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Chucho Valdés

Electric guitarist Elmer Ferrer gave a sizzling performance recently at Havana's upscale Sala Atril nightclub. Ferrer, who heads up his own band and is also a sought-after studio musician in Cuba, had just added a couple of new members to the group. Their high energy and smiles all round showed the musicians were clearly pleased with their concert -- a mix of blues, rock and jazz.

But there were few foreigners in the club -- and that seemed a shame. These were some of Cuba's most outstanding young musicians in a country with one of the strongest music cultures in the world.

Outsiders can be forgiven for not taking advantage of Cuba's great live music opportunities. Being in the know isn't easy, given the lack of any easily accessible, comprehensive guide to musical goings-on.

According to Yaniel de la Concepcion, a communications official with the Cuban Music Institute, Cuban culture is first and foremost for Cubans.

"That's the priority. Targeting foreigners is not something we've really tried to do," de la Concepcion said.

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Most shows cost much less than the US$6 charged by Atril -- just a few pennies, in fact. Often concerts are free, as was top singer-songwriter Carlos Varela's outdoor tribute to John Lennon in December. Notices about these free events are what usually make the papers, including the institute's monthly La Corcha. De la Concepcion points out though, that the institute plans to launch a website this spring with a good listing of upcoming concerts throughout Cuba.

Ferrer's Canadian manager and record producer, Billy Johnston, who travels frequently to Havana from Ottawa, says it's worth the effort to find out what's happening. Usually this means enlisting the help of a Spanish speaker to make a few phone calls. Johnston describes Cuba as "the jazz capital of the world."

"In Havana you can go to a jazz club and find people there in their 20s. It's vibrant, organic and inspiring," he said. "Many jazz clubs in North America are struggling, the audiences aging. But worldwide, it's Latin jazz (that) is on the upswing, and here you can go to a small venue and enjoy some of the greatest musicians in the world."

His favourite jazz club is La Zorra y El Cuervo (the Fox and the Crow), an intimate, underground setting in Havana's Vedado neighbourhood. The shows get underway at 10 p.m. every night (pianist Roberto Fonseca, not to be missed, plays Thursdays). Cover of almost $13 includes a couple of drinks.

For close to the same cover, Jazz Cafe, also in Vedado but near the Melia Cohiba and Riveria hotels along the famed Malecon seawall, is another good option, says Johnston, although the atmosphere is not so cosy.

He also recommends an evening of salsa music at a Casa de la Musica (House of Music), where music goes hand in hand with salsa dancing. There are two casas in Havana -- both great places to mix with locals.

"It's a real treat to be there on a sultry Saturday night," says Johnston. "Be prepared for loud but great music, and great dancing."

Just keep in mind that some of the locals are bound to be "jineteras" -- Cuban prostitutes.

For a taste of more Afro-Cuban music, try the Sunday morning outdoor performances at the Callejon de Hamel, or the Wednesday 4 p.m. show at the Vedado's Huron Azul. The latter comes alive at 9 p.m. Saturday as well for a night of ballads (cover, about $6).

If your timing is right, you may hit one of the city's many musical festivals, such as Havana's annual December jazz fest ( In addition to a performance by Ferrer's band, this year's four-day event included Toronto's Hilario Duran playing to his hometown crowd for the first time in nine years. On the horizon is the International Choir Festival, March 30 to April 7 (

And there's good news for visitors to Varadero Beach unable to make the 140-kilometre trip to Havana: a former cinema was converted into a Casa de la Musica in November, says jazz festival director Alexis Vasquez. The locale, which served as a satellite stage for the December fest, offers live music every night, including a couple of jazz and percussion shows per week.

Finally, don't forget to buy music before you leave Cuba. CD prices and selection are far better than anything you'll find online. The Artex stores (there's one across from the Habana Libre Hotel, also in Vedado) offer a good variety.

If you go . . .

One of the best websites for Cuban nightlife and concerts:

Addresses of some Havana clubs:

Sala Atril
Ave. 1ra. e/8 y 10 Playa
tel: 2067596 & 2063816

Jazz Cafe
1ra esq. Paseo, Galerias Paseo
tel. 553170

La Zorra y El Cuervo
Calle 23 entre N y O
tel 662402

Casa de la Musica (Miramar)
Avenida 35 esq. a 20, Miramar, Playa
tel. 2040447

Casa de La Musica (Centro Habana)
Calle Galiano e/ Concordia y Neptuno, Centro Habana
tel. 8624165 & 8608296

Bar el Huron Azul
Calles 17 y H, Vedado
tel. 8324551
Source: Canoa Travel

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