Mark Danger Powers

Havana & the Universal Language of Music

“Hmm,” I think to myself, “there’s a live band in here; this seems like the place to stop.” I’ve only been on the island a couple of hours, but it’s time to catch some music, maybe a Cuban sandwich and that Mojito that I promised my buddy John I’d try down here.

Apparently the band noticed me singing along with a few songs, and were surprised I knew them. How wouldn’t I know them? They played several tunes that are featured on my #1 favorite album of all-time: Buena Vista Social Club. On a break between sets, members of the band joined me at my table, and we had one of the most disjointed conversations ever. My Spanish was horrendous and between the group of them, they only spoke a few words of English. It seemed as though minutes would go by without my being able to grasp even the slightest semblance of what “we” were talking about. Each of us understanding one word here, one word there, we gradually piecemealed our way through the conversation, gathering little bits wherever we could.

(translated, paraphrased and less disjointed . . .)

“You are a musician?”


“You play guitar? You sing?”

No, no. I play percussion. And drumset.

“You know our songs . . .”

Yes. Some are from Buena Vista Socia–

— “Yes, yes- very, very popular. Why do you come to Cuba?”

I traveled here to go to Matanzas and research percussion.

“Oh. Batá?”

Yes! And congas, too.

“Good . . . so you know Cuban rhythms?”

Not many. Only a few.

“What rhythms do you know? Do you know Tumbáo?”

Tumbáo? Yes- I know it. [Note: Tumbáo is a very common, steady 8th-note rhythm. Often played on congas, it’s found in many Latin styles of music.]

“Then you will come play with us in a few minutes . . .”

Wha?! But, well . . . okay!


I’m really not much of a conga player. But who in their right mind is going to pass up an opportunity like that?! A bit of sweet talking (and quick camcorder how-to) convinced the bartender to run around and catch some video of the song I played with the group that evening, which I am excited to able to share here with you:

[If you experience any difficulty viewing the above video, watch it on YouTube by clicking here]

Like I said, not the world’s greatest conguero (all you percussionists out there, bite your tongues and spare me the critique!). The playing here is not the point. It’s the fact that I’m playing. In Cuba. With a Cuban ensemble. Perhaps the novelty of a foreigner jumping in on congas was part of their motivation for bringing me onstage. But I don’t believe that’s truly the case. And, either way, here I am, over 2,700 miles away from home. Virtually unable to carry on much more than an elementary school verbal conversation. But music, being the incredible universal language that it is, allowed myself and this group to share several minutes of something very real and personal.

Music was the common denominator, the connecting link between otherwise very different individuals. This instance was definitely not the first, nor the last, time this had occurred. I’ve had similar experiences in Thailand, Ghana and Puerto Rico, not to mention impromptu jam sessions all over the US.

My recommendation to any musicians reading? Get out there and jam with anybody and everybody possible! Taking advantage of every opportunity to make music with new people will expand your musical vocabulary. That increased vocab gives you more command over our universal language, preparing you to speak it and communicate in every corner of the globe.

Non-musicians? How does this relate to your line of work? Can you identify with this idea of sharing through a method other than spoken language? I believe that music is not the only universal language, and I’d love to hear about another that you’ve found/experienced! Tell us all about yours in a comment below!

And uh, John? You were right. That Mojito was amazing!

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  1. Great post Mark! Basketball works the same way with me. It’s something that can cut through anything and all walks of life. It’s helped me a lot of the years with clients, new friends, etc.

    • Very cool, Kenny . . . shooting some hoops definitely sounds like a great way to hang out and get to know somebody!

  2. Great post and sweet video Mark! You were definitely having a great time there and it really shows in that video. What a cool experience. I have felt the same way with photography. In Indonesia I met quite a few people where we had trouble communicating with language but made a connection via our shared love of photography. There really are an infinite number of ways to connect with people. Not being able to speak the language should never hold us back.

    • Thanks, Matt! Funny, I’ve had a similar experience with photography, although I am honestly horrible at it. 🙂 I ended spending quite a bit of time snapping pictures of other people with a guy in Ghana. We would take their photos with, yes, a Polaroid, and then give the subject the shot of themselves! At the end of my stay in the village, I gave my new bud the camera and remaining film. It was great connecting with him through that medium, even though it’s not one either of us excelled at.

  3. Sounds like a blast! You’re a US citizen, though, right? Did you get a permit to visit Cuba, or did you just go on the sly?

    Anyway, what a great story. I’m not a “musician” per se, although I played drums in high school and can at least get by on a drumset, but I’ve had some great times as well just sitting in on jam sessions with random people (all here in the US, though.)

    • Cool that you’ve still gotten to jam with some strangers! Travel to Cuba for professional research is allowed under a general license, provided you meet three requirements laid down by the Office of Foreign Assets Control. And things are continuing to gradually get more lax . . . just this week, I received an email saying that Obama is supposed to be making travel there for some religious and educational purposes even easier. Direct flights will also be offered soon!

  4. I must have missed something on Thursday. Are you down there already? That was a really fun video.

    • Ha! Nope. This video is actually from ’09 . . . just realized I’d still been sitting on it! But I will definitely be down there again later this year- and I can’t wait!

  5. I came across this surfing. Great to sit in on folks like that. I had similar experiences with Senegalese musicians in Berlin, for example, and it does help to know the words to some of their songs. That’s what brings me to write you. I watched the video of you in Matanzas with the two wonderful women, rehearsing the lyrics to Makuta (among others), but try as I might, I couldn’t catch all of them, especially the last parts, where they are filmed sideways and from further away. Can you tell me where I can get the text to Makuta? I’d be much obliged! Thanks for what you’re sharing, Mark. Among other things: now I know that scorpion (Thai style) isn’t something I have to rush right out and eat, (unless I have a few stones to munch along with it.)

  6. Buena Vista Social Club is INCREDIBLE! You like los van van?

    • Haven’t heard a ton of Los Van Van, but I am familiar. The legendary percussionist Changuito used to be a member of the group, so I really should check more of them out! Thanks a ton for reading, Mark!


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