The Gift of a Cuban Serenade

Local man in Havana, Cuba playing guitar

It’s already been a pretty wonderful day.

In the morning I’d met Maria Theresa, a local woman who invited me and my fellow photographers, four complete strangers, into her home. She was kind and sweet and had made a huge impact on us all.

Hours later, I am sightseeing on my own, walking at my leisure through the streets of Havana letting a mental coin toss direct my exploration.

It’s a Sunday afternoon and the city is far from sleepy. Families gather in the narrow cobblestone streets to chat, children run around, men play dominoes, street vendors sell their wares. Everywhere I look there are people and old vintage cars.

Portrait of a Cuban woman in Havana

Veiled in the shadow of a doorway, a tiny figure sits, small and shrunken in a rocking chair. She’s wearing a bright, threadbare fuscia robe and white socks tucked into torn pink shoes. Her thin legs are bare.

She’s looking out at the street with a tired, forlorn expression. From what I can see, she sits at the front of a narrow hallway that runs parallel to the street with a tiny sitting area containing her chair, a small bedside table and a fan. Above her hangs a child’s painting (her grandson’s) of a seaside view.

Our eyes connect as I approach and I raise my camera and point in her direction. Her face takes on a dubious expression; she’s obviously baffled by my interest, but she nods affirmatively. As I draw near I see that she’s not alone.

Local man in Havana, Cuba playing guitar

Inside the door, his back to me against the wall, is an old man, her husband, sitting on a low bench with a battered guitar in his hand. He’s wearing thick glasses but from behind the glass, he flashes a squinty-eyed grin a la Bette Midler revealing more than one tooth missing.  His worn tweed coat gives him a surprisingly stately air though it’s challenged by the neon orange baseball cap on his head.

They motion for me to come in and I take a seat between them on the pavement just inside the door. They don’t speak a lick of English and my Spanish is used up after Hola, but we’re able to exchange names—hers is Sophia, his Paolo. Her voice is soft and meek and it makes me wonder if she’s ill. He’s more spirited.  Pointing at his guitar, I ask if he would play.

Portrait of a Cuban woman in Havana

His voice is hoarse at times and his guitar betrays him with a string horribly out of tune, but he sings as if he were on the world’s grandest stage. I photograph his performance, loving the shafts of light that fall on him from the street as he sings. His eyes crinkle behind his glasses and I became fascinated by the way his skin, freckled and crepey, stretch over his fingers as he brushes the strings.

Three songs in he take a break, the nail on his thumb is too long and he wants to cut it – I figure this out by the way he thrusts his thumb in my face and makes a scissor gesture with two fingers. He disappears behind a cloth that separates the hallway from what lays beyond.

Sophia looks at me with sad eyes and I am instantly unsure if I should remain. I sit in a limbo of indecision. She looks at the back of my camera and I guess that she wants to see the pictures I took of Paolo. I show her a few, some moody with low light and deliberate motion blur (she isn’t particularly enamored of those), and then a few that I overexposed for the darkness illuminating Paolo as if he were in broad daylight. Those she likes.

Portrait of a Cuban woman in Havana

For the first time since we met, a faint smile crosses her face and her eyes came to life. I ask her if I can take her photo and she sits back in her chair.  Paolo returns, picking up his guitar. Before he can play again, Sophia places her hand on my wrist urging me to pay attention.

I wait, worried that she is going to say something important to me and I won’t understand, but instead, she begins to sing. Paolo sits dumbfounded. At first, her voice is cracked and rough and she has to swallow against a dry throat, but quickly she rallies. Paolo accompanies her on the guitar, gently rocking back and forth as he plays.

Paolo & Sophia Havana Cuba

From around the corner, I hear footsteps running down the hallway. Two teenage girls suddenly appear out of the darkness. When they see me they squeak in shock then jump out of sight so that only their noses can be seen peeking around the corner. They stare at Sophia in wonder, chattering back and forth in earnest. It doesn’t take a translator to figure out that they are gobsmacked to hear her sing. When Sophia finishes, she stops and looks at me.

