Dispatch: Santiago de Cuba
Photos by David Cogswell
After cruising up from Montego Bay, Jamaica on the Celestyal Cruise Around Cuba, our first landing in Cuba was at Santiago de Cuba on the south coast, the island’s second largest city. As we stepped off the ship, the first thing we encountered was a band assembled the end of the exit ramp. This was Cuba, so of course there must be musicians playing live music to mark every step on your itinerary. I had been to Cuba before so I knew this. There are musicians performing everywhere you go. It is all live music all the time.
It’s hard to imagine as an American what it would feel like to grow up in a world in which you are not almost constantly immersed in various kinds of electronic media. But in Cuba they don’t have the rich media resources we have in the states. So they fall back on their own personal resources. Live music is as much a part of the environment in Cuba as electronic media is in the U.S. And the results are amazing as you move through the country. Everywhere you go you are exposed to fine live music, performed by musicians who are confident and authoritative in their craft.
READ MORE: Cuba by Sea: The Journey's Beginning
Just as the Cubans practically perform miracles with their old 1950s American cars, they are extremely resourceful with everything. With music they can take any combination of instruments, just a guitar and a set of bongo drums for example, and produce the sound of a full band with nothing lacking.
We met our guide Aurelio, a native of Santiago de Cuba, who focused his prodigious energy on sharing as much of his home city as he possibly could in the time allowed. His passion for his home was infectious. It was hard not to share the feeling.
Aurelio was one of those people who is impossible not to like, a person blessed with an oversupply of natural charisma and warmth. He wore a red baseball cap that said “Canada” on his shaved head. His name, he claimed, was the only name with five vowels.
He shared with us innumerable things about Santiago, and Cuba itself as we traveled around. It was our introduction, on our first footfall in Cuba, for most of our group it was the first time. The contrast to our home environment was so pronounced the immersion was a splash.
Santiago de Cuba was founded in 1515, one of several cities founded by Diego Velasquez in Cuba, long before the first English colonists founded Jamestown in Virginia in 1607. To begin our tour and provide a historical basis for understanding the city Aurelio took us to a fortress founded in 1638, the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca.
The ancient stone structure stood on a ridge high over the bay where the city is situated, advantageously placed to defend the territory from invaders by sea. It is now a museum with historical displays to evoke and illuminate the time when it was an active fort. Vendors selling crafts lined the walkway as we approached the massive Medieval and Renaissance stone structure.
As we were wandering around the grounds I heard voices singing in sweet harmony and I thought for a moment it was the sound of angels and perhaps my time had come. But as I did not float away, I decided I must still be alive and I followed the sound to its source. It led to a room in the castle with the resonant acoustics of a cathedral. There through the doorway I saw four lovely ladies sitting in a row singing in unimaginably exquisite, high, close harmonies. If angels sing, this must be what they sound like.
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