Traveling to the Rhythm of Cuba, and Trying to Keep Up

Traveling to the Rhythm of Cuba, and Trying to Keep Up

Traveling to the Rhythm of Cuba, and Trying to Keep Up


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Music and travel are natural companions: Music has a way of crossing over language and cultural barriers and creating the kind of connection that travelers crave, and often miss once they’re gone. That was the animating force behind the idea for a story we created about a road trip through Cuba driven by music, which appears in this week’s Travel section. We spent 12 days driving across the country in an effort to better understand the nation through its music.

Almost a year ago, Shannon, a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Times, showed up to a meeting with Amy Virshup, The Times’s travel editor, with crazy drawings and diagrams of how a playlist incorporated into a story might work, completely expecting her to push the idea to the side. Instead, her eyes lit up.

We chose Cuba because we thought it would be manageable for a road trip: It’s an island, close to the United States, and has a wonderful music scene. But it was also subject to a geopolitical drama that would only increase as the months went by, as the Trump administration pushed policies early this summer limiting tourism to the island.

On one hand, it seemed like the worst possible time to write a travel feature on Cuba; on the other, it seemed like the only possible time, because we didn’t know whether U.S. tourists would be completely blocked from visiting the island in the future. (Currently, most U.S. travelers are still able to visit the island using the “support for the Cuban people” visa category.)

For Todd, a staff photographer for The Times, the goal was to capture the movement, energy and sound of Cuban music. He is primarily a still photographer, but you just can’t do a story about music without hearing it, and so he wanted to also incorporate video. (He would travel light, with just two small, mirrorless cameras and a few lenses.) Thanks to the thoughtful design by the team of Rumsey Taylor, Josh Williams and Stephen Hiltner, we have something with a lighter touch, so you can experience the whole story without being distracted by all the elements.

Planning the route and the timing of our trip was complicated. For months, Shannon consulted with Cubans and people who knew the island well, to get a sense of the musical genres we should cover. But when we landed in Havana, our exact schedule was still sketchy: People usually find out about music shows by word of mouth in Cuba, and a majority of venues and bands don’t have updated websites or Facebook pages. Planning the itinerary took as much time as reporting and writing the piece, in the end.

Working in Cuba takes patience in pretty much every respect. Driving across the country is slow. Planes are unpredictable, and buses are even slower. A car is the best way to get around. Communications are still tough and internet access is limited.

When we finally arrived in Havana in July, we were met by a storm that flooded the streets, the first of many curveballs Cuba would throw our way. At almost every stop, we’d learn that we had just missed the greatest music event of all time — which had happened the night before. It became a running joke between us that we were always going to be a day late and a peso short in Cuba, and we might as well make the best of it.

Photographing Cuba seems easy — it is such a vibrant place. But Todd knew it had all been done before. The quest to find something different can be paralyzing; getting away from Havana is a start.

The highlight of our trip was Cimafunk’s show in Gibara, a town on the country’s northeastern coast. The musicians didn’t begin until after 2 a.m., but the energy in the crowd never subsided. Todd was on the stage as the band was in full swing, trying to steady his camera while the stage was bouncing. Shannon was down in the crowd recording audio, trying to hold back tears as she thought about how much work had gone into finding that kind of vibrant moment. The band played until about 4:30 a.m., and we finished the night with two pan con lechon (roast pork) sandwiches and headed to bed. The coastal town buzzed with after-parties until well past sunrise.

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