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Inspired by thesoulful love songs of the Buena Vista Social Club, I … –

As soon as I step into the streets of Old Havana, I hear music: salsa blasting from a whizzing pedicab; the pregón of street-sellers announcing their wares; a tender love ballad floating out of an unknown window. There was music in all its forms.

I’ve come to Cuba to achieve my 25-year-old dream of discovering the country’s music scene. I was one of the millions who fell in love with Cuban music through the Buena Vista Social Club’s self-titled album, released in 1997. Named after a member’s club in the Buena Vista neighbourhood of Havana, the ensemble revived the careers of iconic musicians and sent traditional Cuban music around the world.

Cuba’s musical foundations are a fusion of European influences, such as the Spanish guitar, and West African percussions and rhythms, used in the music and traditional ceremonies of the island’s enslaved population. The resulting genres of son, danzón and bolero are found in the upbeat melodies and soulful love songs of the Buena Vista Social Club, as well as in modern jazz, blues, rumba and salsa.

For me, then a little-travelled university student in Canada, the ensemble’s songs weren’t simply music; they were a cultural journey. I knew I would make it to Cuba one day to experience the sounds in person, a goal I would finally achieve this December.

“Without Cuba, music as we know it wouldn’t exist,” Chaz Chambers, director of Havana Music Tours, informs me over a café con leche on my first day in Havana. “In the colonial era, Cuba became an important stopover due to the Gulf Stream. Seamen and soldiers wanted entertainment, allowing the music to flourish. Here, African musical traditions weren’t as suppressed as elsewhere. It is believed that blues and jazz may not have developed in the same way in the United States without the role of Cuban music.”

A professional drummer from Asheville, N.C., Chambers first came to Cuba to study percussion. Wanting to build a bridge between Cuban musicians and the rest of the world, he and his wife, Yami Cabrera, a Cuban musicologist, created Havana Music Tours. Led by professional musicians, their experiences range from half-day tours to multi-day itineraries and include insider access to concerts, music or dance workshops, and other cultural activities.

For a solid introduction to Havana’s music scene, I take their new “VIP Art, Music & Food Experience” at the Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC). Owned by the Ministry of Culture and directed by a team of award-winning musicians and artists, the former cooking oil factory has been transformed into a vibrant centre promoting interaction between citizens and the arts through free concerts, workshops, exhibitions and talks.

“Ever since the revolutionary government nationalized the school system in 1961, there has been equal and free access to arts education for all,” my guide Miguel Eduardo Zequeira explains as we sip mojitos on the terrace of FAC’s Tierra restaurant.

Zequeira, the conductor of the male choir at the National School of Music Cuba and a graduate of the prestigious Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), tells me how adjudicators travel the country in search of students with promising musical aptitude, who are then offered admission to government-run music schools. This talent cultivation has fostered Cuba’s impressive music scene.

“The main aim of my tours is to teach people what it is to be Cuban through music,” says Zequeira as we wander through the vast complex. “Our music is a mirror of who we are: happy people, proud of our traditions.”

As we wander through FAC’s auditoriums, galleries and outdoor spaces, I encounter a wide variety of genres and musicians, from a modern jazz group to an up-and-coming rapper. As the hours go on, DJs take to the stages, and the dance floors fill with trendy habaneros and in-the-know foreigners.

I spend the next day getting lost in Old Havana, haphazardly guided by music. I pop into La Lluvia de Oro, an old-school bar on pedestrian Obispo Street, which has live music in the afternoons. Some friendly locals invite me to join their table, and despite my rusty Spanish, I learn they are musicians, too. Back in the street, I meet Hector, yet another musician. Our conversation is interrupted by the booming congas of an approaching sopa band encircled by costumed dancers on stilts.

That night, Gelen Cervantes Rodriguez, another Havana Music Tours guide and ISA graduate, accompanies me to a concert at the Anfiteatro de la Habana, a Greek-style open-air theatre. I’m in luck: internationally acclaimed Afro-Cuban musician Alain Pérez is headlining. Although now living in Spain, Pérez is proud of his roots — as the Cubans are of him, evidenced by their exuberant response to his energetic performance.

“Young people today want to make fusion, mixing Cuban music with jazz, rap and R&B,” Rodriguez tells me between songs. A French horn player for the Cuban National Band, she also loves singing and one day hopes to put out a fusion Cuban album. As we leave, our cheeks are planted with besos from Rodriguez’s musician friends, making me feel like a part of Havana’s musical community, at least for a night.

The next day I take Chambers’ advice and venture to El Callejón de Hamel. Created by artist Salvador Gonzáles Escalona in the 1990s, the colourful lane, full of murals, mosaics and sculptures, is now a community initiative offering art workshops and music activities.

One of these is a rumba concert held every Sunday at noon. As I sit next to the conga players, their thundering tumbao rhythm vibrates through me, right down to my tapping toes. I’m mesmerized as dancers, wearing traditional Cuban clothing as well as Egungun costumes, used by West African Yuroba people to depict the spirits of departed ancestors, join in.

My immersion into Cuban music has exceeded my initial expectations, but what about my longing for the Buena Vista Social Club? Many of its members have sadly since passed away — but not all.

As I climb the stairs to the Legendarios del Guajirito, my excitement mounts. Founded in 2013, the social and cultural project is dedicated to preserving traditional Cuban music and brings together several living legends, including former members of the Buena Vista Social Club and the band Afro-Cuban All Stars.

I come for the dinner and show, wanting to take in the complete experience, and I don’t regret it. The artists’ passion, talent and sense of humour have us all seduced. By the end, the whole audience is cha cha cha-ing on stage.

“There is no other show like ours,” Maida Mitchell, former star of the Tropicana Club, tells me in a post-performance chat. “As one of the project’s founders, I’m very proud. When it was created, we didn’t have the resources or equipment to get it off the ground. We put our energies together to make it happen.”

“We have a responsibility to defend Cuban traditions,” adds Gabriel (Tito) Gomez, who, at 45, is the youngest member of the group. “Every night is a fight.”

The Legendarios del Guajirito, the modern-day Buena Vista Social Club, and all the other artists I’ve met are contributing to the same battle: to keep Cuban music alive and share it with the world.

Travel experiences were provided to Lily Heise by Havana Music Tours, which did not review or approve this article.