“I want to hear Cuban music!” The taxi driver looked back at me and just shook his head, “No.” Pulling out of Havana, my companions and I were beginning to get frustrated. We’d been in Cuba 4 days already and hadn’t heard anything resembling the Cuban music we listened to back home in New York. Doesn’t anybody in Havana like Cuban music? Suddenly the driver turned the radio up as loud as it would go. “What on earth is this?” one of my companions said. It was some sort of dance/disco-pop from the 80’s. The singer sang in English. It was a flamboyant song by an act called Boney M about Rasputin, the Russian giant. I couldn’t help but laugh. Before another minute passed, all four of us were dancing in the back seat of the old classic red sports car on our way to a beach on the Caribbean Sea. Years later, the music of German band Boney M is the only music I remember of our musical pilgrimage to Havana. I don’t remember the Son or the Rumba bands we never saw nor the sultry rhythms of the island we expected to hear. I certainly don’t recall the exciting guitar styles we anticipated after watching the Buena Vista Social Club in my living room. When we left Cuba to return home, we carried away disappointment about this. We felt cheated. We came all the way there, breaking our country’s outdated Cold War laws, to experience what we perceived to be streets overflowing with music. Perhaps the streets normally are that way and we just happened on an off week. Perhaps we didn’t know where to go. Maybe there was some sort of local holiday then. Perhaps the State had a way of keeping the “real music” away from the ears of the tourists. Whatever the case, we went back to America disappointed. But what we failed to understand is that this is exactly the pleasure of traveling. It defies our un-informed perceptions. It shows us that we can never really understand a place based on what we hear from outside of it.
I had similar experiences in Senegal, Jamaica and St. Petersburg, Russia. Sometimes the reveal is surprising, sometimes it’s disappointing and often it’s thrilling. Expecting to hear dark brooding tones of Rachmaninov in Russia, I heard 90’s American pop. Turning the dial in search of Jimmy Cliff in Kingston, I discovered rap. Paying good money in a nightclub in Dakar that reportedly was frequented by African megastar Youssou N’Dour, I heard an open mic level singer struggling through English tunes.
Moments of spontaneity also provided me with hearing Arabic folk songs while overlooking a wedding from a hilltop in Palestine, witnessing a marching band in Athens, Greece, shedding tears over the Eagles in Israel, partaking in a Jazz funeral in New Orleans and Belly Dancing music in Istanbul.
Traveling always teaches that experiences continually reveal as much if not more than by planning, and often it’s not what you expected. When you make a journey, where you land is as important as what map you brought.
Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Photographer Todd Heisler is no stranger to travel. He has captured breathtaking images across the world. He has been in conflict zones and continues to shine a light on the far corners of humanity. I recently asked him to share his insight on the subject of music and travel.
“The Soundtrack of a Place” by Todd Heisler
The dawn’s silvery mist hung over green tea groves as we wound through mountain roads across Rwanda. I had hired a driver to take me from Kigali to Eastern Congo for a string of assignments across East Africa, starting in Mogadishu. The only thing apt about the soundtrack was that it was a soundtrack-Saturday Night Fever.
Traveling on assignment as a photojournalist has taught me that your expectations often don’t align with reality. Music is a wonderful window into different cultures. Often live music in a particular place caters to tourists and therefore is curated for certain expectations.
It was 2010, just a few weeks after the devastating earthquake in Haiti. I was working with a driver named Vladimir, while my colleague was working with Manno and Christian. It’s difficult to fully describe the magnitude of what happened to Port au Prince. The earthquake had destroyed so much of the city and thousands were living in tent camps. To drive around listening to music felt like an affront to the suffering. One morning, as we sat parked waiting for a meeting, Vladimir, to lighten the mood, played some of his favorites- Billy Ocean’s “Caribbean Queen”, Alan Jackson’s “Everything I love (Is Killing Me)”. It felt out of place. But this is HIS vehicle. HIS home. This was HIS happy place.
The next day, I was riding in Manno’s car and a voice on his radio cried out in a gravelly tenor that seemed to embody the Haitian spirit amid all the suffering I was witnessing. It was Beken, a Haitian troubadour who we later learned was living in a tent camp himself in Petionville. Thanks to Christian, we tracked him down. Our night ended with him heading to a local bar with his banged-up guitar playing a set. His music, as well as that of Rodrigue Millien, which was also in heavy rotation in Manno’s car, still brings me back to that place and time.
This past July, I was working on a travel story about musical genres throughout Cuba. Thanks to satellite radio, most of our 11-hour drive from Havana to Santiago was spent listening to the Yacht Rock Channel. Our driver, Karel, was not a big fan of Cuban music, and this is what calmed him on long drives. The first few hours of Michael McDonald and Rupert Holmes’ “Escape” started to wear on me. But after a few turns of “What a Fool Believes,” I was starting to question my preconceived notions. Coincidentally, when I returned to the US, Wesley Morris dropped an incredible contribution to the NYT’s 1619 project on The Daily in which he talks about this very genre. You can hear it here.
But Yacht Rock was not all I heard when I was there. The true culmination of our journey was Cimafunk, a modern fusion of Afro-funk, jazz, and traditional Cuban genres. They killed on the final night of the Gibara Film festival. Actually, they didn’t start until morning-churning out a 2-hour set that ended at 4:30 in the morning. The next day, even Karel conceded that he was a fan of their hit “Me Voy.”
Through these experiences, I have learned to be open about what the soundtrack of a place may be.