The Rhythms of Cuba

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Sarasota writer Janis Frawley-Holler’s second book, Island Wise: Lessons in Living from the Islands of the World (due out this month), is more than an intriguing travelogue. Frawley-Holler, a longtime contributor to our pages, went a step further, bringing back some insights on how to add some of the best aspects of island living to […]


Sarasota writer Janis Frawley-Holler’s second book, Island Wise: Lessons in Living from the Islands of the World (due out this month), is more than an intriguing travelogue. Frawley-Holler, a longtime contributor to our pages, went a step further, bringing back some insights on how to add some of the best aspects of island living to our lives here on the mainland.

She admits that she herself learned plenty from her travels, especially during her excursion to Cuba, which we’ve featured here. "I was hesitant to go, because of the political situation between us and them," she says, "but my publisher really demanded that I include Cuba. So I insisted that my husband Darrel come along with me. And the people were so wonderful, despite their poverty and problems, that in the end Cuba became one of my favorite places of any in the book." Her message from this Caribbean island just 90 miles from Florida shores? Follow life’s rhythms.

The author will appear at Sarasota News & Books on April 4 at 7 p.m. for a free discussion and book signing of Island Wise.

"Viva el mojito!" is written along with the autographs of Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro on the walls of Old Havana’s La Bodeguita del Medio, the most famous bar in the world in which to sip the most famous of Cuban cocktails: the mojito, the refreshing combination of fresh mint and local rum.

La Bodeguita is a Caribbean hole-in-the-wall, shiftless in character, and subtly sultry and sensual in a raw kind of way. Often one of the local guitar players will drop in and dole out traditional musical instruments to guests and revelers, sparking a collaborative frenzy of Cuban music that builds to rousing heights. Before I knew it, I was rattling a chequeré (a gourd covered in beads) alongside others clicking claves (wooden sticks), shaking maracas and banging on bongos.

It’s easy to get caught up in the exhilaration of Cuba’s bold rhythms. So the island-happy tourists will generously tip the guitarist in U.S. dollars, the most valuable of the country’s three currencies. His smile contains an undercurrent of relief: With the extra money he’ll be able to supplement his family’s meager monthly food ration, perhaps adding a little meat to the normally meatless table. He might also be able to round up scarce household basics like toilet paper, or treat his eight-year-old daughter to a glass of milk-or possibly an ice cream cone. He stashes the dollars in his pocket and quietly slips away, for islanders are generally forbidden in tourist establishments-there are even doormen to ensure they stay away. Even if they were welcome, a local could never enjoy a mojito, which costs three U.S. dollars-that’s about one-eighth of a doctor’s monthly salary.

Welcome to Cuba, a fascinating, enigmatic, deeply romantic and tragic country. At first glance, the capital city of Havana could be mistaken for an old Hollywood movie set, with its crumbling buildings, pretty little plazas, colorful street performers, book vendors and entire families piled onto Urals (Russian copies of earlier-era BMW motorcycles) with side cars scooting down the streets. The Urals share the roads with brightly colored, chrome-gleaming American cars from the ’40s and ’50s (from Studebakers to Chevys) smoothed over with Bondo to hide the rust, and some now powered by Russian diesel engines when their tires aren’t flat. Even though the vehicles are packed with people, they stop to pick up hitchhikers on their way to work; and when there’s a breakdown, the men-probably the best mechanics in the world-lift the hoods, invent solutions (spare parts are rare) and are up and running in record time-an example of the ingenuity, resiliency, and strength of spirit of the Cubans. When they encounter obstacles-and there are many in this decaying Communist outpost-they don’t complain, but instead ask, "How can I make this work?"

"People seem happy here," I commented to a local.

"Ah, yes," he said. "But seem is the key word. Look beyond the smile."

A disturbing sense of repression-the subduer of the soul-lies beneath those Cuban smiles. It casts a somber shadow on everyone and everything, except the ephemeral tropical island mood that sweeps tourists away. The locals have to be cautious about what they say aloud-and where they say it, for here there’s no freedom of speech. All take great pride in speaking the English they learn through a very good school system, but they were quick to tell me there’s little-if any-opportunity for their education to improve their lot in life once they graduate. But in spite of the goal of equality within the country’s Communist doctrine, a class system is developing: Those who receive tips (in U.S. dollars) from travelers, who work in tourism or as beggars, are the "have a little mores" and those in professions that don’t receive tips, such as physicians or teachers, are "the have a little lesses."

