Thursday, June 29, 2017
Just a bit off the beaten tourist path ...

Just when I thought I had seen all the really cool stuff in Havana, I found myself in “Los Jardines de La Tropical” on the banks of the Almendares River in April. How could I have missed this place?

Turns out, it’s a truly hidden gem, a “fur piece” off the typical tourist trail, which is just how we like it. Even though stuff like this happens all the time in Cuba, I’m always amazed how experiences like this pop up out of nowhere. So, the day before, while lunching at 303 O’Reilly, (same owners as 304 O’Reilly and highly recommended) on Obispo Street in Old Havana, one of my tour group clients struck up a conversation with another table full of gringos. It was a bluegrass baseball cap that led to the discussion which quickly became an invitation to attend a Maverick’s concert.

For those unfamiliar, the Mavericks formed in Miami in 1989 and are described as an “eclectic American band that combines Latin, Neotraditional country music and rockabilly influences.” That pretty much sums it up. Anyway, this particular group of travelers was part of the PBS production team that would film the homecoming of their lead singer, Raul Malo, at some funky outdoor venue we were told was “right off the Malecon.” Now, I’ve never pretended to know Havana all that well, but neither I nor my trusty driver, Roberto, had ever even heard of the place. My friend, “Pototo,” had certainly heard of the place and while he wasn’t sure exactly where it was, he warned us to avoid that neighborhood after dark as bootleg beer and testosterone often leads to “disagreements” among show-goers.

The day of the show, a classic exercise of what said friend calls “Cuban GPS” was engaged. This process requires the driver to stop and ask a pedestrian for directions. Then, after a usually overly-animated, detailed explanation, the driver then goes 50 feet forward and asks the next person, and so forth. Without Google Maps, this system actually (kind of) works. It was quite frustrating, particularly since our initial Cuban GPS points led us to the other “Jardines de Tropical,” a similar, more well-known outdoor music venue about a mile or two off our mark. Eventually, after driving through some fairly shady neighborhoods deep inside Havana, far from the Malecon, we arrived at the old loading dock of the original gardens. A few roadies were hanging around, and since it was a free show, it made no difference how or where we entered.

Constructed in the early 1900s by the owners of La Tropical beer, the gardens once featured waterfalls, gazebos and a small Moorish-themed palace that could accommodate more than 1,000 guests. The finest orchestras of the day would perform on weekends for Havana’s elite class and one can only imagine the original opulence. The place is nearly impossible to describe and has obviously seen its better days, but continues to host salsa concerts and D.J. parties. So much so, there’s even a Facebook page complete with photos and videos of hundreds of young Cubans dancing to ear-piercingly loud music under colored strobe lights.

On this late afternoon, though, it was Cuban-born Raul Malo’s turn to light up the stage in front of a crowd of both foreigners and rug-cutting Cubans. Huge camera booms swept over the crowd and onto the ornately-decorated ceiling of an outdoor pavilion of sorts. I don’t know about you, but sometimes during live shows, even though you don’t know the actual songs, everything just seems to click. To be honest, I only knew one or two original Mavericks song that night, but the whole show was electrifying and the crowd responded accordingly. Being the screwball I am, I did make sure to let a loud whistle rip as Malo belted out the last falsetto notes of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou.” Let’s see if I make the final edit. Ahh, it’s great being an adult, isn’t it?