Excerpt: ‘Letters to Yeyito: Lessons From A Life in Music’ by Paquito D’Riveria
Paquito D’Rivera at the Festival Internacional de Jazz de Punta del Este. Photograph by Jimmy Baikovicius
From Sherlock Holmes in Havana:
Elementary, my dear Watson.
—Arthur Conan Doyle
It was one of those sunny, windy Havana afternoons in April. In any other country just a bit further north, that might mean nothing more than temperatures somewhere between refreshing and warm. Depending on the subtle atmospheric variations of spring, we might even speak about some small, timid clouds that would cut a delicate white curtain of raindrops, graciously woven with the setting sun’s fine gold fibers (romantic, isn’t it!). However, the Caribbean is a whole other story. April may be as hellish as August, or stormy enough to provoke a desperate request of Noah for the blueprints of his lifesaving vessel.
Now, on this particular day, after it had rained something akin to what had fallen on the Ark, there was so much sun in Havana I thought it could crack a rock. I had been recording all morning with Elena Burke at EGREM studios, on San Miguel Street between Campanario and Lealtad. When it rained, the national label’s ancient studio had leaks that competed with Trevi Fountain’s gargoyles in Rome, and the air conditioning was hardly working perfectly.
Even so, it was much more pleasant inside than outside, where the scalding heat made it possible to fry an egg on the hood of a car (in the event you could find an egg in hungry and ruined Havana). I knew this because between songs we would go out on the terrace to poison our lungs with nicotine and the horrible stench wafting from the nearby bathrooms, whose lack of water contrasted with the incredible humidity.
The recording session had been long and laborious. The damn tape machine would get stuck every now and then, the tape would unravel, and Tony López, the engineer, was at wit’s end trying to make that piece of prehistoric electronics work. We were finally forced to stop. I left, ravenously hungry and in a foul mood. My stomach was screeching like the scratching old man Oscar Valdés had been doing on the güiro for one of the danzónes we were taping for Elena. I got up, put my saxophone in its case, and left like a dog looking for a bone.
I had to make an urgent phone call, but my paranoia kept me from using the phone at the studio. I went downstairs, and, just as I got to the door, I glanced tentatively toward the silent phone waiting for me on a gray metallic desk. I thought I’d better not, cautiously observing the man in the black beret behind the beat-up, grimy, ink-splattered desk reading a copy of the Granma newspaper. I didn’t want anybody to have a clue about what I was up to and I was afraid that, even speaking in code, I might give away the secret, dangerous motive behind that call.
I forced a half smile and a wink to say goodbye to the man. When I got out to the narrow sidewalk, the rainstorm had stopped as quickly as it had begun, but instead of cooling things down, it had left a cloud of steam that felt like a Turkish bath. Now, with not a single cloud in that bluest of skies, the city was impregnated with the repugnant stench of burnt rubber. The humidity made my clothes stick to my skin; sweat ran down my face and fogged up my lenses.
I strolled toward the public phone on the wall outside the cafeteria at the corner of Campanario and checked to see that it was indeed, miraculously, working. I stress the miracle because finding a working phone in the capital in those days was like finding petrol (or water!) in your tub. The impoverished little eatery betrayed the anemic material emptiness that took up every inch of the once vibrant and noisy capital. Since there was a blackout, all of the neighborhood’s radios had been silenced and the only sounds were from a hungry dog in the distance and the strident horn of one of the few buses left on Route 43—one of those that passed Neptuno Street once in a million years toward the far-off neighborhood of La Lisa, with people hanging off the doors and out the windows.
In spite of the day’s blinding light, or perhaps for that very reason, the precarious little business was in shadows, and I was able to distinguish only the bright smile of the pretty, short young woman who attended to everyday nothingness from behind the well-worn counter. I thought I might choke from thirst, and, forgetting my important call for a moment, I practically begged the chubby girl for a glass of water.
She answered, her voice dripping with sarcasm, “Water? What planet are you living on, mi corazón? Better yet, wouldn’t you rather have a ham and cheese sangüichito with a nice cold Coca-Cola?”
It had been years since anybody had offered me a sangüichito, and the words Coca-Cola sounded in my ears like the echo of a distant past, leaving me entranced for a few seconds by the effects of my hunger and thirst. I could still see the image of my rosy-cheeked, smiling teacher Rosita, and my jaw went slack with the memory of her extending the sangüichito and Coca-Cola they’d give us as a snack at the elementary school I attended in Marianao.
I must have been drooling when a guffaw from the chubby girl came from the shadows to wake me from my dreams and remind me that Centro Habana only got water a couple of times a week, brought in these huge, beat-up trucks everybody called pipas. Whenever anybody saw one of those trucks and yelled, “Waaaaaater,” the neighborhood experienced something like the sailors who came over with Columbus must have experienced when Rodrigo de Triana, sitting atop the caravel’s mast, screamed, “Land ho!”
The chubby girl, whose name was Yudislexis (ah, those Cuban names!) offered me a worn plastic glass with a yellowish liquid whose chemical composition would have been a mystery even to NASA scientists. This “brake fluid,” as everybody called it, was nearly always available at places like that to wash down some even more mysterious fritters people called “Apollo 12 croquettes,” like the American spaceship, because they insisted on defying gravity and sticking to the roof of your mouth. The brake fluid would assist the tongue in scraping the viscous substance and help break it down. That day, the astral croquettes were also available in the cafeteria, but since the oil ration to fry them hadn’t arrived yet, and it had been more than a week since the gas truck had come by, it was impossible to cook and serve them. It was a Kafkaesque situation, or magic realism, as García Márquez would say, nodding his head as he lay by the pool at the impressive visitor’s mansion the government had at his disposal in Miramar.
After thanking Yudislexis for the brake fluid, I excused myself and, after a good look around, picked up the receiver on the public phone to make my urgent call.
“The old man says you should get your ass over here and that your dresses are in the freezer.”
The young man on the other end was Andresito, Andrés Castro’s son, who, like his father, played trumpet. The “dresses” he referred to were meat his father got under the table from the neighborhood butcher. The butcher was part of an underground network for illegal meats (beef, chicken, pork), which was controlled by the very Committee in Defense of the Revolution that oversaw the tenement called El Trueno, or The Thunder, one of the rougher parts of the neighborhood.
“And don’t take too long. The electricity’s out until who knows when, and those dresses could spoil, you feel me?” Andresito added.
“Okay, I’m on my way,” I said, hanging up the phone and laughing to myself as I tried to imagine the face of the police snitch listening in.
“Hey, music man… Want some Perla paste?” asked Yudis- lexis.
“Some what?” I asked loudly.
“Ssshhh, hey, lower your voice, baby. We’re fucked if they hear us. Toothpaste, ten bills at the twins’ place over at El Trueno. You know, those twins are something. They say that they stole a truck in daylight, right in front of the factory, and it was filled with bath soap, Perla toothpaste, Bebito cologne, and Snow White deodorant.”
