Cuba Libre: 60 Years Since the Cuban Revolutionby Thaddeus Tukes
El Capitolio, the national capitol building in Havana City. (Tukes, Real Vibes)
"Habana 500. Fidel Vive. Viva Cuba."
Revolution-themed graffiti art lined Avenida de la Independencia, a curved street mixed with apartment buildings and Spanish colonial houses. A family on their porch smiled at me, as I peered through the window of a 1958 Ford Sedan. The exhaust was choking, but the engine's roar was invigorating.
On July 26, Cuba celebrated 60 years since the start of the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel and Raul Castro. As second-in-command of Castro's army, Argentinian physician and diplomat Che Guevara anchored a guerrilla militia against the regime of Fulgencio Batista. After a six-month battle, the Castro brothers seized leadership in Cuba on December 31, 1958.
Old houses along main promenade in Havana Vieja are converted into offices and schools. (Tukes, Real Vibes)
I fell in love with a family-owned restaurant, Karma, in Vedado, a peaceful community with predominantly multi-family homes. The bartender taught me his secret recipe for a mojito, as I overindulged in flan. He recited the names of each Cuban baseball player for the Chicago White Sox and Cubs. As he spoke, I struggled to grasp his cadence.
In fact, unfamiliar rhythms surrounded me. Each morning, I woke to the melodious call of an older woman who slowly walked though the neighborhood carrying a broom (and other items) in a long, blue bag on her back. Three-wheeled yellow motorcycle taxis whizzed down the block, as groups of students in purple pants/skirts excitedly conversed in fast-paced Spanish. Cuban Trogons made their toco in the trees, while dogs cooly trotted through the streets. Every sound in perfect tempo.
Many of the buildings throughout Havana are being renovated into family-owned store fronts and restaurants. (Tukes, Real Vibes)
I stayed in an apartment above a small store that sold rice, sugar, rubbing alcohol, and other household novelties. The prices were written in Convertible Peso (CUC $1) and Cuban Peso (CUP $0.25) I had no cellphone service, so I attempted to use the payphone on the corner of my street. Wifi could only be accessed at unspecified parks, after purchasing an access card with a scratch-off password. I knew I had arrived to a wifi park when someone inevitably came to me, asking,
"Necesita una tarjeta?"
A local taxi driver takes me along Malecón, the coastal seawall. (Tukes, Real Vibes)
I received a free wifi access card from a man named Julio. We met at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, during a layover. He told me he was a tour guide who was "popular with African-Americans," so I took his number and said I might contact him. Julio stood about six feet tall, clad in beige shorts and a blue Cuba baseball cap. After our conversation, we stood in separate lines to board the aircraft. When I finally arrived at my seat, my new friend looked up and laughed.
Julio explained the history of Cuba since the revolution through monuments, landmarks, and artwork during my tour. For lunch, he took me to an outdoor restaurant with a Cuban jazz band. The band members were around my age, and invited me to play piano when I told them I was a jazz musician from Chicago. During our rendition of "Autumn Leaves," I tried to emulate the flutist, an afro-cuban woman with astounding technique. The rhythm of her country's music flowed naturally with each breathe. The pianist for the band asked me to be his jazz teacher. I smiled and said to him,
"After you give me lessons!"
I found joy in watching each musician showcase their craft. Cuban musicians maintain smiles as they perform. Their demeanor welcomed me, as their groove moved me.
Limestone cliffs are a point of pride for residents in Viñales, a city in the Pinar del Río Province (Tukes, Real Vibes).
60 years later, Cuba is still a symbol of people's rights and the power of community. For musicians, however, Cuba exemplifies the idea that rhthym comes from the soul.
And that's the real vibes.