Bob Cullen Photography | The Rhythms of Cuba

The Rhythms of Cuba

February 16, 2016  •  1 Comment

I am in Havana, taking part in a photography workshop taught by a great photojournalist, Peter Turnley. I first met Peter in the 1980s, when we were both covering stories in Moscow for Newsweek. I knew he was a fine street photographer, one of the artistic heirs to Henri Cartier-Bresson, whom he knew. What I didn't know about Peter is that he loves to dance, loves to photograph dancers, and knows Havana's music and dance scene about as well as an outsider can.


So, not coincidentally, my first days with Peter's Havana workshop have been filled with music and movement. Habaneros listen and dance in the open air and the daylight, which is fortunate, since there's natural light in which to photograph them. Bands begin to play in bars and clubs in old Havana around lunchtime, and I have heard the sounds of drums from the streets at around 3 a.m.


The rhythm of those drums, like a big chunk of the Cuban population, has roots in Africa. The Afro-Cubans' ancestors were brought here as slaves to work the sugar fields. They brought their music with them, music often played on the simplest of instruments, like an old kitchen drawer pounded by hand as a drum, or a piece of pipe that becomes a percussion instrument. It's something that no government, whether the colonial government or the present one, can take away from them.


On Saturday, our group went to a kind of rhumba fest in the courtyard of a residential building with no sign to identify it as a dance place. The people of the neighborhood, I guess, knew where it was and when it would start. Hundreds gathered in the courtyard, drinking beer and rum and swaying as dancers and musicians performed on a makeshift stage.


The next evening, Peter took our group to La Tropical, an open air club with a long history as a hotspot of Afro-Cuban music and salsa in particular. La Tropical is a big amphitheater, with a couple of tiers of VIP seating and an enormous concrete pit in front of the stage.


As any wedding photographer will tell you, capturing a dance is not easy. The couple is in motion, of course, so the target is constantly shifting. It's a challenge to capture a fleeting moment that conveys the passion and emotion of the dance.


Fortunately for me, the passion isn't confined to the dance floor. Spectators smile and sway, even if they're standing in the middle of a thick crowd. Musicians and singers sweat and emote. They're often a little easier to shoot, particularly when the late afternoon light illuminates their faces.


Some of that passion, I have learned, is also rooted in Africa, in the religious tradition that Cubans call santeria, a faith that features a lot of dancing. I am not certain what the relationship between Catholicism, which is the formal Cuban faith, and santeria. Apparently, there is some syncretism going on with Catholic saints and santeria spirits cohabiting.


Outside some nominally Catholic churches in Havana, there are people clad in white, both men and women, hang around, smoking cigars. I found one sitting on a low wall, accompanied by two ebony-skinned dolls. For a small donation, which she tucked away under the skirt of one of the dolls, she anointed my palm and told me my fortune. For another donation, she cleansed my body of evil and disease, a ceremony that required the purchase of flowers which a nearby friend of hers happened to have for sale.


My santeria priestess was, if nothing else, blunt. She told me I ought to eat less and take a walk after dinner each night. This was not an observation that could only have come from Divine Guidance. But I was grateful she didn't tell me I had to donate ten percent of my income to some church. I walked to the edge of the seawall, and, per her instructions, tossed my flowers into the murky water of Havana Bay. I felt better.


Mary Carroll(non-registered)
She's on to something, Bob.
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