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.
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!