Thursday, May 19, 2016

Music and Cultural Misunderstanding in Cuba

A music group on the streets of Trinidad, Cuba
There are so many new things to learn when you visit a country for the first time. Many are subtle. Our first night in Havana we made some mistakes from simply being unfamiliar with local customs.

We were exhausted and overwhelmed from travel. Because the money exchanges were closed by the time we arrived,  we'd only changed a little bit of currency. Luckily Ubaldi, had a friend who could do the exchange under the table. His cousin owned our airbnb apartment and he'd picked us up at the airport.

We were coming from having drinks with some new friends we met on the plane from Cancun, a lesbian couple from New Zealand. One of them had a bad cough so we broke up early and Deborah and I headed off to find a light dinner.

We went upstairs to a budget restaurant with a terrace overlooking Obispo, the main thoroughfare, a pedestrian-only street in Havana Vieja.  As we ordered our meal, we noticed a huge band setting up to perform on a stage area. We were the only customers in the place. I thought, how sad it was that they have this four-person band with singers and everything for such a deserted restaurant. They began singing and playing. We smiled. They tried to engage us in their songs.

All Deb and I wanted to do was talk and debrief about the plane, some immigration issues, our apartment and our new friends. And, of course, look out from the terrace to the bustling street. It was amazing being there, so near yet so far in every other sense. The music was good, but it was more of an interruption in our present state. We were being polite and waiting for them to finish their set. We were also eating. Finally, after many songs, they began packing to leave.

The woman singer approached our table and asked for money. We gave them a little bit, but we didn't have much because we needed to buy water for the room and were planning to change money tomorrow. All we had were Mexican pesos, because we'd spent a week on Isla Mujeres and had heard it was cheaper to change pesos to Cuban currency than dollars. The singer was a bit pissed, but she and the group departed.

Later, we did figure out how the music scene works in Cuba. The musicians travel around to restaurants. This group must have seen us go in and followed us. Then, you have a choice point. You can either smile and welcome them, which means you are willing to pay for the music. Or politely shake your head no, which signals them to go elsewhere. The restaurants, for the most part, don't have resident bands or groups but the groups who are the biggest draw tend to play at the biggest, most popular places.

It took a few days for us to figure out this system. After we did, it became quite easy to enjoy or choose not to listen to the ubiquitous musicians who are continually looking for people to entertain. But it was a bit of a misunderstanding because of our unfamiliarity with customs that are second nature to Cubans and to international visitors who are familiar with the system.