Well, it is 1:30 in the morning and I am getting in after a long, marvelous day. J I slept in a bit this morning, because Merlin wasn’t supposed to pick me up until 9:00 and as I sat waiting for him, Anna brought me a wonderful cup of Café Cubano. This might just be my favorite thing about Cuba !! J
After breakfast we took a brisk 45 minute walk through the city. (Can you imagine… Merlin accuses me of walking fast all of the time!! ME?!?!?) We ran into David (the conductor) and one of the young violin students, who promptly kissed us hello and turned around to join us. Our destination for the morning was a flute concert that Lasier is playing on. We arrived at a lovely little white and blue courtyard, right off of a busy street, and this morning it has been transformed into a small concert setting. I am trying to relax and talk to David, who is delightful in every way, but mostly I am trying not to throw up. The heat and my general state of dehydration have finally gotten to me and I am not feeling well at all. I asked Merlin to stop for water twice on the way to the concert, but in the general camaraderie and excitement of the walk, we did not stop.
And you must understand, the walk is always exciting! There are people everywhere, dodging each other and skipping over the big potholes in the sidewalk. The sun is bright and the sky is a brilliant, brilliant blue, with the rare breeze feeling like utter heaven. The traffic whizzes by, a combination of old Chevrolets, Oldsmobile’s and Fords, mixed with motor bikes and huge trucks, all with their original mufflers. J The sidewalks are narrow and uneven in some places, forcing you to take your life into your hands as you step into the street to avoid a group of giggling school children, or a couple of elderly women walking arm and arm. The smells of frying dough and men’s cologne mix with those of exhaust and stale beer. Merlin knows everyone and is very popular, so there is a constant stream of people stopping to greet him and say hello. All in all, it is like a big moving social event, albeit with a bit more road hazards than you would normally find at a party!!
When we arrive at the flute concert, Merlin says, “Anna, I must go for the work for 5 minutes….I will return” This happens all of the time and 5 minutes truly means 45 so I ask him to please bring me water when he comes back and settle in for some flute music. There were five flautists, including Lasier, who plays on the only bass flute in Cuba . These are all professional musicians and they were wonderful! It was literally perfect, all rapid runs up and down and silky harmonies. Fifteen feet away, the traffic raced by, offering a constant accompaniment of beeping horns and the above-mentioned ensemble of mufflers from the 1950’s. But it didn’t distract me at all. Between the truly beautiful music, the trying not to simultaneously pass out and throw up, and the listening to David’s thoughtful translation of the introduction to each piece, I was fairly focused. J
When the concert finished, each musician was presented with flowers and I turned to see Merlin in the back with my water. I was so relieved….it was going to be very embarrassing to have a heat stroke in front of theses people!! J I drank a liter without stopping and felt much better. Lasier walked up and gave me his flowers with a smile. These men are so wonderful! After telling everyone that they were fabulous, we headed back to the workshop one last time. We have about 10 more bows to finish before we are officially done. David joins us, as does Lasier, and together with Merlin, the four of us spend the next three hours deep in bow work and conversation. David and I have so much in common, (with the exception that he is a world famous conductor and underwear model- Oh, did I forget to mention that?) J. We decide that if we were ever living in the same city, we would be the best of friends! I hand out Tootsie Roll Pops to anyone that comes in and before we know it, we are finished. We think that the final count is 53-ish rehairs, 12 faceplates, 2 stick cracks, one stamp protector and five thumb leathers, in four and a half days. Wow………
When we are done cleaning up the tools, me leaving a big pile of materials for Merlin, Lasier asks if he can take me for a beer, so the four of us go across the street to a disco that is in full swing, despite the fact that it is 3:30 in the afternoon. We descend into an air-conditioned, all-black room with TV screens playing loud Cuban street rap and take a seat around a small metal table. Four beers and a Malta (some kind of sweet, malted beverage that David orders since he does not drink) appear on the table and I look around. The place is mostly empty, but the people that are there are all families with small children running around. It is a bit disconcerting to see all of the little kids while hoochie mammas shake their bodies on the TV, but it is normal life here. I begin to tease Lasier about looking so cool and kicked back in his chair when he explains that he is the boss here. He is kind of the manager and he really is cool and kicked back! It turns out that the plate of food he brought me several days ago came from this place. I feel a little relieved knowing that all that meat was in an air-conditioned building at one point!! J J As we start to talk about leaving, it is obvious that no one really wants to say good bye, so in a quick flurry of Spanish, the guys come to some sort of agreement. “Anna, we would like to make for you a party at my house tomorrow night….is that good for you?” Ummmmm……….YES! J J So we said good bye to Lasier until tomorrow and Merlin, David and I went to Merlin’s house for food.
We stroll down the neighborhood streets talking like we have all three been friends forever, which it kind of feels like. The guys head up to Merlin’s, while I go to say hello to his mother. I have not seen her in a few days and feel badly. I knock on their door, crying out “Mamma Cubana…..Yo Anna” and she comes to the door with Maline, Merlin’s 12 year old sister. Maline was shy the first time we met but now she prattles away in Spanish like I am her long lost big-sister. She is bright as she can be and is the first to understand when I have no idea what someone is saying. She also studied a little English, and while she can’t say anything, she understands the concept, so when she speaks to me, she speaks very slowly, always stopping to say the verb with raised eyebrows and a nod. She is fabulous!!