Gone are the exciting tastes of Cuban cuisine, even in the tourist restaurants, for the ingredients are simply unavailable. The locals receive monthly rations, an ever-boring menu dominated by beans, rice and eggs, except for the meat they receive once-maybe twice-a year, and they have to boil their drinking water daily to avoid stomach problems, a statement in itself on the status of the island’s infrastructure. Equally heartbreaking is the deterioration of Havana’s lavish Old World architecture, which rivaled that of Paris. It has fallen into disrepair, crying out for paint and restoration, but the materials aren’t available, except through a few European investors who have recently rescued some old gems, restoring them as hotels partnered with the Cuban government. And those famous, hand-rolled Cuban cigars? Breathe easy. Their odor is scarce because the locals can’t afford them.

Nevertheless, the dispiriting lack of everything from freedom and opportunity to milk seems to fade at the first beat of a Cuban tune, whether the rhythm dives into an island-born rumba, mambo, chachacha or salsa. The islanders’ eyes light up, their longing to feel good takes over, passions rise and they are, in every sense of the world, liberated, free to sway their hips, free to sing and shake maracas, free to become one with the music and free to be themselves.

"Music is life to us," my tour guide Oti said as he danced down the sidewalk with the first smile I saw on his face all day.

The music echoes through the air all the time, everywhere-in the cities, the countryside and the mountains-from the soulful, haunting sound of a solo sax player leaning against a doorway in the cool air of a dimly lit night, to neighborhood jams trying out the unique beat of Cuban rap, to the pros who draw standing-room-only crowds-inside and out-at the Café Paris. Within the potent, lusty beats of the tumbadora (conga drums), maruga (metal shakers), guiro (an elongated gourd scraped with a stick) and claves, everything else in life is forgotten. The music, the beat, the dance, and the person become one.and hope is inspired. They feel the song that lives in their souls and they dance out the emotions that dwell in their hearts. Just for a little while, everything feels so good, and so free.

Musical Notes

It’s hard to imagine the world without music. It’s the universal language that connects us all on an emotional level. It delivers us from apathy, acts as our muse, and often gives us the enlightening sense that what’s bad in our life really isn’t as bad as we think, and that the good is even better. Music is potent medicine, restorative and healing, enabling us, regardless of who we are or where we live, to soar up to the higher notes of life. It takes us back to better times, eases desperation, helps us work through sorrows, and charges up our energy; it can make us whole when we feel fragmented. Music seeps deep inside of us, into those secret pockets of our inner self, and touches us where-and when-nothing else can.

When we listen to music, we find, like the islanders of Cuba, our hips begin to play, our shoulders shimmy, our voices sing out. We stand taller and vitality is injected into our steps. The rhythm of life swells within us-a primal response, and remedy for what ails us, one that shamans and healers have turned to for thousands of years.

Scientists tell us that different kinds of music stimulate different parts of our brains. For example, classical music, particularly Mozart, has been found to relieve stress, improve memory, shorten learning time, increase efficiency, accelerate healing, calm hyperactive children, spark creativity, and bless us with higher rates of retention, which improve students’ test scores. Music stimulates plants to grow better, and a Japanese sake brewery found that serenading fermenting rice wine produced better sake. The Canadian city of Edmonton plays classical music to calm pedestrians in crowded areas, and at a Baltimore hospital, the director of the coronary care unit reported that a half hour of Mozart produces the same effect as 10 milligrams of Valium. Author Don Campbell has written about these benefits as The Mozart Effect.

But we needn’t limit our choices to classical-it’s been proven that all different kinds of music are beneficial. We simply need to listen to what speaks to our needs and our moods of the moment: the playfulness of Little Richard’s rock ‘n’ roll, that down ‘n’ dirty feel of rhythm and blues, that cry-in-our-beer country and western sound, the free flow of a waltz, or the unplugged, yet potent rhythms of Cuba driven by hand-drumming, the heartbeat of their music. Perhaps it is that heart-like thumping, so much like that of our own hearts, that holds the secret to music’s power to reawaken us to the beauty of being alive.

-Go live. Set aside one day a week for a live music encounter, whether it’s a jazz jam at a local bar, the performance of a symphony, a musical play, singing in the church choir, a family night sing-along or a drumming circle on the beach at sunset.

-Move while you groove. Music and dance are perfect partners. According to the Mayo Clinic, dancing can burn as many calories as walking, swimming or riding a bicycle (and it’s a lot more fun!) So put on some energetic music, go for a half hour of sustained, high-spirited dancing and burn 200-400 calories while brightening your day.

-Serenade your day. No matter what kind of day you’re having, listening to music will make it better. Instead of settling in for an evening of uninspiring TV, pop in the CDs, sing along, and take a few lighthearted spins around the living room floor. There’s nothing quite so powerful or uplifting as voices raised in song.

Island Wise: Lessons in Living from the Islands of the World, is published by Broadway Books, New York, a division of Random House, Inc. Copyright 2003 by Janis Frawley-Holler.