La Casa de La Trova

Juan, at La Casa de la Trova
Every major city in Cuba has a Casa de La Trova…an old house or building dedicated to trovadores and their music (bolero, son). In Santiago de Cuba, on 208 Calle Heredia, the former home of the composer Salcedo was used, and it is called the Casa de La Trova “Pepe Sanchez”.


Its founder was Virgilio Palais. In the 1950s, hard times had hit Cuba as the Batista regime bathed the country in his own people’s blood…and it was much worse in Santiago de Cuba, which actively resisted Batista, than elsewhere. To augment his income, Palais set a table up in the small room at the front of his house, selling snuff, tobacco, biscuits, and whatever he could. He sat there all day, and was known to sing when he was bored, to pass the time (a terrible thing, it is said, he didn’t have much of a voice.) Friends of his, trovadores (troubadours) and cantantes (singers), started to hang around, bringing their instruments, and accompanying him; they passed the day sharing music. The place was “discovered” by the taxi drivers hanging around Casa Granda Hotel, and the daily crowd grew with time. Eventually, it became a well-known, well-loved place for Santiagueros to hang out and hear good trova.

For a while, the Casa moved next door, to a bigger building with a second floor, but locals lamented that it was not the same.
Casa de la Trova Santiago Cuba.jpg
Casa de la Trova Santiago Cuba” by JialiangGao www.peace-on-earth.orgSelf-photographed. Licensed under GFDL via Commons.

Eventually the original little front-room auditorium was fully restored—all the old paintings and photos moved back onto its walls, the old chairs with leather seats and the legend “Casa de La Trova Pepe Sanchez” printed on each one—and now the Casa de La Trova occupies both buildings: intimate acoustic gatherings, free to attend, take place in the old Trova in the afternoons, and then a bigger, showier band performs at around 9 in the evening in the bigger La Trovita—with a dance floor, a bar, waiters—in the building just next door, upstairs, for an entrance fee of about $5.
La Trovita: Septeto Turkino playing
La Trovita: Septeto Turkino playing

Lost & Found

The atmosphere is much the same as always…rows of creaky wooden chairs covered in bald cowskin are arranged around a low wooden “stage”. There’s a shop in a back room that sells drinks and cigarettes. You buy a beer, light up a cigar, and sit down to hear whoever is playing that day. The front row is so close that you touch knees with any musician who’s sitting on the stage. Often, fellow musicians are in the audience, their instruments standing quietly beside them, and they will join in. People in the audience who know the second and third voices to a bolero, or the coro (refrain) of a son, will accompany the trovador. It’s very intimate, very welcoming, very special.
Juan, at La Casa de la Trova
I went every day for a week, after Jorge took me the first time. I made friends with some trovadoras. It’s easy: you listen, you don’t call someone on your phone, or have a loud conversation with your friend, while someone is singing their heart out in front of you. When you go to buy a beer for yourself, ask the barmaid what the musicians drink, and pick up a few cans for them, too. Try to appreciate the music—I know it’s hard when you don’t understand the language—and maybe buy the artist’s CD if you like their music, or leave a little money in their hat or bowl. The daytime trovadores don’t get paid for gigs or anything like that…basically, the Casa is just a place where they are welcome to busk, and its history attracts an audience they’d not find on a street corner.

Still, it’s a wonder they are still doing it, so few people give the artists anything. (Though they take plenty of photos…I have found so many photos of people I met, many are on stockphoto sites, for sale, and not even mentioning the person’s name. As these individuals have become friends that I care about, I feel a twinge of pain for them, and rage at how they’re being trivialised by photographer-tourists with cameras.)
Chely Romero & Nando at Casa de La Trova
One afternoon I arrived to meet the veteran cantante (singer) Aracelis “Chely” Romero, and her (gorgeous…sigh) accompanying guitarist. It was a bittersweet session…in between songs, they were having a heartbreaking argument: Francisco was sick of playing at the Trova…the horns and shouts and hubbub from the street, the insult these musicians suffered as busloads of tourists clomped in, twice a day, snapped their photos and selfies and GoPro videos—never stopping to listen—and then rushed off again in 15 minutes; the fact that Chely’s little basket was so often empty…he didn’t want to do it, anymore. It wasn’t worth the trouble.
Chely Romero & Nando at Casa de La Trova
Chely fretted, because she has been playing at the Trova for 40 years, and even though it’s hard for her, and doesn’t pay, she is loyal to the house and what it stands for. But no other guitarist was willing to accompany her, Francisco knew her entire repertoire, and she was torn between tradition, and understanding that a young man, like a son to her, needs more, wants more out of life. They weren’t including me in this conversation, but I was waiting for the music, sitting just to one side, and managed to pick up enough to understand what was going on. It made me so sad.
Chely & Nando

