Part II: The venues (Click here for part one.)
Here's a rundown of my favourite Havana haunts. Warning: Times vary wildly and there can be big queues when the big bands play matinees. If you are really desperate to see a band, play it safe and get there early.
CASA DE LA MUSICA, CENTRO HABANA
e/Neptuno y Concordia
Tel: 862 4165/860 8296
Matinees: 4pm-8pm, except Mondays, 4pm-10pm (main band on at 8pm). Entrada $5/$10
Nights: Main band on between midnight and 1.30 (weekends). Floor show and moronic MC beforehand. Entrada: $5-$25 (Los Van Van)
This is my favourite for many reasons. It's central - you can walk to and from it (if it's not too late at night, and you're not staying in Miramar) and it has a big-ass dance floor. I also like the multi-level aspect of it - the steps that lead up to the stage make for good audience participation, with singers like Pupy's Pepito coming down to sing right in front of the audience; and there are tiered viewing sections as well. The main drawback would be the sound - there are places where the sound is worse (I'll get to that); and the sound at Miramar (see below) is definitely better. But most bands sound OK here, with the exception of Klimax (more about the bands later): I recommend you see them anywhere except Galiano - I have never heard them sound good there. The floor surface varies wildly: sometimes it's slippery; sometimes it's really sticky. At the supermatinees, (Mondays) it is almost invariably awash with water/beer/whatever. Wear rubber-soled shoes to those ones.
Charanga Forever take a bow at Casa de la Musica, Miramar
CASA DE LA MUSICA, MIRAMAR/EL DIABLO TUN TUN
20 y 35, Playa
Tel: 204 0447/202 6147
Matinees: 5pm-9pm Entrada: $5/$10
Nights: Main band on between midnight and 1.30 (weekends). There is sometimes a dismal comedian on first. Entrada: $5-$25
This stalwart of the scene is much smaller than its sister club, but generally has very good sound. The stage is a little high - if you want to stand close to the band, you're gonna get a crick in your neck. Also: not much room for dancing - way too many tables and chairs, which is nice for sitting, not so much for moving. The floor here is always slippery: wear rubber-soled shoes. I have yet to go to the Diablo Tun Tun upstairs, though I did get a glimpse inside one night: seems to be more of a sit-down gig. Taxis home after hours will be illegal cars and should cost about $5-$6 to Centro Habana.
Manolito y su Trabuco with their adoring fans (note extranjera
with camera) at Cafe Cantante. Pic by Helen.
with camera) at Cafe Cantante. Pic by Helen.
CAFE CANTANTE "MI HABANA"
Paseo y 39, Plaza
Tel: 873 5713/879-0710
Matinees: 4pm-9pm Entrada: $5/$10
Nights: Main band on around midnight (one Friday Tumbao Havana had finished by 12.30, so be careful). Entrada: $5-$15
Cafe Cantante used to be upstairs where Delirio is now. Now it's in the basement: a dark, grim, low-ceilinged room with terrible sound and an awful PA system. However, it's worth going to because the matinees are usually cheaper here for Cubans, so you can get a great party vibe - the Trabuco matinees there earlier this year were terrific, reminding me of the small local gigs I went to in innercity Sydney in my teens (in the neolithic era). The stage is very low, which is a bitch if you're up the back (cause you can't see anything) but fantastic if you're down the front, as it makes you feel like you're right in there with the band. There is always lots of audience participation - peeps in the audience carrying on conversations with band members mid-gig. Loads o' fun. Beware the reggaeton before and after - it's very loud, and often distorted. Take earplugs. Also, after Tumbao Havana play on Friday nights ($5 entry), it's discoteca (house) all night.
Address as above, but upstairs. (Up many, many stairs. Elevator likely to broken.)
Matinees: 4pm-9pm. Entrada: $5/$10
Nights: Midnight-ish-4am. Entrada: $5-$15
Delirio Habanero is an impractical shape - long and skinny, with the stage in the centre facing across it's width. It's a really weird set-up, but if it isn't too crowded, it works. The bands go on late, late, late. I saw Klimax there on a Wednesday for $5 - they didn't go on till about 12.45 - and this was a short set. Their main set started about 2.30. They finished at 4am. Still, peeps don't seem to mind this, and the place actually filled up between 1.30 and 2.30. Also: fab view of the Plaza de la Revolucion below. Who'd've thought a big desolate expanse of cracked concrete could look so impressive?
