Scene: Afro-Cubanism in Cuba.


In the shade of a portico café on an Old Havana plaza sits an anthropologist. At least she looks like one: tall and serious, with short hair and specs. Taking notes.

The anthropologist's subjects are two black women in white satin regalia, side by side on the steps below her. Each has a black baby doll, a worn deck of divination cards, some shells, a bell, and a glass of water with a rock in it. One chomps on an unlit footlong cigar.

In Spanish, the fortune tellers describe your future parenthood, predict wealth, suggest you take up violin. But they also observe things you didn't tell them -- tension with family, inhibitive shyness. Their attitude is calm and assured.

The anthropologist writes. She must feel that ancient practices related to the Africanized Christian religion of Santería need to be documented before the growing hordes of American visitors, attracted by warming international relations thanks to President Obama's 2016 overtures, put everything on cereal boxes.

A tourist aspect to Cuban Santería manifestations has long existed, but it hasn't yet descended to the level of New Orleans voodoo. In fact, Santería seems very alive here.

Just as the Incas merged the Virgin Mary with their mountain deity, and the human-sacrificing Aztecs easily assimilated Jesus' bleeding sacred heart, the importance of idol imagery made Catholicism adaptable by African slaves in Cuba. One condensed example shows up in Hamel's Alley, where artists have constructed a number of violently expressive life-size crucifixes out of rusting metal junk. The jagged outlines of some recall wooden African totems traditionally dedicated to healing, power and fertility, which are soaked in sacrificial blood and penetrated by nails that concentrate the energy of prayer; in one (above), the cross is represented by multiplications of the small ax that, Bob Marley sang, is ready to cut you down. Here also, a repurposed Little Prince becomes an enslaved version of a stranger in a strange land, and dry bathtubs mounted sideways in walls symbolize the waterless baptism of the oppressed. There's Santería-focused music here regularly, too; if the sample CD by local heroes Peña Cultural Afrocubana is any indication, it's rougher than a wooden cross and full of insurrectionary rhythmic resistance, like a platoon of guerrilla drummers fronted by a howling singer who rivals Toots Hibbert.

Afro-Cuban music and dance also show up in Trinidad, the south-coast city that has become a magnet for vacationers and youths. The setting is not a village or a forest, but an overlit hall with a low stage, good amplification, and tables where you can set your beer (Bucanero is the only drinkable local brew), wine (bland) and rum (always good because it's made from Cuban sugarcane molasses).

Still, the performance leaves no academic reek. A row of singers in white robes cycle through trance-inducing chants as brightly garbed dancers illustrate themes of strength and courtship. For instance, three couples lay out an elemental scenario: the women fan their crotches with handkerchiefs, like, "Get a whiff of this," then pull back and turn the cloth around, like, "Back off, I'm on the rag," or use their eyes to say, "Maybe I like that other stud better." The men, meanwhile, flick their hankies dickward -- it's right here when you're ready -- and prance off carelessly if rebuffed. (The constant hand-to-groin action sure lets you know where Michael Jackson got it.) True to the formal structure, they all end up paired off, but the real climax comes when the original bare-bones percussion trio quadruples into a mighty line of driving polyrhythms; the hailstorm is about enough to rip your skin off.

We think of communism as gray and godless, a notion reinforced by the stolid masses of wind-blasted 1970s Soviet architecture all over Havana. But the Cuban art, music and especially people take exception.