As I sit here watching the video I took of you with the sound off, I can hear it all. The way your hands punctuate the air allows me to hear the singing of the woman in the red pants. The gyration of your hips act as the bongo’s metronome. The clip-clap-smack of your worn shoes on the dusty cobblestone breathes life into the strings of the guitars. And your head, that beautiful brown head with wooly hair accented by a white patch in the front, flows parallel to the cursive sound of the saxophone. You help me see the music.
But before I walked over and knelt down to take that video of you, you were an interruption. An interruption on my last day in Cuba. I had just arrived back in Havana after three weeks of traveling throughout the post-Fidel (but certainly not post-Communist) country and was beat. The unforgiving heat, the white sand, the silent caves, the towering mogotes, the eclectic clubs, the strangers who, through the ancient alchemy of travel, quickly transformed into friends, the carcinogenic, albeit delicious, Cohibas and the Communism as fossilized as the crumbling concrete in the barrios of Habana Vieja. It was all god-like in the ways it gave me life and then quickly reclaimed it.
After taking care of a few errands, visiting the Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym and retracing my steps throughout Plaza Catedral, Plaza Vieja and Plaza de Armas, I decided to have one last meal. I had walked through Plazuela de Santo Domingo many times, but never stopped to eat. This time, something told me to. Something told me to sit at the outdoor Italian restaurant, La Domenica, order spaghetti arrabiata and a cold Cristal. The waiter told me they were out of Cristal, so I opted for another national beer (what choice did I really have?), Bucanero.
The five-man band assembled (really three women and two men) in the square and I looked on with weary appreciation. Appreciation of their energy, the lives they led and the beautiful music that sprang forth from somewhere deep inside them. “Me gusta esta canción,” I told the waiter as he poured the bottle up to the halfway mark of my cup. Always halfway, even though I’m not too sure why. And then you came. You interrupted my weary appreciation and awoke something inside of me. As you placed your white plastic grocery bag on one of the old canons turned upside-down to serve as a street barrier, I wondered what you were going to do. But, how could I not have known?
Before you came, the music played as large of a role in my day as it does in a hotel elevator. But, you came and brought it to life. The way you moved, despite your old age, drew me in. It was electric, anxious, desperate and liberating all at the same time; as if you were running from something. Or, possibly into something. Into a moment of freedom. Into a memory of yesteryear when you twirled a girl around that very same square. Or maybe you were looking to dance yourself into a second chance at life; the possibility that the mistakes of our past don’t define who we are today. And that we can, like a newborn, emerge from the dark sac of our past and be reborn into a present filled with both light and the promise of opportunity. “Can we ever really change who we are?” is a question I often ask myself. And while it’s incredibly difficult to let go of who we were yesterday (our mistakes and failures of varying sizes), I always find myself answering that question with a resounding, “Yes.” Yes, it is possible to start anew. Yes, it is possible to look at each very second as an opportunity to become who you want to be. And yes, your past doesn’t have to define you if you don’t allow it to. The way you moved affirmed this and much more.
Only later did I learn that the music you allowed me to hear was Chan Chan by the Buena Vista Social Club. It was from 1987; a time when you were possibly in your late twenties. As the woman in the red pants belted out the words, I knew you were in another place. And, somehow, you were inviting me there. “El cariño que te tengo / Yo no lo puedo negar / Se me sale la babita / Yo no lo puedo evitar.” “The love I have for you / I can’t deny it / I drool all over / And I can’t help it.” Who, as you brought your knees low to the ground, spun around and, with eyes closed, smiled, were you loving? Who were you drooling over? Why couldn’t you help it? I only ask these questions now, and even though you’re not here, I know the answers. And, I promise not to tell.
Instead of giving money to the band, I walked over and handed you 1CUC; something I was afraid to do for fear of insulting you. But you took it all the same. And as I sat back down to begin my now cold spaghetti arrabiata, I saw two policemen approach you. They became the interruption. They carried with them no music. A few minutes later, they grabbed your bag and walked you away; each with a hand on your arms. You were only dancing. A dance that spoke of better times, and maybe this is what they feared. When I asked my waiter why they had done that, he told me not to worry; that it was “rutina.”
Instead of giving you 1CUC, I wish I could have been brave enough to have told you that I aspire to be you. That despite not knowing your name, background, age, occupation or anything else as irrelevant, you represent freedom. A freedom I’ve long sought and am only now beginning to grasp. A freedom that isn’t afraid to drool over itself. A freedom that makes music even when the band stops.