Cuba’s Vanito Brown and His ‘Havana in Full Color’

The Musical Bridge from Cuba*

Osmel Almaguer

Vanito Brown, Jose Luis Medina, Luis Barbería, Alejandro Gutiérrez, 2009. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES, December 14 — Vanito Brown’s career has been marked and irrevocably linked with his work in the group “Habana Abierto,” him being one of the Cuban musicians who in 1996 joined that preceding ensemble named “Habana Oculta,” which later became the famous band.

However, his contribution to Habana Abierto doesn’t constitute the totality of his work, which has been extended in time and space. This was first through the group “Lucha Almada” in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and later with his solo work that, according to the musician himself, is an “extension of what I do with Habana Abierto.”

Born in the eastern city of Palma Soriano in Santiago Province, at the age of two or three he moved with his parents to the capital. He grew up and became “quite Havanan” in the context of an eastern family in the Havana of the 1970’s.

Since those difficult ‘90s, he has been the resident of another capital, Spain’s, because as he himself confesses in the lyrics of the song “Divino Guion”: “from very far it sounds more beautiful.”

Despite everything in those times, that “hearing” must have represented his main support, and I say this in a double sense.

First, for the music itself that he listened to, composed, and that filled a large part of his life, and later from the rumors that came from his country and from his beloved Havana, which he had almost left behind, or at least from which he was far away.

It was then that he came out with “La Habana a todo color” (Havana in Full Color), a piece that for the sentiments evident in its lyrics and for the heartrendering melody in both his solo acoustic performances and his accompanied ones, leaves little for his critics to say.

La Habana a todo color(From a 2001 mock-up CD that for some reason was never commercially recorded)

Blessed be Havana, city of my feelings. / Blessed be Havana, city of my feelings. / Its coastline, its neighborhoods, its people and its monuments. / Its coastline, its neighborhoods, its people and its monuments. / There merge water, earth, light and wind. / There merge water, earth, light and wind, / the heart, guitar, clave, voice and time. / The heart, guitar, clave, voice and time.

Beaming down on Havana, the blazing sun, people have realized, it’s not the same as before. / It washes its face, warm and serene, and dances to the rhythm of sleep and the tide.

There I left well nailed, the tip of my memory. / There I left well nailed, the tip of my memory. They who don’t live it, don’t love it; they who don’t love it, they don’t enjoy it. / They who don’t suffer it, don’t love it; they who don’t love it, they don’t enjoy it.

Havana in full color. / So that you feel pretty, so that you looks better. / Havana in full color. / Havana in full color, Kodak with Benetton. / Havana in full color, greetings to the people of Luyano / Havana in full color / and if you ask me what I want, what I want. / Havana in full color, / so that you feel pretty, so that you hear better. / Havana in full color. / Havana in full color. / Havana in full color. / Havana in full color. / Oh if you ask me, what I want, what I want. / Havana in full color.

At the beginning the song, Vanito makes his feelings clear for this city about which so many others have sung. Bless you, city of my feelings. Blessed are you, you in general, and all your elements. Those little pieces that make you up into a whole, and usually aren’t taken into account when writing history.

Your coast, the witness of so many loves, so many encounters and conflicts, so many farewells and births; your neighborhoods, which are your cultural essence and your people, they are your soul, they make your heart beat and make you breath, and then — why not? — your monuments.

All these elements come together to accommodate the image of the city, water, earth, light, wind: from nature, and from the heart, the guitar, the harpsichord, the voice and time: a kind of musical homology marking a rhythm, an internal movement and life within it.

The sun, which dominates everything, has presided over the days and hours in this beautiful city since time immemorial. The city is viewed from up above and perceives its transformation, or more accurately, its deterioration, its exodus, its convulsion and its dance!

What better action before that eternally musical spirit that generates “Cubaness”? But it does it to the beat of sleep — or what we want to live, or what we do live — and of the tide. It makes one think of that excellent novel by Virginia Woolf (The Waves), in which its characters are ruled by something (super) natural that they themselves defined as “waves.”

Later Vanito croons the most beautiful and representative phrase of the entire song: “There I left it well nailed, on the tip of my memory,” a viral act with resonances that are both sexual and patriotic. Imagine him coming to Havana and planting his flag.

It’s then a very interesting conception of memory as a flag. Especially in a country where for over fifty years, and especially in the last twenty, the degradation of the country, its martyrs and its symbolic deeds of goodwill has been contrasted with the government’s efforts to appropriate and take advantage these elements in its own interests.

Because of this we find ourselves like patriotic orphans, a situation that Vanito is probably trying to correct when he blesses its monuments.

Then there are those eternal feelings for the city: resentment and love, ones that the majority of us Cubans feel, and specifically Havanans.

Havana in full color. That’s what he wants and what all of us ask for. We want this gray that has been taking over most of our city to disappear permanently, so that the days don’t look rainy, but the sun — radiant — washes your face in warmth and serenity.

Bless you, Havana. Bless you, poetry. Bless everybody dammit.

(*) A Musical Bridge from Cuba: This is an effort to find new bridges that promote communication between peoples of the diverse regions of the planet.    I will be using simple narration in a series of articles to connect with those who are interested in the messages transmitted by Cuban songs, which due to their limited commercial potential and the difficulties posed by their translation, languish in a state of communicational stagnation – despite their being true jewels of Cuban culture.