New Year celebrations in Cuba are linked to the triumph of the Revolution (1st Janaury 1959) and as such many activities at the start of the year have a political undertone and pay tribute to revolutionary heroes as well as the memory of the more recently diseased Fidel Castro. From gallery exhibits that document the rebels' fight against the Batista regime to special concerts, parades and public acts honouring revolution martyrs and heroes, with poem readings, speeches and music, there's plenty to take you back in time and absorb Cuba at the height of revolutionary fervour.
But, beyond the historic celebrations and remembrance acts, there are plenty of activities and events that have nothing to do with the Cuban Revolution and are all about performing arts and entertainment. The single biggest event this month in Cuba is the annual celebration of the Jazz Plaza Festival, now in its 33rd edition and taking place in both Havana and Santiago de Cuba simultaneously. For other great acts to see, check out my top picks below. And, remember, as most things in Cuba are announced from one day to the next, with little advance notice, we'll keep updating this blog throughout the month to add more events as they are announced.
11th AfroPalabra Festival (4th to 8th January)
Celebrating AfroCuban culture and everything to do with the island’s strong African roots, the eleventh edition of AfroPalabra (AfroWord) brings a programme of festive events to Havana. With most activities mainly consisting of poetry recitals, story-telling workshops, photography exhibitions as well as African-inspired art; there’s no shortage of ways in which to explore the strong presence of African beliefs, heritage, religions and traditions in Cuban culture past and present.
Casa de la Poesia in Old Havana will be the official headquarters of AfroPalabra hosting and AfroAmerican Oral Festival with a colourful artisanal exhibit as part of the island’s “La Muneca Negra” project.
Gerardo Alfonso in concert (5th January)
Famous for being part of Cuba's “Nueva Trova” movement, Gerardo Alfonso helped define the 80s, just like other Cuban troubadours like Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes alongside Brazilian folk singers Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil had defined the 70s. But Alfonso's music blends a wider variety of sounds ,with a signature style that distinguishes from most other Cuban troubadours. He incorporates a little bit of rock into his songs, as well as mixing other Cuban music genres and has also created a genre of his own: “guayason” - a rhythm that blends Cuban country music with afroCuban beats.
You'll get a unique chance to catch him live this month at the Casa del Alba Cultural in Havana's downtown municipality of Vedado. He'll be giving a one-off concert at 6 p.m. and given how rare his performances are these days, you should go out of your way to see him perform!
Cuba's National Ballet performs Don Quixote (1st to 28th January)
To mark the occasion of the Cuban Revolution's 59th anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba will be staging a series of performances throughout the month. The chosen production has been “Don Quixote” one of the dancing company's most popular and successful, and one whose choreography is by prima ballerina Alicia Alonso, Marta Garcia and Maria Elena Llorente, an adaptation of the original by Marius Petippa official that also draws inspiration from Alexander Gorski's version. Performances kick off with a gala on 1st Janauray at 5 p.m. and will continue to be staged every weekend in the month, on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. and on Sundays at 5 p.m.
Don Quixote will be staged at the national dance company's official headquarters, the Gran Teatro de La Habana “Alicia Alonso”.
Jazz Plaza Festival 2018 (16th to 21st January)
With a headlining act that includes none other than living Cuban jazz legend Chucho Valdes, the event's official sponsor and promoter, the Jazz Plaza Festival is indeed quite a big deal in Cuba, and this year it will be celebrated with a big bang at two of its most famous cities: Havana and Santiago.
Calling all jazz lovers in the world and bringing together impressive host of invited guests and jazz performers from all over the planet, this is the biggest jazz festivity not only in Cuba but in all of the Caribbean and arguably, all of Latin America. Putting a big emphasis on Latin Jazz, and, of course, Cuban Jazz, there will be nightly concerts at a various venues in Havana, namely: Gardens of the Teatro Mella, Casa de la Cultura de Plaza, Cine Avenida, Salon Rosado de La Tropical, Teatro America, Centro Cultural Bertolt Brecht, Teatro Mella, the Sala Teatro of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Pabellon Cuba, Cafe Miramar, Club La Zorra y El Cuervo, Jazz Cafe, Teatro Nacional de Cuba and Centro Cultural Raquel Revuelta, Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC), Palacio de la Rumba,
In Santiago the chosen venues announced so far are the Sala de Concierto Dolores and the Iris Jazz Club, though more names are sure to be announced soon as we get closer to the festival's starting date. Watch this space, we'll update as soon as we've got more info!
Starring acts announced so far include local talent such as Bobby Carcasses, Cesar Lopez, Roberto Fonseca, X Alfonso and the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Cuba, as well as the Orquesta Aragon, Omara Portuondo, Isaac Delgado and Pancho Amaat. Some of the invited international guests include Dee Dee bridgewater with Theo Croker and DVRFUNK, Joe Lovano and the Ted Nash Trio performing alongside Steve Cardenas and Ben Allison. Like I said earlier, keep coming back here for more details as more line-ups are revealed.
Beyond Havana an Santiago
In Trinidad and Sancti Spiritus
Trinidad museums displays donation of valuable family heirlooms (3rd to 31st January)
In a gesture that got to the heart of locals (the proud “trinitarians” who so fiercely guard their city traditions and incredible architectural heritage) an invaluable collection of personal objects belonging to the now diseased lieutenant colonel Diego Alfonso Guiu Ruiz was donated to Trinidad's Museo Nacional de la Lucha contra Bandidos (National Museum of the Fight Against Bandits) by his children.
Such a collection will be displayed at the museum this month to highlight the figure of this brave fighter, his life and that of the many heroes and martyrs who fought alongside him in the epic Fight Against Bandits. The collection includes objects such as a watch, wallet, photos and military uniforms.
Traditional January Festivities in El Jibaro (19th to 21st January)
Giving you the perfect excuse to explore a much lesser known side to Cuba; the countryside traditions and popular parties celebrated in rural parts of the island will be on full display in this candid annual festival. The “Fiestas Tradicionales de Enero de El Jibaro” will be celebrated in Sancti Spiritus' municipality of La Sierpe, over the course of three days with the traditional “toque de diana mambisa” (mambisian reveille), horse tournaments, a cavalry parade, traditional countryside music, and a variety of food and sweets competitions.
This little trodden part of Cuba and hidden little town (found on no tourist guide ever) is found nearly two hours away (by car) from the most prominently famous Trinidad, also within the Sancti Spiritus province. If you're staying in Trinidad for more than one day, then the trip to La Sierpe might be worth it, especially if you want a taste or real, raw, little-seen Cuba at its most quaint and traditional.
Special Exhibit at Museo de la Clandestinidad (3rd to 31st January)
The recently renovated Museo de la Clandestinidad in Cienfuegos (formerly known as the home of the Giral sisters) is hosting a special monthly exhibit this January to mark the 59th anniversary of the Triumph of the Revolution. A special collection of photos, documents and books relating to the rebels' fight against the corrupt Batista regime will be on display throughout the month. A chance to immerse in Fidel Castro's revolution as it gained momentum and finally triumphed.
Celebrating the anniversary of Rodas' museum (6th to 31st January)
The Museo Municipal de Rodas in Cienfuegos is celebrating another birthday this month, and to mark the occasion a special selection of photographs related to the museum's foundation will be on display alongside a collection of objects that date back to the building's first opening years.
Pena Coro Profesional de Cienfuegos in concert (6th January)
Cienfuegos' Professional Chorus Group will be giving a special concert on the first Saturday on the month at the Museo Provincial de Cienfuegos. It starts at 5 p.m. and attending this melodic event is a great way to feel closer to the local culture and traditions.