“Did you say Snow White deodorant?” I asked, knowing full well that the deodorant’s brand name—if in fact it was deodorant—was a joke. “Hey, sweet thing,” I said. “You tell the twins at El Trueno they should spill some of that Bebito cologne around here. It stinks so bad I wouldn’t be surprised if Snow White’s dwarves had died and their cadavers were rotting all over Havana.”
The chubby gal laughed loudly. As she told me a story about her adolescent son, the result of a love affair with a Russian sailor, Yudislexis slowly but surely moved closer to me. A warm, salty breeze blew in from the sea and her long black hair softly caressed my face. Her exuberant and generous breasts brushed against my right arm, and I sincerely believed that Midas was a woman. Everything she touched with her magic tits turned to gold, making the misery all around disappear. In that moment, I could smell the deliciously fresh scent of the cologne combined with the delicate dew of her body; it had to be the same fragrance I’d smell in paradise.
“It’s only ten pesos, papichuli,” she whispered in my ear, as she dropped something in my pocket. “And for ten more, we can resurrect all those dead dwarves, whaddaya say?”
But then we heard (and saw) Yudislexis’s boyfriend—a jealous, violent guy—about a block away. The brutish Mongo Mandarria, which was his nom de guerre, was pulling a rustic wooden cart on two old skates cut in half. On the cart was a fifty-gallon steel tank he filled with water whenever the trucks got to his block.
“Shit, it’s so damn hot,” I thought as I went down Campanario toward Ánimas, where the Castros lived. All the while I was trying to adjust the Bebito cologne bottle and the Perla toothpaste Yudislexis had shoved in my front jeans pocket. I thought to myself, “This girl’s like an old stove; she gets you hot but doesn’t cook.” She got her way after all—never gave me what I wanted and ended up selling me something. It seemed like Mongo Mandarria always showed up at the moment of truth, dragging that damn cart, noisier than General Zhukov’s tanks entering Berlin.
The heat and the humidity continued their assault, and the sax case on my back was weighing me down. For rather complicated reasons, I had to get rid of the original instrument case some time back. So a carpenter who specialized in coffins stole some materials from the funeral home where he worked and made me this new one: a strong wooden box lined with black vinyl, to which he’d attached a leather strap so I could throw it over my shoulder.
The carpenter’s name was Nicolae, like his father, but the habaneros, who give everyone a nickname, simply called him Dracula. The poor guy had no choice but to respond to this macabre moniker. His grandfather Vlad Braunstein, a Jewish Romanian immigrant who had established a similar business back in Vienna, had not been able to return to his home in the ‘40s, first because the Nazis invaded Austria, then because the communists took over after World War II. The bloodthirsty General Basilescu’s troops had shot his only son, his daughter-in-law, and two of their children in Bucharest, just as Vlad and his wife Mariana ran away with the youngest grandson to the Bulgarian side of the Danube. When they found out what had happened, the heartbroken Braunsteins made their way toward the Greek border and boarded a ship that crossed the Mediterranean and then the Atlantic to Cuba. The Braunsteins had a relative who had recently died in Havana, and left them a modest inheritance. But more importantly, the booming Jewish community in our city gave the new arrivals such a warm reception that the Romanian family was able to get ahead right away in our then-beautiful and welcoming capital.
With time and sacrifice, old man Braunstein managed to develop a successful business out of splendorous funerals— the Transylvania Funeral Home, whose slogan was “We don’t want anyone to die, but we do want our business to prosper.” The enterprise had its own carpentry shop, and little Nicolae, in spite of his autism, learned the craft of coffin making. When Castro’s revolution arrived in 1959, the Transylvania Funeral Home, like other private businesses on the island, was taken over by the government.
Old man Braunstein, who could not fathom having come so far only to be ensnared again by the same evil, died from a wrenching heart attack after a violent argument with the government official who came to confiscate his business. Mariana lost her mind and was committed to Mazorra, the psychiatric hospital. And Dracula, who never understood a thing about politics, continued his work in the funeral home’s carpentry shop, where the new government allowed him to keep a small room for himself. He lived and worked there completely alone.
The only problem was that Dracula, like so many with his condition, only learned to do one thing well, and obsessively. The case he made for me was a reproduction of a child’s coffin. The maniac even carved a cross on the top! The mini-sarcophagus, as my friends referred to it, was incredibly heavy, and after a while it didn’t feel like I was carrying an instrument but rather one of Snow White’s dead dwarves.
I turned left at the corner of Ánimas, and halfway down the block, right at the Castros’ door, I ran into Kemal Kairuz, the second-generation Lebanese pianist who played with Pablo Milanés at the Karachi before they hauled him off to the UMAP (Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción) in Camagüey. I got goose bumps just thinking about the damn UMAPs. They were nothing less than forced labor camps, where they sent anybody with long hair, gays, and whoever else didn’t fit into the revolutionary mold, anybody they considered “anti-social.” That was back in the mid-‘60s. Years later, Pablo came out of that hellhole and started singing praises to his jailers. Who can figure out people like that?
Kemal was rushing in the direction of the bodega on the next block; he was carrying a red bag with some Arabic lettering on the side. “Hey, Kemal, does that say, ‘Thank you, Fidel’ in Arabic or what?” I kidded him.
Arching his thick eyebrows with obvious glee he said, “Hey, man, don’t mess with me. I’m on my way to Goyo’s to get my stuff. They say the rice is here.” Then, more confidentially, he added, “Damn, man, that rice is so bad I don’t think even Mao Tse-Tung and his people could take it for two days straight. But I’ve got something to go with it today, like you, right?”
“How do you know?” I asked, half-serious, half-joking.
He looked up to the second floor, where Andrés’s wife waved at us from the balcony, and answered, “Oh, you think you’re the only one with the right to a relationship with protein?
You’d better go up. Our friend the trumpet player is waiting for you to start the show.”
A squad car came down the narrow street very slowly; it seemed to me the officers were looking suspiciously at Kemal’s unusual bag and the case Dracula had made for me. I also noted that there were more police on foot than usual. A little wary, I went up the stairs, my footsteps echoing, and felt like the cops were right on my heels.
“All this for red meat, which everybody says is bad because of the uric acid and what it does to the joints,” I thought as I fled my imaginary pursuers. “But it’s better to die from gout like a king, or go to prison, like the Count of Monte Cristo, than to die of hunger, like in Valeriano Weyler’s concentration camps.” I finally arrived, panting, on the second floor.
“Come on in, Habichuela,” said Andrés with a little bow.
He’d been calling me Habichuela, or “green bean,” since my days in the Estado Mayor General band, where I’d spent the three years of my military service. I was so thin in the olive-green uniform that I looked like a string bean. Andrés left me sitting in the living room and, because of the blackout, felt his way into the kitchen to pull the “dresses” from the freezer.
