Slices of Cuba: The Clave Hustle
Cuba is a dusty place.
Diesel fumes dominate. Lean bodies shuffle down crumbling sidewalks. Tired eyes lead each of them one step closer to somewhere. All skin tones are present: mahogany, birch, camelthorn and more.
Extra large trucks transport humans like cattle. Vertical slats of metal rise to the armpits of the passengers. Military relics still add value to daily life. Various bicycles lean against trees, curbs and walls. None are locked. All are a mismatch of parts exhumed from other bikes.
The main street was a gentle hill that rose to the local piazza that functioned as the town square. People met there to sit on benches. Others departed as soon as friends arrived. It was good to be back in town.
I had just peeled myself out of a ‘collectivo’. I didn’t talk to the other 4 strangers much. I asked the owner if it was a Dodge. I may has well asked if his sister was a hooker. Alert, irritated eyes glared at me in the rear view mirror. “Chrysler.” I had never seen a Chrysler like it. Not even in the movies. It was a 1950-something model. It had three rows of bouncy bench seats that stuck to the backs of sweaty legs.
I was happy to unfold my body from the Chrysler and step across the uneven stones towards my Casa Peticular (think: bed and breakfast at a local’s house). The last hour careening around loose turns, accelerating as if trying to qualify for the finals and gulping-down an endless stream of diesel fumes had worn me out.
I had nowhere to be. No agenda loomed. I did, however, want to see live musicians. I shuffled down the hill keeping my ears alert. My energy was still low. The night before I had lost a battle with a loin of local pork. I didn’t stand a chance. The voice in my mind implored me to go rest at the same time it pushed me to remain in town and soak up the local environment.
There were a few shops selling “Cuban” tchotchke. It was all junk to me. I’m a snob when it comes to that sort of thing. Regardless, the capitalist in my head would vacillate from one extreme to the other, “Buy something. Dude, you don’t need anything.”
The chatter in my head can be incessant at times.
I had been eyeballing something for a few days. I didn’t own a pair of claves. There were many shops on the boulevard that carried them. 2 simple pieces of cylindrical wood drew me in every time. I had spent the previous day testing the sounds of some in a shop. Each piece of wood is different and has a different tone. I had identified a set.
I needed a night to sleep on it; even if that night was spent shoveling vomit from a clogged micro-sink with a make-shift scooper. I had crudely cut the top from a tall plastic water bottle with the short blade found on a wine opener outside my room. I tossed the wine tool onto the tile floor and screwed on the cap so no puke would leak from the bottom of my new scooper.
Pork always wins.
I found myself standing in front of the shop like a creepy stalker. It was now or never. I’d either have to quit thinking about the claves or just go purchase them. The capitalist voice in my head won. Between my American upbringing and dodgy food handling, I couldn’t catch a break in rural Cuba.
I smiled at the proprietors and made a beeline to the basket holding the instruments. I did a quick sound test to verify it was the set I wanted. Nodding to myself, I walked up to the woman of the shop and handed her my CUC. Money well spent.
I jammed them into my front pocket and continued walking under the large trees covering the sidewalk and narrow road. The brutal Caribbean heat was beginning to wane. Life was good in that moment. With dusk came a new set of hardwood claves, renewed energy from the previous night and no destination in mind.
I was free in a country that had the least amount of available freedom to spare. Was it all “just a state of mind” or was there something more to freedom I was missing in that moment? The clacking of hooves shook me from my nearly-ultra-out-of-touch philosophical journey. A legitimate cowboy shuffled up the edge of the road on a majestic horse. I nodded. The smells of what must have been food began to pour into the road. A handful of patio lights flicked on.
It was a sleepy town.
Rhythmic sounds mixed with caramel voices and brassy vamps up the road. Music. That would take my day to the next level. The sounds were real. Humans were playing somewhere. Optimism throbbed through my torso. My weariness was washed aside. My plan for rest would have to wait.
I was a moth drawn to a flame. I crossed the 2-lane street and found a 6-piece band giving the performance of their lives. It was a Tuesday. The audience was all of 12 people in a cement-floored-open-air bar. Normally conditions like that would demoralize a band. Not those guys. No way. They played as if their lives depended on it.
I squeezed up to the tiny bar top to order a TuKola from an irritable bartender. I hadn’t had any booze in 2 years. Cuba’s version of Coca Cola would have to suffice. I noted his sloppy bowtie and overall disheveled appearance and wondered when he became immune to such great music.
I snagged a table near the stage. Normally, I don’t like to go so close to watch a live performance, but standing in the back would have meant standing on the sidewalk. The band was too good for me to opt to stand in the back behind the rest of the audience. Though I wasn’t close enough to touch the musicians or the stage, I could smell the cologne of the lead singer. Perfect.
They immediately launched into another number. I looked over my shoulder. The barkeep grew crankier as the people from the street began to queue for beers or rum or both. The sun was fully set. I smiled at the beads of sweat on the red can of TuKola. I smiled bigger when I noticed the singer was still in his fancy sunglasses.
