"I am Cuban, I left Cuba only on political reasons 16 years ago. So I went to the USA, Miami. I was there for 3-4 years and then I was working in Holland for short period of time. It was my first touch of Europe. In Europe you work to live, in America you live to work. I am not afraid of working, but once a moment comes when you say: “Why?” So I decided to come to Ukraine..." This is how Nelson's story begins, the Cuban man who lives in Kyiv and runs Habana club, singing passionate songs and making friendship with Ukrainians. He shares his perception of this country comparing it to Cuba.
It is cold here in Ukraine in comparison to Cuba. But the thing which would not shock a Cuban here is the mentality. When I came for the first time here if faced the Soviet type of communist mentality, the same in Cuba, the ways of doing things, I mean. Now it is completely changing here, the society is progressing. If not for the inherited corruption in the country I think this would be completely different country. I will not say you that Ukraine is my second motherland but I do want Ukraine to be regular civilized country. I have a daughter here, she is Ukrainian and I want her to live in a good European country. Comparing to another countries I’ve been around, Ukrainians are nice people and I am talking about new generation. They are open, happy, party-like, and different from Russians who are more distanced to people; it is difficult to get to them. Ukrainians are open. People who like to talk on different subjects and Cuba is one of them. Most of them would like to go to Cuba. So I think being a Cuban in Ukraine has helped me a lot to get introductions, to get close to people. I am open person and I like Ukrainians in the way they are. They can drink a lot, I don’t follow them, but even in this place you can hardly see a fight. This is a place of party, drinking, music, entertainment but no quarrels, no fighting, no aggression.
There is a joke that says that there are several sins of the Cubans, that can’t be forgiven. One is that we’ve made the music of the world. And it is true. Cuba has come up and claimed patents for more than 70 rhythms in terms of music. Cuban music is well accepted here. I’ve been playing in places where people were very cold and official but little by little they started to get warmer and once on the official event we played while the break and people started dancing. I remember that guy who played with me said: “Listen, we have to play something slow and relaxing”. But then I started to put up a little more pressure to make rhythms hotter and in the end everybody was dancing.
So I think that Cuban music is a happy music. Most people who come here to Habana club or the place I played before they say that they like the way of communication between Cubans who come here. We don’t talk in ordinary way, we are very expressive, emotional. And people like that somehow. They say that they feel like not in Ukraine here. This wall in Habana is the history of Cuban music. These people came up with different music styles. The tiles of the floor are just in the way they do it in Cuba. Even at my previous place where I played in Kyiv when I first came in Ukraine I wanted to have such Cuban club. We Cubans all around the world have the capacity to mix with the society; if you don’t do this you can’t be successful in anything you do. But we try to keep our culture at the same time. We sing in a shower, we even dance in a shower, this is our nature. We try to move our culture into people here. That is what happening here in Habana. I don’t know music at all. But when I started singing about 11 years ago in 44 club it was simply because when you leave your country there is one thing inside you called nostalgia and it was calling for you. When I lived in Cuba, I never listened to Cuban music, I was rocker. But when I left my country, I started to listen to Cuban music. I’ve started singing just to come back to my Cuban roots and fortunately people like it. I sing for myself and I enjoy it. If you like it – good, if you don’t – I am sorry, but I do it for myself. It is a bit selfish but it is like that.
I like any kind of music if it is good. But I am not really familiar with Ukrainian music due to the fact that I don’t speak the language. I listen to English music or Spanish because I understand it. Language barrier is blocking me in this sense. But I’ve listened to some relax Ukrainian music and I liked it.
I’ve been around, to the west, to the east of the country. I was in Crimea when it was Ukrainian territory, after the annexing I stopped going there. I even was playing there at Koktebel festival. I loved Crimea. I’ve been to Lviv, I loved it. It is very European town. I was in countryside close to Uzhorod. I’ve been to Kharkiv, to Luhansk. And yes, Ukrainians differ a lot from place to place. The more you go to the East of the country the colder and more closed people over there are (I don’t want to sound offensive), but if you move to the west – you get very European mentality. It is surprising that cultural and intellectual level of young generation here is very high. What surprised me some years ago was that in spite of great level of higher education when it came to formal basic education like using “magic” words “thank you”, “good morning”, “please” - this was missing. Now I see that this is changing for better. Ukraine is really great touristic destination.
About Cuba and Ukraine
Cuba is beautiful country that was destroyed by a system. The system proved to be a failure in any country in the world. Cuba of 1950s was a fantastic country in terms of development, Cuba’s peso was even higher than American dollar those days. But then it changed. I call it a historical accident, that completely destroyed Cuba. I was there and when I left I promised that I would never come back unless there is a change of the system. Three years ago I went there. We were there for 2 months. One of my cousins offered me to do some business there. But even with money there is no future, no hope there, nothing. Somebody was telling me that the people of some degree of intelligence have left Cuba. What I found in Cuba - everybody was so vulgar there, even the music is promoting this kind of anti-cultural behavior. I think Cuba has to pay the price of 50 years of communism. I think there is a lot of potential. These Cubans who left the country, they move up, progressing. And when (I don’t say if) some changes take place in Cuba, these people will come back and take all this experience, potential and money to develop Cuba. People say: “We can have everything – good cars, nice houses, good life but still we miss one thing – we want to go back to Cuba”. And I can prove this. I want to go back as well, but now I can’t live there. Before Castro Cuba was real touristic destination, but now this hospitality service is terrible, even if they say different. Government does not want to let people to be financially stable and independent, because they can’t control them in this case. This is a matter of changing generations and people of power.
I visited different cities and countries. The moment I stepped in Kyiv, I liked it. It has this kind of charm – nice people, beautiful women and potential that something is going to happen – changes for better. I think Ukraine has potential to move on and to integrate European world completely. Two times you guys were standing on Maidan claiming for changes and you’ve got what you wanted. But the process of changes can’t be immediate, it takes time. That is the difference between Ukraine and Cuba. Yes in Cuba the system is more repressive, but anyway. This what I like in Ukrainians - you came out to the streets with a decision to change political system. And I’ve been with you at both of Revolutions. But next time let us do it in summer, because winter here is so cold! :-)
Interviewd and photos by Anna Vishtak