I’d already laid the ninety pesos on the table that the merchandise was going to cost me and now, Andrés unfolded a huge and bloody ball of newspaper before my avid and hungry eyes.
It was an eight- or ten-pound filet, more or less the equivalent to one year’s worth of meat for a Cuban. We usually got about three-quarters of a pound of meat a month on the ration card—if the meat even got to the butcher shop. The long, cylindrical shape resembled a snake stripped of its skin. For a moment, there was the kind of contemplative silence usually reserved for great works of art or the passing of a great person.
“It looks like a donkey’s penis,” said Andresito.
“Young man, have some respect for your mother!” his father said.
“Look who’s talking!” retorted the son. “Yes, but she’s not my mother—she’s yours! In my day…” “Oh, same difference,” Andresito said to his father. “And
anyway, I said penis, not dick, right?” “Andresiiito!” exclaimed his mother Hildelisa. I opened my mini-sarcophagus and stuffed into the mouth
of my saxophone a halved onion and a few garlic cloves Andrés had given me, then the whole ball of meat, now wrapped in a cleaner piece of newspaper. The whole thing weighed so much that The Incredible Hulk could have used it to work out. I had to stuff the mouthpiece and the reed in the back pockets of my jeans, since I was carrying the cologne bottle and toothpaste the chubby girl had sold me in the front. These were joined by a piece of plantain and a small bag of beans Hildelisa gave me. Those pants, which were on the tight side, looked like they were going to burst.
Once I descended the stairs, I had to stop for a few seconds and let my eyes adjust, because the intense light from outside had temporarily blinded me. Andresito yelled down at me from the balcony, “Hey, Habichuela, if you boil that sax when you get home, you’re gonna have quite the stew!”
I made like I had no idea what he was talking about and kept walking. The same squad car that had been cruising the neighborhood before I went up was coming by again, now even slower. In my crazy head, I imagined that the officers had been waiting the whole time to catch me with the irrefutable proof of my crime. I was terrified because I knew what would happen if I was caught with that “beeficide.” But I didn’t really have any other choice, so I kept walking, and without realizing it, I strolled right into a police raid on Ánimas at Perseverancia. I crossed Ánimas and turned right (I don’t even know why exactly), toward the sea, where there were even more squad cars and a crowd in front of El Trueno.
The squad car I’d seen before had turned practically at the same time and came up slowly next to me. I continued for a few more meters on the sidewalk, and, not sure what to do, I stopped. Then out of nowhere came a paper bag full of shit that landed right on the hood of the squad car, exploding and spreading the nasty stuff all over the place. The driver quickly turned off the car, the doors popped open, and cops jumped out, guns in hand. My mouth went completely dry, and I felt my heart beating faster than it ever had in my life. But after looking me over for a second or two, the police officers— completely ignoring the fecal projectile that had just hit their vehicle—put their guns back in their holsters and went to join their brethren. While trying to hide the laughter provoked by the fantastic aim with which that unknown son of a bitch had launched the bag of shit, I got scared of what might happen if I backtracked, so I approached the tumult like someone with nothing to hide.
There were two very young mulattos in one of the squad cars who looked like they could be twins. One was shirtless, and the other had an Afro so big I thought they’d arrested Angela Davis. I found out the two combative mulattos were the illegitimate sons of Ramón Calzadilla, a distinguished operatic tenor who had a scandalous romance with a dark-skinned mulatta, an aging and frustrated zarzuela singer.
According to the story, Luisa Fernández, who was already a little old for motherhood, was hoping for twin girls, whom she planned on calling María and Calas. Things didn’t turn out as she’d expected, and she decided to name her sons Plácido and Domingo, in honor of the great Spanish tenor. But given the bandits her sons turned out to be, they would have been better off with names like Don and Corleone or Lucky and Luciano.
Now, next to the squad car, the very thin, old mulatta, with gold teeth and dressed ever so skimpily, screamed hysterically for them to release her sons, who she claimed were innocent and one hundred-percent revolutionary. Her hair was on end, and the sparks glistening off her metallic mouth in the blazing Caribbean sun.
I was freaked and sweating up a storm, trying to figure a way out of there without drawing suspicion. Then I heard a nearby voice, musical, warm, raspy, and familiar: “Hey, jabao lindo, what are you doing in my neck of the woods?”
When I turned around, it was Juana Bacallao, who had for years lived in that miserable quarter, where such encounters with the police were commonplace. As was her custom, Juana was dressed to kill, as if she were about to step onstage at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. A platinum wig, long white gloves, a calf-length lamé dress, high heels, silk hose, a lace stole… She was smoking a Populares cigarette with her long, studded cigarette holder. Her face was resplendent in the sun, in spite of the various thick layers of makeup and a pair of dark-as-night glasses.
The effervescent image of Juana la Cubana swept away any fear, hunger, thirst, heat, or other suffering that might have affected me at that moment. There was a diminutive Chinese guy by her side who didn’t say a word, a kind of miniature of incalculable age and delicate gestures who wore a pair of very tight black silk pants and a Japanese geisha blouse. It was Juana’s personal valet-beautician, who was never far from her. I couldn’t help but smile at the sui-generis pairing.
“And what are you laughing about? Do I have monkeys on my face or what?” asked Juana.
“Hmm, be careful, my brother, the heat’s on around here,” the vedette added solemnly.
I apologized with a nod and, signaling with a look toward the crowd that had formed at the tenement door, asked, intrigued, “So what’s the story, Juana?”
Juana answered, “What’s the story? Nothing, just that in this slum the black market’s booming, and the cops are all up in arms. It’s totally out in the open: red meat, leather goods, milk and butter, whatever. One of these days, they’re going to bring in the cow through the front door. That’s the story, my friend.”
I got a knot in my throat and my previous smile stiffened from fear. In Cuba, killing a cow drew a severe penalty, even if it was your own property, and the black market in beef was as dangerous as the drug market in any other country. You got years, many years in jail, if you were caught violating the laws that protect those sacred cows.
Little by little, the near-riot had been calming down, the squad cars had left with their human cargo, and the mob had begun to disperse. The only one left was the mother of the twin traffickers, sobbing at the door of the tenement in the arms of a freckled, bald albino wearing wooden sandals, shorts, and a sleeveless shirt.
Out of nowhere, an officer appeared next to us, with a face that suggested he had few friends. He was one of those feckless peasants they bring in from the most remote mountains in Oriente who eventually earn the antipathy of the capital’s natives. The habaneros, who are partiers and irreverent by nature, called these guys Palestinians. The little Chinese beautician remained as solemn as a statue of Sanfancón. The bells from a nearby church broke the silence and startled the little man, who immediately grabbed the singer’s gloved arm.
“IDs, please,” said the officer, extending his index finger like an earthworm.
