Magic in Havana
We don’t know if it’s the garish coloured walls or the frenetic rhythm of its rumba, but the Callejón de Hamel puts a spell on you…maybe it’s got something to do with the figures of “orishas”, African deities.
Colour on colour: An open-air art gallery in the Cayo Hueso district, close to the Malecon esplanade. Between the Aramburu and Hospital streets lies the first mural dedicated to Afro-Cuban culture on public roads. A mixture of poetry, paintings and sculptures made from the remains of old bicycles, abandoned bath tubs and car varnish that are displayed along the 200 metres of the narrow street. Take a good look and you’ll see that it’s hard to find a single centimetre that has not been used by Salvador González Escalona, a Cuban painter and sculptor, and creator of this unique work of art that he has been working on and that has been growing since 1990. His works have travelled the world and been exhibited in New York, Rome, Madrid and Caracas, but Salvador stays true to his roots, living and working in the street, his home, while curious tourists pass by, admiring the watercolours and charcoal drawings that he has for sale.
If you meet Salvador and you ask him about the mural, he’ll talk to you about “a mixture of surrealism, cubism and abstract art” but above all, he’ll talk about black culture, community, African religion and “destiny’s desire to put it inside me, in my hands, in my art”. He even talks about a magical experience and confesses that “while I was painting the mural I grew stubble for the first time, at 40 years of age”.
Hamel is a temple for Afro-Cuban culture, that displays it culture not only on its walls but the building also vibrates to the beat of the rumba. On Sundays at midday it becomes a meeting place for dancers, singers, musicians, children and tourists with cameras over their shoulders. Here, the colour of your skin, your language and clothes don’t matter and you’re even forgiven if you don’t have rhytmn in your veins. As its walls say, “This place belongs to the human race”.
When you arrive, you just need to follow the sound of the drums. This is the improvised stage for the groups and singers Los Chavalonga from Cayo Hueso, Los Muñequitos from Matanzas, Pedrito el Bumbo, Merceditas Valdés and Rumbatá. You’ll hear the beat of guaguancó, a rhythm that originated in Cuba with the abolition of slavery in 1886. Some dance it wearing sunglasses, in shorts and vests and others are decorated and spin around wearing colourful dresses and scarves tied to their head. Finally there are those who watch the spectacle, moving timidly between the hand-held fans, cigars and rum that blend together in the warm air: this is culture, this is art, this is Cuba. And if you want to take the rhythm home, there’s no shortage of people waiting to sell you a homemade CD including some of the groups that perform in the street.