So I spent the whole afternoon there, listening to them as intently as I could, chatting with them. I bought them beers…which made the little bird-like Chely so happy that she sang a traditional drinking song, walking around the room (and even into the back room), touching cans with every single person that was there. Finally, all three of us were laughing again, and Fernando hugged me, told me “You saved us…by being here, by listening, by giving us your time and your good heart…” I wanted to sob. I went to the bathroom to clean my face up…slipping two five dollar bills into Chely’s basket while they were packing their instruments and things. When I came back from the bathroom they’d found the money, and each one just came up to me, “Ay, mi amor…gracias.” and hugged me a long time. I waved it away, and went in the opposite direction from them as we left the place because I didn’t want to cry anymore.
Chely Romero & Nando at Casa de La Trova

Dicen que murió la trova
La trova que a todos nos deleitó…

La trova no ha muerto, no…

Que surjan más trovadores
Que la trova es inmortal.

They say trova has died
Trova that delighted us all

Trova has not died, no …

More troubadours will arise.
The trova is immortal. 

“La Trova”, a son by Francisco Repilado (Compay Segundo)



We were let into a hallway that was no wider than the door had been…a narrow staircase took us to the second floor of the house, which expanded into a dining area and living room. Open French windows let onto small balconies, and flooded the room with morning light. Antiques—a china cabinet with beveled glass panes, a settee with woven cane seat and mother of pearl inlay, and a very tiny child’s rocking chair of dark turned wood—shared the space with a pair of faded armchairs, a framed reproduction of some 19th century French noblewomen in a garden, and a flatscreen television from which  Sunday morning cartoons were blaring. (HeMan? Thunder Cats? It was dubbed into Spanish.)

A shirtless man in his late 40s, with a rope of beaded necklaces twisted around his neck, and a cigar stub wedged between his fingers, and his long dreads tucked up under a crocheted beanie, greeted Jorge. The two men hugged each other, then left the room together.

The guy was Jorge’s babalau…a priest or shaman of Santería. When the men came back, the babalau gave a signal, and Jorge beckoned to me to follow them. Out a door at the back of the dining room, along a corridor flanked by several small bedrooms on one side, and the neighbour’s open courtyard on the other. At the very back of the house (colonial townhouses are narrow, but go deep into the lots they’re built on) we crossed a dingy kitchen and went out the back door, down a flight of steps to the ground level, where an open space with concrete floor served as the laundry area. It smelled of a pig being raised for food, and pet dogs.

I was ushered through a bamboo door into a very small, dim room. In the shadows I made out a  bench and stool. A plywood partition set off a closet-sized space on one side of the room, a curtain hanging from wire created another closet space on the opposite side. We sat in the middle space, as Jorge explained to me that “here can be found the three realms, of death, life, and the divine.” Behind the wooden panel there was an altar crammed with statues of Catholic saints, along with white flowers in vases, glass tumblers full of clear water, candles, golliwog dolls,conch shells, coins and paper money, and a dollar-store figurine of a Sioux Indian Chief with full headdress. These were the Orishas, or Saints, of Santería.

Behind the curtain on the opposite side, Death was represented by specific roots of trees, brambles and human figures made from tree branches; there were soot blackened baby doll heads attached to bodies of burnt logs, an ebony staff carved with skulls and owls, stuffed raptor birds, and a conical clay figure with eyes and mouth of cowrie shells that I recognsied as Elegguá, huddled together.

