I spent a week in Cuba with a bunch of generous donors to JAZZ.FM91. This is my third trip as tour guide on our International Jazz Safari to the Havana Jazz Festival and it was every bit as fun as my first two trips. Our flight on Sun Wing was speedy and easy…I love an airline that gives you wine with meals, free headphones, etc. (Completely the opposite of my experience with Air Canada in the past few years!)
We began, as always, with a four-day stay at Varadero at the Melia Las Antillas. The staff treated me like family…I have no idea how they can remember returning guests so well but it’s a seriously cozy resort and I have no doubt I’ll be back. Just beside the resort there is a place to ride camels, horses and even swim with Dolphins. I did the dolphin dance last year so I skipped it and rode a couple camels and a horse. Pedro the horse trotted at a seriously slow pace and Cairo the camel was a bit ornery. I’d met Sebastian the year before and he still had minty fresh breath and really seemed to enjoy me talking to him and petting him…a fun ride! At night there were several bands and dance parties…the loudest being the Afro Cuban bash and the quietest being the string trio that played for us over a private dinner. Too many of the acts used playback…I’m not against it in general but Cuba is so rich in amazing horn players and percussionists, it seems illogical to have live karaoke. Still, I knew there was a bunch of “real music” coming up in Havana so it wasn’t a big deal. The live bands that performed at the resort raised their game when jamming with Canadian jazz musicians Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer…just one of many serious benefits to having two renowned musicians who are skilled in latin jazz, in our safari posse. On Thursday we headed for Havana and checked in to the Havana Cohiba Hotel. Everything about this hotel works just fine for me, the rooms, restaurants, service…all top notch.
Every day we broke off into groups to explore Old Havana and at night we travelled together to various venues for live Cuban jazz. It was great to see trumpeter Larry Cramer swarmed by a group of young musicians from Kansas and another group from Cuba…and Jane’s appearance with various bands (including Chucho Valdez) reminded me just how talented a multi-instrumentalist she is.
On our final day, Sunday afternoon, we had a private concert at our hotel for donors that featured about 20 of Cuba’s greatest musicians led by Bobby Carcasses…a man I can only describe as Gene DiNovi meets Don Francks. The guy is forever young, plays pretty much everything and can dance, scat and sing up a storm.
(To be fair, what he does is so far beyond scat I’m not sure what to call it!) Another thing I look forward to every year is the Coco Taxi Cannonball Run.
This year a bunch of us jumped into Coco Taxis (basically mopeds with a big ball on the back…extremely fun but often a little more than dangerous) and we raced to The Russian Embassy which looks a bit ominous during the day and darn-right terrifying when lit at night.
It appeared like the security guard was about to arrest us when a big smile broke out and he just waived us away. Then we raced to a gorgeous tiny restaurant in an old mansion on the ocean and enjoyed ginormous lobster while watching waves crash into the rocks, ending up in the swimming pool just in front of us. I didn’t win any of the three races but we had so much fun and unlike Toronto, the drivers shared the road with us and honked and smiled as we rode three or four abreast, impeding traffic. Coco Taxis don’t go over 35 miles an hour…I can only compare it to racing lawn mowers. At 5:30pm we boarded our bus and headed for the airport. At our airport in Cuba – for just $30 – we were allowed into the VIP Lounge that offers free food and unlimited bar. Now that’s a way to ensure you can sleep on the plane! I am writing this in Cuba and will be off to North Bay first thing tomorrow morning to spend Christmas Eve with family and friends.
I will always cherish the memories of my trips to Cuba…and if you’ve never been I encourage you to go…now…fast!