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”.

History

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)

8 tracks : : chévere!

A bunch of tracks, purchased during our four months in Venezuela, that served as a kind of background to our stay. As my Spanish improved, so did my enjoyment of the music I heard around me, which suddenly spoke to me out of the chaos of exotic-sounding words.

I made friends with a dapper old gentleman who owns a music shop near the local market, and he gave me a short, intense education in salsa music…which resulted in my now having almost everything ever published by Oscar D’Leon and Willie Colon! The Argentinian Giulia y Los Tellarini is kind of like a female version of Tom Waits, with her ruined, husky voice, and smoky songs of nostalgia and damnation.


N.B. I don’t particularly LIKE Francisco Montoya, but he is an absolute must, in order to capture the true feeling of the country. This type of music is called Musica de Los Llaneros (Music of The Rangers), and is their version of country western, here. All the male singers have high, goat-like voices, and bleat to the accompaniment of a harp (strummed and plucked like a guitar), a small guitar called a cuatro, and maracas. They play it in taxis, on buses, absolutely EVERYWHERE. And most popular of all of them was Montoya. There was no escape. A playlist of Venezuela wouldn’t be complete without him.

where does it hurt?

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole
world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere

by Warsan Shire


Warsan Shire showed her first poem to her father at the age of 11, won an international poetry slam at 16 (“I didn’t really understand what a poetry slam was”), writes intense, sensuous poems which she has toured and read in several countries, has a BA in creative writing, published her first pamphlet in 2011, is poetry editor of the new “literary arts mashup” magazine, Spook, and runs workshops on using poetry and narrative to heal trauma. And she’s not yet 28.

Some Books in Spanish

bookshop finds

The bookstores here have a very limited range of titles. Importing books would cost too much, and local publishers can only afford to print titles chosen for the moral or educational instruction and improvement of the nation. Still, we found Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende, both of whom we always enjoy reading, and then a couple of authors we don’t know at all, but seemed promising. (N.B. Romulo Gallegos, who wrote Doña Barbara, was once President of Venezuela)

Bookstores here don’t have open shelves that you can browse. The books are under glass, or on shelves behind the sales counters, so you sort of have to know what you want, and the attendant will bring the book over to you. Still, they were very helpful, suggesting other writers and giving us a basic idea of what each book was about. Most of these titles were under a dollar, new.

We were told there is a flea market around the corner from the marina where we stay, and that locals sell their second hand books there. Definitely going to look into that…hoping people’s old, personal libraries will yield a more eclectic range of books.

Song of The Open Road

DSC_0209I immensely enjoyed the audiobook version of Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, though I must be honest and say that I probably didn’t NEED the book, as I find myself living with a natural-born vagabonder who has been living this way since he was 15 years old.

But if you’re new to the experience, feel an attraction to the idea of incorporating travel into your life as something intrinsically part of that life, and not just spending a load of money to go for a short, predictable, industry-designed tour, then this book will show you where, and, more importantly, how to start.

Most people think that traveling for extended periods of time is only for the extremely rich, or the extremely irresponsible and feral. But travel as a way of life is an ancient and honourable way of discovering how to become fully human, and discovering oneself as well. And it’s really not as difficult as you’d think. The same measures that a vagabonder takes in order to SAVE money are the very things that also provide that traveler with the most amazing experiences and a more in-depth, satisfying, life-changing encounter with that country. A willingness to eat where the locals do, travel side by side with them in buses or on ferries, stay in locals’ homes, accept invitations to local events, and learn the language of your host country, will give you something that a 10-day holiday by the pool of a hotel catering to foreigners and hanging out with tourists from your own country, can never provide.

Kris and I saved money for just two years…he, working as a boat carpenter for the local fishing industry, I as a salesgirl in an art shop. Okay, we have the boat, which is probably the ultimate way to vagabond because the biggest expenses you will encounter on your travels will always be 1) transportation and 2) accommodation. With our home-built, no-engine, no-electronics, super-basic sailboat, we have cut both those expenses to a fraction of what it would cost to fly around countries, stay in hostels (which, even though cheaper than hotels, can vary greatly from country to country in price, and will eventually take up a lot of your budget), or buy gallons of fuel for a more conventional sailboat.

We don’t have a lot of money, but that’s okay because when we are running low we can look for work, or just decide to head home. There are no iron-clad schedules to follow…we like a country, we stay as long as we can. We don’t like the country, we leave the next week. That said, you’d be amazed at how cheaply you can live in other countries, if you live almost like the locals. In Brazil, we were spending an average of US$2,000 a month. For two people. In Guyana, that’s gone down to an amazing US$600 per month. Either way, both places cost much less than it costs us to live back in Australia, AND we are getting the experiences of a different culture, learning new languages, making friends, and tucking away inspiration for a whole new body of art and creativity for when we return home.

So if traveling and experiencing a new culture at the grassroots level—their food, home life, environs, people, language—gives you a little buzz and thrill of excitement, know that it’s MUCH easier than you think. There’s no need to commit to a period of time, and two months is as legitimate a vagabonding stint as two years. I RECOMMEND this book! It’s inspiring, it’s practical, it’s a better book to have than any Lonely Planet guide, which only leads you down the well-trodden paths, to boringly safe and touristy places, to have uniform experiences like everyone else.