Monday, October 3, 2016

Havana, 1995

Yosvany Terry, Havana, June 1995

I'M GOING BACK TO CUBA TODAY, OVER TWENTY YEARS SINCE THE LAST TIME I WAS THERE. I won't be in Havana, however, which is something of a relief, since I don't imagine a lot of the things I saw happening in Cuba's capitol in the early to mid-'90s have either improved or gone away. (UPDATE: Thanks to Hurricane Matthew, the press trip has been cancelled.)

I've posted photos from my first trip to Havana here and here, when I went with Jane Bunnett to document the recording of Spirits of Havana, probably her most important record. I went back four years later, on my own, to take photos for her follow up, Chamalongo. It was a year after the shortages and economic hardship of the "Special Period" led to something that hadn't been seen much in Cuba for nearly four decades - riots against the government.

It might explain why the city seemed unusually subdued, even sombre. One thing that I couldn't help but notice, though, was that there was a curious absence of stray cats and dogs on the streets. It was on this trip that a friend - someone who worked for the government, no less - warned me to stay away from the Cuban sandwiches.

"I don't think that's pork in them," he said, ominously.

Havana, Cuba, June 1995

I took my cameras out on the street, of course, in the spare time I had during that week, between portrait shoots. For some reason, though, I didn't shoot as much 35mm as I had four years earlier, and most of my contacts were made with the Rolleiflex. It was probably because, by the mid-'90s, I was far more interested in what I could do with medium format film, and had also fallen hopelessly in love with the square format frame. (A love that has persisted until today.)

I was trying to pare down my photos to the cleanest, starkest compositions I could manage, though the photo above of the rooftops of the city, taken from the balcony of a friend's apartment in Centro Habana, isn't very minimalist at all. I tried not to dwell too long on the ruined buildings, as hard as they were to avoid (a whole building had collapsed just before I arrived, I was told) though the photo of the basketball court next to the Malecon - my favorite shot from this trip - gave just enough of a hint of that ongoing decay for me.

Partagas Cigar Factory, Havana, June 1995

I asked my government connection if he could arrange a tour of the Partagas cigar factory for me while I was there. The cigar craze was in full swing by the middle of the '90s, and I'd become an enthusiastic smoker when I could afford it. I probably had some vague ambition to sell some of these shots to one of the cigar magazines when I got home, though how I would have done that I couldn't tell you, then or now.

I shot quite a lot of film at Partagas, colour and black and white, desperate to capture as much of the atmosphere and detail as possible. Looking over the contact sheets today, it's the portraits of the workers that stand out, with these three among the best. I also can't help but notice how thin everyone looks, especially compared to Habaneros four years earlier.

Frank Emilio Flynn, Havana, June 1995

My main reason for the trip was to get portraits of the musicians Jane had played with during the sessions. I'd met Frank Emilio Flynn before, when he'd been on the Spirits of Havana sessions, and when he'd come to Toronto for concerts Jane had organized. He was a dear man, and I felt privileged to visit him at his home in what was once a prosperous suburb of the city near Vedado.

Frank was a legendary figure in Cuban music, who formed a link between the older son traditions and the Afro-Cuban jazz revolution of the '50s. His eyesight had been damaged at birth, and he was completely blind by the time he was a teenage piano prodigy. I tried to capture some of the stateliness of his playing, and his considerable dignity. It helped that the light coming from the street through the big windows of his home was so lovely.

Merceditas Valdes & Tata Guines, Tropicana Club, Havana, June 1995

I had shot Merceditas Valdes for the Spirits of Havana sessions, in which she and her husband, Guillermo Barreto, had played key roles. Guillermo, tragically, had died not long after those sessions, and I could see when I met Merceditas in the lobby of the Inglaterra, my hotel, that she was doing very poorly herself. She was dressed in santera white, and was a real celebrity in the Inglaterra's lobby, basking in the attention of the staff.

We took a cab out to the Tropicana club, one of the few relics of the Batista/Lansky/Traficante era to remain in business under Fidel. Waiting for us was conga player Tata Guines, another legendary figure from the Afro-Cuban music era, who set up his drums by the club's famous fountain.

Tata scared the shit out of me. He had an intimidating reputation, and gave off an air of menace that it was hard to miss even if you hadn't heard any of the rumours or stories that attached themselves to him. He was known as a hard man, even though he probably wasn't as scary as his wife, who once stuck a knife in him.

I posed the two of them together with the fountain in the background, and they quickly began running through a series of practiced poses that they'd probably learned for publicity shots and LP covers back in the '50s. It was touching to see them there, in the middle of this carefully preserved throwback to Havana's less than austere past, and even as I took these photos I felt like I was catching the last moments of a musical era quickly passing. Taken together, everything I shot on this trip had an inescapably elegaic feel.

Yosvany Terry on the Malecon, Havana, June 1995

Not everything I photographed was about the past, however. While I was in Havana, Jane had asked me to take some promo shots for a young saxophonist she was trying to help out. Yosvany Terry was from a musical family, and had come up through Cuba's music schools with a fantastic reputation. I met him at my hotel and walked down to the Malecon, the seaside boulevard, where I wanted to take some shots that hinted at what could become an iconic talent. (Which explains the obvious echo of Dexter Gordon in the photo at the top of this post.)

It's worth noting that the saxophone Yosvany posed with in these shots was broken; even for a talented young player, getting instruments repaired was a challenge, and Jane had set up a charity to help provide instruments, parts and repairs for Cuba's young musicians. Yosvany would, however, overcome this brief setback, and leave the country for New York, where he'd play with major figures like Branford Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Henry Threadgill and Taj Mahal. Today Yosvany Terry lives in Harlem, is a Rockefeller grant recipient, and was hired by Harvard last year as a senior lecturer and Director of Jazz Ensembles.

Merceditas Valdes died in Havana on June 13, 1996.

Frank Emilio Flynn died in Havana on August 23, 2001.

Tata Guines died in Havana on February 4, 2008.

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