Shortly after this reporter and his bilingual son traveled to the Cuban capital in August on a charter flight with CNN’s Jake Tapper (who chronicled how the U.S. government was reinstating its embassy after 54 years), I found myself right back here with my wife covering the December Havana Jazz Festival.
Since she and I were both interested in Cuba’s much-lauded medical care (which was recently nominated for a Nobel Prize for sending hundreds of well-trained doctors and nurses to West Africa to fight Ebola) as well as its rich Afro-Cuban culture, it made sense to revisit Cuba. After all, the Cold War is over.
The 10-member delegation, including two Oak Parkers, was headed by Hothouse founder Marguerite Horberg, who has traveled to Cuba too many times to count.
Cuba is so rich with vibrant African culture that my psychiatrist-wife, Dr. Earlene Strayhorn, said, “I’ve learned more about black history here than in the U.S.” While there’s a socio-political-cultural thaw right now, there were interruptions with the previously consistent Afro-Cuban culture and its African-American community counterparts, particularly during the ’60s. Prior to that, Cubans helped create American-style bebop as well as Afro-Cuban jazz.
Clearly, some of those missing links are back. We witnessed this at Habana Compas Dance School in a working-class area pulsating with Congolese rhythms and movement; at a Yoruba religious site at Pena Cultural Center Callejon de Hamel in the Central District where colorful Santeria practitioners shared their spiritual art, connecting West African religion here in the Western Hemisphere, which reminded this reporter of both Port-au-Prince and New Orleans — ditto for Teatro Americas where Yoruba saints were gloriously represented in story and dance by talented black women; at touristy Habana Viejo, the oldest quarter, where young black performers on stilts recreated West African carnivals near the 16th Century Morro Cabana fortress; at Jewish temples where some of the island’s 1,400 Jews, who range from black to white joined others for soulful jazz during the festival; at high-end art galleries in Barrio Romerillo District where black presence soared; to an Afro-Cuban revival of the Bueno Vista Social Club at the city’s top hotel, Melia Cohiba, a stone’s throw from the U.S. Embassy; to a dreadlocked rapper who mistook me for a friend from his “Palenque” (autonomous black colony) at a Vedado District cultural center; to Las Terrazas, a rural region housing a former coffee plantation an hour north, where our bronze guide told us, “Most of us connect to the Congo and Angola in lots of ways,” a point seconded by a female Cuban doctor who explained, “Many medical practioners choose to do service work in African nations because many have historical links there.”
In sum, we felt as much at home in Cuba where revolutionary socialism and private enterprise both anxiously await the lifting of the decades-old U.S. economic sanctions so the nation can grow, as we do in Chicago-area suburbs where a documentary I shot in Havana will screen in September at the Oak Park International Film Festival.