The songs continued and the energy in the room became more charged. I was entranced. I had only heard music like that on a CD or mp3. Clearly the countryside had more to offer than pristine nature and retired military vehicles. I was the luckiest American in all of Cuba in that moment.
A horrendous sound splashed cold water on the energy in the room.
CLANG!!!!!!! CLONG!!!!!!! CALACK!!!!!!
CLACK Clack clack….
Shock splashed my face red as I realized I was the cause of the commotion. My brain began to process the room like a computer video lagging due to a buffer error. The disruption was so loud that the band noticed over their loud amplified instruments.
As I hustled to grab the bouncing and rolling items, I berated myself, “How did you let your precious new claves fall out of your pocket and bounce across the cement floor?!!! You just killed the vibe in the entire room. The BAND heard it and nearly missed a beat! Get the claves, dummy. Grab them! Get rid of the evidence! Don’t make eye contact. Act natural.”
There’s a unique relationship between sounds. With every bombastic sound of “something bad” found in nature or the human world there immediately follows a vacuum of perfect silence. Eyes widen and shoulders hunch. Ever since the first thunder clap or meteor impact, this pendulum has swung. It will continue to swing; even in rural Cuba on a Tuesday night.
Shame, embarrassment and horror washed over my body in a spike of body temp and sweat beads at the my hairline. I could feel all eyes in the bar on my exposed neck — a neck the perfect size for a guillotine or a noose. If the band wasn’t going to string me up, then the crowd surely would. WW III was going to begin in 5,4,3,2…
The lead singer flashed a smile at me once he realized what happened. Behind the consumate professional was a human. I nearly derailed his song. But he wanted to connect with me to ensure me that everything was going to be OK. His large grin, mirrored aviator sunglasses and head-knod-to-the-beat instantaneously cleansed me of my transgression. The sweat in my palms began to subside. My shoulders unclenched. The color in my cheeks normalized. Any remaining energy in my body spilled out.
It had been no more than 15 seconds and the full range of human nature was on display. Compassion was on order that night. It was served in a heaping portion by a stranger.
It’s a unique characteristic- compassion. It becomes diluted as soon as anybody speaks. Conversely, when delivered in silence and face-to-face it can trigger one of the most potent chemical reactions in the body. It’s a trait that is a gut response. When planned to be deployed, it’s just as diluted as when paired with speech. I received an uncut, pure dose in that moment.
I don’t know what I would have done in my days of performing live music in the small bars of beer-soaked Austin, Texas. If I’m honest, I would have shot the person a stink eye. I would have been selfish. I would have focused on penalizing the person that made the mistake with a glare. That’s the sign of a weak person. A weak person kicks somebody when they are down. A strong person doesn’t miss a beat, extends a warm hand and wears strong cologne.
The band continued as if nothing happened. I sat there in a daze.
I took a frantic sip from my TuKola. I was alive. Nobody shamed me. Why would they? Did I really think some stranger would yank me around by the shoulder and scold me for an honest accident? I needed to relax. I needed to get over myself. I needed another sip of TuKola.
The band continued. I began to clap a three-two clave pattern with my hand. The clave was more than a few pieces of wood. It was also the name of the rhythmic pattern that functions as the pulse and backbone of salsa. I wanted to show my solidarity with the band. They threw me a life line, after all. I also wanted to show them that I was “one of them”.
White guys typically don’t know salsa. They aren’t raised on the rhythms of the music. It’s just different. I was the exception in that town that night, however. The mild exception. I knew three-two clave. I knew two-three also. That wouldn’t get me a job in a salsa band in Bucharest, let alone a rural town in the country that birthed the genre. My knowledge would, however, prove to be passable credentials for me to clap at my metal table on a Tuesday.
The lead singer gave me a nod after a few songs. He began to nudge his chin in the air. He was trying to communicate something. Was I making mistakes in my clapping? He smiled to reassure the perplexed look on my face. He made a gesture with his hands in sync with the clave pattern. What was he doing? He then jabbed a brown finger toward my pockets. Uh oh.
I pointed a confused finger at my torso. He nodded and continued pantomiming the gesture. My heart was beating in my throat. My spine caught a chill.
There are a few dirty little secrets in the musician community that civilians don’t know. They began to flash through my head as it dawned on me that he wanted me to actually play my claves at my table along with their song. When roles are reversed and musicians find themselves in the role of audience members they assess the players on stage with a critical eye. They…we…look at the person playing the instrument we know. Could we do what they are doing on stage? Could we do it better? Sometimes our egos are trumped because the music is so overwhelmingly impressive. Then the critical mindset morphs into a longing.
“I wish I could be up there with them. They’re blowing my mind!”
That wish is never granted. Ask any musician. They’ll confirm.
I am one of the lucky ones. It happened to me years earlier in Austin with a band called Free Bridge. They were legendary at Lucy’s Retired Surfer Bar. They were from El Paso and cooler than any other band gigging at that time. It happened to me in Japan once too.
I fished my shiny, new claves out of my pocket. My grip was so intense that my knuckles were whitening. This was the most intense audition in the history of non-auditions. The bar was full. The crowd knew how good the band was. They also knew I was the guy that caused the disruption earlier.