His cold stare remained focused on the unique duo. Then he gave a once over to the weirdly shaped and heavy load I was carrying on my back. As each of us showed our ID, I ventured to inform him in a most cordial way, “Compañero, this is the famous Juana Bacallao.”
But this Palestinian didn’t utter a word and he took his time checking our papers.
“Well, it says here that her name is Nerys Amelia Martínez Salazar,” he said.
Juana explained, “It’s just that Juana Bacallao is my stage name, compañero…”
The officer cut her off. “Your stage name? And this little Chinese guy, he’s what, a ballet dancer?” he added with disdain. Then, without allowing a response, he turned to me: “And you, what’s the idea with the box? You got a dead body in there or what? C’mon, open up so we can see.”
I thought the world was standing still around me. I got a cramp in my stomach, I broke into a cold sweat, and my ears went numb, producing an incredible pressure in my skull.
“Hey, did you hear me, or do we have a problem?” he said.
Juana looked at the ground, and I obeyed, holding the box horizontally in front of the man. The gendarme opened it slowly, looked the instrument up and down, furrowed his brow, made a face, and slammed down the lid; then he gave us back our papers, turned, and walked away, exclaiming, “Man, that horn stinks!”
As soon as the cop was out of sight, Juana whispered to me in a low voice, practically without moving her lips, “Andrés and Kemal got out of here just before the trouble started, so move your ass. None of this is about you.”
Although my paranoia still didn’t allow me to respond, I breathed a sigh of relief. I quickly said my goodbyes to the odd couple and continued on my way, getting as far away as possible from the troublesome tenement of El Trueno, walking towards Neptuno Street. When I got to the bus stop, I got lucky right away and a Route 43 bus came by, giving me a noisy ride all the way home to Marianao, on the other side of the world. It felt like I was escaping from hell with the Devil’s trident hidden in my gig-bag.
When I got to my neighborhood, everything moved as if in slow motion. The spell was only broken by the sounds of an occasional Soviet military truck, the asthmatic sputtering of a 1940s gringo car, or the horrible rattle caused by my neighbor Tarzan’s smoky, junky Czech motorcycle when he zoomed by, farting and spitting hot petrol. Tarzan was slender, brawny, and statuesque; he had tattoos, wore dark glasses, skin-tight sleeveless tops, ripped jeans, leather wristbands, and colorful bandannas to hold his wild hair back.
The neighborhood kids admired him because he looked like the pirates in the movies they’d show on Sundays at the Cándido Cinema, and he seemed like Captain Hook himself on the broad and empty boulevard, cruising by on his rattling two-wheeler while the gleeful kids sang his praises from the sidewalks. Whenever Tarzan managed to get a few liters of fuel on the black market, the rat-a-tat of his motorcycle could be heard all over Marianao. It was like a war cry in that silent jungle, where the absence of electric juice during most of the day muted the radios, TVs, Chano the rock musician’s electric guitar, and the Cándido movie theater itself.
The son-of-a-bitch bus driver (I realize this is a redundancy) drove past my stop and dropped me off on the corner, near the Cuesta Drugstore, next to what used to be the Ward Bakery, now turned into a residential home. It looked something like the Ringling Brothers circus trick with the overstuffed VW; it was almost impossible to imagine how they could get so many people into such little space. As I was going down my block on Forty-First Avenue, a little anti-aerodynamic Girón bus zoomed by, blowing a cloud of dust and blinding me for a few seconds. “Now I won’t have to say hello to Lieutenant Mayedo and his repugnant wife if they’re sitting on the porch,” I thought.
My brains were practically boiling; when I got home, I had to hold onto the bronze door knocker on our big white- washed door. That’s when I saw the note, written in pencil on a scrap of paper from a grocery bag (this was before we ran out of bags, paper, groceries, and everything else). The brief message was signed by none other than Dizzy Gillespie.
Ever since I was a kid I had heard fantastic stories about the legendary trumpet player, like the time he chased Cab Calloway with a switchblade all over the streets of New York, or the time he showed up for dinner at an upscale Buenos Aires restaurant on horseback, dressed like a gaucho from the Argentine pampas. Someone that unpredictable and eccentric was capable of anything, but the truth is that the message left on my door took me completely by surprise. It was written in some kind of Spanglish and more or less said, “Hola, Paquito, Vine lookin’ for you, pero no estabas. See ya soon! Dizzy Gillespie.”
I took the note from the door and took a good look around. Hmm, nothing, no one, absolute silence. “What the hell is this?” I thought, gazing at the paper somewhat incredulously. I couldn’t explain such a letter, and I walked back out in the implacable sun toward the El Cedro Grocery, located on the corner by my house at Forty-First Avenue and Ninety-Fourth Street in Marianao.
My friend Pichilingo, a thin and mangy dog, was resting against the wall as always, scratching and licking his balls. Without stopping to greet him, I leapt up the three or four cracked concrete steps and past two faded pink columns. As had happened with every other private business at the beginning of the Revolution, El Cedro had been taken over by the government. As a result, the pauper shelves behind the mahogany counter, which had once boasted both domestic and imported products of all kinds, now displayed a combination of anti-American posters, empty bottles, moldy cans, and a large, frameless, cardboard-backed poster of our Maximum Leader. “Thanks, Fidel, for all the things you give us!” said the little hand-painted sign under the picture. To the left of it, the old freezer, with its dark wood and thick metal hinges, had been waiting years for a replacement part that could kickstart its exhausted gringo heart. There had once been a shelf above it painted a light green with gold and red stripes, where the fine liqueurs used to be, but it had fallen apart long ago. Hung from a rusty nail on the only shelf that still seemed solid, another sign signaled a prayer of sorts: “Revolución es construir.”
I hadn’t quite set foot inside the grocery when Jesús Cayón, the grocer, turned to me with a cynical little smile. “Did you get the note?” he asked.
Jesús was a good-natured peasant, fifty-ish, with a broad smile and a head of thinning gray hair. He loved to go for long sojourns into the countryside, get up at dawn to cut sugar cane at whatever plantation would have him in the faraway province of Camagüey. Zafra, or harvest season, was like a break for him. It seemed he used that incredibly tough work to escape the gossip on the block, the overflowing buses, the ever more frequent and longer blackouts, and the constant complaints from his customers about the eternal scarcity of basic products that never seemed to reach the neighborhood stores.
The furious roar of Tarzan’s motorcycle brought me out of my revelry, and I said, “The ape man must have found some contraband fuel.”
It was so hot the perspiration was rolling off my back in thick drops. I imagined Dizzy Gillespie in colorful swimming trunks, strolling around Varadero Beach, playing his horn while pointing to the sun and giving out Popsicles to refresh and delight everyone on the beach’s steaming sand.
“Did I get the note?” I repeated the question.
