“My friends say I’m a singer who drives a taxi. My band says I’m a taxi driver that sings.”
Chirino, our driver, didn’t hold back. Flying westward down the gritty highway towards Viñales, Cuba, we were in a 1990’s diesel Peugeot. The radio played a recording that Chirino had made with his band – a traditional Cuban ‘son.’ Singing along with the song, on top his own voice, Chirino hit the higher notes, smiling like he meant it, and using his hands like a conductor’s baton. Like he was on stage. Turns out, he typically is.
Chirino was not only our taxi driver but also the lead singer of Cuba’s much loved and internationally acclaimed band, Grupo Polo Montañez, named for the now deceased “Polo Montañez.”
This post is one of a series of portraits, La Vida Cubana (Cuban Life), to introduce you to the amazing and diverse Cubans that we met.
Chirino, taxista and cantante from Grupo Polo Montanez
Everybody has a story. And with a bit of curiosity, you can find out so much about the people that you come across day to day. What’s great about travel is that you never know who you will run into. Talking to strangers and asking lots of questions is something that I love doing. It can be easy and I hope serves as a good model for Beija as she learns to travel well. Note: here’s a related post on how to travel deeper by making connections.
Being in the taxi with the singer of Grupo Polo Montañez was a big deal. Really. Imagine a scenario where Eddie Vedder (lead singer of Pearl Jam, right?) had died (sorry, Eddie – this is just metaphorical) and you go to Seattle where you find that Eddie’s replacement is your taxi driver and offers to sing on top of Pearl’s Jam’s latest recorded album. (I know, cool huh?)
Listen to Chirino sing in this video:
Aviator sunglasses reflecting a warm December blue sky. Crisp white shirt with white pastel cuffs rolled up. Clean linen pants and dress shoes. White teeth to match. Totally handsome guy if I read Kymber’s mind correctly. When Chirino met us in front of his taxi that morning, we should have suspected his musical roots based on his attire.
Coincidentally we had actually met Chirino the night before, outside of a recommended restaurant in Las Terrazas. We had showed up at the restaurant when it was full. A man (that’s Chirino) greeted us out of a doorway and asked the waiter when we should return. We thought he worked there – you know, the host or family member? Turns out his family lived on the first floor right next to the restaurant so he was just being helpful. At any rate, we didn’t end up going back because we ate at the other open restaurant on the lake… but we had something to talk about right away in the taxi – you know, before the singing.
We discovered other interesting things about Chirino. He also has a daughter and a son with another child on the way. He joked that this was surely his last. His wife works at a Cafe in Las Terrazas. He used his Android phone to show us family pictures.
Right. So who’s this Polo Montañez?
The original Polo died in 2002. Las Terrazas had been his home while he was defining traditional Cuban music. He died after a late night car accident coming back from a show in Havana to Las Terrazas. We saw the place of the accident pointed out the first time going into Las Terrazas. One person said he hit a stopped vehicle that didn’t have any lights. Another person said it was alcohol related. More important than how it happened is that most everyone seems to know of Polo Montañez in Cuba. In fact, out of the touristy things to do in Las Terrazas, visiting the old home of Polo is one of them – a plaza there is also named in his memory. His band lives on, singing his songs, and continuing to tour. And his replacement was our taxi driver.
Chirino was excited because he was preparing to travel to Miami to perform with his 9-piece band, some members still being from the original Polo band. A swiss producer had married a Cuban woman and so was able to set up a recording studio in Havana. He was also helping the group travel and perform outside of Cuba.
Since I’m also a musician (check out my super-famous band), I asked questions related to the music. How do you pick out a “son” from a salsa? Our first day in Havana we had some son dance lessons at La Casa del Son and a ‘son’ had been described to me as an older and originally Cuban predecessor to a ‘salsa’ – with African influences. It had become popular in the 1930s. As a newbie to Cuban music, I had a hard time distinguishing the two. Chirino helped me figure it out. “A son has two audible beats, followed by three. Listen for the clave.” (A clave – like a wood block.)
He tested me on my ability to hear the differences. And helped me out when a bolera came on (a slow ballad). I described how we have open mic nights in Seattle, and how he could really engage with tourists and local musicians if there were to be an open mic night in Las Terrazas.
We passed lots of local hitchhikers and he pointed out smoke from a large sugar can processing plant. Turning north off the highway, we passed a police check and Chirino greeted the officer like they were old friends and we were waved on with smiles. We passed through green tobacco valleys and made it to Viñales, our next temporary home and said goodbye.
Chirino was headed straight to Havana for a show that evening. And we kept a little bit of his music with us.
While this is in Spanish, you can see Chirino talking at 2:12 min into the clip.