Open Mic at the Casa de Las Tradiciones

Casa de las Tradiciones | Tivolí | Santiago de Cuba


The great thing about Cuba is: it doesn’t matter if you’re looking for the action or not – the action finds you. One night Marianna invites me to play at a peña held at the Casa de las Tradiciones.

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One of the many benefits of staying at the homely Hostal Girasol is the automatic inheritance of 7 aunties (on top of the 6 I already have). And an unspoken, mutually-beneficial understanding is blossoming between us.

I serenade them as I practice, allowing them to jive-as-they-work, and in turn, they kindly offer me their unreserved support and expertise in passionate delivery of the Cuban lyric. They also provide me with some tasty coffee and large portions of grub, for my troubles.

Marianna is no exception.

One evening, after enjoying a spot of lyrical tennis across the terrace, while she was preparing a meal for me, I invite her to join me at the table.

She tells me about the Casa de las Tradiciones (aka La Casona). It’s a live music venue just outside the centre of Santiago de Cuba in a barrio called Tivoli, not far from where I had stayed for my first night in Santiago. She says it has a different vibe to the Casa de la Trova.

Every Sunday afternoon, the Casa de las Tradiciones holds – a community open mic gathering where musicians and singers perform. Marianna says I’d be welcome to get up and play a couple of songs and she will introduce me to the house guitarist, Rudy.

Sounds great. So, what am I going to play?

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The day arrives and I’m still umming and ahhing about what to play. I’m determined not to sing in English.

I know a couple of Manu Chao songs in Spanish, the mariachi theme tune to the film ‘Desperado’ by Antonio Banderas, and couple of Jorge Ben songs in Brazilian Portuguese.

But will Manu Chao’s latin reggae fit the vibe? Isn’t Desperado a little bit on the cheesy side for a gang of Cuban musical geniuses steeped in Latin musical pedigree? Are Brazilian songs close-but-no-cigar? I decide to rehearse them all incessantly and judge the mood when I get there.

With my new guitar pickup (from Xiomara) spring-loaded into the tiny sound-hole of my Baby Taylor guitar, I sling my case across my shoulder and take the 5-minute stroll uphill into Tivolí.

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When I arrive, Marianna is sitting waiting for me at the entrance. She rises, greets me and points over towards a man, sitting in front of what can only be described as a shrine, sporting a colourful cap and a pair of shades balanced over the visor.

This is Rudy Daquín.

He is caressing an immaculately polished acoustic guitar with a neatly-folded cloth placed strategically over its lower bout to protect it from the inevitable onslaughts of perspiration.

Marianna turns and introduces us. He greets me with a handshake and a wide, welcoming smile, which over the years, I imagine, has helped shape the deep, expressive character lines in his face. Some say that you get the face you deserve. This face appears to have evolved to make easier its default states: laughing, smiling and… lots of whistling.

He beckons me to run through a sound check so I slide my guitar out of its case and clip on my electronic tuner. His eyes light up like a christmas tree when he sees this nifty gadget, a luxury which is hard to come by in Cuba. Once I’m tuned up, he politely asks to use it (with the innocence of a child), then sets about tuning, squinting as he reads the LED display.

He leans over to pass the tuner back to me and asks what songs I am going to play. I look up to see ‘Brazil’ stitched into the front of his cap. It turns out that Roberto Carlos, from Brazil, is one of his favourite musicians. Well, fate has spoken and who am I to argue? I’ll kick off with ‘Clandestino’ by Manu Chao in Spanish and follow up with ‘Mas Que Nada’ by Jorge Ben in broken Portuguese.

‘Oooh!’, he says, raising his eyebrows. He then plugs me into the analogue mixer hooked up to a large single PA speaker. I bash out a few chops and we get a decent sound cooking, so were all set. He carefully places my guitar on the seat next to his.

He catches me eying up his guitar proudly points out the high-quality mic inside the sound-hole ‘and’ a pickup at the bridge. He describes how he can combine the two sonic flavours until the blend is just right. Now it’s my eyes that are lighting up like a christmas tree.

I cant wait to hear it sing.

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People arrive in fits and starts, wearing a variety of elaborately-decorated and technicolour attire, as well as the more casual of cads.

One person in particular catches my attention: Alfredo, the host of the peña. He glides into the room with class and panache, donning an all white outfit and shades.

He bows his head and greets us, then continues to make his way around the casa, greeting everyone warmly. Once he settles in his chair next to the sound system, Marianna sneaks over to ask if the surprise guest from Inglaterra (me) can play.

‘Of course’, he agrees with a grin, palms open wide and welcoming. He consults his order of play and tells me I’ll be on 3rd.

Marianna explains that there is a mixture of current and former professional singers as well as amateurs, or ‘aficionados’, who perform here at the Casa de las Tradiciones. Looking around, I can see a nice blend of older and younger generations, giving the place a nice, inclusive family feel.

The place slowly starts to fill up and as we will soon be entering the hurricane season, I’m the only only foreigner here. I may just have found another one of those authentic Cuban musical experiences that I’ve been looking for.

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Alfredo opens proceedings with a rousing speech, whilst Rudy provides musical ambience on guitar. Then, suddenly, Alfredo raises a ceremonial, azure-coloured bottle of rum. He takes a sip and hot-foots off behind Rudy towards what appears to be a shrine to Santería – an Afro-Cuban religion in which Yoruba deities are identified with Roman Catholic saints.