Before I could answer myself, I realized that the customers in line with their ration cards to buy what few products the grocer had were all looking at me with a mixture of cynicism and curiosity. Sitting up high on the shoeshine chair as if he were on a king’s throne was a very skinny man with reddish skin, wearing olive-green pants and a ragged undershirt that had once been white. A tight cap the same color as the pants gripped his head, as if it was trying by any means to control his messy, rebellious hair. In a slurry voice, from his wooden throne, the skinny guy asked, “Well, buddy, so… did you get the note?”
I nodded, trying to figure out what was going on, or at least what the joke was, and since the load on my back was pretty heavy, I put the little coffin on the floor, but only for a few seconds. Pichilingo, wagging his tail and sniffing what he hadn’t laid eyes on in who knows how long, indiscreetly stuck his nose into it.
I made an inquisitive gesture to the neighborhood gossip queen, an old woman in her eternal and worn rubber flip-flops. Cheché was watching me from behind thick and smudged lenses that looked like they might collapse at any moment. The old woman had been head of the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution since the day the government had created them; she’d been dedicated to watching the neighbors on our block and those surrounding ever since. But since Cheché was getting more deaf and blind by the day, she covered less territory and had less control now. A curtain of blue smoke emanated from the cigar stub she held in her toothless mouth and obscured her small, wrinkled face. The old lady just ignored me. She spit out something blackish from the side of her mouth.
Then it was Jesús the grocer who spoke from behind the counter: “There was a big black guy here looking for you, a real joker, talking nonsense and dressed like Sherlock Holmes.”
The skinny guy in the shoeshine chair finished off the story while pretending to smoke a pipe: “Elementary, my dear Watson. He had on a plaid cape, tall boots, a double-billed hat, and he was even smoking the same kind of pipe that Sherlock smokes in the movies!”
Just then, Olga the mulatta was coming into the grocery store, all happy, swinging, and playful, immediately attracting lascivious looks and the envy of women.
“Yeah, and before he left, he started to puff on it to amuse Cachita la China’s grandkids, and his cheeks blew up so big, they looked like they were going to explode!” said a honeyed voice behind my back. “Just like I’m telling you, music man… What a clown, that black guy!”
The grocer interjected: “Yeah, he was here with Arturo Sandoval, the trumpeter from Irakere. I don’t know, but I don’t think that guy’s an American, and I think those two are up to something.”
It was hard to imagine what a character like that was doing in such a remote neighborhood of Havana. There were no luxury hotels or stores that took dollars here. Foreigners never got this far out.
“Well, you be careful,” Cheché warned. “Hanging out with foreigners isn’t viewed too kindly by the Revolution, and you know that.”
I didn’t tell her to go to hell out of respect for her age, but it wasn’t as if I didn’t want to. Suddenly, we heard the insistent sound of a car horn and somebody calling my name out on the sidewalk. As I turned around, I could see an official car from the Ministry of the Interior with a driver at the wheel and an officer beside it, both dressed completely in olive green with guns at their waists.
The officer opened the back door of the gray mouse-like Soviet-made Volga.
“Get in,” he said. “We need to have a chat.”
He was tall, white, well built, with very black hair cut military-style, severe gestures, and a cutting tone in his voice. He was one of those guys who thought the whole world was Castro’s military base. I could see the other guy, the driver, was a mulatto we described as guayabú in Cuba—big, fat-headed, with a faraway look. He was of a lower rank, with his round face bathed in sweat. An arm hung out of the window and a half-smoked cigar rested in his left hand.
“Who, me?” I asked.
“I told you, music man, whatever involves the black market and trafficking with foreigners is…”
But Cheché couldn’t finish her ideological disquisition because she went into a coughing fit that doubled her over. “Maybe she’ll just choke to death, the old snitch,” I thought to myself, glad for once in my life for the tobacco industry.
“Yeah, you, the one with the little coffin on his shoulder,” said the driver.
“Well, okay, but can I just drop off my instrument at my house?” I asked. “It’ll be just a minute. May I?”
The officer outside the car answered with a wink. “Leave the what? No way, buddy. It’s exactly what’s in there that we’re after.” He came near and signaled toward the case, which I thought everyone but me assumed just carried an inoffensive saxophone. “It’s heavy, isn’t it?” he asked casually, gently tapping the box. I nodded sadly. Recovering his military cadence and taking me by the arm with authority he said, “Then let’s go, it’s getting late.”
Resigned to the worst, I obeyed. Ashamed, and without looking back, I reluctantly climbed into the official car. The Volga’s motor purred when turned on, and the smell of rubber and burnt grass already in the air became stronger. Without further explanations, my escorts started down Forty-First Avenue headed east, leaving a haze of yellow dust all over my neighborhood.
Pichilingo, the little dog, stopped scratching and licking long enough to chase and bark at the official car for a few meters. Tarzan greeted me warmly from his motorcycle as he went by, just as the neighbors came out to see how the police had taken away the musician. For dealing with foreigners? Trafficking in controlled merchandise? Illegal possession of dollars? Who knew! They would have to find out through the grapevine since that kind of thing hardly ever made it into Granma, the Communist Party’s official newspaper. I dared to look out the car’s back window, only to see old lady Cheché, still coughing, pointing at me, threatening with her index finger held high.
The two men kept their silence for the entire trip. They made a right turn on Thirty-First Avenue, and when they got to the corner with the defunct gas station, they turned up at the arrow that said “Tropicana, un Paraíso Bajo las Estrellas,” toward the nightclub’s gardens. As we made our way up the ramp to the most beautiful cabaret in the world, we could hear musicians practicing in the dressing rooms, camouflaged by the vegetation. A classic soprano was holding a very high note, which contrasted with the raspy beat that came from an African drum’s thick skin.
We soon passed under the white arch flanked by willowy royal palms. Up ahead, next to the high iron fence, Rita Longa’s delicately sculpted dancer greeted all visitors. Between the tangled forest trees, ivy, and exotic flowers the club’s principal owner, Martin Fox, had brought from all over the world stood the famous fountain of muses by the Italian Aldo Gamba. According to legend, the sculptor, supposedly in a jealous rage, shot the young Englishwoman who was his model. He went to jail, where he carved the human-sized figures for that impressive fountain, which had first been part of the Casino Nacional. When the casino went under, Fox bought the fountain of muses, and when Gamba was released from prison, he married the pretty Englishwoman he’d tried to kill just a few years earlier.
That magical place was filled with history and ghosts from a past that was still close and fresh. With the fountain’s wa- ters whispering and the birds singing playfully on the tree branches, I let my mind wander and remembered hearing Armando Romeo’s orchestra accompanying Rodney the Magician’s fabulous productions. I imagined a fantastic chorus featuring the disparate voices of Olga Guillot, Nat King Cole, Carmen Miranda, Yma Sumac, Celia Cruz, Sara Vaughan, Bola de Nieve, Steve Allen, Benny Moré, Xiomara Alfaro, Paulina Álvarez, Desi Arnaz, Cab Calloway, Elena Burke, Trio Matamoros, Edith Piaf, Merceditas Valdés, and Pedro Vargas. I saw them making their entrances to the beat of Los Papines’s drums, singing under the starry Cuban sky. Felo Bergaza’s white piano emerged from a cloud of steam and colored bubbles on a revolving platform that went up and down. On top of it Lupe the ballet dancer executed an incredible pirouette.
