Song of Cuba

Posted Wednesday, May 2, 2012 in Culture

Song of Cuba

Museum of Colonial Art

by Lisa Schinhofen

In 1970, Jude Maloney planned to visit Cuba.  Thirty-five years later, she finally did.

Maloney had wanted to visit the country since childhood, when she became entranced by her grandfather’s descriptions of 1950s Cuba:  exotic, lush, fashionable, with a vibrant nightlife, “the place to be.”  When she was in high school, she determined to join the Venceremos Brigade, a group made up of committed, mostly young Americans who traveled there to help the Cuban people with their sugar cane harvest.  Even though she was just a teenager, Maloney felt sure her socially conscious, politically active parents would approve of her plans.  She was mistaken.

In 2005, by now a clinical social worker in public schools and private practice, Maloney learned that the Peace Studies Department at the University of Maine, in partnership with an organization called Witness for Peace, was sponsoring a trip to Cuba to promote cultural understanding.  She applied for and was awarded a grant to participate in the program.  “If I hadn’t won the grant,” she says, “I would have gone anyway.”

Not that there wasn’t some trepidation about the trip.  Loved ones warned her about Cubans’ antipathy toward Americans.  Some suggested Maloney and her family wouldn’t get out alive.  Maloney even sent a copy of her will to her best friend.  (“We almost did die,” she says, but that was on the flight from Cancun to Havana in a puddle-jumper that rattled and had smoke that smelled like burning rubber streaming through the ventilation system.)

On the contrary, says Maloney, “Cubans are the warmest, most welcoming people.”  She was struck by their kindness to one another and to strangers, including Americans.  Their approach is “That’s your government.  That’s not you.”  Maloney relates an anecdote to illustrate the contrast between Cubans’ spirit of generosity and the American sensibility of rugged individualism:  “There was a member of our tour group who had recently had back surgery.  She was an older woman, gray-haired and frail-looking.  Those of us on the tour didn’t treat her in any special manner.  When we were taking the bus back from Varadero Beach we were accompanied by a young woman who wasn’t part of the group.  It’s the custom there to give a ride to anyone who needs one.

“The young woman came forward and practically carried the older woman up the steps of the bus.  I felt ashamed that I had this ‘If she needs help she'll ask for it’ mentality and I didn't even think of helping,” Maloney says.  “Cubans are incredibly kind and compassionate with each other — it's part of the culture.”

In addition to her personal desire to visit the country, Maloney had a professional interest in learning more about the practical aspects of how such strong social services could be delivered with so little money.

“The way they did it was that it was woven into the culture,” says Maloney.  “They prided themselves on making sure every person got their needs met.”  Polyclinics, Soviet-style community health clinics, can be found in every area and every little neighborhood.  “I talked with one of the doctors and she said that she knows how everyone in her area is doing. They come in for any health needs. If people can't come in, she goes to them.”  For specialty care, the doctors refer their patients to bigger facilities.

Maloney recalls asking students at a school in Matanzas for young people who are gifted in the arts whether they were ever upset that they worked so hard and didn’t have as much playtime as other students.  “Each child I asked said that they were grateful for the opportunity, and why wouldn't they want to develop their talents?” she says.  “They acted like it was an odd question.”

Maloney was particularly captivated by the fusion of art, music, and dance that characterizes the colorful culture.  In “Song of Cuba,” an essay she recently presented at Gulf of Maine Books as part of Brunswick-Trinidad Sister City Association’s Cuba Week 2012, Maloney writes:

Music is everywhere in Cuba.  The first day, an afternoon disappeared in the lobby of the Old Havana Hotel Ambos Mundos, where we’d come to see the room in which Ernest Hemingway started writing For Whom the Bell Tolls.   Pianist after pianist played haunting complex melodies. Tourist dollars in the tip bowl on the glossy baby grand kept the music flowing as freely as the tiny sweet cups of café con leche. Entranced, we lost track of time…

The next day Carnival was in full explosion and could be seen for blocks from my perch on the balcony of an old colonial house overlooking the Malecón, the wide avenue that rings Havana bay. A round pink pig sunned itself on the warm concrete of the adjoining balcony, raising her snout to acknowledge my presence. The lighthouse on the promontory is the subject of many paintings and was pivotal in Elmore Leonard’s novel, “Cuba Libre.” The sun winked sparkling white on the deep blue water’s surface. Families danced, laughed and sang to the live music which changed block to block. Beer flowed from huge plastic barrels, through a hose, to the waiting cup you brought. My host poured a little rum on the stone floor of the house before filling our glasses; the Cuban tradition of honoring the spirit of the house.

We traveled in an ancient school bus to Matanzas, where gifted children learn to play music, create art, and dance. They flanked the road, singing songs of welcome as the bus groaned up the slight rise. After a tour we ended at the auditorium. Our translator introduced “The Dance of the Seven Little People.”  Intrigued, I wondered if it was a local classical piece based on myth.  The answer came when the familiar Disney “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go” boomed out…

That night we celebrated at the Havana School of Dance.  The three-piece band’s fiery music immediately brought us to our feet. The guy who mixed our mojitos planted a hand on the bar and swung over it, jumping into the energy. I danced the salsa with a man in a starched double breasted white chef’s jacket and a broad smile, eliciting moves I didn’t know I had. My body lost its bones and became total shimmy. The group movement became looser, wilder and pulsated with the beat, expanding the dance floor to the walls. I lifted my skirt and twirled, temporarily stilled by a cactus that latched onto my dress. The cook tried to free it but moved on.

The rumba finale was performed by the dance instructor, a small middle-aged woman with twinkling eyes, and a handsome young man. The story of love between a bold rooster and a demure hen unfolded, bringing a blush to my cheeks. When she succumbed at the end, the energy of his dancing thrust hit me and hinged my head back. I looked up into my friend’s face and we laughed.

Photographs from Jude Maloney’s Witness for Peace trip can be seen through May 7 at the Frontier Café in Brunswick.

blog comments powered by Disqus