Where there's smoke

Cuba's famed for its smouldering cigars, but its finest export sizzles, writes Karina Mantavia
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Indy Lifestyle Online
On first seeing the tango performed in mid-19th-century France, the Countess Metaniede Pontales leaned over to her learned companion and asked: "Is one supposed to dance it standing up?"

Cuban dance has long been known for its capacity to express as well as incite desire, but people outside Havana underestimate just how obsessed with dance Cubans really are. Gabriel Garcia Marquez called it the "most dance-oriented society on earth", which may go some way to explain the glory and the guts that is Club Tropicana.

Tango, samba, rumba, bolero, salsa and jazz dazzle as much as the silver bikinis and 2ft-high head-dresses. But while the roots of the world's most extravagant cabaret can be traced back to 1939, the exotic flavours of Cuban dance have been brewing for 500 years.

The twin influences on Cuban dance have been African rhythms and Spanish melodies. History guesses that the original salsa was danced at slave celebrations or at impromptu Sunday gatherings under the trees, a collective fever which transcended an unpleasant reality. Spanish colonisers brought with them a love of romance and, more importantly, the guitar, changing the face of music for the poor and dispossessed of rural Cuba.

A huge dancing boom at the turn of the 19th century found the contradanse - originating from Normandy peasants - and the danzon, a gentle, almost classical dance, all the rage in the private parties and salons of the cities. Meanwhile, on the outskirts, a new way of moving called the rumba took hold with the beat rapped out on conga drums or fish-packing wooden boxes. Indeed it was the ability to make a song and dance out of anything which changed the entire direction of Cuban music. Thus came a new sound from the east of the island, where the revolts against the Spanish had begun, created by making a hole in a clay pot used to carry oil and blowing in it. By the 1900s son, as it was called, referred to a sound with a perfect balance of African and Spanish instruments, with the dance performed by a couple and the song irreverent and mocking. It became the anthem of the poor sections of Cuban society.

Following the abolition of slavery in Cuba in 1886 the Spanish aristocracy had tried to ban every last trace of what was considered "vulgar" black music. Now the Cuban bourgeoisie persuaded the government to ban this new sound, complaining about the immorality of the movements provoked by it. This didn't stop it influencing every other musical form on the island; the ban was lifted in 1920 and even high society began to shake to it. Ten years later the famous "Guarji Guantanamera" became the first example of son to be committed to tape, and its political undertones were as clear as ever: Joseti Fernandez used quotes from Jose Mati, a hero of the independence movement.

It is a measure of how integral to everyday living Cubans regard music and dance that for 18 years Fernandez had a radio programme in which he sung the news in the rhythm of that song. Indeed Beny More, "the wild Man of Cuban rhythm", who took the jazz which infiltrated the island and made it Cuban, said, "This is my flesh and blood".

Castro's vision of music, the nuevo trova, which prioritised the message before the rhythm, didn't stop the rumba coming to the fore. And the islanders went on to create the mozambique, the songo, the paca and the chaonda - all pretty much unknown outside the immediate territory. Writer Hernando Ospina claims: "Cubans never stopped making music to dance to. That would have been impossible because Cubans are stuffed full of rhythms and are perhaps the most musical of all nationalities."

Folklorist Fernando Ortiz's poetic description offers up a gentle Latin American logic to this drive for music: "With our music we Cubans have exported more dreams and pleasures than with our tobacco, more sweetness and energy than our sugar. Afro-Cuban music is fire and smoke; it is syrup, charm and relief. It is like sonorous rum, which brings people together and makes them treat each other as equals. It brings the senses to dynamic life."

If Cuban music and dance can be said to have anything as formal as a philosophy, then it must be its unwitting bridging of social and racial divisions and its very deliberate readiness to party.

Club Tropicana, which took the dance from the heat of the streets into the cool interiors of a nightclub, is unusual in that it is one of the few such acts in the world where the polished product has greater expertise than its rougher roots. Luis Moreira, one-time Cuban dancer in Havana's hotels, comments: "It's much more complex, much more precise than the original street dances. Sure, there are people who go there to see the girls with those bodies and those bikinis, but there are also a lot of people who go to enjoy the refined choreography."

Everyone from Nat King Cole to Josephine Baker has appreciated that choreography, but Luis informs me that its tourist and celebrity exclusivity is a myth: "Cubans can go, not everybody of course, but they have to have friends. And it only costs them 50 pesos." A bargain when you consider the average seat is $50.

While the expensive costumes and flamboyant head-dresses donned for each performance are as much a part of Afro-Cuban tradition as the 1950s Buicks wilting in the streets of Havana, the dance itself is a pure, distillation of Cuban hedonism with bells on.

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