Sunday 12 May 2019

Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana

Funny how some stories come about. In this one the main character has no name. Yet, that’s not by design, but because I never did learn this fellow’s name. All I remember is that he was as much a part of the urban landscape of my Havana as the famous El Morro lighthouse.  He was there as I manoeuvred my way through my late teens in the city of my birth.

Now, reader, picture this. I am seventeen or eighteen, tail end of the 80s. By now I have become a regular at the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza, an arts centre bang on the corner of Calzada and 8th Street, in the modern(ish) borough of Vedado, Havama. Every (or every other) Tuesday evening, there is a jazz session run by the famous Cuban musician, Bobby Carcassés. A multi-instrumentalist by trade, Bobby is a one-man show. His stage presence is magnetic. Whether playing trumpet or banging away on conga drums, this guy renders the night its beating heart.

Casa de la Cultura de Plaza is also an institution. It is here that the first Jazz Plaza Internacional was held only a few years ago. The name itself conjures up memories: this is where I was converted to jazz by a friend of mine; a night when I went from hating the genre to falling in love with it, lost to the sound of Arturo Sandoval’s trumpet. This is where I have increasingly become less self-conscious of being part of the jazz tribe. This place is a sanctuary for a teenager who is beginning to doubt the political system in which he is growing up.

And then, there is him. Forgive me, reader, for I cannot provide a name. As I said before, I never did learn this fellow’s name. But he stands out. Especially, when he puts his flute to his lips.

Here we are, the jazz faithful, watching Carcassés move from trumpet to congas and from congas to bass. At some point, our friend strides on to the centre of the stage, flute in hand. A miniature of a man, he sports an unremarkable short-sleeved shirt (which he often wears, regardless of the weather). He mutters something under his breath, perhaps a few words of self-encouragement, perhaps a prayer.

We all have our ways of evidencing our existence in the world. Some of us have what could be termed “big stage presence”. Others have to create one if they are to be noticed. As the ultimate showman, Bobby Carcassés has no problem flaunting his skills as a musician. He looks like a giant under the theatre lights. On the other hand, our friend, the flute-player is a different kettle of fish.

His is the kind of performance you remember down the years. Even if you can’t see him (sometimes the venue is packed to the rafters and people stand in front of you), you know he is there. First, it’s the stumble. He hardly ever walks straight. The drink has put paid to any notion of him regaining an upright position and steady gait. He takes his spot, facing the mike, facing, the crowd, facing the world. And then, he blows.

When he blows, you forget about the rest of the band. In fact, you float in and out of a music-made haze. For the next four or five minutes (I’m certain he would like his solos to last longer, but Bobby rushes him to the other side of the stage) you no longer live in a physical world, but a deeply-spiritual, flute-driven one.

One night I spot him after the gig. He is nursing a pint, a very posh name for the Cuban perga. This is a tall, cardboard-made cup that can hold up to a pint and a half of lager. He is sitting, talking to other musicians. Every now and then someone comes over and pats him on the shoulder. Well done, mate! That was top! He smiles. A smile that accentuates the cracks on his face. Deep furrows running on either side of his nose. Crow’s feet branching out of the corners of his eyes. I, too, congratulate him. He grins. I mention that my father is a pianist. He asks me for his name. When I tell him, his eyes light up. I know Mario! He recalls sharing the stage with my father’s old band, Orquesta Astral once. His speech is slurred but still intelligible. Under the starry Cuban night two people, a generation apart, bridge the age gap through the power of music.

He stands to leave and keels over. I’ll take you home, I offer. At first he resists, but then, he can see the deep-seated sense of duty towards men like him reflected in my eyes. He puts his left arm around my shoulder and together we take off.

We walk a few hundred yards before he suddenly breaks into song. Actually, it’s more like a hum. It is a well-known bolero, and not one in which his instrument, the flute, is usually required. His voice sounds like a plaintive cry and it hardly cracks, which is strange, given the amount of drink he’s consumed. He is certainly no singer, but at least he can harmonise fairly well. At some point he turns his head towards me, expecting me to join him. Sorry, I don’t know the words, I mutter. I’m into jazz, I say. And I’m still a rocker at heart, I silently state in my head. It will be another two or three years before I re-discover my Cuban roots and rekindle my love for bolero.

