One of the highlights of my visit to Havana in November was going to see Adalberto Álvarez and his band live at the Casa de la Música in Galeano. Adalberto is a mainstay of Cuban dance music and one of its finest songwriters. If you’ve danced salsa at all you probably know several of his tracks even if you don’t know that they’re his.
Adalberto’s roots are in Cuban Son music – he keeps this prominent by calling his orchestra ‘Adalberto Álvarez y su Son’ – but he has merged this with Timba and what we think of as Salsa.
But he also has roots that go deeper than that. Like many Cuban musicians his spiritual source is in Santería. The night I went to hear him he started off with internationally popular dance music including his wonderful and witty song about Rueda – Para Bailar Casino – but later in the set he embarked on a long, long song in Rumba style that went through passages about all the main Santería gods and goddesses in turn – Elegguá, Yemayá, Changó, Ochún and so on with the appropriate drumming and invocations.
This is the superb thing about Cuban music, that it has all the attack and fun quality of pop and at the same time it can be deeply religious. Even American Gospel to me doesn’t quite manage to do this so completely and with such spontaneity.
But for the dancers, as so often recently, the climax of the set was – appropriately – Gazando en la Habana, where Adalberto sings about someone who has done what so many of us did – got hooked on salsa, dreamed about going to Havana, and finally got there, learned the real Cuban style and danced the night away.
What’s fascinating to me is that the song isn’t really written from a Cuban point of view. It’s written to speak for its international audience, the countless people around the world who go to Cuba to dance. The nearest parallel I can think of is the way Chuck Berry in the 1950s wrote rock’n’roll songs to speak for white teenagers. His songs broke through because he wrote about the experiences which as a black teenager he hadn’t had – driving his girlfriend in a car, for example.
Adalberto has done the same. A young Cuban can’t easily travel the world, and their experience of Havana will be a much harder and less affluent one than Susanna’s. Despite the nod to Cuban youth at the end of the song, they can’t afford to go to the Casa de la Musica every night because it costs ten dollars – more than a week’s wages. Yet I don’t think either Berry or Adalberto writes with condescension, cynicism or exploitiveness. Of course they want to appeal to an audience and they want to make their dollars. Good luck to them. But there’s also a generosity of spirit, an imagination that crosses racial and political boundaries. And Adalberto like so many Cubans is very proud that his country, whatever its problems and restrictions, leads the world in dance music and is loved by millions of people for its wonderful culture – of which he’s an important part.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the video clip above of Gozando en la Habana. Especially the little boy at the front, who even has his own microphone! And now I’ve talked about it so much, I’ll translate the words here:
Susanna is a modern girl
she might live anywhere
she could be from Paris, Rome or Milan
from New York, Switzerland or Panama.
Susanna’s dream is to be in Havana
where she always wanted to dance:
a lover of Cuban music,
now her dream has become reality.
She’s only been a short time in Havana
and already she’s dancing like the Cubans
at the Casa de la Musica in Galeano or Miramar
dancing all night, the dawn surprises her
And everyone in her neighbourhood’s looking for Susanna
because they can’t imagine that she’s partying in Havana.
They say that over there in her district they’re looking for Susanna
but Susanna, gentlemen, is partying in Havana!
The girl’s disappeared, no one knows where she is.
Look for her in Galeano, or if not, over there in Miramar,
and you’ll see…
Look how everyone enjoys themselves, dancing to Cuban music
But I assure you the one who’s enjoying herself most is Susanna,
she’s doing the whole thing in Havana.
Lots of people ask, where’s Susanna -
She always goes out at night and comes back in the morning?
Look! she goes to the school every day to learn how to dance:
And she’s always keen, Oh Susanna’s not wasting her time in Havana!
Oh my God! Look for her! (And I’m gonna look for her, with the mambo…)
How do you like Havana, Susanna? Susanna the most beautiful,
the one who dances, the one who parties!
She goes to the Macumba, she goes to the Tropicana,
and if you want to find her, look for her at the Tropical!…
I don’t know if she’s Argentine, Cuban or Venezuelan,
In every part of Cuba you’ll find a Susanna
When she arrived in Havana she hardly knew how to dance
and now she moves so that no one can equal her!
She’s really got into Cuban music.
Hey Susanna, how do you like Havana?