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Where to Go for Cuba’s Best Rumba, Trova, Filín and Cabaret Scenes

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(Image credit: Kamira / Shutterstock.com.)

It fascinates, draws and continues to lure visitors from all over the world. When it comes to Cuba, the island nation’s passion for life is simply indelible, despite—and some would even argue because—of everything. And nowhere, it seems, is it more felt than through its raw, hypnotic music and dances. If you’re heading that way and keen on getting your rumba on, here’s a roundup that hits all its beautiful rhythms.

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Authentic Cuban rumba lives on the street, and that street is called Callejón de Hammel. Regardless of rumours that it’s become a tourist trap, the brightly painted alley continues to be hailed as “Havana’s high temple of Afro-Cuban culture.” Get there by noon on a Sunday if you want to hear rumba groups playing, and be sure to check out Clave y Guagancó (if you miss them, fret not; you can also catch them performing at the UNEAC).

NOTE: If you’re looking for a less touristy rumba spot, you may also want to check out Sábado de La Rumba at Centro Cultural El Gran Palenque.

Head to Cuba’s second city, the birthplace of traditional trova music in Santiago and make a beeline for Casa de la Trova. Known as “Cuba’s Down-Home Music Salon, ” it’s where native bands of the region, like Jose (Pepe) Sanchez, the Sindo Garay, the Hierrezuelo Brothers, the Matamoros Brothers, and even the Buena Vista Social Club’s Francisco Repilado (aka “Compay Segundo”), have their roots. It’s also where Beatles star Paul McCartney caused a quite a stir with his surprise visit to the club back in 2000, but that’s another story.

NOTE: The best time to be in Santiago, if you can swing it, is in July, when the annual carnival has the city exploding with conga rhythms, music, costumes and excitement rivaling some of the best in the world.

Get a better feel for the evolution of Cuban music by heading into Havana’s El Gato Tuerto. It was a wild spot in the 1950s, and one of the main hangouts for writers and singers of filín, the Cuban-style crooning that took the spotlight from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. (And yes, the word, as you may have guessed, is indeed derived from ‘feeling.’) Today, it’s “The” place to be if bolero music is your thang, with sets playing until the wee hours of 4 a.m. by first-rate artists.

Ever since Wim Wenders’ 1996 film catapulted the Buena Vista Social Club musicians to stardom, the luxurious hall Salón 1930 at the Hotel Nacional Club in Havana has become the country’s must-see, go-to, can’t-miss-it, It Spot, where even up to a few years ago you could still catch the original members playing if you were lucky. Even though those big names have now passed away, you can still find master musicians belting out some good old-time spirit with countless new musical talents emerging from the island. Some to look out for include Roberto Carcassés (said to be the undisputed leader of Interactivo collective) who can also be seen playing at the beautiful Longina in La Habana Vieja and at Casa de la Música de Centro Habana.

Shimmy down with G-stringed mulatas at Havana’s caberet-espectáculos, variety song and dance shows. Cabarets like the Copa Room at Hotel Riviera in Vedado has some of Havana’s finest groups performing on weekends, but for big-ticket shows, you’ll want to make your way to Havana’s western neighbourhood of Marianao to experience the grandest of the city’s cabarets at Cabaret Tropicana.

This article was sponsored by Travel Basecamp.