This article appears in American Songwriter’s November/December 2017 Digital Edition.
It’s Sunday afternoon in Havana, in late September. Tonight Rufus Wainwright will perform on the stage of the Garcia Lorca Auditorium, an opulent theater space in the Gran Teatro de la Habana, a neo-Baroque showpiece that is one of the architectural marvels of Old Havana. It was here — back in 2016 — that President Obama delivered his historic address to the island, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge did so in 1928.
Tonight, the classically trained Wainwright will play alongside the theater’s symphony orchestra. Carlos Varela, a Cuban folk-rocker and occasional protest singer who rarely performs live anymore, will open the show, sounding at times like a Latin mashup of Roy Orbison and Tom Petty.
The concert is a big affair. The patrons arrive shortly before the 5 p.m showtime. They are dressed with a casual elegance and get out of their taxis at the entrance to the theater. The humidity is oppressive. It is just weeks after Hurricane Irma has menaced the island, leaving 10 Cubans dead, massive flooding in the streets, and much of the island without electricity for more than a week. To the tourist eye, there are few signs of the hurricane’s mark in downtown Havana, other than the closing of the Malecón, the esplanade along the water that runs through seven kilometers of the town. But there are Canadian diplomats sitting next to me, talking about the damage in other parts of the country and the suffering it has caused.
Wainwright’s show is part of a music and cultural tour of Havana that was put together by the U.S. travel company Music Arts Live, with Wainwright performing two shows during the week. The Sunday performance is the final accent on a week-long moveable feast of food, art and music, capped every night with performances from some of Havana’s top musicians at various locales throughout the city.
Tonight’s show is special, in part because it finds Wainwright performing with Cuban musicians for the first time. The theater, with its wraparound balconies, chandeliers and frescoed ceiling, boasts an old-world elegance. So much of the Cuba experience is about the illusion of feeling “back in time,” and this night is no exception. The Montreal native performs frequently with orchestras, and his music is well suited to the format. There is also the understanding that an event like this — a prominent American musician performing with a Cuban orchestra — may not happen for some time, as relations are not good between the two countries.
Halfway through his set on Sunday night, Wainwright, speaking through an interpreter, tells the crowd: “I am American and Canadian. And let’s just say that in Cuba I feel more Canadian. I love the United States … ”
Suddenly, there is a problem with his mic.
“Is that Donald Trump cutting off the sound?” he quips to much laughter.
And then he continues: “I do feel that at the start of the Obama years that things started to look more positive between Cuba and the United States. And now the cat’s been let out of the bag, and we must come together as people, no matter what the Orange Monster says.”
And with that, Wainwright breaks into the darkly foreboding “Going To A Town.”
I’m going to a town that has already been burnt down
I’m going to a place that has already been disgraced
I’m gonna see some folks who have already been let down
I’m so tired of America
There is a sustained and solemn applause from the crowd and the Cuban girl sitting next to me is crying.
A few weeks after the show, the situation between U.S. and Cuba deteriorated. The U.S. State Department expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the Cuban embassy in Washington, and the Trump administration sent home 60 percent of its embassy staff in Havana, citing a series of “sonic attacks” against American diplomats living there. The attacks, most of which allegedly occurred in 2016, reportedly caused brain swelling and permanent hearing loss in some victims. As a result, Cuban diplomats were kicked out of Washington for not protecting Americans on Cuban soil. The State Department also issued a travel warning saying Americans could be attacked if they visit the island. The U.S. government stopped short of blaming the Cuban government for the attacks, and some have speculated the attacks were the work of Russia, a country whose ties to the island run long and deep. Recently, the Cuban government released a statement saying the noise came from cicadas, believe it or not.
Early on in the trip, Wainwright tells his fans at the Melia Habana hotel that the mission of the trip is to help keep U.S-Cuban relations intact. It’s a quixotic statement but one that’s sincere.
Wainwright fell in love with Cuba five years ago, when he first visited the island with his husband, Jorn. At the time, they wanted to see Cuba while Fidel Castro, who died in 2016, was still at the helm. “We were seduced by the architecture and climate, but it was really the people who brought us back,” Wainwright says. “And there was a period with Obama about reconnecting and moving on and it was exciting to be a part of it. And now that the American situation [with Cuba] is not so great, I thought it was important to keep the conversation [that Obama started] going.”
