Havana pulses with a palpable duality. This contrast is not only evident through its dual currency, the melting of Spaniard and African cultures, or the distinct racial and socio-economic divide, although that is all definitely present. The subtler duality is the tightrope many Cubans walk between hardship and happiness, want and contentment.

It is this delicate balance that is inspiring to someone like me, someone accustomed to modern convenience. I won’t wax on about how humbling it was to be surrounded by so many well-educated people with so few resources who still find a way to be abundantly happy. But I will say that the Cubans I met were utterly thankful for the smallest gift and needed little to no justification to celebrate, smile and especially, dance.

The greatest impression I was left with after my recent visit was that, in Cuba, music is both a means to an end and an end itself. In Cuba, music is happiness. It’s more than just tradition; it seems woven throughout the very fabric of their beings. Cubanismo began, and still remains, music-centered. It is how many Cubanos think, communicate and even pray. It spontaneously erupts in the streets, in restaurants, in cramped living rooms and appears to be as natural as the effortless cadence of breath. Dancing, unsurprisingly, is omnipresent — in hidden alley cafés in Habana Vieja, in popular outdoor nightclub 1830, in hotel lobbies and, of course, en la calle. The hollow echo of the clave was so inescapable that I often found myself tapping a foot to a ghost rhythm. It seemed like every Cuban knows how to dance and understands the history of the music in all of its beautiful layers.

Even those from younger generations, while more interested in Reggaeton and Hip Hop, still know all the words of the Yorùbá songs that surface at any moment. Cubans are also rightfully proud of the culture. Everyone who showed us around Habana did so with the pride of un abuela placticando de sus nietos.

During my first day in Havana, instead of running to the nearest beach as a typical tourist might do, I descend to the air-conditioned heaven that is the basement disco of the Hotel Deauville for dance and culture training. “Boom...ba-ba-bop-bop” — a trio of tamboleros from Havana’s 7 Potencias release the magic of their drums. The hypnotic rhythms of the quinto, tumba, and tres dos fill the small, dark room. I sit, thankful to have escaped the suffocating heat, enraptured by the music.

Boom...ba-bop-bop...a veteran danzónero with sharp eyes and skin the color of sand steps in to greet my group and me. He says nothing and begins to loosen his shoulders and bare feet with a series of shrugs and knee lifts. The lead tambolero bellows out a throaty “ye ya ya bawo! “The other two drummers sing a responsorial, “Eh ya,” and el danzónero counters with a series of steps, looking to us expectantly. He explains that this Yorùbá song is actually an enthusiastic greeting to Changó, one of the principal Orisha of the religion.

That is the essence of the music here — intricate and beautiful with several layers of meaning that I have to struggle to follow. Still, it is so enticing, I can’t help but keep chasing. I listen to stage performances, watch and even dance to the beauty of folkloric Rumba, Son and Guaguancó rhythms. Days melt into madrugadas (almost literally — it was blazing hot), and each day I was sure I couldn’t dance (or sweat) any more.

It is 3 a.m. on my last night when I finally return to my room, the sounds of the Malecón below wafting through my window. The street pounds and pulses with energy, as Cubans, tourists, local celebrities, the old and young alike walk and sing and sip Havana Club together. As my head finds a merciful pillow, I consider how I will miss drifting off to sleep to the buzz of voices, guitars and drums that blend together in a melodic chaos that all seems to make sense. And yet again, I ponder the dichotomy: a mellow lullaby of drums and raucous voices? Peaceful chaos? Only in Cuba, where music truly is happiness.

Alicia Santistevan

Based in California and Nevada, Alicia Santistevan has been a professional photographer for over 10 years. Armed with a degree in photography and fine arts from the Art Institute of Colorado, she has set out to discover the world through her lens. Alicia’s images have illustrated countless feature articles and advertisements in magazines around the country. She says what most captivates her about photography is the power of visual narrative. For more information about her work, go to www.aliciasantistevan.com.

Music is Happiness