(Reuters.com) - Fourteen years after the release of Juan de Marcos González and American guitarist Ry Cooder's recording of the iconic Buena Vista Social Club, a new generation of musicians are blazing trails and widening the scope of Cuban musical art. And timeless Havana is where it's all happening.
After 52 years under a stifling embargo with the United States and a largely unsuccessful experiment with a centrally planned economy, the capital and the country, now under the helm of Raul Castro (Fidel's younger, slightly more pragmatist brother) is slowly beginning to shed its former skin.
Elected president in 2008, Raul loosened restrictions on mobile phones and internet-accessible computers, handed over unused government land to farmers and eased regulations on private businesses.
While ordinary citizens are pleased yet impatient for further changes, there is a class of Cuban who has always enjoyed a high level of prestige and perks: sports stars and the country's many artists. The best and most talented (and loyal) among them were rewarded with visas to travel, study and perform overseas, provided they remain sufficiently faithful to the cause.
These same artists return home to rock-star status, but can still be seen jamming with local musicians on stage at venues in the capital large and small.
As such, no visit to Havana is complete without taking in some element of a live show. For the adventurous traveller willing to dive into the local scene, here's our round-up of the best of Havana's many musical options. The wide variety of sounds on offer represent the melting pot of Cuban culture and its Spanish, African, French and indigenous roots.
La Casa de la Musica (two locations; La Casa de la Musica Centro Habana: Calle Galianao 225, Centro Habana, and La Casa de la Musica Miramar: Calle 20 at the corner of Calle 35, Miramar)
This is where Havana's young, rich party people converge to listen to the biggest names in Cuban music. Everyone from Bamboleo to Los Van Van play here, with salsa, son, boleros and jazz dominating until around 1 a.m., when the venue becomes a disco. The early show goes from 5-9 p.m. and the late show starts at 11 p.m. The cover starts at CUC15 and goes up depending on who's playing. Dress fashionably, and wear your dancing shoes.
The central Havana location is larger and has an edgier vibe than the Miramar spot, but the ticket touts and prostitutes are best avoided at both locations. (Miramar has an excellent CD store attached run by national record label Egrem. You can visit the CD shop without paying the club cover if you ask the doorman nicely.)
The Jazz Café (third floor of the Galeria de Paseo Shopping Center on Calle Paseo and 1st, Habana vieja)
This classic jazz and dinner club, located on the third floor of a frequently empty shopping mall, is a bit out of the way but well worth the trip. Overlooking the scenic Malecón (seafront esplanade), it's the perfect place to kick back with a drink (or five) and soak in some air-conditioning and excellent tunes.
The regular stomping ground of piano legend Chucho Valdés, the jazz sets start here at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., and the CUC10 cover gets you in the door, as well as CUC10 worth of food and drink. Considering the upmarket vibe and attentive service, drinks and food here are ridiculously cheap. Expect your pesos to go a long way.
El Palacio de la Rhumba (Calle San Miguel between Calle Hospital and Aramburo, Centro Habana)
This rhumba and timba palace in the heart of central Havana features Cuba's best traditional music and dancing, with a focus on Afro-Cuban percussion and vocals. The music here is fast and loud, and the lively atmosphere infectious. Drawing a mixed crowd (cover for foreigners is CUC10, and Cubans pay the equivalent of around $2), this is a great place to pick up a few new dance steps and take in the dance classes and drumming competitions in the park. Arrive early and stay late.
The Tropicana Club (Calle 72 no 4505, Marianao)
For some, a trip to the famed Tropicana Club may suffice. Situated on a six-acre (24,000 square-metre) lush suburban estate in Havana's Marianao neighbourhood, this 72-year-old cabaret was once a pre-revolution hotbed of mafia activity. Today it mostly hosts large groups of foreign tourists at its 9 p.m. open-air show (weather depending). With the exceedingly steep entrance price of CUC$65 - more than three times what the average Cuban makes in a month - it can be safely called a tourist trap.
For excellent info, videos and articles on contemporary Cuban music check out Havana Cultura (<www.havana-club.com/en>), a website set up by rum-maker Havana Club to promote Cuban arts.
(Editing by Peter Myers)