During his time in office, Obama sought rapprochement between the long-time adversaries, even calling for Congress to lift the 54-year embargo on the Communist-ruled country: a plea that would fail to materialize. But progress was made. Diplomatic relations resumed for the first time since the Castro-led revolution in 1959, and foreign embassies in both countries reopened. Some restrictions on American travel to the island were eased, and tourists could bring rum and cigars back to the States. Trump has since sought to overturn several of these measures.
“For all of our differences, the Cuban and American people share common values in their own lives, a sense of patriotism and a sense of pride, a lot of pride,” Obama said during his speech in 2016. “And that’s just why I believe our grandchildren will look back on this period of isolation as an aberration, as just one chapter in a longer story of family and of friendship.”
With the way things are going, that may very well not be the case. But this night at the Gran Teatro is about friendship, it seems. The Cuban minister of culture is even reported to be in the crowd. During the show, Wainwright plays a cross-section of his hits from his nearly 20-year career, including the old chestnut “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” a paean to his former indulgences and wilder days. We also hear a selection from his 2010 debut opera Prima Donna. Symphony conductor Giovanni Duarte commands the baton and works well with Wainwright, who comments throughout the show on his classical influences and notes which songs were informed by composers like Ravel and Verdi. Carlos Varela joins Wainwright late in the set. There is also a performance of the Leonard Cohen standard “Hallelujah,” a staple of Wainwright’s repertoire.
A few days before the show at the Gran Teatro, Wainwright and his coterie of fans pay a visit to the National School of Art, a division of the Instituto Superior de Arte. The students, high schoolers, are dressed in uniform — white button-downs with brown pants for the boys and brown skirts for the girls. They represent some of the most promising young musical talents in Cuba, and the school’s list of alumni is long and distinguished.
We are seated outside near a courtyard, and the air is suffocating. Wainwright is there for a Q&A session. He is joined by symphony conductor Giovanni Duarte, an alumnus of the school. Duarte tells the students he lived outside of Havana as a student and had to rise at 4 a.m. each day to make it there on time. “The only thing that saved us all [in those days] was music,” he tells the students, speaking of Cuba’s Especial period, a time in the ‘90s that found Cuba suffering extreme economic distress in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, who had subsidized much of the island’s economy during the Cold War.
An NSA student by the name of Brayan Alvarez dazzles us with his gifts on piano. His piece incorporates elements of classical, ragtime and native Cuban influences. The students at NSA receive general education courses, but the focus here is on the music. They are tested at the pre-kindergarten level, and those who score high in music aptitude are put on a specific track.
Javier Mendez, a self-assured 16-year-old student, steps up to the mic (“I speak English” he says) and volunteers his talents to the crowd, performing Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way.”
Later, during the Q&A session, Wainwright speaks through an interpreter. There is very little English in Cuba, outside of the tourist center, though private English instruction is reportedly on the rise.
“I always knew I wanted to be a popular performer,” he tells the students at one point. “I chose to use my classical influences as a secret weapon. I like to do that without them knowing what is happening.”
He adds that Nina Simone was the first artist he heard that made him believe it was possible to fuse classical and popular music.
But more than anything else, Wainwright says, he considers himself a songwriter. Early on in his career, he says he would work on his songwriting for hours a day. And then it got easier, he says, and the songs started coming faster. It was then that he decided he needed to challenge himself, so he started writing operas. “When it gets easy, maybe it’s time to try another avenue,” he says.
Wainwright’s first opera, Prima Donna, debuted in 2010, and he’s currently at work on another called Hadrian, set to premiere in Toronto in the fall of 2018.
As the morning winds down, a student from the audience asks Wainwright if he’ll play a song. He responds that he won’t play anything on the piano but will perform a tune with just the vocal.
He then relates a story about his late mother, the Canadian folk-singer Kate McGarrigle. He says that after she died, even though he’s not particularly religious, he went to three churches in New York to light a candle for her, and none of the churches had any candles in stock. “At first I took it as a message [from her],” he said, [that said], “I’m okay, you don’t have to do this anymore. Then I went to Paris and visited Notre Dame Cathedral and lit a candle and I realized my mother just wanted a very different venue.”
Then he proceeded to sing “Candles.”
It’s always just that little bit more
That doesn’t get you what you’re looking for
But gets you where you need to go
But the churches have run out of candles
On the second night of the trip, Wainwright’s group of 100 or so fans — mostly Americans with a smattering of Australians, Europeans and Canadians thrown in the mix — are treated to a private, stripped-down concert at the Teatro de Belles Artes in Old Havana. The show is heavy on banter and Wainwright alternates between a Steinway and Sons piano and a Martin acoustic. We hear two Leonard Cohen covers, including “So Long, Marianne,” as well as few numbers from Wainwright’s recent Shakespearean sonnets album.
