This dark coffee shop on the corner of bustling streets, named after Cuba's first coffee plantation had become my daily starting point for my adventures in Santiago the Cuba. Several old oil canvases hang on the weathered walls, one with a captivating woman, the other hanging loose like a draping. As I looked at them I wondered what happened. But, nobody seemed to care, perhaps it's meant to be like this, I thought nostalgically. Time stood definitely still here. In this cafe frequented by artist, intellectuals, hustlers, and people from all walks of life, everybody appeared to know each other to some degree.
In the far end corner, a man is rolling cigars, the cheap low quality type, next to him sits a man whose only task is to press those cigars in a wooden press, every few minutes he gives it a little turn compressing the tobacco inside the wooden holders. On the other corner is the entrance door where big plumes of black diesel fumes from the heavy traffic are pumping into the entrance. The table next to the entrance is mostly empty for obvious reasons.
It was late afternoon when I entered the café, I had just finished a portrait shoot of a local artist. I felt good about it, although you never feel sure when shooting film, as I wouldn't see the result my work till much later when the film lab would send me the scans.
While sipping my cafecito, I heard music at the next table. When I turned, I saw 2 guys slightly slouched over the table looking at each other, their hands covering their mouth as to mute the volume, one was singing his rap while the other was providing the rhythm and beat, then they changed roles and continued. I changed table and sat opposite of them. They looked at me and continued. I tried my best to understand their words but although I can get by in Spanish for my daily needs, this was out of my league.
It felt like I glimpsed into their world which was unknown to me and felt that they let me in to see it, to hear it, to feel it. I've worked with many musicians during my life and I somehow felt connected to these guys at that moment. One of the guys had a little bottle of Rum in their pocket, and we poured some in our coffee and spoke about their music, about their plans.
"You need to sing the Into of our new song", one of them told me. "Let's go to the studio."
Did I just hear that right or is my Spanish that bad, I thought.
"Let's go to the Studio, and I photograph you making the recording" I replied.
"No, we need you to sing the intro line to our song"
“I will come with you if I can photograph”, I declared.
"Ok, let's go!"
We walked for half an hour till we arrived at this little home studio, well equipped for Cuban standards. This is really great, but how am I going to manage that, It’s very dark and they are moving fast, I thought. I struggled to get any light on the film.
Is this not supposed to be soundproof, I thought while I looked from the studio, through the corridor onto the street. A few kids were sticking their heads through the entrance to see what was going on. But Santiago is hot and I welcomed the fresh air. This will work.
I realised later that I must have made a lot of noise during the recording while photographing. And is was so dark…damn! Even my backup Phone images looked terrible. “Can we get more light” I asked. The producer smiles and pulls out a little video light from under his desk and hands it to me. My saviour! Perhaps I can burn some light on that negative after all?
After photographing them for about an hour, the all the tracks were done. I wondered how they managed it so fast. Each track was taken only once! No retake to improve it. These guys were good, I thought. Very confident.
Now they turned to me with a look of expectation. "Now it's your turn to sing the intro".
"Well … eh" I had mixed feelings, I never sing. A myriad of thoughts crossed my mind. My English has a strong Dutch accent and I felt that .. Uncomfortable feeling, trying to find even more reasons not to sing. I'm a rather introvert person. What if it would be really bad?
Stop justifying, came to my mind.
I had already given them my trust, walking through small streets to this studio on the outskirts of town because I had a feeling that they were good people, artists, who care about nothing else than their music. They knew I was not a singer, they just wanted to create something together. They couldn't have any expectations. This feeling gave me enough confidence, at least if they didn't like it, I would have given it my best try, and secretly, I loved that song, I understood nothing of the words nor the meaning, I just liked the flow, the beat and deep inside I wanted to sing to become part of it. I caught myself justifying again.
"So what do I sing?" I asked.
"Well just that you came here from Holland, that we met and that we are making a song and… he went on and on.
Wow! I started thinking..
Then someone said, why don’t you just sing "Holland - Cuba - Push ahead now"
So here we go!
I needed 3 takes to get this.
The producer went to work, put it at the beginning of the song and soon it was finished. Ready for export, all done within 2 hours. I couldn't believe this!
And it's powerful, perhaps not the song, or the text which I still don't really understand, but the experience of hearing yourself on a rap song, Cuban and a tiny bit Creative Adventure style.
As we came out of the studio, we all walked back to the café where we had met. The waitress looked at me as if she had been worried about me. I showed her a video I had made when we replayed the song in the studio and told her excitedly that it was me at the beginning of the song. She smiled with a surprise. I still wonder what she was thinking at that moment.
<- Here is our track, pump up the Volume!
As I walked home that night, I felt that I had overcome a grown fear, and it wasn't the singing part.
I remembered that I had many such encounters in Zimbabwe in the 90's when I would stay in ghetto's not visited by outsiders, where I felt safe with my friends, musicians and DJ’s, because I believe that what binds us all together and that all what we have in common, is much stronger than our differences. Emphasis on our differences are often imposed on us by others, throughout our lives in media.
I felt that, once free of imposed fears, being who you truly are, you can experience that there is a beautiful world out there which would be closed if you stay hidden behind your fears.