El A?o Nuevo en La Habana

Good times, great music and friendship in el Caribe

By Elisangela Medina
Published on LatinoLA: February 8, 2004

El A?o Nuevo en La Habana

The United States was on Orange Alert. Flights from Paris, England and even Mexico City were being held on tarmacs or cancelled for reasons unknown. The traffic inside LAX was at a standstill. Uniformed agents, perhaps Homeland Security personnel, were checking about one out of two dozen cars at random. Ours got picked, but the search was quick, and the agents were polite enough. Escaping the insipidness of Los Angeles and one of its coldest winters in history made such chaos worth dealing with.

Imagine celebrating the New Year in a place where you have a choice of seeing Los Van Van perform on the malecon, Charanga Habanera perform on the beach, Omara Portuondo and Orquesta Aragon perform in an auditorium in the central part of the city, FG Paulito perform with Azucar Negra in another part of town, and all of these concerts are free. Wherever you go on this holiday and days to follow, people, some who may not even know each other, will smile warmly, express ?Felicidades? and exchange hand shakes and hugs.

Imagine experiencing all of this as you are warmed by the Caribbean sun, and bathe in a delicious tropical breeze while strolling down streets lined with quaint, historic Mediterranean-style architecture that echos with the sounds of the present -- drums, timba music, bilingual hip hop, and the constant chatter of neighbors conversing in a variety of Spanish that has a similar sound to a couple of places in South America, but if you ask me, a linguist, the Cuban variety has way more rhthym and realness. Such an atmosphere can make Cuba seem like the center of the universe as you celebrate the coming of a new year.

It was so much fun spending the winter holidays in Cuba in 2001/2002, I knew I?d be back. Right after Christmas, some creative work in La Habana came up for me and my padrinos from Sao Paulo, Brasil. They know the right people, so there we were on December 30th waiting for some free standby passes on a Brasilian airline to Venezuela, where we would catch a Cubana flight to Cuba. You have to go the extra mile sometimes.

Upon arrival in La Habana on the night of the 31st, I called several Cuban friends to find out where the parties were, but the only person I found still at home was Jorge Serrano ? a Cuban pro-basketball player for a Mexican team called the Marineros de Cozumel ? one of the Cuban athletes we met on the Cubana flight into La Habana. He had incidentally invited me to a New Year's Eve party.

He showed up minutes later with his brother, who encouraged us to go party with them in Las Playas del Este. Jorge?s brother is a commisioner of sports in Cuba, and explained there would be lots of Cuban athletes at the party. It sounded interesting enough. We walked several blocks and waved down a peso taxi.

--New Years Eve Party in La Habana

We arrived at the party around 11pm. There was about 50 people there, but enough food to feed 100. The air was alive with the sounds of Los Van Van, lots of Spanish hip hop by a number of Cuban artists, and I was surprised to hear the familiar sounds of United States hip hop artists like Nas and Tupac. The rum and beer flowed like water, Habana Club, Cristal and Bucaneer, and there were countless dishes of roasted carne de cerdo, morros con christianos, and mouth-watering yucca being passed around.

The TV was tuned to a Cuban version of Dick Clark?s ?New Year?s Rockin? Eve.? Maito, the charismatic lead vocalist for Van Van known for cool braids and headbands was on stage with Formell, who is rumored to not be feeling well these days, Haila, who some at the party believed to be ?la nueva Celia? sung, and the list of well-known Cuban musicians that entertained on that program goes on.

As I looked on from the balcony of the 4th floor apartment in this mostly Afro Cuban neighborhood, I could see that every balcony was alive with people singing, playing musical instruments, and sipping spirits as their stereos blasted the sounds of Cuban music over the generations -- rumba and son and everything that has followed. All of these sounds fused together like a chorus under the stars in celebration of the old year and welcoming the new year, as Caribbean winds and waves danced at beaches yards away.


Every generation of Cubanos at this party danced Cuban style casino salsa. I was having so much fun dancing to Charanga Habanera, I had no idea why well-cared for crystal glasses were being shined up and filled with rum and passed around to everyone, why everyone was forming a big circle around the dining table? Jorge grabbed me by the hand to let me know it was that time. Jorge Serrano?s mother, an Afro Cuban woman symbolic of the strong, yet soft-spoken matriarch, lead some prayers and good wishes and everyone toasted, gulped down the rum, said hello to 2004 and exhanged lots of hugs and kisses.

