The World Through Music and Culture

Miami’s Little Havana for Songlines Magazine

The black-and-white image on TV is of a singer scraping a güiro, with a full Cuban ensemble backing him up. A quintessential Havana scene – but not archive or cultural programming – it’s a mainstream commercial for Subway’s new pulled-pork ‘Cubano’ sandwich. Cuba is stirring great interest in America, with people enthused at the prospect of travel. Yet, the dark side of Cuba remains. Cuban rafters still risk their lives to get to Miami’s shores. In desperation, many cut, even shoot themselves at sea, to ensure medical treatment when they wash up, and reduce the likelihood of being sent back. Old feelings die hard amongst the million-plus who have come to America. On Calle Ocho (Southwest 8th Street), known as Miami’s Little Havana, talking to locals at Maximo Gomez Domino Park reveals the less than enthusiastic response to the new politics.

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Bandleader Luis Bofill knows Little Havana well, the amiable singer and bandleader has been playing jazz, rumba and salsa here since 1994. As with so many Cubans you’ll meet, he journeyed to avoid hardship, and gained heartbreak along with freedom. Bofill spoke out against the government while in Cuba, and absconded to avoid imprisonment. His daughter remains, and although they talk and email, he hasn’t seen her for 21 years. “They blacklisted me,” he turns his head, fighting back tears. “Cuba is the same thing as it ever was – the same government, the same repression.” Bofill says. “I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to go and lie that I am happy. I want my people to be like me – free, like here. When they propose I work in Cuba, I say no. Sorry, that is me. I don’t want to go there.”

Cuban exiles in Miami’s Little Havana frequent the club Hoy Como Ayer – or “Today like Yesterday” – mostly for the nostalgia. Dark and intimate, it has classy, old-Havana style, pictures of Cuban stars cram the walls. Lime and rum mojitos are in constant flow, as people sing along to Celia Cruz classics. The club’s owner, Fabio Diaz, is young and stylish. His father, a political prisoner, fled when Fabio was five. Diaz could book more controversial performers with pro-government tendencies from Cuba, maybe big names like Silvio Rodriguez or the legendary dance group Los Van Van, but he refuses. “I respect the people that die at sea, the Damas de Blanco, that are on the street, and I respect all the political prisoner that are in prison right now, and the ones that are here but was in prison years ago,” Diaz says with great conviction. “These performers shouldn’t come to Miami – out of respect. The music represents everything, it’s the way the people show what they feel, their life.”

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At the welcoming frontage of Ball & Chain on the corner of 15th and 8th Street, tourists take pictures and dance on the sidewalk to a live son group. The bar and live venue opened in 1935. In its initial 15-year run, catering to gamblers and outlaws, it was also a clandestine place, where black performers played during segregation. After 1950, new owners revived it, showing great musicians of the day, including Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington. In 1957, a lawsuit brought by Count Basie for non-payment saw the venue closed again.

The venue began its latest chapter in 2014 with new owners Bill Fuller and brothers Zack and Ben Bush. Fuller, a Cuban-American, has no interest in going back to Cuba until the regime is gone. He explains how Little Havana has kept Cuban arts alive in Miami. “Little Havana is so rich in history, culture, arts and its people. The Cuban story is at the center of its history.” Fuller describes. “It is important to preserve the legacy of our ancestors and be able to share their stories and their culture.”

Over 800,000 Cuban-Americans live in greater Miami, amongst them young artists and musicians with the opportunity to return and creatively connect to their roots. Reflecting changing attitudes of a generation unconcerned with the cold war divide between the countries. Rene Rodriguez, dancer and choreographer at Ball and Chain, is a millennial. His parents met in Little Havana while dancing at a Celia Cruz concert. “My family was very strong-willed about Cuba, they lived through some tough times. They have never been back, they have never taken us,” says Rodriguez. “I see a positive change coming. I cannot say I see it immediately. I see there is a little door being opened. I believe the Cuban people will develop and revolutionize within themselves on how to become a better Cuba.” Rodriguez has aspirations. “If I had the opportunity to go, I would go because I’ve heard beautiful things about the arts in Cuba. I wish to create works there that are valid to the community, that are influential and have a message of a better Cuba, a better tomorrow.”

For many musicians who fled Cuba, Little Havana is their cultural life support. Luis Bofill points to some of his favorite places as we stand on the street corner, amongst the cigar shops and art shops. Old men in fedoras walk by, mixing with tourists from all over the world stopping through for a taste of Cuba. “You know, we are in Cuba, you don’t think you can find a city with the same culture like you come from, but better. People keep the traditions and the food and music,” Bofill says with a smile. “I feel like I am home.”

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Photos by Niall Macaulay and Maria Bakkalapulo

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