The choral music in my head began to fade, along with the orchestra, the drums, the piano, and Felo Bergaza’s sequins. The cloud, the lights, the colored bubbles all vanished as the official car slowed to a stop at the front door of the open-air club. The tall man got out, exchanged words with the militia- man in charge, and went in through the thick glass door.
I don’t know if it was because of my paranoia, thirst, hunger, or the suffocating heat inside that car, but I started getting a very strong waft of raw meat. I put my left hand on the small coffin I’d placed on the back seat with me, afraid that those ten pounds of hidden beef would start to decompose and stink up a storm and that the lid on the whole Pandora’s box would pop open.
What would it matter, though, if the police already knew everything and had knowingly taken me into custody with the goods on me? I wanted to confess and apologize but I didn’t dare ask any questions my captors hadn’t actually put to me, especially since I hadn’t been formally arrested. “Get in, we need to have a chat,” was all they had said. Although later they had added that what most interested them was what was in my case. That was worrisome. To what in my case were they referring, exactly? After all, it’s not like the Cuban authorities are what we could call music fans. And what about all the other stuff I was carrying in the case that had been purchased on the black market?
To top it off, even that new sax had been lifted from the warehouse at the Ministry of Culture. I had traded mine for it, which was of lesser quality, by throwing in a few bucks. Some weeks later, when the instrument’s disappearance was discovered, I had to take it apart, sand it down, and wash it with acid so it would look old and beat up and not be confused with the shiny new one they were looking for.
I realized the only legal things on me, in and out of the case, were the shirt I was wearing, which I’d gotten a few weeks before with my ration card, and my underwear, which my Aunt Josefa had sewn for me out of an old sheet we’d found in my grandmother’s linen closet. What else was I carrying? A stolen sax, half an onion, a little bag of red beans, a piece of plantain, half a dozen garlic cloves, a bottle of Bebito cologne, and a medium size tube of Perla toothpaste… all illegal—my God!
There was no way I could explain where I’d gotten all that. In fact, the Wrangler jeans I was wearing had been sold to me by the cook at the Hotel Nacional, who’d stolen them from an Italian tourist. And there was also the mysterious note written by Dizzy Gillespie, a foreign musician.
“I’m screwed,” I thought to myself, imagining the Count of Monte Cristo, Valeriano Weyler, and uric acid-poisoning red meats.
“Nothing can save me now,” I muttered. “And to think how healthy it is to eat greens, fruits, and salads!”
My other self responded, a little louder, “Yeah, and where were you going to get the fruits and vegetables, you fool?”
The driver turned around and looked at me with sad, tired eyes and asked, “What did you say, compañero?”
“Nothing,” I answered. “I was just saying that if it’s this hot in April, we’re going to roast in August.“
The guy answered with a low groan as the other officer came back with a hurried step. He had a cigarette between his lips and a brown envelope in his hand when he jumped into the passenger seat next to the driver.
“To headquarters,” he said dryly.
The driver started the engine immediately and sped out of the cabaret grounds. The word “headquarters” gave me a certain feeling of vertigo, and a strong desire to leap from that car and put an end once and for all to my delinquent lifestyle. But I didn’t have the nerve. I had to relieve my suffering just sitting there, breathing in the warm and contaminated air coming in through the windows. I didn’t even dare ask the officers for a smoke. It had been several days since I’d gone through the meager quota of cigarettes on my ration card, and I hadn’t been able to get a single pack on the black market.
After going around the outskirts of the city for what seemed a thousand times, the official car finally arrived at the front gate of the most sinister, sordid, and feared place on the whole island: Villa Maristas, the general headquarters for the notorious State Security apparatus.
That’s when I was really sorry I hadn’t leapt from the car. The name of that solemn place—Marist Village, in English— came about because, prior to the communist takeover, the campus belonged to a school run by the Marist brothers. The stories about what went on inside those walls made Bela Lugosi’s horror pictures look like Donald Duck and Frankenstein’s monster like Little Red Riding Hood.
“Damn, this is happening to me for being such a glutton,” I lamented when I found myself sitting in a small, white-walled room where there was only a dark wooden table, two chairs, a metal ashtray, a phone, and my ridiculous sax case between my legs, which were trembling now from cold and fear. The A/C was on full blast. About fifteen minutes after I got there, a uniformed woman came in without saying a word and left a metal jar of ice water and two glasses on the table. Seconds later, the higher-ranking of the two officers who had brought me came in. He still had the brown envelope he’d picked up at the Tropicana in his hand. He poured water into the two glasses and offered me one.
“Well, we’re certainly cooler here than out there, aren’t we?” he said.
He sat down at the table in front of me, took out a pack of export-only H. Upmanns from his shirt pocket, opened it, offered me one, put one to his own lips, then pulled out a lighter and lit both. We smoked in silence for a few minutes. I thought I heard thuds in the distance and the muffled cry of someone they were trying to gag. A shiver went up my spine, but I didn’t say peep. The man ignored the terrifying sounds, moved to the empty chair, brought it closer to the table, and laid out some photos he took from the brown envelope.
“Do you know these people?” he asked.
He pointed to a picture of a very made-up Japanese dancer with ornaments in her hair, a raised leg, and a fan in each hand. I tried to take a good look but explained that, with all that makeup, it was really hard to identify anybody.
“How about this one?” “Ah, that’s Juana Bacallao,” I said. Pointing to a black man topped by a Turkish fez and wearing a typical African dashiki that reached the floor, the diplomat was bowing slightly toward Juana, who had her hands in the air, exhibiting yet another of her theatrical poses. The officer continued: “With the ambassador of Ghana, at the entrance to the Hotel Capri, and that’s her beautician.”
I recognized him as soon as he showed me a photo of the little Chinese guy who had been with the vedette that very afternoon.
The partisan continued in a scolding tone: “Well, that’s the same Chinese faggot from the first photo I showed you. He organizes little parties where fags go and dress up as ‘artists,’ but they’re going to get it, because quite a few tourists and even diplomats from socialist countries are going to these so called ‘artist’ events. What do you think about that?”
He paused as he sucked on his cigar before grinding it down in a rage in the nearby ashtray. I didn’t know what to say, so I put mine out too in the same ashtray already loaded with the malodorous remains of previous interrogations. Now the room was filled with a sticky fog, the air we breathed had been contaminated, and the mood had turned suffocating.
The man motioned for me to come closer to the table, and he did the same. I got a whiff of my interrogator’s thick, nicotine-laced breath, and I imagined that mine didn’t smell much better. How badly I wanted to rid myself of that nasty habit!
“Everybody here knows that trafficking in meat, and especially with foreigners, is a no-go, you understand me? Unless, of course, it’s been approved from higher up.”
He was calmer when he finished but continued to take photos out of the brown envelope, laying them on the table.
This time he stayed quiet and watched as I looked dumbfounded at the image of that unique, unquestionable character whose image was captured in the instant photo. He was actually a bit on the thick side, dark-skinned, you could see a plush goatee without a moustache around the broad grin. Perched on his flat nose and wide nostrils was a pair of thick- framed glasses. He was wearing riding pants and boots, a plaid cape, and a double-billed hat of the same material. One hand held his singular trumpet, the other a gigantic ivory pipe.
Tentatively lifting my eyes and fully aware I was still carrying the note that had mysteriously appeared on my front door, I dared to ask, “Compañero, are you trying to tell me that Dizzy Gillespie is mixed up with orgies and illegal parties here in Cuba?”
The interrogator continued: “I have nothing to say about that, and in fact perhaps you know the answer to that better than me, because you know these citizens who are having strange interactions with foreigners, and then there’s that Yankee musician who got off a boat asking about you. Arturo Sandoval picked him up at the pier in his green 1956 Opel and took him straight to your house in Marianao, where we picked you up. Isn’t that right?”
My stomach was doing flips and my head was about to explode. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the relationship between Juana Bacallao, the little Chinese transvestite, and the famous American trumpet player looking all over Havana for me in Sandoval’s old beat-up Opel automobile. The thuds and muffled cries had stopped and now there was just an uncomfortable silence, which I filled with mental strategies on how I was going to confess my “beeficide” and the provenance of all the other things I had on me. I would then honestly and sincerely deny and reject any implications of homosexuality, as well as any personal links to Dizzy Gillespie or any other American musician.
I began to explain with my eyes firmly focused on the black box between my legs: “Look, compañero, there are many capitalist temptations, gluttony…”
But at that moment, the phone that had been a silent witness on the table suddenly began to ring. I jerked, startled, and the man, who had been staring at me until that very moment, held his palm up for me to stop talking and picked up the receiver.
“Yes,” he said, and poised himself to listen, furrow-browed, his eyes moving from my face to my instrument case and back. “Well, there’s no question about it, we’ll have to take him back right away.”
That’s all he said before he hung up, stood, turned around, and stormed out without saying goodbye.
On the table, next to the photo of Gillespie and the others, there was one of Yudislexis, the chubby girl from the diner, wearing a bikini and dancing with a couple of young guys, also wearing very little, who were none other than Plácido and Domingo, the twin traffickers (not exactly saints) from El Trueno. Nearby, wearing a feathered turban and what looked like women’s panties with lace and everything, Kemal Kairuz was playing the piano.
On either side of the Arab, Juana Bacallao and a Japanese geisha were singing a duet. It was possible to distinguish Andrés Castro and his son in the background, both dressed like hunters and playing their trumpets. Next to them, with a diplomatic air about him, was the African guy from the previous photo.
“We’re all going to go up in flames; the only one missing from the photos is me—not that they need the evidence, considering all I’m carrying on me,” I worried.
The fat driver who’d brought us opened the door and ordered, “Grab your little horn, we’re leaving.”
I could hear a woman sobbing on the other side of the wall and the echo of a masculine voice whose words I couldn’t make out. I threw the heavy case on my shoulder and followed him to a poorly-lit hallway that was long and narrow and had many doors. Fully-uniformed men and women kept coming in and out of the doors. Voices giving commands, and faraway, indecipherable noises could be heard from everywhere.
Avoiding everyone without a single greeting, the driver led the way. His right hand rested on the handle of the gun at his waist. I could see the salt stains from dried sweat on the back and shoulders of his military uniform. He had a just-lit Cohiba in his mouth, which, with his heavy but quick step, made him look like a crazed locomotive on invisible tracks, pulling a solitary car, which was me.
A blinding sun overwhelmed me when we finally got outside. I couldn’t see a thing as I climbed in the backseat of the car, which took off like a wild stallion, leaping over flooded potholes in the tired streets of my beloved and impoverished native city. At the time, I was too confused to know if I was happy, sad, or just a little scared, but I was certainly relieved to have walked out unscathed from that terrible place, filled with smoke and ash and those heart-wrenching screams.
I was glad to be sweating again. Now the carbon monoxide from the buses blended with the smell of burnt oil from the heavy Soviet trucks and those old, invincible American cars seemed like Chanel No. 5 to me. I felt like I was swimming in sweet freedom, even if only halfway.
We went by Ciudad Deportiva and its fountain, which had been lit in other times. It had been inaugurated during the presidency of Dr. Ramón Grau San Martín, a lifelong bachelor who named his sister-in-law, Paulina Ansina, as the First Lady of the republic. When the fountain was completed, the habaneros, as jocular as always, called the thing “Paulina’s Bidet.” I laughed a little, remembering the amusing way my Aunt Josefa told stories, and all the gossip about Grau and his sister-in-law.
The car went by the Surgical Hospital, over the railroad tracks, crossed Cerro and continued down Twenty-Sixth Street. In front of the zoo, there was still the Barbarám Club, in the same building where Bola de Nieve, the great chansonnier used to live.
The Volga continued its flight, ignoring lights and traffic signs. That man drove like a maniac, but there finally came a moment when I was so exhausted, physically and mentally, that I fell asleep, though I don’t know for how long, with my head on the hard little coffin that Romanian Jewish kid had made for me.
I dreamt I was in New York’s famous Birdland Club. Sherlock Holmes was next to me, playing on a gigantic pipe that looked like a saxophone, and I was Dizzy Gillespie, blowing on my crooked horn. Kemal Kairuz was practically naked, seated at the piano and wearing his feathered turban, and
Juana Bacallao was really Ella Fitzgerald, wearing a metal-green wig and dressed like a member of the militia. Andrés and Andresito Castro, decked out as hunters with Bermuda shorts and safari helmets, played trumpets made of meat, and standing between the two of them, the Ghanaian ambassador was slapping a giant batá drum he held between his powerful legs.
The club, called El Cedro, like the grocery store in my neighborhood, was decorated with dusty, broken shelves, a beat-up shoeshine stand, and long rows of empty bottles and rusty cans. At a table by the bandstand, chubby Yudislexis wore a daring dotted bikini and hung sweetly off her beau, Mongo Mandarria. In a dark and lonely corner, the driver of the official car was passionately making out with his tall, handsome superior, whose right hand had vanished into the other’s fly.
“Mother of God, I can’t believe this!” I thought, stunned.
In the most animated part of the cabaret were the twins, Plácido and Domingo Calzadilla, accompanied by their father, Ramón, the operatic tenor, and the Chinese beautician (the first looking like a Pinkerton guard and the second like Madame Butterfly’s Cio Cio San). Contrasting with the rustic environs, there was a crystal bar, filled with gleaming glasses and colorful bottles. The bartender was Dracula, sipping on a Bloody Mary between clients. At the shadowy front door, Cheché’s always-vigilant silhouette could be seen, alert.
“Mantecaaaa!” yelled Jesús the grocer from the audience, lifting his arm in the air to make the request and drawing approving hoots from the crowd.
Sherlock Holmes got the message, counted off, and the rhythm section began to vamp on the intro to Chano Pozo’s famous piece. A loud noise from Tarzan’s motorcycle could be heard from outside, incapable of adapting itself to bebop’s more angular beats. The music was building toward a crescendo, the rhythm increasing in excitement, and just about when I was going to solo, I woke shaking from my dream, with a sudden halt and the sound of something heavy falling.
We had arrived at our destination, and the military guys opened the back door of the car without warning. The sax case I was using as a pillow fell to the ground in the underground parking lot where we’d come to a stop. Instinctively, I held on to the car door so that I wouldn’t follow the case down to the ground, where it had hit hard enough to pop open with its criminal contents.
The fat driver ordered me out. I immediately obeyed, and after closing the lid and throwing the little coffin over my shoulder, I let myself be taken down various service hallways, which I soon recognized as the back of the kitchen at the Habana Libre, the old Hilton Hotel. We finally went through a side door that led to the dressing rooms, which were so familiar to me. They smelled of cheap perfume, coffee, cold beer, and sweaty rumba dancers. In other words, they smelled like a nightclub, a cabaret, a fragrance I’d loved since the cradle. The tall man opened one of the rooms and began to say something, but I interrupted him to tell him that my father used to work there many years back with Fernando Mulens’s orchestra, and that I felt totally at home. The two officers looked at each other and shrugged.
It was obvious that the name of Matanzas’s great composer meant nothing to these guys. With the same tendency I’ve always had toward daydreaming, I started thinking about years before, as if I were watching the elegant, kind figure cut by Mulens conducting from the piano bench. There was my father on sax and a young Juan Formell playing bass with the house band.
The driver’s voice brought me back to the present: “Okay then, after you get your horn ready, come out to the cabaret stage, where they’re waiting for you. You must play in the name of the Revolution, to sing high its praises. We have to beat imperialism at its own game. And hurry up, you’re late.”
“Late for what, compañero?”
I asked in vain, since both officers merely saluted and turned, exiting through the same service door by which we’d come in.
I put the little coffin down on the long table in front of the makeup mirrors and tried to put my instrument together while trying to figure out what the hell to do with the meat, the onion half, and the garlic I had stuffed in the bell of the saxophone— not to mention the piece of plantain, the bag of red beans, Gillespie’s mysterious note, the bottle of Bebito cologne, and the tube of Perla toothpaste I had in my stolen blue jeans.
Then I heard a voice behind me say, “It’d be best if we put that in the bar’s fridge.” My fear totally exhausted by that point, I calmly turned and saw none other than Kemal Kairuz, without his turban but rather in a suit and tie. “Unless you want that meat to spoil.”
In the distance we could hear the improbable and distinctive sound of Stan Getz’s tenor. Looking both ways out in the hallway, Kemal opened the red bag with Arabic lettering that I’d made fun of hours before in front of his building on Ánimas Street.
“I work here at the piano bar,” he said with a shrug. “You know, I don’t think you have any choice but to trust me on this. If you want to give me the key to your house, I can drop this off. I have to go get some music at Tropicana, and Tarzan is going to drop me off on his motorcycle since he’s going that way anyway. It’s no big deal for me to stick this in your fridge. So just tell me what you want to do.”
As I put everything in the bag and handed him the key to my house in Marianao, suspicious though grateful, I asked, “Why would you take such a risk for me, Kemal?”
Without looking at me, he took his time to answer. “Oh, you know, the fag in me.” He laughed, turned, and flew down the cabaret’s hallway. “I’ll leave the key with your neighbor Carmita!” he said with a wave of the hand.
Getz’s beautiful phrases were filling the air, and, having this huge load lifted off my shoulders, I got back to putting my instrument together and started down the same hallway by which the Arab pianist had just left, and from which the intriguing sounds were emanating. I could never have imagined that hallway would take me to such an incredible musical encounter with artists I’d admired since childhood. Everything seemed like a hallucinatory and fantastic dream.
The thing was that, inexplicably, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Earl Hines, and David Amram had all shown up on a cruise ship that day in Havana Bay. There had been nothing in the mass media about it, and there wasn’t a musician on the island who had a clue about the valuable cargo on that ship— except Arturo Sandoval, who ran into Dizzy Gillespie as he casually walked by and heard him mention my name. I later heard that Mario Bauzá, an old friend of my father’s, had told him about me. All of a sudden, and under orders from who knows who, that jam session was organized that afternoon at the Habana Libre’s Caribe cabaret, with American and Cuban musicians going at it. Later that night, there was a surprisingly joyous concert at the Teatro Mella. As it turned out, the hotel was simultaneously hosting a gathering of seniors celebrating fifty years in the sugar industry, and who knows what sick mind decided to punish them, making them go to our hours-long jazz concert at the Mella, while legions of genuine jazz fans and musicians were kept out.
Naturally, State Security blocked access to the theater where the Americans were playing about two hours before the show, and they didn’t let anyone in who wasn’t authorized from higher up or couldn’t show an ID saying they’d been in the sugar industry for fifty years. Is that magic realism or what?
For those of us lucky ones who were able to take part in the historic event, it was a beautiful experience, since we got to play alongside musicians we knew and admired until then only from recordings—Rudy Rutherford, Ron McClure, Billy Hart, Ray Mantilla, John Ore, Mickey Roker, Ben Brown, Joanne Brackeen, and Rodney Jones. When they got back to New York, the journalist Arnold Jay Smith and the American musicians told Bruce Lundvall, then the president of CBS Records, what they’d seen in Havana. This made him so interested in us that he brought the whole group to the United States the following year. We came with Irakere to record for CBS, and even George Wein, the famous producer of the Kool Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall, included us in the lineup. The night’s stars were the piano duo of Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner.
At the end of our set at Carnegie Hall (which we played against the express wishes of the Cuba security agents detail accompanying us), we were joined onstage by David Amram, Maynard Ferguson, Stan Getz, and the ineffable Dizzy Gillespie, with his broad and mischievous grin, clowning around, inflating his cheeks, and… with his plaid cape, high boots, double-billed cap, and the pipe in his mouth just like the one Sherlock smoked in the movies! Just exactly like that windy, sunny April afternoon in the grocery owned by the peasant Jesús Cayón, back in my old Havana neighborhood.
Excerpt republished from Letters to Yeyito: Lessons From A Life in Music, by Paquito D’Riveria, Restless Books, 2015. Excerpted with permission of the publisher.