This sounds creepy, but really I felt perfectly safe, and the feeling in the room was one of refuge, peaceful and contemplative, like graveyards and church naves can be. Jorge was like my Virgil, sitting on my left, a smile on his chubby face, encouragement in his eyes. I had nothing to fear.

What followed was a “consultation” with the babalau: part fortune-telling, part faith healing. He told me what sort of person I am, the hidden troubles I struggle with, my deepest longings, my dreams, my fears, and what would happen to me…and he got nearly every single point completely wrong. *laugh*

I think the poor guy was used to dealing with women from his own culture; he probably understands them so well that, when they come to see him, he comes across as uncannily, amazingly accurate. He failed, however, to get into the mind of a Westernised woman, decidedly oddball, and everything he said was so comically off-the-mark that, if it weren’t for Jorge, I would have laughed out loud.

Instead I racked my memory for little instances in my life…the tiniest hints…of events that would fit the babalau’s pronouncements and save his flagging mystique from my disappointment. I agreed to everything he said, nodding slowly and reluctantly saying things like, “Well…yes…I do sort of have a violent temper…”. And that is how I found myself, half an hour later, standing before the saints on the altar, holding a candle while the babalau addressed his divine committee in gibberish Yoruba, asking them to fix things so that I could have a child…because oh, everyone knows that a woman in her forties who has never had a child must be nearly mad with grief and sadness, and would love nothing better than to bear a little bub of her own. Oh, crap.

Then he gathered his caracoles (cowrie shells which, because they resemble lips, are said to “speak”) and cast them on the ground between us. He announced that there was a dark-colored ‘indian’ spirit, and another that was a “tall, thin man with white hair” hovering over me and guiding me (Oh. Hi, Mom, hey, Dad, how’s it going?)

My road, the orishas had told him, was a great one. I was destined for fame & fortune, if I just made sure to develop my many talents and pursue my goals with determination and hard work. But surely this is true for 98% of the people on the planet? He added that I possessed the undeveloped power to become somebody that the spirits talk to, because they surround me and are trying to communicate with me…if I wanted to develop this power, it would only take two months of intensive study with him (I smiled and told him I’d think about it…I’ll bet he was pretty sure he could help me with the childlessness problem, too. Hah.)

When he’d said all he had to say (Jorge was appropriately amazed by this consultation) the babalau gave each of us a Montecristo cigar, and passed around a dirty bottle of fiery hooch that had twigs and leaves steeping in it. We swigged…Jorge making a face of disgust and spitting out a gasp every time…and puffed in silence. The heavy smoke hung low in the room, making cloud-javelins of the sunlight lancing through cracks in the bamboo door. The candles on the Santería altar sputtered and crackled. We smoked our cigars halfway, and then we left: back up the steps, through the house, and out the front door, which shut behind us without ceremony or goodbyes.

Blinking in the merciless light of midday on Trocha (we’d been inside for two hours), our cigars still wedged between our fingers, Jorge and I continued our tour of Santiago, and the clamor of the spirits in my ears faded to a gentle susurrus of traffic and city sounds.


Sunday in the city with Jorge

Santiago de Cuba

I am looking for the photo that would make all the difference in my life. It’s very small and subject to fits of amnesia, turning up in poker hands, grocery carts, under the unturned stone. The photo shows me at the lost and found looking for an earlier photo, the one that would have made all the difference then….
…O photo! End your tour of the world in a hot air balloon. Resign your job at the mirror-testing laboratory. Come home to me, you little fool, before I find I can live without you.

—excerpt from Lost and Found by Maxine Chernoff

Santiago de Cuba

With just one week left, it was Santiago de Cuba that found me.

