The Last Mambo

Article excerpt

Down Calle 19, past the Museum of Decorative Arts--less a shambles than most with its sand-blown Ionic columns and corbeled gate--I fight off memories of my sleepless night, the plumber's candle sputtering. The apartment I've rented is decorated with family photos in the bedroom; the hallway is dominated by an unlikely half-wall-sized painting depicting, from the vantage point of the patient's incision, four surgeons in white masks. The painting's humor seems to me peculiarly Cuban in its laconic expression of the patient's helplessness; in a country where everything--even the polluted air one breathes--is political, it has more than allegorical importance. This is my fourth visit here. In conversations I've had in the past three days, people express to me an anger I've not previously seen in Havana. Their frustration with their ongoing crisis is heightened by the fact that they have no choice but to submit to el comandante's surgery.

It's a long walk from Avenida 16 to the paseo; halfway to my destination, my friend Arturo pulls up in a borrowed Suzuki hatchback. I get in. As usual, Arturo's talking nonstop Havana Spanish--I can't follow half of it. He speeds down Avenida de los Presidentes, takes a left on Fifteenth Street, then drops off the borrowed car at his friend's house and we walk to Arturo's flat.

Though he's supported by the government, Arturo's digs are not impressive. He lives in a ten-by-twelve basement hovel lit by a dizzying fluorescent light. The windowless room is obsessively neat. On the wall is a 1960s-style poster of the Pucho Lopez band climbing a stone wall in Spain. Tapes are stacked in the cubbies. Guitar paraphernalia is stuffed in the doorless closet. Arturo's recently divorced. He has a three-year-old daughter who lives with her mother nearby. "Mi esposa wouldn't stand it," he says. "She wanted me home after I played at night. But there was always somebody to talk to. I'd get home five or six in the morning and it was completely crazy."

We go outside, sit on the stoop, and wait for Manolito, the guitar player, who'll go with us to the rehearsal hall where they practice each morning. Arturo scrunches up on the balls of his feet and pulls off his cap to expose his bald head to the sun. He looks middle-aged. We talk a while about jazz. I'm surprised how much he knows about American music. He grew up in Santa Clara, a town that seems to breed jazz musicians. An FM jazz station from Key West pumps into Cuba the latest stuff, he says; Mike Stern, he says, I really dig Mike Stern.

He leaves me on the stoop to search out milk for his little girl. Despite the fact that milk is supposed to be available for kids under seven, it and other foodstuffs are near impossible to find. Arturo, himself, suffers from ulcers; in the morning the pain's intense, and the food shortage contributes to his discomfort. I've brought him a pack of Winstons and a can of pineapple juice (available only to tourists). After he returns with the milk, he swigs down the juice, lights a Winston; the guitar player arrives and we're off to the Teatro Granma where Pucho's band is rehearsing.

At ten in the morning, the rehearsal hall's stiflingly hot. Gradually, Pucho and the others wander in. Pucho chews a fat cigar. He's tall and black. He's got a long Fidel beard and wears an oversized Cambodian T-shirt. He sits at his Korg keyboard synthesizer to the right of the stage, facing the horns, raises two big fingers, and the players chug through an uptempo "Night and Day." Actually, it begins as "Night and Day" and slips into salsa, layering the Cole Porter melody, played by Pucho on keyboard, above brassy riffs.

The musicians, meticulous players, are inspired by two quarts of rum and at first seem joyful and mad. I sit in the front row and let the music carry me away. Pucho's a splendid keyboardist, shouty in a Jimmy Smith vein on jazz pieces and sweetly percussive in his Latin element. …