Tracing the Roots of New Orleans Jazz on a Music-Centric Trip to Cuba

In the acclaimed documentary “A Tuba to Cuba,” NOLA’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band travels to the Caribbean in search of the sounds that gave birth to jazz. Here’s how to follow in the band’s footsteps on a visit to the island nation.

Tracing the Roots of New Orleans Jazz on a Music-Centric Trip to Cuba

La Esquina de Jazz, sometimes called Casa de Jazz, is a legendary social club in Havana, Cuba.

Photo by Danny Clinch

About 20 minutes into the award-winning documentary A Tuba to Cuba, there’s a moment that lays the groundwork for the film’s fascinating narrative. While visiting a 70-year-old social club in Havana, Ben Jaffe—the native New Orleans frontman of the city’s world-renowned Preservation Hall Jazz Band—spots something he never expected to see. Tacked onto the wall like a teenager’s favorite album poster is a photo of the Olympia Brass Band, a prominent New Orleans band from the 1960s to the 1980s, which was led by saxophonist Harold Dejan—Jaffe’s godfather.

“[The photo] was torn out of a magazine,” explains T.G. Herrington, the filmmaker who codirected the documentary with photographer Danny Clinch. “It was probably traded hand-to-hand, because anything related to New Orleans jazz is revered in Cuba.”

This musical parallel between the two cultures is the result of a trade route that linked New Orleans and Cuba for more than a century, from the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 until the U.S. embargo in 1962. It’s also the reason that in 2015, Herrington and Clinch decided to follow the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on a two-week trip across Cuba—from Havana to Santiago to Cienfuegos—in search of the sounds and musical traditions from which New Orleans jazz originated. (Naturally, the band pursued a fair share of impromptu collaborations with local musicians along the way.)

“Cuba is a mirror image of New Orleans,” says Herrington, who calls New Orleans home. “Not just in obvious ways, but also in its spirit and energy.” As it turns out, the influence of Louisiana’s most iconic music isn’t just found on the walls of Cuban social clubs—its roots appear in the restless polyrhythms and joyful melodies that characterize the country’s indigenous music, too.

Where to hit Cuba’s musical notes

We asked Herrington to highlight some of the most significant spots featured in A Tuba to Cuba—which received its U.S. theatrical release in February 2019 and is now available on most streaming services—to give travelers the chance to retrace the band’s steps across Cuba as seen in the film. Here’s what he shared.

[Editor’s note: To visit some of these locations, Herrington recommends booking trips with locally connected organizations such as Project Por Amor, a U.S.-based travel agency that specializes in people-to-people educational exchanges in Cuba. These specialized tours offer in-depth access to establishments otherwise unavailable to individual travelers and can help facilitate the sort of insightful one-on-one interactions seen in the documentary. You can also arrange custom, multiday itineraries with operators such as Locally Sourced Cuba or insightCuba.]

In Havana . . .

La Esquina de Jazz

Also known as Casa de Jazz, La Esquina de Jazz is lively social club located in Havana’s Santa Amalia neighborhood. “Because recordings of older music can be hard to come by in Cuba, there are many places such as La Esquina de Jazz where people gather in groups to listen and dance to vinyls,” Herrington says. “Just like Preservation Hall in New Orleans, the gentleman that founded this establishment—Gilberto Torres Montiel—passed away some years back, and today, his son William carries the torch.”

According to Herrington, the collective of dancers featured in the documentary, known as the Bailadores de Santa Amalia, are well-known for their performances here. Tip: “If you visit, bring some albums with you and leave them behind,” he says. “They will be thrilled.”

Archivo Nacional de la República de Cuba

Cuba’s national archive, located on Calle Compostela in Old Havana, was founded in 1840. “These archives include some of the earliest forms of sheet music brought over from Spain in the early 1500s,” Herrington says. “They also have an extensive collection of early recordings from the 1830s New Orleans composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

“You can’t go really deep into the archives unless you’re an academic or historian,” Herrington adds, “but you can show up to see the photography exhibits.” The Archivo Nacional de la República de Cuba stores more than 66,000 archival photos in its Fototeca, open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Charlie Gabriel of Preservation Hall Jazz Band counts off “la clave” (meaning “the key,” which is the rhythmic base of Cuban music) during a preshow moment backstage at Teatro Mella.

