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A Musician’s Guide to Havana

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Rising Cuban musician Dayme Arocena follows her rhythm in the city of eternal summer.

By Kelly DiNardo

It’s not often a 24-year-old musician earns comparisons to legends like Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and Celia Cruz, but critics and fans are continuing to heap just such enthusiastic praise on Dayme Arocena.

The Cuba-born artist’s debut album, Nueve Era, showcased her musical mashup of jazz, salsa, soul, pop, hip-hop and Afro-Cuban chants and rhythms and was released to critical acclaim. Cubafonia, her second album, released in March, is an homage to Cuban music and culture, something Arocena thinks has been forgotten in the decades of political turmoil.

Cuba remains a poor country, but it’s also culturally rich, alive and vibrant. Music permeates the streets of Havana and, when she’s not on tour, Arocena can most likely be found listening or dancing to timba, rumba, jazz and reggaeton. It doesn’t matter what time of year one visits Cuba, she says, because “Cuba is eternal summer.”

Here’s a look at where this rising music legend goes to experience the best of Havana’s vibrant and thriving cultural scene.

I would describe Havana as…
“Authentic, unique, hot, spicy, happy, humble, rich, sublime and sexy. Havana is so sexy. Havana is a city where you can feel at home. We are always up to help people. We always have something to show, to discover, to open. We have this beautiful weather. We have really interesting people. We are mixing our roots. The weather, the beach, the people—we have this beautiful combination in Cuba. That’s what makes it sexy.”

The Havana music scene is special because…
“This is a country that learned how to survive under all different circumstances. We had to learn to make it work, so there is no fear in Cuba. There is no fear about life. You feel that in the music. Musicians right now are trying to mix everything we’re hearing—from the U.S. to Brazil—and mix it with our Cuban roots.
We are always creating. There’s always an opportunity to hear. There is always a place to listen to live music.”

Dance is a big part of the Cuban music scene. For dancing, check out…“Casa de la Musica de Miramar. I like to dance timba. For flamenco or tango, there is a place in Centro Habana called El Tablao that I want to go to, but I haven’t been yet.”

The best place to hear up-and-coming artists in Havana is…
“F.A.C., the Fábrica de Arte Cubano. If you want to go to see what’s new in Havana, this is where to go.”

My ideal itinerary for a first-time visitor to Havana would look like…
“Start with a walk through Old Havana and along the Malecón. Go to the beach. Santa María del Mar and Mar Azul are really nice and close to the city. At night, go dancing. If you want to dance timba, there’s Casa de la Musica. There’s one in Miramar and one in Central Havana. They always have timba and salsa bands. [Or visit] Egrem studios. It’s touristic but fun. They have a nightclub and you can dance [to]traditional music and rumba. Or get out of Havana for a day and go to the countryside. Las Terrazas is an ecovillage and there’s a nice art community. Viñales is a rural town known for its tobacco farms. Or [check out]Trinidad, Varadero, Santiago, Baracoa and Jardines de la Reina.”

My favorite place to go listen to live music is…
“In the Vedado neighborhood. I love Casa de la Musica de Miramar and Corner Café. I really like to watch concerts at Museo Nacional
de Bellas Artes. With the clubs, it really depends on who is playing.
In Cuba, we don’t follow places; we follow musicians. I look to see where this guy or that girl is playing.”

My favorite activity to do with friends and visitors is…
“I really like to take people to walk around Habana Vieja. It’s so touristic, but I feel like we’re walking through the history of my country.”

My favorite restaurants are…
“Porto Habana. It’s on the 11th floor of an apartment building and has beautiful views. I also like Pp’s Teppanyaki, which has Japanese food, and La Guarida, which is a famous Cuban paladar, and Lamparilla, which is tapas.”

The best place to hear street musicians is…
“Habana Vieja, especially Callejón del Chorro and Calle Obispo. Every Sunday on Callejon de Hamel, they play rumba in the street. There are drum circles, dancing and costumes. It goes on for hours.”

The Cuban artist I’m listening to now is…
“Havana D’Primera and Alain Pérez. He blends jazz with Cuban timba and some other influences.”

Visitors to Havana will be surprised that…
“It’s alive. Havana is a really old city. Things are really old. People keep the cars and the houses as they are. We don’t have anything else. We stretch the lifetime of things. It is still beautiful, still alive. I think that’s a nice lesson of life. Sometimes people kill the beauty of a city, making new buildings and new cars. Sometimes they are making life complicated. I got this car, but I want a new one. In Cuba, life is more chill. Life is more simple. When people come to Cuba, they are surprised at how people are still smiling and still happy even though we have old-fashioned houses and cars and a poor economy. Life is so much easier. Life is beautiful.”

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