It’s a sweltering Saturday night in Santiago de Cuba, and the entire barrio seems to be packed into La Casa de las Tradiciones. A mist of rum, beer and sweat fills the air of the much-loved club, while dozens of pairs of feet pound the flexing plywood floors. The wail of a trumpet rides above the locomotive percussion – maracas, congas and guiros all chugging along in rhythmic, rumba unison.
The cajón player raises his hand, silencing the band and the room. From somewhere among the revellers, a reed-thin voice salvages the melody, this time with less urgency but more emotion. The aged cantor takes the stage, his voice bolstered by an upright bass, violin and tres. Momentary transfixion melts into sinuous shuffle-steps as the audience swoons to his rousing son. The rest of the band joins in again, and soon the crowd is echoing the singer’s refrains as his voice soars with the vigour and vibrato of someone half his age.
As dawn steadily approaches and the performance winds down, word arrives of a nearby wedding reception. Eager celebrants spill outside and navigate the barely lit streets between tiny houses, cement bunkers with corrugated tin roofs and the flickering eyes of stray dogs. Along the way, party-goers rush into their homes and emerge with bottles of bootlegged ron and a cornucopia of musical instruments.
Arriving at the scene, they’re welcomed with cheers and the neighbourhood fiesta surges with renewed energy. One man hammers away at a bata drum while a teenage girl plonks a pair of wooden claves. An older fellow raises an ancient trumpet to his lips; it’s dented, with only the memory of a sheen left, but sits in his hands as if he’s held it since birth. Then he wades into the roiling descarga, horn crowing wildly as morning begins to glow at the edges of the sky.