--New Year?s Day Salsa/Timba Concerts in Cuba

After offering some special morning prayers on the beach, it was time to attend a few of the many New Years Day concerts to shoot some photos of the various Cuban artists. We couldn?t wait!

There are lots of salsa and some timba bands in the United States and other places. But there is something about the music being produced and played on the island.

I have a theory about Afro Cuban music produced in the Caribbean: In order to get fine wine, grapes need to be grown in a specific climate, a specific temperature, a specific environment, specific processing. Perhaps it?s the Caribbean environment, the climate, the sun, the tropical breezes, the flora, fauna, warm waters and the culture all around you that results in the production of the best rumba, son, salsa and timba music on the planet over the decades.

We waved down another peso taxi, and chatted with others in the car about where to go. Maraca was playing in Regla, a small town on the other side of the bay in La Habana. I had to keep in mind that Maraca, and less than half a dozen other Cuban artists, are at least able to get a visa to play in the United States every now and then. I?ve been able to see him perform minutes from my home. But there are many great Cuban groups who haven?t been able to get visas to tour in the United States -- I can only see them in La Habana. Singer/Songwriter Paulito Fernandez Gallo, aka FG Paulito, or FG Pablo is one of those musicians.

In terms of versatility and feeling in contemporary Cuban salsa or timba, Paulito?s my boy -- lo maximo.

While Paulito was my personal pick for the evening, Charanga Habanera, another great band that is seldom granted a visa to come to the United States, seemed to be everyone else?s pick. The group, lead by David Calzado and that pushes the envelope with songs entitled ?Usa Condon?, seems to be more popular than ever in Cuba right now. Their's is straight ahead timba rocks, but news is that their upcoming CD will be made up of lots of ballads based in more traditional Son music. Manolito, another great artist we?re unable to see in the states, was playing in Marianao, but friends from El Vedado didn?t want to go way out to a municipio ? la verde -- as some call small towns right outside Habana proper.

We decided to see Paulito.

-- Paulito FG

There was at least 2,000 people at the Paulito concert in an area about 25 minutes from Central Habana. I had heard Paulito is always late, true...but worth the wait. Dios mio, the way he whispers ?suave?...?asi?... and shouts ?sube,? ?anda,? ?tumbao,? and the way he moves... so smoothly all over the stage.

Paulito (pictured) exudes all things that are modern Afro Cuban music.

Pablo and his band sung and played songs off of his last few CDs, and did several from his latest effort, Te Deseo Suerte.

As mentioned, Paulito is versatile, his current disc has some well-done ballads sprinkled with guitar, sizzling timba, like El tumbao de Lola, and a few songs that mix traditional salsa with some swing.

Paulito put on a phenomenal show in La Habana, and the Cuban public just loves him. As I go to press, Paulito?s video, Te Deseo Suerte, just won the award for the most popular video in Cuba for 2003 at the Premios Lucas -- Cuba?s version of the MTV Awards. This particular Lucas award is decided directly by the Cuban public ? their vote in the form of thousands of phone calls and letters.

He?s had lots of changes in musicians over the past few years, but on this latest CD credits go out to: Dariel Luis Tellez on Piano, Angel Martinez Alonso and Fernando Soria on Teclados, Cristobal Verdecias Sardinas on Baby bass, Ronni Sanchidrian on Guitar, Luis Chacon Bruzon on Bongo, campana, y guiro, Alexander Abreu Manresa on Trumpet, Amaury Perez on Trombones, Norberto Rodriguez on Drums and timbales, Amhed Mitchel Miyan on Drums, Roberto Hasti Paniagua on Conga, and Yanel Yanes Congas.

--Eterno Verano

The next couple of days were spent recovering from the busy New Year's celebrations. Me and my madrina layed around the warm beaches of playa Guanabo in Brasilian swim suits enjoying Cuba?s eterno verano.