Charlie Gabriel of Preservation Hall Jazz Band counts off “la clave” (meaning “the key,” which is the rhythmic base of Cuban music) during a preshow moment backstage at Teatro Mella.

Photo by Danny Clinch

Teatro Mella

This 1,500-seat theater in the Vedado neighborhood is a cultural landmark in Havana. The modernist building was first erected in the 1950s, and “the Preservation Hall Foundation played a huge role in funding the restoration of its marquee and facade,” Herrington says. Teatro Mella is now “an active venue in Havana’s cultural center,” he explains—the site for folkloric performances, variety shows, and traditional music and dance festivals. (More recently, the theater has begun to host big-name concert series—Blondie performed its first-ever shows in Cuba at the venue this year.)

“Check Teatro Mella’s box office schedule while you’re in Havana,” Herrington says. “I highly recommend having an after-performance drink in their lush side garden, too. It’s a great place to mingle with other musicians and artists.”

Outside of Havana . . .

Teatro Tomás Terry

This 19th-century classicist-style venue is in the heart of the historic center in Cienfuegos, a colonial city on Cuba’s southern coast (reachable from Havana in under three hours by car). “The theater was founded in the 1880s by New Orleanians from France who emigrated to Cuba,” Herrington says. “You can see shades of New Orleans’s understated opulence in its details and carvings—the fresco on the ceiling is phenomenal and still in great condition, and the sound is incredible. It’s like being inside of a guitar.” The Teatro Tomás Terry is located on the corner of Avenue 56 and Calle 27 across from Parque Jose Martí. It’s open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Tata Güines Museum

Federico Arístides Soto Alejo, better known as Tata Güines, was a Cuban percussionist who is widely regarded as a master of the conga drum and a pioneer of Afro-Cuban jazz. “Tata Güines had a supernatural ability to connect to a higher power through music,” Herrington says. “He passed away in a tiny village called Güines—about 45 minutes southeast of Havana—and his former home is now a cultural center [called the Tata Güines Museum]. Many rooms have been left untouched, and his drums are scattered throughout the center for anyone to see.”

The municipality of Güines is also the hometown of another famous Cuban musician, the late Arsenio Rodríguez, who is credited with contributing to the development of son montuno, the genre known as the template for modern-day salsa.

Two more of Herrington’s must-visit spots in Havana:
These establishments didn’t make an on-screen appearance in A Tuba to Cuba, but they’re worth checking out.

The classic . . .

Herrington’s favorite music venue in Havana is called La Zorra y el Cuervo. “It’s an amazing jazz joint in a basement,” he says. “All of the greats have played there. It’s been an institution since the ’40s.” One of Havana’s most famous jazz clubs, it’s located in the Vedado neighborhood on Avenida 23.

The contemporary . . .

Herrington also recommends a visit to the Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC), a popular cultural hub that houses art galleries, communal studios, performance venues, and a trendy bar and nightclub all in one. “A local art collective took it upon themselves—with government approval—to create a for-profit space for Havana’s hip crowd,” Herrington says. “The building—an old cooking oil factory—is monolithic, but very well-curated. Locals line up two blocks deep to get in.” FAC is open Thursday through Sunday from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. (but get there early if you want to secure a spot).

Once you’ve watched A Tuba to Cuba and feel sufficiently inspired to embark on a music-centric trip of your own, read up on what American travelers need to know before visiting the Caribbean island nation. Whether or not you decide to follow in the footsteps of the film, be sure to keep Herrington’s words in mind: “In Cuba, the locals are very proud of their culture and love sharing it with those open to learning more,” the director notes. “Exploration is welcome—just show up, dig deep, and those doors will open.”

>> Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to Cuba

Andrew Parks is a content strategist for Explore Minnesota and sometime writer for such publications and brands as Afar, Condé Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, New York Magazine, Bandcamp, Apple, Red Bull and Bon Appétit.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR