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  • Writer's pictureThe Rivers School

March 11: Callejón de Hamel y Rumba, Walking Tour of Old Havana, Sitting in with the Band!

Our first full day in Cuba. After eating breakfast at the hotel, we boarded our tour buses to head to Callejón de Hamel, or Hamel Alley, where we were welcomed with delicious cups of lemonade sweetened with honey. A colorful center of Afro-Cuban culture tucked away between two streets, Hamel Alley is a vibrant space. Nearly every inch of the surroundings are filled with colorful murals containing poetry and symbols, sculptures (a bicycle, painted tubs, various collected objects). The primary visionary behind the area was Salvador Gonzalez Escalona, who created many of the sculptures and free-hanging art in the nearby buildings.

We learned about Cuban religion and the African roots of the themes in the murals. It is estimated that more than 1.5 million Africans were brought to Cuba over the course of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Religion and cultural expression were some ways the Afro-Cuban people demonstrated their resistance to acculturation. Many took to the practice, still extremely common today, of Santería, which has elements of Catholicism mixed in with African traditions and spiritual beliefs. Many of these beliefs influenced the artwork on the walls of the space.

The alley now serves as an important cultural and community center, with events and activities every Sunday, including rumba performances. Rumba, our guide explained, is very musically sophisticated music and incorporates African rhythms from the djembe. Many Afro-Cuban musicians were resourceful and would create instruments from materials they had on hand.

The dancers of today’s rumba performance were each dressed in a single vibrant color to symbolize different deities and energies. We were treated to a rumba performance and invited to join in the dancing at the end! 

From there, we toured the UNESCO World Heritage site of Old Havana, dating back to the earliest days of Spanish colonization in 1519. Our local tour guides, Alejandro and Anay, walked us through the main sites of Old Havana, contextualizing them through describing their ties to important moments in Cuban history: Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza de la Catedral.

We stopped for a bite for lunch where we had more delicious Cuban dishes, which again came served with delicious and refreshing juices. A small band at the restaurant was playing old standards right next to our tables, putting everyone in a great mood. The band was so engaging, a few of our students sat in and played with them! It did not take long for them to pick up the energy and start playing as band members. 

We continued with our walking tour after lunch. After a packed day, we were treated to a bit of free time back at the hotel before ending our day with dinner outside.

Tomorrow, we will meet the students at the Cuban conservatory Amadeo Roldán, whom we will be joining for two concerts!


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