January 6, 2009

Enchantment and Ruin: Mario Coyula’s Havana

Havana by now can be imagined as one city in two countries. The fiery splendor of Old Havana has emptied money and momentum and much of its future into Miami. But the magic and mystique ...
Havana by now can be imagined as one city in two countries. The fiery splendor of Old Havana has emptied money and momentum and much of its future into Miami. But the magic and mystique in the name are rooted forever in the island of Cuba. This was the message of the whoops and tears among returning exiles (who, under the Bush dispensation, could visit no more than once ever three years) when our charter flight touched Cuban ground late in December. The jazz piano giant Chucho Valdes said as much to me eight years ago, explaining why — unlike his father Bebo Valdes, who’d expatriated to Sweden, or his Grammy-winning Irakere bandmates Arturo Sandoval and Paquito Rivera, who became American stars — he himself had never left home. “How can I leave Cuba?” the autochthonous Chucho pleaded. “This is where my music comes from, where my music lives.”

Havana plays tricks with our sense of time as well as place. Fifties Havana moved to Miami, but the visitor keeps feeling that our stateside Fifties, my Boston Fifties, are alive again here: in the fat fish-finned Plymouths and Pontiacs, of course; equally in the black phones and seven-digit phone numbers and the calm voices who answer them; in the family worship in places like the Church of Our Lady of Charity in Centro Havana; in TV baseball without commercials, and stadium baseball with small crowds under yellow lights, so like Braves Field in Warren Spahn time. It is almost twenty years ago that Robert Stone, the American novelist, observed Havana as “an exercise in willpower, a dream state being grimly and desperately prolonged.” But back in that “dream state” of the pre-Revolutionary mid-Fifties, Graham Greene’s famous vacuum-cleaner salesman and spy, Wormold in Our Man in Havana, found himself held to the spot, even then, “as though to the scene of a disaster. Time gives poetry to a battlefield…” It still does.

We’re talking here with the world-traveling Cuban architect and planner Mario Coyula about the allure of a wreck. Havana is one of the rare world cities that has no skyscrapers and no shantytowns, almost. It is a gorgeous fairy godmother with warts and missing teeth. Coyula makes many points here that I’d not have noticed: Havana historically was not a city of the poor, he notes. Cuba’s poverty was mostly rural, and in the capital it was artfully disguised. By the Fifties, he says, Havana was growing self-destructively. Curiously, the Revolution that has neglected Havana so spectacularly was also lifting standards in the rest of the country and may, in fact, have saved Havana from drowning in rural immigrants. In the long run, he argues, Havana could discover as other cities have that stagnation brought blessings. Worse, less reversible than stagnation would be to turn Havana into Las Vegas or Tijuana with “horrible big hotels” financed by a few foreign investors. The wise mean, he suggests, might be “a little of everything” — many thousands of investors and planned development — with a sense of history.

For many centuries Cuba, and especially Havana, was a springboard for Spain to conquer and plunder central and south America. Later it was also a springboard for the US to go into Latin America. So we have to find a niche for Cuba — what will be our role? In 1958 Havana was already a great world city and Miami was a sleepy town of retirees. Now Miami is a big ugly city, except for a few nice places, but it’s very alive economically. I don’t know if the money is from the drug trade, but it took away part of a role that belonged to Havana as a pivot between North and South America. I think we need to face this. And in any way we think about the future, it more and more depends on the relations with the US. We need to accept each other, and accept differences, be more tolerant.

Mario Coyula in conversation with Chris Lydon, in his apartment studio in Havana, December 19 2008

Podcast • January 5, 2009

Our Music Man in Havana: Bobby Carcasses

The polite name for it was folklore, but it was the daily stuff of peoples’ lives. Dancing and music were never very far away, It didn’t mean people were happy. It meant that — not ...

The polite name for it was folklore, but it was the daily stuff of peoples’ lives. Dancing and music were never very far away, It didn’t mean people were happy. It meant that — not for all Cubans, but for many — dancing was the way they walked, and singing was the way they breathed. It is still that way, which is one reason musically attuned visitors to Cuba today come home so excited.”

Ned Sublette in Cuba and its Music: From the first drums to the Mambo, 2004. Page 586.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Bobby Carcasses. (15 minutes, 7 mb mp3)

“Decathlon-ist in art” Bobby Carcasses

We came to Cuba to get a week’s taste of what Brown students had a 4-month semester to absorb. Their native guide, our mentor Adrian Lopez Denis, implants in all of us the idea that the Revolution – even at its 50th anniversary – isn’t the most interesting thing about Cuba, and Fidel and Raul Castro aren’t the most interesting things about the Revolution. My own prejudice is that music beats sugar as the all-time expressive Cuban export; and that in Cuba the rumba feel of life will outlive and outrank the revolution in the long run. So this first 15-minute introduction is with a master of Cuban jazz and dancehall music, Bobby Carcasses. He’s a singer who plays congas, and flugelhorn and alto saxophone. You’ll hear him say that in sports and in music he is a decathlon man — “a decathlonist in art.” He drops other tell-tale bits of a Cuban musical profile: he’s a religious man who believes in reincarnation, to begin with. He lives and loves Italian opera, Miles Davis, the blues and Bobby McFerrin — that is, his music has no categories of nation, style or the moment. He makes light of his anti-American Castro government, which suspected that jazz was a CIA trick. And he believes in a dark unexplainable genius – and geniuses – in music. Duende is the Spanish word for “these dark sounds,” as Garcia Lorca famously put it, “the mystery, the roots thrusting into the fertile loam known to all of us, ignored by all of us, but from which we get what is real in art.”