We lounged around at the cunanda?s house with friends and neighbors from el Vedado. China?s and Odalyss?s apartment is kind of like a sorority house in el Vedado ? Cubana style - where women of all ages from the neighborhood gather to do nails, drink caf? Cubano, listen to Radio Taino, a popular music station, and talk.

We hung out saboring Copelia ice cream, island guayaba and fruta bomba in winter weather of about 68 degrees after midnight, as we chatted about clothes, exchanged gossip about neighbors, friends, and lovers in La Habana and Los Angeles, and watched some great movies made in various Latin nations, including Puerto Rico on Cuba Vision.

--Los Van Van and an Orisha

By Sunday, January 4th, it was time to go night clubbing. We had heard that Los Van Van were playing at the Habana Caf?, a night club at the beautiful Melia Cohiba hotel right near the famous malecon. Seeing Van Van in an intimate setting like the Habana Caf? which holds about 400 people would be much better than seeing them in the stadium like venue where they played a few days before.

While standing in a long line made up of locals and Europeans from everywhere in the EU, we met up with Yotuel from the hip hop band Orishas. He is a close friend of el socio del Vedado ? Joel, someone who I?ve known for a few years now and celebrated an aniversary with while there. Yotuel and Joel grew up together, went to the same schools in el Vedado. Yotuel who now lives in France, as do other members of Orishas, was in Cuba visiting family that includes his young child. Just days ago, the Orishas video ?Qu? Pasa? also won a Cuban Lucas Award, in the category of visual effects and rap. This victory further ligitimizes hip hop a lo Cubano as a genre in Cuban music.

Meanwhile, at the Habana Caf?, although Los Van Van have played in Los Angeles several times, it was something special seeing them on the home turf. The joy felt by the crowd was strong and contagious as locals not only danced casino, but sang every word to many of the songs, such as Soy Todo ? songs that seem almost like athems to much of the Cuban public.

Ever since I started reporting on Latin music, I almost never touch the dance floor while working, but this atmosphere was too much fun. After following los Van Van all over the stage with my camera, I set my equipment aside and danced with Joel and a few other Cubanos. I imagine it?s moments like these that Cubans, Caribenos, and Afro Caribbean music lovers all over the world live for. Toward the end of the show, Yotuel, the Orisha got on stage and sang a duet with Maito. The crowd went nuts. Joel was almost in tears. I thought, only in La Habana.

--Caso Urgente

After assisting on a project in Villa Clara province for a few days, it was back to La Habana. My padrinos, Marisol and Luisinho, had to get back to Los Angeles a few days earlier than I did. I ended up being hospitalized the last few days of the trip. At around 6 o?clock one morning, I sat in a corner in my bedroom, sobbing due to abdominal pain. After being asked ?Amor, ?que te pasa,? several times, I said between tears that I was ?fine and didn?t need a doctor.? Friends and neighbors from el Vedado immediately began screaming at each other across balconies at the crack of dawn in lightening- speed Spanish in order to get their friend, La Norte Americana, to the nearest hospital. They were worried that the ambulance they had just called would take too long.

Cuban hospitals lack normal comforts such as sheets and pillows, but they don?t lack caring, dedicated doctors. They figured it was apendicitis and not one, but two doctors tended to me the moment I got there. Dr. Alonso and Dr. Eduardo began running tests immediately. Cuban friends from El Vedado were by my side, quite worried, and perhaps more nervous than I was. I was released a couple of days later, feeling weak, but much better.

Despite a few tense moments, it was a great vacation, great weather, great beaches, great food, great music, great people. I was still in a bit of pain, so Cuban friends packed up my suitcases for me, called the airport to confirm my flights, and even checked me in when we got there.

On the way to the aiport with Odalysse, Joel and another ?acere? from El Vedado, we listened to the Te Deseo Suerte CD, one of the gifts I received when I got out of the hospital. I kept thinking about my Cuban friends, and the importance of friendship, in La Habana or in Los Angeles.

I remembered Pablo FG singing Son de un Amigo at his concert on New Year?s Day, and thought si... ?Que viva la amistad!

About Elisangela Medina:
Elisangela Medina is an L.A. based language and theater teacher, freelance writer, and contributer to websites such as Salsa Power and Mundo Afro Latino.

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