Old houses along main promenade in Havana Vieja are converted into offices and schools. (Photo courtesy of Tukes, Real Vibes)

The Works is a curation of art and prose submitted by Chicago’s diverse creative community. In this creative work, Chicago native and jazz vibraphonist Thaddeus Tukes writes about his search for rhythm in Cuba.

In March 2019, I found myself watching a stream of videos with American jazz great Dizzy Gillespie and his big band. As a vibraphonist, I was most intrigued by the rhythm section, which later became the vibraphone-led Modern Jazz Quartet, but Gillespie’s “Manteca” first drew me to Afro-Cuban jazz in middle school. Chicago has a strong Afro-Cuban jazz community, so in high school, I watched groups like the Chicago Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble perform in Millennium Park.  During college, I studied the music of Afro-Cuban musicians such as Mongo Santamaria and Cachao. In April 2019, I finally visited Cuba. 

El Capitolio, the national capitol building in Havana City. (Photo courtesy of Tukes, Real Vibes)

“Habana 500. Fidel Vive. Viva Cuba.”

Revolution-themed graffiti art lined Avenida de la Independencia, a curved street mixed with apartment buildings and Spanish colonial houses. A family on their porch smiled at me as I peered through the window of a 1958 Ford Sedan. The exhaust was choking, but the engine’s roar was invigorating. 

On July 26, 2019, Cuba celebrated 60 years since the start of the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel and Raul Castro. As second-in-command of Castro’s army, Argentinian physician and diplomat Che Guevara anchored a guerrilla militia against the regime of President Fulgencio Batista. After a six-month battle, the Castro brothers seized leadership in Cuba on Dec. 31, 1958.

I fell in love with a family-owned restaurant, Karma, in Vedado, a peaceful community with predominantly multi-family homes. The bartender taught me his secret recipe for a mojito as I overindulged in flan. He recited the names of each Cuban baseball player for the Chicago White Sox and Cubs. As he spoke, I struggled to grasp his cadence.  

In fact, unfamiliar rhythms surrounded me. Each morning, I woke to the melodious call of an older woman who slowly walked through the neighborhood carrying a broom (and other items) in a long, blue bag on her back. Three-wheeled yellow motorcycle taxis whizzed down the block, as groups of students in purple pants or skirts excitedly conversed in fast-paced Spanish. Cuban Trogons made their toco in the trees, while dogs cooly trotted through the streets. Every sound in perfect tempo.

Many of the buildings throughout Havana are being renovated into family-owned storefronts and restaurants. (Tukes, Real Vibes)

I stayed in an apartment above a small store that sold rice, sugar, rubbing alcohol and other household novelties. The prices were written in Convertible Peso (CUC $1) and Cuban Peso (CUP $0.25) I had no cellphone service, so I attempted to use the payphone on the corner of my street. Wi-Fi could only be accessed at unspecified parks, after purchasing an access card with a scratch-off password. I knew I had arrived in a Wi-Fi park when someone inevitably came to me, asking, 

“Necesita una tarjeta?” (You need a card?)

A local taxi driver takes me along Malecón, the coastal seawall. (Tukes, Real Vibes)

I received a free Wi-Fi access card from a man named Julio. We met at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City during a layover. He told me he was a tour guide who was “popular with African Americans,” so I took his number and said I might contact him. Julio stood about six feet tall, clad in beige shorts and a blue Cuba baseball cap. After our conversation, we stood in separate lines to board the aircraft. When I finally arrived at my seat, my new friend looked up and laughed. 

Julio explained the history of Cuba since the revolution through monuments, landmarks, and artwork during my tour. For lunch, he took me to an outdoor restaurant with a Cuban jazz band. The band members were around my age and invited me to play piano when I told them I was a jazz musician from Chicago. 

During our rendition of “Autumn Leaves,” I tried to emulate the flutist, an Afro-Cuban woman with astounding technique. The rhythm of her country’s music flowed naturally with each breath. The pianist for the band asked me to be his jazz teacher. I smiled and said to him,  

“After you give me lessons!”

I found joy in watching each musician showcase their craft. Cuban musicians maintain smiles as they perform. Their demeanor welcomed me, as their groove moved me. 

Limestone cliffs are a point of pride for residents in Viñales, a city in the Pinar del Río Province (Tukes, Real Vibes).

My visit to Cuba revitalized my composing and improvisation. While their representation of jazz is different than the US, I was thrilled to see the influence of an indigenous African music in another culture. A consummate entertainer, Dizzy Gillespie understood the value of connecting with people through music. For Dizzy and me, Cuba taught us that rhythm comes from the soul.

That’s the real vibes.

Thaddeus Tukes is a vibraphonist, pianist and composer from Chicago, IL. He is a graduate of Whitney Young High School and Northwestern University, and currently performs professionally as a band leader and special guest artist throughout the country. When he is not performing, Tukes is an educator, giving private instruction and master classes to students from preschool through undergraduate level.