Calle 22 y 37 La Lisa
Tel: 330568; 330569
Not sure on times, except for the weekend matinee (see text below).
I love this place, though it's a fair way out and can be expensive to get to. It may be cheaper now with the white Panataxis, which charge less than the tourist taxis. I'm not sure. If you can get out there, it's worth it, especially for the Saturday matinees which feature big bands like Paulo FG or Charanga Habanera, for $10 - but don't be fooled by the term matinee - they probably won't play until about 9.30 or 10. It's an outdoor garden-type deal, but it has a huge, high marquee-type roof over it, so it's kind of like a wall-less room. It covers a big area - maybe 1000 peeps, and there are lots of drunks at the matinees - beware of peleas. There are cheesy dancing girls, but, still, seeing live timba on a hot night with a breeze to keep you cool (rather than clammy air conditioning) is one of life's finer experiences.
Hotel Horizontes Capri 23 & N, Vedado.
Tel: 33 3747
Show: 10-10.30; band about midnight.
Oooh baby, this place is a blast from the past. As the name suggests, it's all red. Really all red: floor, wall, ceiling. There are tables and chairs throughout and a ginormous chandelier over the stage. You almost expect to see Sammy, Frank and Deano sitting at a table drinking martinis. Gigs here are irregular (check canal cubano) and may (if you're very lucky) be preceded by a spectacular dance show - which is both tacky, and somehow not at all tacky - no girls in g-strings; more like something from one of those 50s movies when Latin culture was all the rage - more Carmen Miranda doing the Chatanooga Choo Choo cha-cha-cha (and yes, I know she's Brazilan, but the cha-cha-cha is Cuban, and that's how she sang it!) than anything. Y'know, a bit of class. Good routines and amazing, elaborate costumes (you could almost swear Edith Head was in charge). And when I saw the show before Azucar Negra in 04, they finished with Que cosas tiene la vida. It was fab!
Mayito and Van Van rehearse at La Tropical. Pic by Helen.
SALON ROSADO DE LA TROPICAL
Ave.41 esq. 46, Nicanor del Campo
Tel: 203 5322
Times: varies wildly.
Entrada: No idea. They used to have a separate area and entrada for extranjeros. That area has gone - no doubt the tourista entrada remains. If you can pass as Cuban, it's a great deal cheaper.
The legendary beer garden where Arsenio tore it up in the 40s is still a big part of the live music scene today. Timba gigs tend to be sporadic - though I think you can count on someone playing there on a Saturday night - and every Sunday afternoon is a son thing, with an older crowd. This really is where the Cubans go - there'll only be a few foreigners - and if it's a big gig, it will be packed. And I mean packed. It's a great place to see bands - there's a good tier thing going on and a great vibe, especially in the warmer weather. Wear insect repellant in summer. Don't drink too much (water or alcohol), or you'll have to (god forbid) use the toilet. Getting home is a bitch - not even your chavitos can save you here: tourist taxis are few and far between late at night, and if you leave when everyone else does, you'll all be competing for the few passing carros.
LA PIRAGUA/LA TRIBUNA
El Malecon, Vedado
Mostly nights, from about 8-ish. Main band on at 10-ish. (Usually.)
Free gigs in central Havana are held at these two spots which are a couple hundred metres apart from each other. Just turn up, get your rum in a brown paper cup, and away you go. It'll be raucous and crowded and people will be obnoxious. All right, guys will be obnoxious. There'll be dancing and fights. And probaby a terrible sound system (though you might get lucky). The incandescent lights will give the whole night a Lynchian aspect, and by the end of it, your feet will be killing you. Unless you kept drinking rum, in which case, you probably won't be feeling very much at all. There will be too many people to dance comfortably unless you're on the eerily dark outskirts of the crowd, in which you'll probably be too freaked out to dance. And you may get soaked to the skin when an unexpected deluge arrives. They can be great fun! Watch out for lecherous drunken teenagers. Gigs aren't weekly, and radio, TV and word-of-mouth are your best bet for finding out who is playing when.
Other clubs of note are La Cecilia, El Morro Cabaña, Turquino, Habana Cafe and The Copa Room (the last two of which have never been open when I've been there), among others.
Canal Cubano has an exhaustive list of clubs and their contacts. You can also check Salsa Power's Havana page.
Next instalment: The best times of the year to see live timba in Havana (like mangos, timba is seasonal!) - and which bands to see.