I was in the marina’s bathroom, after a shower, and the cleaning lady asked me if I’d enjoyed the New Year in the city. I told her that we had stayed home, which she thought was a shame. “Well, I go into the city most days, walk around, I draw sometimes; I want to get to know the real Santiago, but I don’t like doing tours of museums or getting steered around by jineteros…and I don’t know anybody, so I don’t know where to begin…”
Santiago de Cuba
Scandalised, the cleaning lady told one of the marina’s security guards that I needed help. Jorge was the friendliest of the guards: a boyish, pudgy, cheerful face, and a smile like Gary Coleman in the 80s. He was the only one I ever had normal conversations with. He asked me what I wanted to discover about the city. I told him that I had gone to most of the sites recommended by the guidebooks, but didn’t want to keep on being a tourist, paying for contrived experiences, or knowing the city only through photos.
Santiago de Cuba
Jorge understood completely. He loved that we had bothered to learn the language before coming, and that I wanted to get to know his home city on a deeper level. He offered to take me around, said he would plan a day of unusual things, and insisted that we go on foot in order to wander the smaller streets. I grabbed the chance to walk the streets of Santiago de Cuba with a local. I asked, but Kris didn’t want to go; he’s not a ‘people person’, he was exploring his own version of Cuba by going off alone on his bicycle, riding a different road into the surrounding countryside every day (he even went up to Gran Piedra, the highest point of Cuba, on bicycle).

I went into town by myself at 6 a.m. the next day. Jorge met me at the ferry landing, and we set off for the Santa Ifigenia cemetery to watch the change of the guards…
Sta. Ifigenia cemetery
…visited the tomb of Santiago’s most famous trovador (troubadour) and sonero, Compay Segundo.

Note: Son cubano is a style of music that originated in Cuba and gained worldwide popularity during the 1930s. Son combines the structure and feel of the Spanish canción with Afro-Cuban traits and percussion. The Cuban son is one of the most influential and widespread forms of Latin-American music: its derivatives and fusions, including salsa, have spread across the world.

Compay Segundo lived 96 years, eating mutton and drinking rum till the end…
Compay Segundo
We paid a visit to the monument and tomb of José Martí, father of Cuban independence, whose dedication to the themes of freedom, liberty, and independence were hugely influential throughout South America. He is also the author of the poem that later became the famous song Guantanamera
Marti's tomb
And we cast a quick glance toward the family tomb of the Bacardí family. (Bacardí rum was made in Cuba from 1862 until the family moved, around the 1960s, to Puerto Rico…taking their famous trademark with them.) The same rum is still made in Santiago de Cuba, under the label Ron de Caney.)
Bacardi family tomb

Leaving the cemetery we walked right across the city, going down little side streets that, in the 40s, had been the most dangerous streets in the city (Jobito, Paralejo). Here the houses, beyond the scope of tourism and shopping, stood unrestored. Looking into the large open windows revealed humble courtyards in shadow—washing on the line, pot plants, a toddler’s plastic ride-on toy, sleeping dogs—and heavily worn antique furniture, still performing their everyday functions without fanfare.

Emerged on Trocha (Avenida 24 de Febrero). Breakfasted on cafecitos (shots of sickly-sweet coffee served in thimble-sized cups) from an old man with a white beard and the star of david around his neck, standing in the open door of his home; then we had roast pork buns from a burly vendor further up the street who shaved the hunk of roast pork with a thin, flexible strip of metal in his bare hands, and crammed a fistful of the paper-thin slivers of meat into the buns with his thick fingers. We washed our sandwiches down with orange-flavoured drink, served in tumblers made from sawn-off beer bottles.

Fortified by food, we continued up the steep road another hundred metres, when Jorge led me away from the sidewalk to the doorstep of a tall, narrow, townhouse from the colonial days…the first in a row of eight. He rang the doorbell a few times, and a woman’s head looked out from the tiny balcony above us, disappeared again; as we waited for someone to come downstairs and open the door I looked at Jorge, one eyebrow cocked up questioningly. He gave me one of his big, happy grins.

<<Es una sorpresa … te vas a gustar, vas ver.>> (It’s a surprise…you’ll like it, you’ll see.)

aside: fullscreen photos

Just a quick blogging note: I needed to put a sidebar in, as too much information was being left out when I used to have full-screen photos. But I have finally figured out how to set things, now, so that if you leave the homepage and visit an individual post, by clicking on the post’s title, the sidebar menu disappears and you can, once again, view photos that take up the width of the screen. This is not an issue with iPads or phones, I realise, it is just a thing with laptops and desktop monitors.

