Part Two on Cuba, The North American Continent
After spending the winter drawing polar wilderness in Nunavut, a switch to a warmer latitude was welcomed. Trading the Arctic Circle for the Tropic of Cancer, I shifted my gaze to the Greater Antilles. Thus Cuba, the greatest of the Antilles, the 17th largest island in the world and a country of almost 12 million people, became the object of my focus for much of the last month. As in Part One, the sites I discuss will each be emboldened and annotated with a red number. This number will correspond with the numbers on the map below so you can use this text as a guide.
Before any drawing, I got in touch with the music of the island. I try and do this as much as possible throughout my work, to access even a fraction of the mood of the focus region. I'd seen Buena Vista Social Club several times and was fond of the solo career of Ibrahim Ferrer, but my experience with Cuban music was limited to these low-hanging fruit. Musical immersion in where I draw is very important, but the results wildly differ. I do my best to patiently explore unfamiliar styles, but my enthusiasm is still at the mercy of my own tastes. For example, Inuit throat-singing was otherworldly at first, but after three hours of it I had transcended the boundaries of my sanity. Similar experiences have been had in this project with Mariachi, traditional Ojibwe, Bahamian rake-and-scrape and more. Not to say these sounds are incompatible with my tastes, merely that from the confines of my Melbourne studio, I’m stretched to put them in a meaningful context.
Fortunately, the Cuban musical effort was very different to the throat-singing. Starting with a Buena Vista revisit, I made my way through each member – Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén Gonzáles, Compay Segundo and beyond. I was quickly overwhelmed by the beauty of Son Cubano. It wasn’t long before I was driving to and from work listening to nothing but Benny Moré. The rich melodies, technical pedigree and crushing melancholy shattered me, making my focus on the country much sharper. So, in this second discussion on drawing Cuba, let’s begin with the music.
Compay Segundo, the tres master also of Buena Vista fame, is laid to rest in Santiago de Cuba in the same cemetery as Cuban national hero José Martí. The tres , iconic to Cuba’s musical landscape, is at the far eastern tip of Guantánamo province. Just as the conga and claves  play rumba clave to indicate Matanzas’s role as the birthplace of rumba, the tres at Baracoa is playing the first bar of Guantanamera. A hugely popular song about a woman from Guantánamo, written in part by José Martí himself, it has been performed and recorded by countless musicians the world over. I’ve scattered dozens of instruments across this North America project, but the two Cuban additions are the first to have specifically crafted notation alongside. It seems appropriate to have the musical notation mean something, no matter how sparsely executed the concept may be. Without a stave the melody is cryptic, but the rhythm can be deciphered just fine.
As discussed in part one, history has a big role in this portrait. I’ve already covered the revolution, so today we’ll rewind much further back. There are very few pre-Columbian sites left in Cuba, but the millennia-old Taíno pictographs  on the Isla de la Juventud are a notable exception. Moving forward to that most momentous year, 1492, is the site of Columbus’s first landing on Cuba. I have his ship the Santa María drawn up in the Bahamas, approaching San Salvador Island ; his first encounter with the New World on 12 October 1492. The encounter with Cuba just weeks later is represented by the Parque Monumento Nacional Bariay . The enormous significance of the site is honoured beautifully with its monument to the meeting of two worlds. Crumbling Roman pillars are interspersed with Taíno totems right at the shores he landed on.
He sailed south-east down the coast to what is today Baracoa, and underneath the table mountain El Yunque I’ve drawn the Cruz de la Parra . This cross, an astonishing historical artefact dating from 1 December 1492, is the only surviving one of the 29 Columbus personally planted in the New World. I chose to draw this because, aside from its profound significance, it has the effect of seeming to memorialise something. Just as crosses mark graves, sites of accidents and tragedies, the cross Columbus raised 524 years ago marks the onset of a rapid decline in fortunes for the indigenous of the Antilles – the Taíno – and ultimately the original inhabitants across the Americas. There is also a cross marking Columbus’s landing on the Bahamian San Salvador Island , and I ensured this too was drawn. The whole world began a new course after Columbus’s first voyage, but for the inhabitants of the New World – not least the Taíno of the Antilles, hit with the tip of the spear – this new world would involve unbridled destruction. As a cross marks the site of tragedy, perhaps these symbols of Columbus suggest a similar calculus for a great many lives.
