Enjoy as side dish or main course