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Songs That Celebrate Cuba, Havana, and Hemingway

Music is a diverse form of expression that takes in many styles. It's a popular field that can only be briefly sampled in a short article.

American singer, Camila Cabello, is a big draw in Havana. No last name necessary.

American singer, Camila Cabello, is a big draw in Havana. No last name necessary.

Musicians and Songs Inspired by Havana, Cuba

Over the last hundred years, Havana, the capital city of Cuba, has undergone a colorful history of change. Today, Fidel and the Russians are gone, but the tourists are rediscovering the old colonial city. Still, the Cuban capital, today, is very different from its heyday of the late 40s and early 50s.

Fortunately, one thing hasn't changed: Havana is still a major inspiration for musicians of all sorts. Some live on the Caribbean island or in nearby South Florida, while others dwell in places far flung. But, when all is said and done, these artists share one thing in common, love for the Cuban capital and appreciation for its music.

Author's Note: This article was basically written about songs in English, as my understanding of Spanish is rather limited. Of course, Cuba is home to many fine musicians and bands that perform and record in the Spanish language.

Like many Latin American cities, Havana has a old quarter, filled with many colonial architectural masterpieces.

Like many Latin American cities, Havana has a old quarter, filled with many colonial architectural masterpieces.

Jimmy Buffett's "Havana Daydreaming"

Jimmy was not the first Buffett to visit Havana, for both his father and grandfather traveled to the port long before Castro began shooting up the countryside. On further note, it was the shipping industry that brought the two men to the Caribbean harbor, for Jimmy's grandfather was a signature captain that ran ships between New Orleans and Buenos Aires (Argentina).

Obviously, Jimmy has just a little bit of seafaring blood running in his veins, as any Parrot Head will gladly tell you. This song with its wonderful verbal intro, is just another of Buffett's many sailor's tales put to music.

P.S. As far as I know Jimmy Buffett did not reference Old Man and the Sea in any of his lyrics.....but he did list the novel, as one of ten books he would recommend for anyone stranded on a deserted island. This eclectic list appeared in his NY Times bestseller, A Pirate Looks at Fifty.

"Havana Moon" by Chuck Berry

Before Chuck Berry became a rock and roll superstar, he penned this not-so-little hit called "Havana Moon." Though perfectly capable of laying out some great C&W licks, Chuck Berry chose to go with a Caribbean style, when he wrote this sad love story.

This Caribbean-styled ballad tells the story of a young Latin man waiting for an American girl to arrive in a big boat and take the storyteller to New York City, where the couple can live happily ever after in a big high rise.

Since "Havana Moon" hit the American charts in the late 50s, the two words have become the title of a Carlos Santana album and a name applied to the free Stones concert put on in Havana in 2016 and attended by over 500,000 people.

Following is the original Chuck Berry song performed in Sweden by singers, Sabina Ddumba and Melinda de Lange and backed up by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.

"Havana" Feat. Jesse Cook

In 1964, Jesse Cook was born in Paris, France to Canadian parents. Soon thereafter, his parents split, so young Jesse spent the first years of his life between Barcelona and Paris. His early travels to Spain must have left a mark, because today, Jesse has developed into one of the more noted nuevo flamenco guitarists. Here he is performing an instrumental piece, simply called "Havana."

Kenny Chesney: "Hemingway's Whiskey"

Several years ago, Guy Clark, a talented songwriter in his own right, put together this C&W classic about the famed American writer. Though the song doesn't even mention Cuba, it says a lot about one of the island's most famous residents, Ernest Hemingway.

Papa Doc, as the American writer was often called, lived ten miles outside of Havana in a little town called San Francisco de Paula. Though Hemingway undoubtedly savored a good shot of whiskey, as the tune implies, he also liked to visit Havana, where he enjoyed putting down mojitos and daiquiries. According to the Eater website, the daiquiri was actually Hemingway's favorite drink and La Floridita in Havana was his his favorite watering hole for this rum specialty.

Songwriter Jesse Rice's "Old Man and the Sea"

Here's another country tune that references Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, one of his most popular and most critically acclaimed novels. Ernest wrote this short adventure in just a few months, while living outside Havana. In fact the story first appeared in its entirety in Life Magazine. Furthermore, the manuscript brought Hemingway a Pulitzer Prize in 1952 and was instrumental in earning him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

In the book, the main character is a Cuban fisherman, Santiago, who plies his trade in the outer reaches of Havana Bay. That is until one day he decides to venture far out to sea in search of a bigger quarry.

In this Old Man and the Sea mention, the songwriter is Jesse Rice, who until recently, had no big reason to hideaway in Havana. But now that Jesse has found himself playing to bigger audiences, he sneaks away to a place "where no one knows his name and the drinks are tall and strong."

"Havana" by Camila Cabello

Camila Cabello was born in Cuba, but moved to South Florida at age five. As a pop singer she gained some notoriety as a member of Fifth Harmony, but has also achieved much success as a solo singer after leaving the group.

Cabello's popular hit, "Havana," has been viewed millions and millions of times on the internet. I have still included it here because the soap opera of an opening is so very humorous and fun to watch. The actual song is not bad either.

Gloria Estefan

Before Camila Cabello, there was Gloria Estefan, another Cuban-American singer, who received much musical acclaim and success after coming to Florida. Born forty years before Camila, Gloria first made a name for herself singing with the Latin Boys. Following is a fun number of Gloria performing a Latin conga line at the famed Copacabana with the Miami Sound Machine.

Now abandoned, this Havana building once housed the activities of the Buena Vista Social Club.

Now abandoned, this Havana building once housed the activities of the Buena Vista Social Club.

"Clocks" by the Buena Vista Social Club

After regrouping in the 90s to keep the old Latin jazz alive, the Buena Vista Social Club is still going strong. Like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans, they are able to do this by adding new members as the older musicians find it necessary to stop playing. Here they are with a well-conceived video celebrating the Coldplay salsa number "Clocks."

"Maracuja" by Aldo Lopez-Gavilan

A maracuja is simply the Portuguese word for that popular, tropical treat, the breadfruit. The pianist is named Aldo Lopez-Gavilan and is widely known throughout Latin America. After teaming up with the Harlem Quartet, recognition of Aldo's musical talents have spread to Europe and America.

Orisha's "Represent Cuba"

Last but not least is this saucy, upbeat tune done by a Cuban band, called the Orishas. An Orisha is an African deity that is also a popular cultural figure in Cuba and other parts of Latin America. This song is called "Represent Cuba," it features Heather Headley, a Trinidad-born American singer, on vocals and a whole lotta nifty Havana street scenes.

Bonus Track

The Toasters were one of the many Ska Punk bands of the 90s, who almost made it big. Nonetheless, they managed to put out enough recorded material, to warrant a Greatest Hits album.

There's no video to go with this Toasters song named after the 50s film noire, This Gun For Hire, so the audio track will have to do.

Another Bonus Track From Jesse Rice

Jesse has been busy recently. If you don't believe me, check out his latest observations from a Hammock in Havana.

© 2018 Harry Nielsen