Reflexively, I start to clap. I feel as if something monumental has just happened and she smiles, a big broad smile that lights up the dark and I swear she’s grown six inches in her chair.

We sit in silence for a moment then, together, they treat me to a duet.

*The images above were taken while an invited guest of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. The writing and sentiment are my own.

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The story of Paolo - a wonderful old man, who along with his wife, serenaded me in Cuba.

65 thoughts on “The Gift of a Cuban Serenade

  1. knocknockhello says:

    hi..i just come across your blog and i find your blog really inspiring for me..i am in medical school at the moment and about to finish it in 1 year time. I like to become a doctor but i don’t see myself as a fully pledged doctor in my future. i see myself travelling to many places instead, meet and learn from other people from around the world, take beautiful photos and write. Is it that everyone else feels the same way too? That they need to just get away and explore the world, explore life?

    I just started blogging and it would be great to learn from you and other bloggers now.. i wonder if you have recommendations for me? I am open to any bloggers with beautiful mind, heart and writing.
    And oh yeah, please follow my blog too thank you.

  2. brunettetimes says:

    What an incredible and heartwarming story. It sounds to me like you were there for a reason. I think you made an impact on their lives just like it sounds like they made one on yours. Thank you for sharing your story, I can’t wait to read more from your adventures.

  3. Bhaskar says:

    Your photographs, writeup and the videos, it brought the whole scene alive in front of me. I could so vividly imagine it. Lovely! Can get how great experience it must have been.

  4. Noel says:

    I have been to cuba. I found the people want your friendship, your respect. However, older people have less than anyone else on the island. A little is very appreciated

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      There is a great deal of equalization but at the same time the loss of Russia’s support in the 90’s completely undermined the ability of the country to take care of itself. They have an amazing health care and education system for all its citizens (which I truly admire) but the infrastructure is falling apart. I wish there was some great middle ground we could all benefit from.

  5. Sven De Coninck says:

    The music of Cuba, including its instruments, performance and dance, comprises a large set of unique traditions influenced mostly by west African and European (especially Spanish) music. Cuban music is often considered one of the richest and most influential regional musics of the world. For instance, the son cubano merges an adapted Spanish guitar (tres), melody, harmony, and lyrical traditions with Afro-Cuban percussion and rhythms.

  6. carlamcgill says:

    Your photographs are stunning, and your gift for appreciating people and places is being put to good use. I am thankful to have glimpses of some of these local individuals thanks to your descriptions, photos, and videos. It takes some specific skills to make others comfortable, as you seem to be able to do, and I am happy for them that they got to be acknowledged in a new way. Thank you so much.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Carla, you’re so kind. I have to say, the Cuban people are unusually welcoming. I’ve certainly found people like them in other countries, but not as a culture as a whole. I was bowled over by how friendly they were in a genuine and thoughtful way. Sure, there were a few who just wanted money but far less than those I meet in NYC on any given day. I believe strongly that it’s moments/hours like these that truly impact travel and are the most memorable. I am so happy that you felt I communicated that to you as a reader.

      • carlamcgill says:

        Thank you, Susan. I love the moment when she decided to sing for you, and I got the sense that she knew you would appreciate the gift that it was. Your appreciation of her husband opened her heart also. A beautiful moment for them, you, and now us!

  7. readerbetweenthelines says:

    Wow. Once again your tales of Cuba have mystified me. It sounds like such a diverse and brilliant place! Almost as if it has literally leapt from the pages of a story. I am entranced and I genuinely can’t wait to read more of your escapades and adventures. Thank you.

  8. Patricia Pomerleau says:

    Oh Susan, this particular post caused tears to well up and my eyes. Your experiences in Havana have been so beautiful and meaningful. You were blessed by the people you photograph, and so were they when they met you. I “know” these people and i know how wonderful their moments with you were. You made them feel so respected, loved, and appreciated. Your photographs made me cry. I don’t think I can give you a better compliment,

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      You can’t Patricia, what you said is pretty much the pinnacle of what I hope to achieve. Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m so glad you feel I’ve down Havana and her people justice.

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