Friday, May 17, 2013

Instead, he bought a pig.

by Arianna Kemis

Havana, Cuba

“I was four years old,” he had said. “I listened to music, and I felt it.”
I never knew that amidst the waving jungle trees and clucks of Cuba’s national bird, the tocororo, I would find a story of music and a lifestyle that epitomizes the struggle of life and love in Cuba.

There, listening to his performing group, I met Junior Santana, a 30-year-old saxophone player and lifelong citizen of Cuba. He was intrigued by why I came to Cuba, and I videoed him as he played enthusiastically for our group.

But Junior’s energy became quieter and more somber as I asked him in Spanish about his love for music. How did you come to play the saxophone? I asked him. I didn’t suspect I would get a life story over the next several days.

Junior smiling for a spontaneous photograph at an intersection in Havana. 
“My father played guitar and sang in some group,” Junior said in mixed Spanish and English, trying to practice as he walked next to me along the tree-lined Paseo del Prado toward the capitol building. “It’s what I was used to.” 

He told me about the happy years, when he was nine or ten, when he began to study music at La Escuela Vocacional de Arte (EVA). He soon became the best in his class.

Then his smile faded into a sad, serious stare up toward the capitol building. Its scaffolding, an icon of the endless reconstruction project that is Cuba, tried desperately to blend in with the fading sky.
The capitol building of Havana: an icon of Cuba's endless reconstruction. 

“Later,” he said, “in our country, many families like my family, we have trouble for money, food.”  

Junior paused. He was referring to the Special Period of the early 1990’s when the Soviet Union fell and the financial support stopped coming into Cuba, throwing the people into despair and harsh economic conditions. Ironically, we passed a man who was crushing pop cans on the sidewalk to earn money for recycling.

“Sometimes, I know we slept without eating,” he said quietly. “You know? Like the time in World War II?”

In Spanish, he tried harder to describe the feelings of pain he endured, comparing it to the torture some Jews had to withstand during the Holocaust. He hesitated doing this, not sure whether it was accurate, but he tried to build a connection in order for me to understand.

“My mother worked a lot for me and my three brothers, and it was very difficult,” Junior said. ”I fought everyday because I wanted to study. I wanted to play.”   

Ultimately, Junior had to choose between music and his family. He quit his music school and went to a basic public school to help the family save money. 

Years passed slowly, and when he was 17, he finally got another opportunity. He reentered EVA and got the chance to sing

“Music was in my life again,” he said with a small, reminiscent smile. 

Since those years, though, musicians in Cuba have found it increasingly difficult to make a living. Companies do not allow their artists to work other gigs to subsidize their earnings, and no missed performances are paid for. Tourists’ tips are the majority of what groups earn, but sometimes, they do not tip much.

We stopped walking, now out on the Malecón, a 4-mile-long cement couch (or so it seemed) that stretches along Havana’s northern coastline, guarding its streets from the crashing sea.

That year, when Junior was 17, his twin brother committed suicide. His family still has no idea why. Fortunately, he explained, music helped ease the problems of life and provided opportunities to keep smiling.

“When I was 20, I started to study the saxophone,” he said, striding more confidently amidst the sea spray. “I remember my first sax was a soprano.”

He reminded me of the man we saw crushing cans. That is what Junior did. With great emotion, he told me how he crushed cans to donate to the recycling plant to earn money. To my surprise, however, he did not use that money to buy a saxophone.

Instead, he bought a pig.

“Why?” I asked, wondering how buying a pig would get a saxophone. Yet, he found one, and raised it for 6 months in his aunt’s tiny backyard.

Junior became childish in his impression he made of his aunt as she walked out with a bucket of food for the pig, which they had affectionately named “Saxophone.”

Then, he sold Saxophone to buy the real thing.

“There wasn’t much money from it,” he told me. “For a moment, I thought I couldn’t.”

But ten years later, he has a new saxophone that he has been playing for two months.

The street outside the hotel, where I saw Junior for the last time. 
We were sitting in the hotel lobby at that point, and an instrumental piece started playing over the radio in the background. Before I could write down my last thought, Junior began to sing in a supremely beautiful tenor voice, following the rhythm and implied lyrics of the song. My jaw dropped. He was smiling, singing without hesitation in smooth English.

Then, as though nothing had happened, he turned back to me.

“Jazz is my favorite style,” he said simply. Not wanting to miss another detail, I asked him why. He shrugged.

“You can improvise,” Junior said. “It’s what you feel in the moment, every second of the song, of the universe.”

He leaned forward, looking at his hands as he tried to grab the words to describe himself from the air.

“I feel like I’m the center of the universe in that moment,” he said. “All the stars shine on me. They catch me. And more, my imagination flies.”

When I said goodbye to Junior, I could not help but feel somewhat distant, as though the music I heard was tainted with struggling performers and the jovial rhythms were desperate attempts to stay energized and survive.

Music is a part of the Cuban culture, so much that the word hobby does not apply. However, passion does. 

No comments:

Post a Comment