The following evening involves a concert at Palacia de la Rumba in the neighborhood of Vedado, a cool and happening arts neighborhood that is also home to the University of Havana. The first band we hear is Yoruba Adabo, one of Cuba’s best-known purveyors of rumba, a style of Cuban music and dance that originated in the late 19th century. Yoruba Adabo practice Yoruba, a West African religion that is often incorporated into Santeria, which mixes West African religions with Roman Catholicism and is practiced widely in Cuba. The group’s performance is attended by dancers, and the crowd, including Wainwright, joins in, giving it their best despite the awkward spectacle it provides.
Next up is the group Interactivo, a jazz collective that has collaborated with many world-class artists, including Wynton Marsalis. The leader of the group is Roberto Carcassés, a keyboard player who graduated from the National School of the Arts in the early ‘90s. For many in attendance this is one of the musical high water marks of the trip.
International tourism has grown substantially in Cuba over the last decade. Even when the U.S. government said it was verboten for Americans to travel to the island — a violation of the Treasury Department’s “Trading With The Enemy Act” — the more enterprising found their way around the restrictions. But for many on this trip, this seemed like it might be the last time they could legally visit Cuba for a while.
In 2010, Raul Castro loosened restrictions to allow for more private enterprise. One local I met there, who did not want her name published, lives in an apartment that her father bought her for $30,000 cash. (The buying and selling of property officially became legal in Cuba in 2011.) Airbnb’s are also now legal in Cuba, and this writer stayed at three different locations, with rates ranging from $20 to $50 per night.
Much of the Cuban economy now operates on the black market. Standard state-sponsored “straight jobs,” even ones that require a higher education degree, pay very little, so many Cubans take up side hustles to make ends meet. The average Cuban salary is around $25 per month. Black market gigs could involve things like driving an unmarked taxi and catering to tourists or selling fake Cuban cigars on the street. Food rationing still exists, and all Cubans receive a monthly allotment of rice, sugar and oil, but it’s not enough to live on.
There seems to be a constant shortage of humanitarian goods. One of my Airbnb hosts tells me there is only one store in Havana that is carrying toilet paper at the moment. “This is how it is in Havana,” he says with a laugh.
Another Cuban I meet says he had an opportunity to move to the United States, under a very special circumstance allowed by the Cuban government, but decided against it, reasoning that life as an immigrant in the U.S. would prove too difficult. “I’m not rich but I have a nice life here,” he says.
Monuments to the revolution pervade the town. A sign along the road to the airport reads “Socialism or death” in Spanish. Another billboard advertises the upcoming elections in 2017 and 2018, with the tagline “a genuine demonstration of democracy.” One sees very few image of Fidel Castro, as the former leader requested that his image not be reproduced across the country, but the visage of Che Guevara, who was Argentinian but fought with Castro in the revolution, is ubiquitous.
Some Cubans harbor hope for political reform when Raul Castro steps down as president in 2018. Miguel Diaz-Canel, a Communist Party official that currently serves as one of the country’s vice presidents, is said to be the logical successor. The name of Raul’s daughter, Mariela, a social progressive, has also been mentioned.
One is tempted to avoid the romanticized portrait of a place that often attends a vacation, but there is no denying that the people in Cuba are incredibly friendly and warm. There is also very little violent crime in Cuba — guns and drugs are basically non-existent— so the place feels unnaturally safe from those threats, at least. Hitchhiking is a national pastime, along with baseball and flirting, I’m told. You always feel like a fiesta could strike up anywhere.
On Sunday night, after the show at the Gran Teatro, Wainwright and his group head to the house of his friend Pamela Ruiz, an American expat who grew up in New York City and now lives in Havana. Ruiz runs a paladar — a unique Cuban concept whereby the owner runs a restaurant out of their place of residence — from her villa in Vedado. Ruiz’s husband is a Cuban visual and mixed media artist named Damian Aquiles. (Their home was the subject of a 2015 New York Times magazine profile, where they’ve entertained the likes of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.)
The evening is the perfect cap to a great week of music, art, friendship and history. Aquiles’ artwork adorns the walls, and there are two bars serving mojitos. Later, we are served paella out of a huge vat. This is the best meal we’ve had all week by a long shot, and we all feel lucky to get a privileged glimpse into this secret garden of Havana.