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Buenas dias, Havana. Adios, Buena Vista…

Cuba passportIt was October 24, 1983, an ordinary enough day, when I arrived at Havana’s José Martí airport on a gentle assignment to write a travel piece about Cuba for The Times. To staff journalists of all newspapers, these trips — usually laid on by a government or local tourist board — represent free holidays: there’s nothing demanding about them, and of course they’re ethically questionable. For me this one was a particularly interesting trip in prospect, given that Cuba wasn’t yet a real tourist destination and that I had a long-standing interest in the Castro revolution and its consequences. Very quickly it became a great deal more interesting, in a wholly unexpected way.

After checking into the Habana Riviera, a modernist 21-storey hotel built in 1957 by the mobster Meyer Lansky on the sea-front boulevard called the Malecón, I was taken to the Tropicana night club, where it might as well have been the night before Castro and his freedom fighters arrived in the city 24 years earlier. There were dancers in exotic costumes and a big band that sounded like the one Machito might have left behind when he emigrated to New York to make his fortune in 1940. This was going to be fun.

The next morning, however, everything changed. The office called to say that paratroopers of the US 82nd Airborne had landed in Grenada, where they were fighting against Cubans. This turned out to be the vanguard of a full-scale invasion that eventually involved 7,000 American troops whose aim was to seize an airport under construction by Cuban workers and believed by Ronald Reagan to be intended for the use of Soviet transport planes. Or so the US story went.

The political background was complicated, involving the ousting and execution a few days earlier of Maurice Bishop, Grenada’s prime minister, who had staged a coup and established a People’s Revolutionary Government in 1979. Now another coup had installed a military government. The US justified their invasion, which lasted several days and claimed 89 lives (45 Grenadan, including 24 civilians killed in the accidental bombing of a mental hospital; 25 Cuban; and 19 American), by claiming that they had been requested to step in by the island’s governor-general and by the leaders of several other small Caribbean states.

If you couldn’t be in Grenada, Cuba was the best place for a reporter to be. The Cuban workers were fighting alongside those Grenadians who resisted the US forces. That morning, apart from the Guardian‘s stringer, Noll Scott, there were no other foreign journalists to be seen. This would change very quickly. Peter Arnett of the newly created CNN, a New Zealander who had won a Pulitzer Prize reporting on the Vietnam war for the Associated Press, was among the first to land. He was closely followed by a TV anchorman who kept a can of hairspray in his briefcase, for application just before the camera rolled.

Soon there were press conferences to attend — by Fidel, his brother Raúl, and their foreign minister, Ricardo Alarcón — and the British ambassador to be visited in an office that could have come straight from the pages of one of Graham Greene’s novels. A couple of days later, there were wounded workers to be seen arriving at the airport and interviewed in an impressively well appointed hospital a bit further down the Malecón. The scheduled visits to beaches and resort hotels in other parts of the island were quickly forgotten.

So I stayed on for a week, enjoying my temporary role as a foreign correspondent, filing news and op-ed pieces by telex. I went to gaze at the window in Che’s old office in the finance ministry, where the light is never switched off. I saw schoolchildren making a procession to the Malecón and throwing flowers into the sea in memory of the revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos. I walked to the famous junction of 23rd Avenue and 12th Street — 23 y 12 — where anti-imperialist demonstrations traditionally took place. I noted the posters with their patriotic slogans and the mansions lining the Paseo del Prado, a handsome18th century boulevard.

There was time, in between the reporting, to attend an afternoon concert in a small theatre where a series of elderly singers performed ballads to guitar accompaniment in a sober, understated style that was unfamiliar to me but seemed like a cross between French chanson and Portuguese fado. Its dignified restraint had nothing to do with charanga or salsa, the Cuban idioms with which I was acquainted. My guess today would be that it was trova or canción, related forms of traditional ballad-singing.

An example of the music I heard that day is contained in Lost and Found, an excellent compilation of unreleased recordings by the musicians who contributed to the historic Buena Vista Social Club album in 1996, many of whom are no longer with us. Its appearance coincides with the arrival of a farewell tour by the surviving members and their colleagues.

In between the typically vigorous tracks by Omara Portuondo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Eliades Ochoa, Cachaíto López, Rubén González and the rest, the album features two solo pieces by Ochoa, recorded late at night in Havana’s Egrem studio at the end of a session for Ferrer’s solo album in 1998. Ochoa accompanies himself on guitar on a song called “Pedacito de Papel”, a ballad by Francisco Alberto Simó Damirón, a celebrated Dominican composer and pianist — known as Damirón — who died in 1992, aged 83. It’s preceded by a short piece called “Quiéreme Mucho”, an instrumental version of a song composed 100 years ago by the Cuban composer Gonzalo Roig.

The supreme elegance of this music enfolds me in the memory not just of an individual concert but of a rather unusual week.

* Lost and Found is released on the World Circuit label. The Buena Vista Social Club, including Omara Portuondo and Eliades Ochoa, begin a short British tour at Brighton Dome on April 4.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Russ Titelman #

    Great column with so much knowledge. Thanks

    March 27, 2015
  2. thenextwavefutures #

    I can still remember Ronald Reagan’s Hollywood news conference line, “We got there just in time”, as if there was any substance to this act of American aggression in the Caribbean. As Gil Scott Heron once said, “Acted like an actor … Then he acted like somebody was going to vote for him for president.” And, of course, Robert Wyatt’s part-tribute, “Amber and the Amberines”, co written with Hugh Hopper in anger as much as sorrow, on the Works In Progress EP, released the following year:

    March 27, 2015
  3. Jeffery Gifford #

    Great piece Richard. Funny how life sends the most interesting stories/memories in unexpected ways. Thanks for your unique perspective on those events. I love the music of Buena Vista Social Club. The dvd of Ry Cooder’s trip to Cuba (by the same name) is recommended as well.

    March 28, 2015
  4. Jan Søttrup #

    Richard – this is master writing: politics and music in one breath.

    March 29, 2015

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