Then, through pursed lips, he douses it in a mist of the intoxicating liquor and proceeds to pour ceremonial measures for all. ‘Importante,’ he whispers to me, placing a cup in my hand, as the images of revellers-passed gaze down from their lofty positions upon the walls.

Alfredo gives Rudy the nod and flows seamlessly into a rousing ballad. Wow. When Cubans sing, they mean it. I wonder what he’s tapping into? What drives such compelling passion? The intense emotion, subtle control and phrasing are breathtaking – so much so, that I forget to watch what Rudy is doing on guitar!

The next singer, Luís, one of the younger aficionados at the peña, gives us a spirited rendition of the Latin classic, ‘Besame Mucho’. He closes his eyes through much of the performance and uses his full body to deliver the message.

Then, all of a sudden it’s my turn.

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Alfredo drums up the anticipation and the peña welcomes me with a warm applause. I take up my position beneath the shrine and use some simple Spanish to thank them and introduce the first song. I take a deep breath and let loose.

As I get to the second verse, I’m not sure if Clandestino’ is really connecting but there are some feet tapping in the crowd. Time to bring out the Brazilian samba, Mas Que Nada’. They join in from the opening chorus, with some full-on seat-boogying going on in the crowd. I’m warming up and connecting with my inner samba-funk and it looks like they are too, so I decide to throw in some extra choruses for good measure.

Once I give the final chord a good jangling, the applause seems more intense this time and it feels great to have gone out with a bang. I thank them and slide the mic away from my mouth, but they’re calling for another, ‘Otra, otra…’. I glance over my shoulder to Alfredo and he gestures that I should give the people what they want. Hmm, ok, more samba!

‘Bebete Vãobora’ is another great Jorge Ben song that I first heard played at a party in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I doubt they’ll know this one but I reckon another ditty from their rhythmic cousins will float their musical boat. It gets the stamp of approval, literally, as my new friends at the Casa de las Tradiciones clap and stamp along for the choruses and Rudy gives me an approving nod. I’m smiling from ear to ear.

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Before I know it, it’s all over and I’m sitting next to Marianna watching the next singer, catching my breath. Many of the Casa‘s patrons come to shake my hand or kiss my cheek, and to find out more about me. I just about manage to get myself across via charades-assisted Spanglish.

There are several singers that follow and the quality is consistently high. I’m having trouble spotting the pros from the aficionados! Rudy backs them beautifully on guitar, across a broad range of styles. He mixes finger-picking with some delicate and percussive strumming, and brings bitter and sweet chords into play, across the entire neck of the guitar. It’s interesting to see how he also juggles the role of bassist by maintaining a strong bass-line, occasionally ‘popping’ the strings in a slap-bass style.

Occasionally I sense that he’s not completely familiar with a singer’s request but he seems to be able to create his own accompaniment, on the spot, by ear. He watches the singer’s every move, listening for subtle changes in tone, reacting subtly and making adjustments on the fly. Some singers give him the nod, signalling a request for a solo. He happily obliges by unleashing a powerful but melodic whistle, whilst maintaining the accompaniment.

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One particular performance stands out for me, that of a former professional singer called Maria. From the moment she takes to the floor, she commands it and her song choice goes down a treat. I love the way Rudy decorates the space between Maria’s phrases, sympathetically picking out melodies around the chords he’s playing.

As the song progresses, it becomes clear that Maria is singing 3 classic songs as a medley. She cleverly bridges them together, seamlessly, using lyrics and themes that are common to each. Rudy is in on the game, waiting for the cues from Maria for the first switch (~ 2:30). Alfredo spots the second switch straight away (~ 4:20) and Luis isn’t far behind. Clever stuff.[/vc_column_text][vc_video link=”″][/vc_column][vc_column css=”.vc_custom_1596047127234{margin-top: -60px !important;}”][vc_message message_box_style=”solid-icon” message_box_color=”green” icon_fontawesome=”far fa-closed-captioning” css_animation=”flipInX” css=”.vc_custom_1596046985979{padding-top: -32px !important;}”]Turn on subtitles for English translation[/vc_message][vc_empty_space][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_separator color=”green”][vc_custom_heading text=”Hiring Rudy” font_container=”tag:h1|text_align:center” google_fonts=”font_family:Lobster%3Aregular|font_style:400%20regular%3A400%3Anormal”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner][vc_column_text]

During one of his breaks, I decide to grasp the opportunity to join him and pick his brains. As I arrive, he is asking if anyone has a lighter so I cheekily interject and suggest he uses his sizzling fingers. He laughs modestly but mischievously.

I ask what genre he was playing for María’s performance. He tells me its like a bolero but a more modern style which brings in elements from other genres. He then has to rush off for the next performer – before I can get the rest of the juicy details!


The show draws to a close and the music is replaced by equally passionate chatter. Once Rudy has packed up the audio equipment and his guitar, I go over to thank him for his hospitality and complement him on his playing. He says he enjoyed my performance and invites me to play again next week.

Marianna joins us and suggests that I hire Rudy as my teacher. I remind her that I already have one, Xiomara, and that I wouldn’t want to be stepping on anyone’s blue suede shoes. But there’s no way I can turn down such an opportunity. And I’m keen to cram in as much as I can whilst I’m here, from different perspectives and contexts.

Rudy tells me that he works Monday-Saturday as a street player with his band Los Jubilados del Caribe, outside the Bacardi Museum in the cultural quarter of Santiago. We arrange to meet there tomorrow, and take it from there.

The plot is thickening…


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