Nonetheless, the legacy of 1492 entirely shapes the world as we know it today. I suggest this framing of the Cruz de la Parra as but one angle of many that can be explored when thinking about this relic. So history will always go. There is no neat framework to overlay on events passed, other than counting the years. One can only examine the story themselves and draw their own conclusions.
To the left of the cross is the Moa nickel mine . Cuba, astonishingly, has the second-largest nickel reserves in the world after Russia. Along the mountainous coast of Holguín and Guantánamo lies the richest known deposit on the surface of the planet. And indeed, you can’t miss the dirty reddish-brown of Moa staining this otherwise lush green region from space. Just take a look at the satellite view. Moa, by all accounts I’ve read, is an ecological disaster. It is suggested that the government significantly relaxed environmental regulation after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union knocked the bottom out of the economy. Reading through travel blogs, the most common utterance from the few that go is that Moa is the worst place in Cuba.
Despite Moa, Cuba does have impressive stretches of wilderness and a 24% forest cover. I’ve drawn the white mariposa , Cuba’s national flower and a common sight in the countryside, just east of Santa Clara. The Cuban trogon, or Tocororo , is a beautiful bird whose blue, white and red plumage match that of the Cuban flag. It is the country’s national bird. Then there’s the painted snail . Ahhh, the painted snail. The dazzling Polymita picta have brightly coloured shells that come in all shades but blue - never blue for some reason. They’re very rare due to heavy poaching for their shells and are found mostly in the mountainous southern provinces. The Cuban crocodile  is found only in the massive Zapata swamp – the largest in the Caribbean. The causeway to Cayo Coco , straight north of Ciego de Ávila, is well known for viewing immense flocks of American flamingos.
Bayamo, known as the city of horsecarts, has a tiny horse-drawn cart  to signify this feature. At Camagüey, the hat marks its well-known cowboy culture, and the clay pots  found throughout the city collecting rainwater earn it the title of city of tinajones. Ciego de Ávila province grows most of Cuba's pineapples  and Matanzas is home to the Palmar de Junco, the site of Cuba’s first official baseball  game – by far the most popular sport in the country.
Economically, there is a long history with sugarcane . From the earliest colonisation by the Spanish it has been grown on the island, and during the 18th and 19th centuries it was the world’s foremost producer. This led to incredible wealth for the sugar barons of Cuba, and the beautifully preserved historic town of Trinidad is testament to this empire. Along with the nearby Valle de los Ingenios  (valley of the sugar mills) this region, tucked into the spectacular Escambray Mountains, is the most visited in Cuba outside of Havana. Many of the mills are in ruin, but there are amazing sites that remain such as the Manaca Iznaga tower. This has earned the area its UNESCO World Heritage listing.
Cuba is of course well-known for cigars, as evidenced by the second-largest swathes of tobacco cultivation on Earth. Pinar del Río province grows the world’s best cigar tobacco  amongst its breathtaking sugarloaf mountains, and for those not familiar with what a beautiful Cuban landscape looks like – be sure to Google Viñales  right now. In the early days of researching Cuba, completely under the spell of the music, I promptly spent $100 on two cigars to get further into the mood of the island. As much as I enjoyed the first Montecristo, it made for a pretty unproductive day of drawing as I sat outside puffing away in earnest at this huge roll of strong tobacco. The second, the Cohiba, still sits untouched; better saved for a special occasion.
Drawing Cuba was a truly enriching experience. This North America project frequently leaves me longing to visit where I research, from the mystical landscapes of the Arctic to the Mayan ruins of the Yucatán. However, nowhere has charmed me from afar quite as much as Cuba. It was the most success I’ve had getting into the mood of a focus region, principally because of the music. Although barely scratching the surface, I’m grateful to be in tune with it at all. As I write this I listen to the dreamlike voice of Ibrahim Ferrer singing Herido de Sombras. The strings gently float across sultry chromatic shifts, complimenting evocative melodies and delivered with flawless technical pedigree. If there’s one thing I might suggest - other than a visit to Cuba - it’s a listen to the astonishing music of this island. It might just become number one on your international destinations, as it now is for me.
I’ll finish by recommending three Cuban songs that made a big impact on me. They are linked below. If you made it this far, then thank-you very much for reading Part 2 on Cuba. I welcome any feedback to ensure I'm writing about what interests you. The next blog is likely to be on either Jamaica or Haiti, so with that in mind, I bid you farewell until next time.
Bruca Manigua – Ibrahim Ferrer
Que Te Hace Pensar – Benny Moré
Varaciones Sobre Un Tema Desconocido – Afro-Cuban Allstars