I think reverse psychology works. When I was a kid my mom told me that beets were messy and would stain the furniture, but it only made me want to try them that much more, and I’m still a huge fan. Cuba is the same way. The mere fact that we’re not supposed to go there makes it enticing. It’s the island that has given birth to rumba, salsa, and bata drumming and is continually churning out killer drummers. The fact that it holds the keys to unlocking clave makes it even more compelling. There are many more traditions, drums, and rhythms that haven’t yet been exported and filtered through our American media machine, which only makes this small island even more of a drummer’s paradise. Add to that ’56 Chevy’s plying the streets of Havana, clubs open till dawn, sandy beaches, and a bottle of seven-year-old rum for less than $10 and you can easily convince yourself that the very place you’re not supposed to go is the place you want to be. Oh, except for that pesky little travel restriction for Americans, which we’ll talk about in a second.
Aside from maybe North Korea, this is a place that has more government control and secrecy than almost any other place on earth. And it’s also more advanced than we’d expect with 99 percent literacy rate, more doctors per capita than almost anywhere in the world, lower infant mortality rate than the United States, and virtually non-existent crime. With a quick hop from Cancun you can seemingly time-travel back to the ’60s to glimpse the incredible worlds of music, architecture, classic cars, and a bygone era of communism.
You think about how Cuban music has shaped our own playing as drummers, and brought us groups like Buena Vista Social Club and Afro Cuban Allstars as well as players like Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, Luis Conte, and Changuito. Those are a few of the names we’ve become familiar with on this side of the water, but this article will also talk about the types of musical experiences that you can only get if you enter that time machine yourself.
After working in music retail for more than 20 years, I’ve observed that most drummers have placed themselves into one of two camps: the folkloric – with its hand drums and African influenced traditions – versus the modern musical styles, which incorporate keyboard synths, sophisticated arrangements, and mathematical precision. Having studied congas for a number of years before going to Cuba, I thought I’d be drawn to the folkloric side myself. But the world I found was also teeming with drum set players sporting Thomas Lang chops, and timbale players with rudimental vocabularies that would put most drum line players to shame. So whether you gravitate toward one camp or the other, Cuba is an incredible place for both hand and stick drummers alike.
The Veradero 70 playing on the streets in Trinidad.
As players, we all know Latin music can be intimidating because of its structure and tradition. If you show up to a salsa gig and play bongos during a chorus, forget to come down off of your bells for a piano solo, or flip clave coming out of a break, you’ll be fired. Going to the source can help you straighten it all out. There are many styles of music both social and religious that you’ll hear in every nook and cranny in Cuba. You’ll find rumba on the streets, salsa in the clubs, and religious ceremonies behind closed doors. Of course you can go to some hotels and find all three conveniently packaged for tourists, but you can do that in Oakland or Miami, too. If you hit the streets and put energy into it you can probe even deeper to learn the structure, terminology, and tradition. So, dust off your Kangol cap and let’s go.