The Bards of Havana

They can be thought of as bards of the present era. Despite living in the 21st century, they represent the old-time, propped-up Castro socialism. They resemble ancient street performers known as minstrels, who first appeared in medieval Europe and made their living by singing songs in squares and public places.

They can be seen in the old part of the capital – Havana Vieja, rambling in places full of foreign tourists, who watch them with a mixture of curiosity and compassion.

They sing, dance, show off in their colourful costumes, accepting invitations for a shot of rum or contributions in any of the two currencies circulating in the island. Some of them even show some poetic talents (they really do), others sell home-made sweets, etc.

by María Villares
by María Villares

Actually, these street performers emerged in the “Special Period in Peacetime” declared by Fidel Castro after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, after Gorbachev’s phone-call to the old Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov, after the heads of Lenin statues had been hammered down and were rolling on the ground.

Their number soared after the introduction of double currency in Cuba, which made people unable to buy things in well-stocked shops for tourists as they could no longer pay there with Cuban pesos they earned. It was at that time when countless Cubans became “bards”, or rather, when they discovered that they could utilize the scarce artistic talents they had to earn a hot meal before bedtime.

Some call them sly-boots, because they don’t have any real talents. Others have forgiven them. At a distance you can clearly see that they are very humble people, common in all aspects of their lives, unable to make a living as knife throwers, acrobats on roofs, animal trainers or real “troubadours”.

They sing as good as they can, dance the way they have seen people dance at home, they have no repertoire and are even unable to imitate any of the famous TV stars. You can’t expect them to narrate hero stories about Alexander the Great, El Cid, or Fidel Castro. They simply don’t know any.

They are pagan artists and as such they have never been invited to the grand court of politics to entertain generals and kings, neither have they been allowed to put their almost naked feet down anywhere near the large residences of the disappeared class, which now belong to the “new class”.

Roaming the streets of the old Havana, they adapt to and conform with the reality they live in – free and independent, they themselves are the best stage performance of the Cuban reality put on in the paternalist area of the capital controlled by the Office of the City Historian of Havana.

Havana bards are a mixture of all kinds of people, from a granny in a turban with aquiline nose selling her best and kindest smile for a dollar to a woman carrying an altar with her saint along with anything she can bear, or to a man riding a bicycle, carrying his two puppies wrapped up to fight the cold of this chilly December.

TaniaDiazCastroReciente

Tania Díaz Castro (*1939) is co-founder of National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba. For over two decades she was reporter for official magazines. In 1980's she spent 18 months in jail for joining Human Rights Party.