Is this important? Not really. Aesthetics. It just looks better, I think, when the photo is large and wide-format.

That’s all. Tweaking things, while I still have a good internet connection.


By the way, the good ship “Kehaar” departs from Kingston, Jamaica, tomorrow early. We’ve been here a week, only stopped because we were low on food and water, and I didn’t take many photos (the few I took were accidentally deleted when my crappy little Quo tablet formatted the SD card without even asking me! Aargh.)

It will be 3-6 days from here to Colombia…next you hear from me, we will hopefully be in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.

Streetsofcartagena” by Cbrough – personal computer. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Hasta luego, mis panas!

Keys to the city

Santiago de Cuba

 Didn’t rain choke the animal throats
of the cathedral      sputter
against the roofs of the city      didn’t the flight
of stairs rise up above the cobbled street
didn’t the key clamor
in the lock      flood
the vestibule with clattering    didn’t we climb
the second flight
toward the miniature Allegory
painted on the ceiling
and touch the flat-faced girls
winged      part animal
who did not flinch and did not scamper
—Keys to The City by Richie Hofman

Santiago de Cuba

I must confess that I kind of wasted my first three of weeks in Santiago de Cuba. The first two, we visited some tourist attractions, and I took a ferry to the city of Santiago five times, but didn’t venture very deeply into its daily life.

Santiago de Cuba

I stayed on the cobbled streets, snapping photos of building facades, sitting—somewhat lost—on park benches, browsing the souvenirs or galleries, looking respectfully at monuments in squares, having coffee at one of the many places that serves only tourists, taking portraits of willing or unconcerned subjects like this little street pup…

Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba
But, after days of this, I remained on the outside. I was sick of taking pictures of every candy-coloured building and curly lamppost, tired of lugging a camera around, of being a spectator. I was looking at the city through a glass wall. I knew there was more to this 500-year-old city than the sugar-paste facades of beautifully restored buildings, the smooth English-speaking jineteros (‘jockeys’…so-called, because they ‘ride’ tourists) touting cigars, tours, cheap rum, or a room and a quick tryst, the charming sidewalk tourist-only establishments serving mojitos and cuba libres at 9 in the morning. I wanted the city’s beating heart, it’s radiant soul, it’s humanity…but where/what was it?

Santiago de Cuba

And then I spent the third week (from Christmas till New Year’s Day) on the boat with the flu, watching the distant fireworks blossom soundlessly from the direction of the city square at midnight on New Year’s Eve, feeling quite miserable. With just one week left, I desperately wanted to get in touch with the real Cuba.

Santiago de Cuba
Promised myself, that last night of the old year, to throw myself into the search with less reserve, to take more risks, to reach out—again and again, if I had to—until a door opened somewhere, somebody took my outstretched hand, and pulled me in…
Santiago de Cuba

El Morro fortress

El Morro
Santiago de Cuba

The first week we were in Santiago de Cuba, we did the tourist thing and paid a day’s visit to the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca fortress, at the entrance to the harbour.
El Morro
Instead of taking a tour bus or a taxi, however, we caught the inter-island ferry from the stop near the Marina Marlin to the next stop, Ciudamar. From here, we walked the winding road only as far as Los Veleros beach resort. If you cross their beach to the overgrown hillside opposite, you find yourself on a narrow trail that will take you into a side entrance in the fortress, halfway down the hill.

El Morro
You’ll still have to go from here up to the entrance (if you get caught, anyway, and if you want to see the exhibits inside the main part of the castle) to pay the fees. CUC 4.00 per person (about $4), and an additional CUC 5.00 per camera.
El Morro
Designed in 1637 by Giovanni Battista Antonelli, and more or less completed in 1700, El Morro was taken, or repelled attacks by several of the notorious privateers that plagued the Caribbean.
El Morro
El Morro
El Morro
During the 20th century the Rock fell into decay, but it was restored during the 1960s by Francisco Prat Puig.
El Morro
The fortress was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997, cited as the best preserved and most complete example of Spanish-American military architecture.
El Morro
El Morro
El Morro