Bobby & Chris… Charles Hill Photo

This is the first of several posts from Havana — about the beat-up and tumble-down but all-the-more bewitching city itself, in conversation with the international architect Mario Coyula; also about a thrilling encounter with three American students at the Latin American School of Medicine — marking a sort of culmination of the civil rights revolution in the US and the most exalted Cuban vision of its own healing touch in a global healthcare emergency; and with Adrian Lopez Denis about a time coming when the US obsession with Cuba and Cuba’s obsession with its world role both fade — when fetishes give way to understanding and the unmistakable bonds of affections across the Straits of Florida.

Podcast • March 12, 2008

What’s Coming in Cuba (I) Patrick Symmes

Is Cuba, after Fidel Castro, in for a Velvet Revolution? or a civil war? or more of the same? Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Patrick Symmes here (52 minutes, 24 mb mp3) The ...

Is Cuba, after Fidel Castro, in for a Velvet Revolution? or a civil war? or more of the same?

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Patrick Symmes here (52 minutes, 24 mb mp3)

patrick symmes

The marvelous Patrick Symmes, who has a keen ear for Cuba’s own prophets, is haunted by the miserable chants of a woman in Central Cuba who told him, “we’re going to suffer… we’re going to suffer!” But will the suffering come from a settling of scores when Raul Castro, too, is gone? From raw violence along color lines, or between have-nots and have-less? From a homecoming of the children of Miami exiles? From a mad rush to condos and every other kind of money-making development? From drugs, drug-money and guns?

Patrick Symmes hung his remarkable history of the Cuban revolution on a single school picture — and the family stories of about 250 boys who went to prep school with Fidel Castro at the Jesuits’ Colegio de Dolores in the 1940s. The New York Times Book Review listed The Boys from Dolores among the ten best books of 2007. Thanks to the master-reviewer Richard Eder for mentioning to me that it was the best book he read all year. And thanks to Patrick Symmes for ten years research in the field, and for leading off a continuing Open Source conversation on Cuba.

Havana! I loved the capital, bitterly and deeply, an unrequited love made possible only by distance and loss. The luminous blue-gray hurricane light. The storm spray that left cars, people, and decaying mansions coated with the white dust of salt. The oily harbor, fuming and ringed with Spanish forts… A global capital of the quixotic, where free market superstars came to denounce capitalism, apostles of asceticism fell off the wagon, and most secrets were vulnerable to a $100 bill. The parks were full of prostitutes, the houses full of liquor, and in this capital immoral of the Revolution, even cocaine…

Despite the 2.2 million who lived here, Havana was notable for its emptiness, for the quietness of its avenues by day and their inky darkness at night. The streets were full of spectacular wrecks, black-eyed houses and abandoned hotels, mansions with holed roofs, featureless plains like the Plaza of the Revolution, a gigantic parking lot where legendary rallies had once been held… It was “the city where the whole world went to be lied to.” I found Havana dangerous to body and soul, a high-low environment where you could get arrested for nothing but everyone got away with everything.

Patrick Symmes,

The Boys from Dolores, pages 150-1.

Dolores Boys

Don’t try to get to know them, because in their souls they live in the impenetrable world of dualism. Cubans drink happiness and bitterness from the same cup. They make music from their weeping and laughter from music. They take jokes seriously and make everything serious a joke.

Never underestimate Cubans. The right arm of Saint Peter is a Cuban and the Devil’s best advisor is also Cuban. Cuban has never produced a saint nor a heretic. But Cubans pontificate among heretics and blaspheme among the saints. Their spirit is universal and irreverent. Cubans believe in Catholicism, Chango, in charades and horoscopes all at the same time. They will appeal to your gods and make fun of your religious rights. They don’t believe in anybody and they believe everybody. They will never give up their illusions and they never learn from their delusions.

Don’t argue with them, ever. Cubans are born inherently wise. They don’t need to read, they know everything. They don’t need to travel, they have seen everything. The Cubans are the chosen people… chosen by themselves. They pass among lesser peoples like a ghost passing over water.

Cubans are characterized individually by their sympathy and intelligence and as a group by their shouting and passion. Every one of them carries the spark of genius and no geniuses are tolerated. That’s why it’s easy to reunite Cubans, and impossible to unite them.

Lundy Aguilar in an essay on Cuba, quoted in Patrick Symmes,

The Boys from Dolores, pages 23-4.