Habanera: a soundwalk through Old Havana, Cuba

Philip Blackburn


With 15,000 “professional” musicians in Cuba there is a whole lot of sound going on.  Every few steps take you to another sonic space and, in between, you hear the mixes as reflected around the stone buildings.  “Habanera” is one pass through this space, recorded with unobtrusive binaural mics in March 2004.  Letting my ears guide my feet, sometimes attentive walking is enough to compose; the act of wandering operates a natural mixing console.


We hear sound in context, at a point in space and time; antiseptic studio isolation is the exception.  “Habanera” is all about context; how sounds unfold, overlap, and hide — how these sounds blend in this particular environment at this time, and give us a sense of place.  A paradise for the blind, perhaps, or at least a dream for the ear.


Some of what you will hear on the journey:

·       (Track 1) The canon from the fort across the bay goes off each evening at 9 p.m. as it has for hundreds of years to prevent Cuba’s citizens from experiencing trouble with foreigners;

·       Africa and Spain have given Cuba its predominant flavors: Santeria and Catholicism;

·       The sweeping is never done;

·       (2) Fidel speaks, and speaks, and speaks (on three TV stations).  Today’s show covers slavery since the time of Pericles the Kyoto protocol, and terrorism in random order (Wasn’t terrorism how he rose to power?);

·       (3) Old Havana is in need of restoration; the tile-saws are a sign of progress;

·       Another tourist restaurant, another flamenco artist in search of a dollar;

·       (4) Armed police are everywhere; walkie talkies keep you safe and in line;

·       “Mani” seller trying to move some tubes of roasted peanuts;

·       If you’re not practicing your flamenco steps for your evening show you are as likely to be tapping out some rhythms on your claves;

·       (5) The Mardi Gras Carnaval procession has been turned into a daily fiesta so tourists don’t miss it — think stilts and gaudy costumes;

·       African chanting in the park is as much for the participants as for the tourists who might photograph them for a dollar;

·       (6) What could inspire more admiration for the USA than a badly dubbed TV war movie?

·       (7) Night time spreads the sounds around from homes and bars;

·       (8) There is little running water in Old Havana, a truck must come and fill up each building’s tank every day: hoses on the cobbles, pumps, filling cisterns;

·       (9) Children, in the absence of Playstations, play circle games and join in the fun at the boomy museum Kinderconcerts;

·       (10) Electroacoustic music has been made in Cuba since 1964, here by pioneers Juan Blanco and Juan Pinera;

·       Back on the TV you can learn Spanish grammar using examples from Socialist hero Jose Marti (why don’t they do that with Bush?), and hear about women’s contributions to the Revolution;

·       Offers of black market cigars, girls and cocaine are part of visitors’ Cuban experience — caveat emptor;

·       (11) The flamenco steps could substitute for the canon shots if need be;

·       (12) As the water tank fills one last time, George Riveron Pupo, a gay poet muses on the beauties of life, even amidst such tough conditions.


Thanks to Linda Hoeschler, Leaetta Hough, the Bush Foundation, and the many musicians of Havana.


Environmental sound artist Philip Blackburn was born in Cambridge, England, and studied there as a Choral Scholar at Clare College. He earned his Ph.D. in Composition from the University of Iowa where he studied with Kenneth Gaburo and began work on publishing the Harry Partch archives. Blackburn's book, Enclosure Three, won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award. He has been the Senior Program Director for the American Composers Forum since 1991 and continues to compose, build sound-sculptures, perform, and write about things like Partch, Vietnamese music, and the use of sound in public art. He runs the innova record label and the Sonic Circuits International Festival of Music and Art. He received a 2003 Bush Artist Fellowship to begin building a sound park in Belize.

Philip Blackburn

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