Oscarito and the Hurried American

The high-speed trains were so fast, and in the east of China the substandard concrete their bridges had been built with hadn’t started to give way yet. So I could have gotten from Shanghai to Beijing in nearly the time it takes to get from Manhattan to JFK on the A Train. I could leave in the morning and see my friends in the Havana band Los Reyes ’73 cook up a set at La Casa Latina.

I just didn’t have the day to spare.

How typical. How un-Cuban of me. Even though I grew up 90 miles from Havana, American in Key West, at what was actually a fast enough clip, quickly learning to feel like there was too much to do and too little time to do it in. Nowhere had I felt this more acutely than when, at the age of 24, I finally got my chance to live in Cuba and feel that sap-slow rhythm, see the lives that are brought to a near standstill by the double-lentisimo of being in the tropics and of being trapped in a Communist make-work time-warp.

Ten years on, I had learned little, I think. I went back to Cuba to find some guys I had played music with—I was a alto player muddling through an indistinguished run as a professional musician, and I had met a Cuban band who was glad enough to know an American that they didn’t fuss about my jittery playing, the franticness of a poor musician with a hectic mind. I found most of my old bandmates, and hung out with Los Reyes ’73, the band that my closest friend in Cuba, a dreadlocked salsero named Oscar Muñoz, had joined. I made this video and wrote this article about my quest. But I didn’t linger. I left Cuba, typically, very soon thereafter.

Meanwhile, my friends in Cuba had been catching up to my own pacing. Some had cell phones: I no longer had to call the neighbor five doors down who had the landline and wait ten minutes for her to set the beans on the stove, take down the wash, and then walk down the hall to get my friend to come to talk.

And then, there was email. It still works a lot like phones in Cuban homes: that is, somebody’s cousin has an email account—maybe they work at the Ministry of Education, maybe somewhere else—and then that becomes the email address that the extended family and half the neighbors use.

So I started getting emails from my buddies. From Havana. It felt strange, like they had hopped off the island and could have been sitting in another midtown Manhattan cubicle just like me.

And then, in one email, Oscar announced that he would physically be leaving the island—not for Manhattan, which is still stupidly impossible—but instead for Beijing, China, for a year-long stint as the house band of a place called Casa Latina.

China. That was unexpected. Oscar, like all my friends in Cuba, called my girlfriend Chinita, because she’s half-Asian. That was somewhat understandable. But then her mother came to visit us in Havana, and they called her Chinita as well, even though she’s full-blooded Mexican. The slight indio squint of a Baja Californian was enough to qualify them, in Cuba, as Chinita. I always thought that if Oscar ever met a real Chinese person, his mind might just explode.

And yet, there they were, flying to Beijing to live among the people who are even more Chinita than Mexicans. I wanted so badly to see them there. Mostly because there’s one thing that would have made Los Reyes ’73 different from 95% of all other house bands the world over: they are a great band. The knock on them might be that they are traditionalists, playing a form of salsa and timba that was the last great thing in Cuba, not the next. But how they play it! Firing rhythm, ruthless horns, Oscar with the pitch-perfect nasal cant rising above it all. One small indicator of what Oscar brings to any music he plays: he is a salsero—the singer—now, but when I met him he was the timbalero in our band. And he also played saxophone better than me. But his real training was as a classical clarinetist, educated at La ENA, the famously rigorous national conservatory. Oscar was that good. I wondered if the Chinese, or the expats, or whoever was spending their nights a La Casa Latina in Beijing would notice.

But it was not to be. I spent 36 hours in China, rushing to Nanjing and back. And life in China, especially business life, doesn’t wait. This email just came in from Oscar, from Havana:

hey brother, happy to hear from you again. On Oct 4 we left China because the restaurant had to close for some financial problems and they ended our contract. I’ve been in Cuba for four months and it’s as if I never left with the little money I was able to save up. They said they’ll bring us back to China, but seeing is believing. okay, brother, take care, hi to the family, un abrazo, your brother Oscarito.

Add that to my list of regrets, things that I just rushed past in life. Strange that part of me is glad to know that Cuba, slow as molasses, has trapped my friends and their music again, so that maybe in my time I’ll see them there again, just as they are now.