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Older man playing a lute

Quinteto Cubanacan and music of rural Cuba

So I’ve mentioned that I tend to connect with musicians in Cuba – often by singing with them.

One of my favorite groups is the Cubanacan Quintet, a group of guys from rural Cuba. If you ever travel with me through central Cuba, there’s a good chance you’ll see them… because I pull strings to cross paths with them whenever I can.

I first took an interest in them because they’re unlike most of the musical groups I see in my travels. They play regional “country” music, a genre of music not often played for foreigners, because people think we only want to hear Guantanamera and Buena Vista Social Club. The group features instruments from this genre – such as the Cuban lute and the mandíbula, a horse jawbone used as percussion. That’s not something you see every day! I liked them for being distinctive and true to their regional roots… and I liked them more once I realized what nice guys they are.

Once I took a shine to them, I started showing them some love. Sometimes that’s a present of guitar strings or other necessities; sometimes it’s advice on how to engage their audience better, sell more CDs and earn more tips; and sometimes it’s working them into one of my itineraries as a private concert. The money they get for a private gig is far more than they earn playing for tips. So for example, last month I hired them to spend an evening with us. They came and joined us for a dinner of roast suckling pig, and afterwards we all went upstairs for a rooftop concert under the stars. They always ask me to sing a song or two with them:

They’ve shown me some love, too, with a small present here or there. And at some point, they asked me to come visit so they could show me some hospitality. So last month, on a day off between trips, I caught an early bus to their tiny town in rural Cuba. We hung out, and they put together a little party for me, complete with a huge and delicious lunch. It’s one of my happiest memories of my travels to Cuba.

Last but not least, Oye Como Va. This isn’t even a Cuban song, but it’s the one they use to give everyone a solo opportunity. This is March 2015, one day before the 86th birthday of the bass player, Maestro Reyes. Most people don’t have so much energy and joy, even at half his age! Then there’s Noel on the lute and Darvis, the bandleader and percussionist, playing the horse jawbone.

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