CUBA LIBRO – May 17, 2016

Once more onto the bus, dear writers. I’ve stuffed my rolly suitcase with my remaining clean clothes and my keepsakes, sequestering all rank fabric in a makeshift laundry bag. We’re going to spend the morning in Cienfuegos. Our first stop is the Benny Moré School of Music and Art, an academy for kids age seven to fifteen. In addition to the usual subjects, they can concentrate on vocal or instrumental music, dance, or painting. The head of school ushers us into a large plain room for a recital, introducing disarming musicians, a clarinetist, a guitarist, a singer, and a violin player. They’re young, poised, and very accomplished, dressed in khaki pants or skirts and a white shirt. Evidently, the audition process adheres to the old Soviet model, where each child is assigned an instrument according to their physical characteristics. Graduates of Benny Moré fill many positions in Cuba’s music establishment.

Our final stop will be the most memorable of the trip, Tim promises. Cienfuegos supports an arts center in a fine, restored 19th century building. In the courtyard, a crafts fair bustles colorfully. We climb a beautiful divided staircase to the second floor, where freestanding mahogany spiral stairs continue to the third floor. We have gathered for a performance by Cantores de Cienfuegos, the Cienfuegos Singers, a sixteen-member a cappella chorus led by an engaging woman, Honey Moreira. She also transcribes all the music. I stand behind the back row so I can hear and see better. With power and sweetness, they raise the roof. A pair of American spirituals bracket a half dozen Latin American songs and madrigals. Their new tenor has a remarkable voice with a distinctive Cuban swing. The harmonies they bring to Down to the River to Pray make those remaining hairs on the back of my neck stand up. For an encore, the group gets us on our feet for a crypto-Macarena. I’m game, but, oh, I fail at this. My hands are on my head when they should be on my hips. I buy the CD.

Soon enough, we’re trundling our luggage through Plaza de Armas to Ambos Mundos. This time, I get a room on the third floor. I can’t wait to shower. We have our farewell dinner at San Cristobal, one of Havana’s best restaurants. It is pre-Revolutionary, with memorabilia and knickknacks covering every inch of wall space. Curiously, clocks play a prominent role in the décor. The Emerson girls are seated at the round table in the room where the Obama family ate. This small room features photographic evidence of Beyoncé, as well. Then late in the meal, a party with Sigourney Weaver in tow takes a table near us. I’m feeling the capitalist hegemony. At the end of the meal, our cute waiter pours shots for the table from a bottle of 151 proof rum called Edmundo Dantes. It is a beverage that plots revenge.

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