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I love the charter to Havana from LAX. It only goes on Fridays, and you arrive in Havana around seven o’clock. Plenty of time to get settled in your casa, and still head out for some music. NG La Banda has a steady Friday night thing at Casa De La Musica, so I headed there. It turned out they were touring Europe at the time, but Azucar Negra was playing, so everything was good. It was my first chance to check out the new singer, a redheaded bombshell named Tanya. She is marvelous—killer voice, terrific dance moves, great stage presence, and remarkably easy on the eyes. I ran into some friends, and was back in that ecstatic mood I only seem to encounter in la Habana these days. I was a happy camper.

My plan was to stay in Havana for a month. This had to be negotiated with my daughter, Lauren. Since the charter only comes and goes on Fridays, your trip is planned by weeks, not days. Lauren thought that coming home on December 20 was too close to Christmas. It was bad enough I’d be missing Thanksgiving. I pleaded that the Havana International Jazz Festival was being held that last week. She looked skeptical. “Chucho Valdés is the Musical Director of the festival!” On hearing that, she knew there was no use trying to talk me out of it, and gave me her blessing. “OK, you can stay ‘til the twentieth.”

So, the plan was to record the first three weeks, and kick back and enjoy the jazz festival the last week. As I have written before, you can make plans when you go to Cuba, but don’t expect for them to always go that way. They rarely do. I spent most of the jazz festival week putting in twelve to fourteen hour days in the studio.

But during my first few days there, I didn’t get right to work. I was a musical tourist again. Saturday night had Pupy Y Los Que Son, Son at Casa De La Musica, and I was there. Never pass up an opportunity to hear this band, they are mighty and awesome. Sunday night, Manolito Y Su Trabuco were scheduled for the new Casa De La Musica in Centro. I decided not to call Manolito, but just show up at the gig and surprise him. I managed to hide out at the bar, but was discovered by Indio. I told him not to say anything to the band, and you should have seen their faces when they saw me after they started playing. Fun.

On Monday, I started to get to work. I called Marcos. The plan was to use the theater that Klimax rehearsed at for recording the basic tracks. This began an ongoing nightmare of logistics involving availability of the theater aligning with the availability of the musicians, who had rehearsals and recording work with Manolito that would pre-empt anything I was doing. For days, either the theater wasn’t available, or the musicians weren’t. This went on for more than a week. Marcos’ mantra to me was always, “Tranquilo...”, but I did remain calm. I knew that in Cuba, things take time, and I had that, at least a month of it.

Besides, it wasn’t like being stuck in a boring place—if I wasn’t recording, I sure wasn’t bored, you can believe that. I decided to see if my friends in the rumba group Iroso Obba were interested in having me record their Sunday performance at Callejon De Hamel. They needed a better sounding CD to sell at their gigs. They agreed, enthusiastically, so on the next Sunday I headed over there with all my equipment, accompanied by Michel, an engineer friend of Hector, Manolito’s sound guy.

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Getting to Cuba
(information for
US citizens)

Travel to Cuba is, of course, restricted for Americans due to the embargo/bloqueo we have against Cuba. Still, travel there is not impossible by any means.

A travel agency that specializes in Cuban travel can help you find out if you qualify for a license from the Treasury Department to go. It can be as simple as faxing an affadavit to the travel agency. Here's a link with all the official stuff:

Cuba Travel and
Trade Restictions

As a musician, I qualify as a "professional conducting academic research." This would also apply to artists, architects, dancers, photographers, bio-tech engineers, etc. Cuban-Americans are allowed one visis a year to see family members. Students can get a license if their school has a program in Cuba. Journalists, and members of the media also qualify.

Still, the vast majority of Americans who travel to Cuba do so discreetly by entering through a third country, such as Canada or Mexico. When you are in the airport in say, Cancún, you buy a Cuban Tourist card for $15 or 20 dollars. This is what the Cuban immigration people stamp when you enter or leave Cuba, not your passport. You return to the United States with no record of your ever having been to Cuba, except for those cigars and rum in your suitcase.

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