We walk for what seems like a long time. I switch positions every couple of blocks. For some reason he feels heavier on my left side than he does on my right one. This is still my “skeletal” period, when being slim goes hand in hand with being a rock fan, so I am definitely no pumped-up Atlas attempting to hold up the celestial heavens. At some point, now walking on 17th St, past L St, Malecón-bound he points to a door on our right. It’s an old block of flats, a couple of storeys high. It is a rundown, derelict building that houses more families than it has room for. The paint on the walls has long gone, the stairs have no banister and the stench of urine reigns supreme.

The flute-player thanks me, dismisses me at the entrance and starts to climb up the stairs slowly. He looks so unsteady that I rush over and catch him just in time before he falls down. C’mon, I’ll take you to your room, I say. My voice surprises me. It sounds stern, reassuring and authoritative, despite my still-wet-behind-the-ears look. Luckily he lives on the first floor. His hunched form disappears in the darkness as soon as he opens the door. Uninvited, I step inside, too. My hands cannot detect the presence of a light switch. Don’t! He shouts. There’s no light switch, he adds. For a split second his inebriation fades and instead a moment of lucidity makes him bring two loose wires together on a nearby wall. I realise that in the same way I have been his reliable, human crutch on the way here, he has just saved me from getting electrocuted.

The light is so weak that we might as well go back to being in the dark. It beams from a single, bare, bulb in the middle of the room. Sorry, he slurs, as he scans my face. It’s very damp, he adds, as if any confirmation is needed. In the eerie half-light, ashen-coloured patches are dotted randomly on the walls.

Standing in the middle of his room, the flute-player looks less like a musician and more like an actor in a one-man show. His flat could not be a more fitting stage. The four-hob cooker that sits silently in a corner. The fridge, almost empty and, thus, rendered useless. The floor, riddled with stains. The bottles of rum under the sink, one next to the other, some full, some half-full.

How can you live like this? I ask him. I’m genuinely concerned. My late-adolescent self, although no longer a true believer, still clings a little onto Fidel’s socialist utopia. There should be help for you, I say, as I make (a futile, as it turns out) attempt to tidy up his room. There is a part of me that’s raging. Perhaps, because I have just seen this man playing his heart out on stage and now he stands here, looking lost like a Cuban version of King Lear.

My naiveté makes him laugh. Eventually his laughter transitions to hiccups-interrupted sobs. He pulls a chair and sits on it. I perch up on a tiny corner of the only couch in the room, avoiding the big stain covering much of it. I am the oldest of five children, he starts. My father was an alcoholic and my mother found it difficult to bring us all up. I married young myself but my wife couldn’t cope with my drinking problem. I spent more time in the bar at El Conejito restaurant than I did with her and our children. In the end, she got fed up and left me. My children only see me when I pay them a visit. They never come around. They’ve turned out OK, though.

I am overcome by an uncomfortable mix of feelings: anger, sadness and hopelessness. I leave after three quarters of an hour, aching with pain but relieved to be out of there. Before I go, I promise him I’ll do something. What I’ll do, not even I know. I just want to make things right. It’s only when I reach the bottom of the stairs that I notice the saltiness on my lips. I’ve been crying all along.

But, to my shame, as the days of my last year in college roll by, I begin to forget about the flute-player. I start university in the autumn. Suddenly there are fewer opportunities to go back to Bobby Carcassés’ jazz night. My time is taken up by coursework and countless assignments. It is four years before I return to the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza and it is not even for the same reason as before. By now I am an amateur actor and member of a theatre troupe that rehearses at the arts centre every week, not far from the space where the flute-player first cast his music-made, hazy, magic spell on me.

One day, many years after that night at the old man’s flat, I find myself behind the wheel in a hired car with my wife and two children in Havana. I happen to drive by the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza and unconsciously, I take the same route I did when I accompanied the flute-player home on that occasion. Past L St, I point to what is now a rubble-strewn, empty space in between two buildings (his came down some time ago. A hurricane did the job). I tell my spouse and offspring the old musician’s sad story. My daughter asks me what his name is. And I begin to laugh. Because reader, it is funny how some stories come about. In this one the main character still has no name.


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