Buena Vista Social Club & Afro-Cuban All Stars/Havana, Cuba

THERE’S music everywhere. In bars, restaurants, cafes and street corners, musicians ply a trade that is the embodiment of this country of contradictions.

It is a land where poverty is never more than a block away. In this single party state, there is no independent, free Press, printed information only available via the government newspaper Granma.

This means that there are few means of release other than through human expression, in this case the art of sound.

And these players most surely talk to you through their voices and instruments. Make no mistake… this is a language that’s a fit-to-burst, unfettered, joyous celebration of existence.

Cubans live by their wits. The national wage is the same, whether you are a road sweeper or hotel manager, roughly approximate to 500 pesos a month. In other words, the equivalent to about twenty-five pounds sterling.

The population’s food is also rationed. Every man, woman and child is allowed two eggs and a couple of chickens’ legs a month. The meat emanates from Canada, which, unlike the US, is a good friend to Cuba.

No wonder then that these delightful, relentlessly buoyant people must constantly search for other ways to make ends meet.

This is why so many turn to music. What for many of us in the wealthy Western World might regard as just a pleasant distraction after work, is for the Cuban a vital addition to his or her skill base, literally and metaphorically another string to the bow.

Cuban traditional music – known as Son – is the centuries-old love affair between the Spanish guitar and the African drum. It permeates all the various styles that you will hear on this, the largest island in the Caribbean.

The instruments come in all shapes and sizes. Quite a few are hand-made, such as the instrument owned by a young musician I stopped to talk to at a roadside stop halfway between Havana and Santa Clara.

He was playing what he called a ‘lute’, vastly different from the mediaeval instrument, and fitted with six pairs of strings, each one tuned an octave apart.

It’s very much like the more familiar 12-string guitar, only with a smaller sound box. He told me that his grandfather had made it for him. It was exquisitely constructed and obviously a much-loved piece of equipment.

Whenever you stop, musicians appear as if from nowhere, serenading travellers in the manner that the troubadours of Europe once played to wayfarers and pilgrims.

Players are paid nothing by bar and café owners. They rely on tips alone, and that’s why it’s vital to at least give them your small change.

It’s simply not good enough to pull out a mobile phone and take a ‘selfie,’ as I have often seen people do. For ‘selfie’ read ‘selfish’.

But on this sultry Saturday night in downtown Havana, just a few streets back from the waterfront, we’re about to see a top-flight band that will actually be paid by the management.

These guys form a loose collective of instrumentalists and vocalists, some of whom played with the late Ibrahim Ferrer, who led the band back in the 1980s when they recorded the legendary Buena Vista Social Club album with American musician Ry Cooder.

It seemed to take an age to reach the club from our hotel in the Miramar district of the Cuban capital city. This was an area once frequented by the rich and famous during the era of the pre-revolutionary Batista regime, notorious because of its links to the American Mafia.

Eventually, our driver turns off the seafront and the taxi threads its way through a warren of side streets, finally reaching the club, a fabulous colonial pile that shouts rather than speaks of former glories.

The attendants on the doors check our tickets and, after climbing several flights of stone stairs, we find ourselves in an enormous, cavernous room supported by huge stone pillars.

Despite the faded grandeur, this is basically a working men’s club, recognisable as such by anyone, irrespective of the whether you hail from Taunton or Trinidad.

Trestle tables jut out at right-angles from faded walls while bar staff flit and hover like hummingbirds. This is indeed a good deal. Our tickets buy not just admission to the club, but also a non-stop supply of cocktails, all of which feature white or dark rum, the national tipple.

The mood is one of boisterous, free-as-the-wind happiness as the people of Havana forget their troubles and concentrate on having a good time.

After a brief introduction by the master of ceremonies, the band wade into the first number, a tidal wave of brass and strings, propelled by a percussion section that crackles and pops like a sugar cane field fire.

This is a music meant for dancing. There’s salsa, rumba, mambo, son danzon… only those without a pulse could fail to be moved to want to move.

From the outset, the band is tight and polished, smoother than a double-shotted Cuba Libre cocktail. The musicians are perfectly drilled, exhibiting the kind of telepathy that’s typical of players who have known each other for years.

They are evidently blessed with a photographic memory for every nuance of the band leader’s directions and arrangements. Meanwhile, a team of vocalists take the microphone in turn, each leaving the stage during the course of a number to pass through the audience, usually singing vocal lines, but occasionally ‘scatting’ in the manner of jazzers.

This is a technique that demonstrates the contribution made by Cuban music to the world of jazz, famously created by the fusion of various musics in the southern United States, a continent that lies a mere 90 miles away to the north.

People are now taking to the floor, dancing in the aisles, many slowly moving towards the epicentre of this wall of sound on the bandstand. The growing throng urges the musicians on to greater heights, and they in turn pick up on the growing vibe and quickening of the collective pulse.

It’s impossible not to be swept along by this tidal wave of humanity as waves of dancers roll like ocean breakers around the lip of the stage. It is a oneness that unites friend and stranger alike, a unique world that recognises neither race, colour or creed, a borderless gathering of humankind just glad to be alive.

The evening draws to a close. But before the last notes fade away into the steamy Cuban night, a cheerleader for the band plunges into the remaining audience that have stubbornly defied the odds and remained seated, urging them to get up and dance.

And then, quite suddenly, it’s over… and the band snaps to a halt with an almost military precision. There are no encores, no shouts of ‘more’, or even special pleadings from those who have been slow to react and feel that they’re only just setting out on this Havana Saturday night.

We join the crowds filing out, down those stone stairs, and step into the night where the taxi driver is dutifully waiting.

The ride back to the hotel is just of the right duration, time enough to cool down, but long enough to swap stories about how much we enjoyed our three hours at the Buena Vista Social Club, a night that will remain in the memory for such a long time to come.

John Phillpott visited Havana and travelled around Cuba with Saga Travel.