Fate, Blunder, Spawn & Wonder

Cuba's Mysterious Crystal Ball


Over the next couple of days, I didn’t know whether I was coming or going, as fate took me on a roller-coaster ride. But sometimes, even the most awkward of situations can bear fruit.


During my lesson with Xiomara, I tell her about my trip to Casa de las Tradiciones and starting lessons with Rudy. As we we sip our customary, pre-lesson coffee on the terrace, I’m worried that I may have offended her.

She does seem slightly concerned.

I explain that Rudy’s style, and the contexts he plays in, are different from Xiomara’s and I feel that I can benefit from each of them in different ways. My time here in Cuba is limited and I want to take in as much as possible. I try to reassure her that I am really enjoying her lessons and how well-balanced they are in terms of what I asked for.

I think she understands. She just asks that I don’t study any of the same songs with Rudy, to avoid any confusion. I agree that that makes complete sense. We finish our coffees and begin practicing what I’ve learned so far.

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Half way through the lesson, I hear the footsteps of someone walking up the iron spiral staircase to the terrace. Caridad shouts up to me that I have a visitor.

It’s Rudy.

Clearly, there has been a misunderstanding and my dodgy Spanish is prime suspect. I must have got my Viernes mixed up with my Sábado and have double booked them by accident! Aaargh!

Rudy spares me some blushes, in his gentlemanly manner, by assuring me that we can arrange the next lesson another time, no problem. But how embarrassing.

I apologise to Xiomara, but we manage to make light of it by exchanging funny faces.

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Today I have a day off lessons so I decide to go and have a wander around the city and get lost (in a good way).

As I’m walking past the Casa de la Trova, Xiomara is there finishing up for the day. She spots me and calls me in. There’s somewhere she would like to take me.

I had asked her casually one day if there was a recording studio in Santiago and she told me there is – it’s called Egrem SiboneyShe knows the people who run it and can arrange a guided tour for me. And she’s free now if I’d like to go and check it out?

You could say I bit her hand off.

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As we make our way down the street towards Egrem, you’ll never guess who we bump straight into? Rudy!

After some brief small talk, Rudy and Xiomara enter into full, unadulterated Cuban accent mode. To say that I only understand a few words, would be an overstatement. Also, Cubans tend to speak passionately most of the time and sometimes it can be pretty confusing knowing whether they’re falling in love or falling out.

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As the mysterious, rapid-fire discussion unravels, I balance precariously on the edge of the high kerbstone, on a narrow pavement. Trucks are passing inches behind me, as are pedestrians in front.

Rudy and Xiomara take turns to pat me on the back, as they refer to me in conversation, and pull me back in to make sure I don’t fall into the road.

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After several minutes of colourful debate, littered with hand gestures and musical vocal inflections, I begin to worry that I may have single-handedly begun a Cuban guitar maestro turf war.

I manage to interject and explain, as every good Englishman should in such situations, that I never meant any disrespect to anyone or meant to cause any problems, and apologise unequivocally for any wrongdoing.

Both instantly morph into their parental, musical mentoring roles and assure me, in extremely simplified Spanish, that everything is fine and dandy and not to worry. And then proceed to pick up exactly where they left off.

My best guess at all the goings-on is that Xiomara is telling Rudy that I’ve asked her to teach me the strict, traditional bolero form and that his free-form, jazzified filin style might confuse me. Rudy seems to be saying that he is indeed making the appropriate distinctions between the two.

I’m certainly getting a sense of just how important these subtle nuances are in this rich musical culture anyway! Perhaps this passion, commitment and competitiveness is all part of what has kept the level of musicianship here in Cuba so high.

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And so the Cuban music genre debate comes to an end and Xiomara and I continue on to the historic recording studio, Egrem Siboney.

Here, I’m switched on to another layer of Xiomara’s sphere of influence in Santiago de Cuba.

She gives me a flattering introduction to the receptionists and asks if it would be possible for me to have a tour of the studio.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible today because there is a session in progress but I am invited to return on Monday at 10am and someone will show me around.

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So, here I am, full of slap-and-tickle giddiness after the double whammy of a near death experience in the Santiago streets and the prospect of getting an exclusive tour of Santiago’s famous studio.

I follow Xiomara along the pavement, like a baby elephant follows its mother. Once again, trying to avoid getting run over and keeping an eye out for the litany of unmarked, open chasms in the pavements.

Then, just when I thought Xiomara had pulled all rabbits out of her hat, hey presto, she turns round and tells me that none other than Eliades Ochoa – probably the most famous Cuban guitarist alive – is playing tonight at the Casa de la Trova. And ‘if I want to’, I can join her there for free.

That’s when I bit her other hand off.


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