CUBA... - Michael James

Cuba captured my attention when I was in high school. My mom and dad took a trip there just before the revolution. They brought back a conga drum and a carved devil mask that today hangs on my kitchen wall. I remember my high school history teacher Gordon Hall talking about what I now interpret to be U.S. Imperialism.

I distinctly remember him telling us that Teddy Roosevelt led the US’s invading troops but “charged up the wrong hill” after the explosion on the battleship USS Maine that was in the Havana harbor protecting US interests following a Cuban rebellion against Spain in 1889. I soaked up images in Life Magazine of Castro and the guerillas waging battle in the Sierra Maestra, and loved a picture of the triumphant revolutionary forces riding into Havana on horseback.

I dug it when Castro met with Malcolm X in 1960 at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. During the 1960’s and 1970’ s many friends involved in Movement politics traveled to Cuba. Some cut sugar cane, others toured the Island. For me it would take until 1991 to head there. My traveling companions were pals David Meggyesy and Robert Birnbaum of Athletes United for Peace. We went through Canada, flying to and from Cuba in and out of Toronto.

We were there for the Pan American Games, and spent a good amount of time taking in athletic events, including bicycle races at the velodrome, volleyball, basketball, boxing and track and field. We moved from venue to venue, trying but not succeeding to catch up with Fidel who was reportedly doing the “wave” in crowds wherever he went. In 1997 I returned with a group of athletes, journalists and musicians. I brought my son Jesse and my mom Florence along. We had a great time.

I spent a good amount of time walking around Havana shooting pictures of people and pre-1960 cars, a love in my life. We played baseball in Havana and Cienfuegos. Rather the usual us vs. them scenario, we chose sides, mixing Cubans and Americans, men and some women. Traveling back roads our guide recounted the use of those same back roads to move fighters quickly to where they fended off the US backed counter revolutionary forces at the Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron). When we arrived at the site of that historic battle we swam, visited the museum and had a nice lunch.

The band Two Tons of Steel from San Antonio was along on the trip and performed with Cuban bands at shows in Havana and Cienfuegos. It was after the show at the National Theatre that I met a member of the Cuban band Mezcla. He encouraged me to come see Mezcla the following day. I took his advice but arrived late. Though I was unable to hear the band live I was fortunate to meet my now good friend Pablo Menendez, the band’s leader and a fine musician originally from Oakland, California.

Pablo had gone to Cuba at the age of 14 with his mother, the jazz-blues-folk singing radical Barbara Dane. Pablo decided to stay and study music and has lived there ever since. We stayed in touch and arranged for Mezcla to come to Chicago where they performed at my joint, the Heartland Café. We would repeat that booking numerous times, though not during the Bush administration years when travel by Cuban artists to the U.S. was pretty much shut down. My next trip to Cuba is in the planning, hopefully soon, during this period of moving toward the normalization of relations between the two neighboring Nations.

I hope to be touring the Island and taking pictures with Pablo as my guide—capturing some of what Cuba is now, on its road to what it will become.


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