I cocked them at the ready. I had a thousand yard stare as I looked at the band. To some, I must have been peering at something. I wasn’t looking. I was listening. Which pattern did the song require. Play the wrong one and be run out of town. Play the correct one and achieve legend status. The choice was mine.
The test had begun.
I loosened my grip. Gripping any instrument too hard is a recipe for unequivocal failure. Tiny muscles fatigue quickly. Once the forearms lock up, the hands quickly follow. Then the music flails. I gingerly began tapping a three-two pattern for a handful of measures on my never-before-used claves.
He swung his head back to my direction and smiled bigger than he had in our previous communications. The train was moving. There was no turning back now. I learned a hard lesson years before when I stopped playing a supportive rhythm in a live setting in LA. It wasn’t a gig, per say. But, we had a crowd of strangers dancing and hooting as we pounded out 10+ minute west african songs. “Hey, man! You never stop in the middle. No matter how tired you think your hands are. We depend on you to hold up your end of the rhythm. They depend on us to continue giving them the music they want.”
I knew the highway I was on. The buildings blurring by the window were different, but everything was the same. There were no exit ramps. I forced myself to breathe consistently. A tight chest leads to tight face muscles. Tight cheeks lead to fatigued hands. Everybody knows where that leads.
The other players on stage were slightly nodding along with what I was doing. As long as I didn’t screw-up their gig, they were OK with the lead singer throwing a bone to me. I watched the percussionist on stage the most. I had to lock-in with him. An errant pattern, not to mention a pattern that slowly malforms over the course of a song, is crushing to a percussionist. It’s like attempting to memorize a phone number and somebody standing next to you saying a number that is the same, but then begins to swap some numbers as he blurts out the numbers in your ear. It’s nearly impossible to keep things straight.
As they fired-up the next track, the singer motioned me to join them on stage.
Before panic cemented my feet in the floor, I stood from my chair and stepped onto stage left. The singer said something to the crowd. They roared and clapped and whistled. The adrenaline was clogging my ears. All I could hear was the blood flowing through them. I took a place on the edge next to the guitarist and fiddle player.
Only two things mattered in that moment: 1) Don’t screw up. 2) Don’t upstage the band. Nobody was there to see me.
Each song bled into the next. I was immersing myself in a foreign land within a foreign art form. My brain was firing in ways it never had. My insides were a fireworks collision of jubilance, history, fear, otherness, familiarity and futurism. I was tapping into the source.
I had found the pulsating core of the energy of the music. It’s a phantom. Nobody finds it. The non musician enjoys the ripples of it as the songs play, art hangs or videos roll. I was touching it with bare, raw vulnerability.
But what was that source? Was it something floating in the energy of the air that night? Or was it simply something inside of me that I had overlooked for too many years? The band created the doorway. I simply had to choose to open and step through.
If it felt like I was waning, one of the members would make eye contact with me. They’d guide me back to the other players. I’d reset my brain and restart my feet. When I play any sort of bell, clave or handclap pattern, I tend to shuffle my feet and hips in place. It must look like I’m attempting to salsa dance but can never penetrate the glass wall in front of me. It’s not a hackneyed attempt to appear more authentic. Rather, it’s my way of recruiting my entire body into service of the rhythm. Once the feet and hips assume their pattern with the hands playing the audible beats, everything in the world is right again.
I was awaiting the gesture to “get the hell off the stage” from the lead singer. I wasn’t ruining their show, but it was their show, not mine. No matter how good I was or wasn’t, the evening was about them wowing the audience with their impeccable playing and singing.
At the end of my last song of my first gig in Cuba, the lights reflected off of his mirrored aviator sunglasses and perfect white teeth as he swung around to make eye contact with me. I couldn’t see his eyes, but I knew that was my cue. Behind those lenses, his eyes we’re saying, “This is your stop, man. It was fun while it lasted.”
I wasted no time shuffling off the stage while nodding my head in ’thank you’ to each of the players. It was their house. I was just a surprise guest that was not looking to wear out his welcome. I gave my best handshake to the lead singer and muttered thanks. He announced something to the audience and they roared again with hoots, whistles and claps. Who knows what he said. I had survived and was happy to be out of the literal and figurative spotlight.
I lunged into my chair and gently placed my claves on the thin metal table. There was no reason to conceal them. They had succeeded in their initial performance. Their tone and feel in the hand were as great as I would have hoped they’d be. The band was already into their next song when I grabbed the sweaty can of TuKola and downed the remaining luke-warm liquid.
I sat for a few more songs before shuffling my way out of the bar to spill into the dark tree-lined road. I was still buzzing. It’s the same variety of buzz any musician, comedian or stage actor has experienced since the dawn of human performance. It takes time to fade. Gradually it fully dilutes. It hadn’t yet. I was savoring every last morsel.
There were no street lights or neon lights. The world outside the bar was dark and alive. I strolled down the hill replaying the event in my head. Occasionally I’d tap a three-two pattern on my hip with tired fingers. I’d accompany it with a soft hum. They were remnants of something that was already a memory- a memory I could still hear as their songs faded in the empty street behind me.