After greetings all around, I went back the three doors down to join the guys for lunch. As we are waiting, David and I sit at the tiny kitchen table on a side porch while Merlin fusses around, doing dishes and straightening up. The last time Martin was here, he left an iPod with small speakers and an incredible play list. David plays DJ, switching between Smetana tone poems and we all hum the parts of our various instruments when The Moldau comes on. Merlin goes outside, climbs a ladder and picks small, golden mangos from the tree outside of his window. He brings them in, rinses them off and gives them to us. David says, “You have not lived until you have had a mango, warm from the tree”. He then says, “Wait, I have something for you!” and proceeds to play Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring” on the iPod. There we sat….a breeze coming through the slatted windows, Copeland swirling softly around the room, and warm mango juice running down our chins. There are just no words.
Soon, Mamma and Maline come in, having made a wonderful meal, with rice and beans, fresh tomatoes, some kind of grilled pork and a little tiny banana (banana-nita? J). It is so, so good and I am happy that finally, at the end of my trip, I have a bit of appetite. We sit for hours, talking about every conceivable topic. David talks about how conducting makes him feel, and he and Merlin give me some insight into the Latino male mind….explaining their feelings about the women in their lives. David talks about Serbia and what it is like to live in a civil war and Merlin’s face lights up when he talks about the bass part to Shostakovich’s 5th symphony. The conversation dances from English to Spanish and back again, with David laughing and translating every time they forget and speak to me in Spanish. However, I find it easy to follow the Spanish in conversations like these and love the feeling of understanding that comes from time to time. As the sun starts to set, David puts Nat King Cole on, and as he begins to sing “Unforgettable”, David says to me, “That is what you are to us, Anna….Unforgettable”. Then he says with a raised eyebrow and cheeky half-grin, “I know that you think that all Latin men say these things, …but this time, I mean it” J J I am half laughing and all touched. And right on cue, another one of those moments hits me like a brick. I am so sad to leave this place and these people. It is amazing the depth of connections you can make in just a few days and my heart squeezes at the thought of leaving them.
Really, this time has been unforgettable……
The sun has set when we finally leave Merlin’s place. David actually has no idea where he is (it turns out that he is a guest conductor from Havana and stays in a hotel when he is here), so Merlin is going to walk him home. They are going in the direction of Hotel Santiago and I want to check email, so the three of us head that way, walking down the middle of the street, where the breeze is the coolest. Conversation is easy and David talks about how happy he is to spend the day with us. He usually holes up in his hotel room, but today he is happy to be sending time with friends. They drop me off at the hotel and I go in to check my email. Did I mention that a few days ago, I met a man and woman here from the United States ? And that he is a pianist from New Orleans ? Well, I did. J When I first met him, he was sitting in with the musicians, playing a Joplin rag on the piano, and when I introduced myself to him, he said, “Isn’t it staggering how great these musicians are?” That sentence has stuck with me all week long and when he walked up and said hello, I told him that. We ended up having a drink together and he explained that he was here on a music research visa. His name is Tom and he really is an awesome pianist! Since the musicians here all know him, and since the violinist in the group knows me, (My having rehaired his bow and cleaned his violin for him earlier in the week), the whole group comes and sings for us and hangs out for a while. It is lovely. Tom invites me out to hear some music, but I have Merlin coming to pick me up at 10 so I tell him that I will keep an eye out for him.
I finally end the day by going to Merlin’s house and pretending to be Martin, saying “Come Merlin! Let us go to where the party it!!” J We walk up to the main street and there is a huge street fair going on! They have closed the giant four-lane road and there are vendors selling food, beer, bottles of rum, and jewelry for about a mile. It is called Garcon and Merlin explains that it happens every single weekend. I love it!! There are thousands of people everywhere. Gangs of teen-aged boys elbow each other and glance covertly at the pretty girls, who all studiously look away, only to giggle madly moments later. Men stand in discussion while women walk arm in arm, stopping to chat with friends. Impromptu music groups have sprung up from place to place and as people sway to the tunes, dogs weave through the crowds hoping for some food dropped off of a paper plate. It is my idea of a good time and Merlin quickly tires of me going to up musicians and talking to them. The funny thing is, I met both a guitarist and a bassist who are playing in a band at Casa Trova tomorrow at 1:00! I met them literally a mile and a half from each other! When I told Merlin that I thought it was neat that out of a million musicians in this town, I would randomly meet two from the same band, he was not impressed. I surely need to spend some more time with this young man to educate him on the magic and wonderful-ness that is happening here!! J J J
Now I am back home at 1:30 and I am sorry that this has gone on a bit. But how can you pack such an amazing day into 3 pages of type? I have left out a thousand stories and a million impressions, but I hope that you are getting some kind of flavor for this vibrant place. For now, my bed is calling me loudly and I will say…..