Backstage Havana

Olympic silver medallist boxer Emilio Correa Bayeux Jr in the Gimnasio Rafael Trejo
Photographer: Philip Lee Harvey

Havana’s heartbeat is the pounding of drums. Infectious rumba and salsa music are ever-present, along with the everyday sounds: cries of peanut hawkers – “Mani, mani!” – and the rattle of handcarts over cobbles. Ladies shout to their neighbours as they hang out washing in colourful lines like bunting, dogs yip from balconies, and the tinny noise of a televised baseball game spills from a window where a man stands shaving his chin with a cut-throat razor. It often seems that all the drama of life here is lived out on the street. After all, Havana appears as a city-sized film set, with its crumbling colonial buildings and its classic cars belching bluish exhaust fumes into the air. But, behind the city’s pastel-painted façades and ornate wrought-iron grilles, there is a whole world to be discovered – all it takes is to pull back the curtain…

WORDS: CHRISTA LARWOOD
PHOTOGRAPHS: PHILIP LEE HARVEY

1. TAKE A SPIN DOWN THE STREET ART AND DANCE

Callejón de Hamel is less a street than a kaleidoscope of colour. A famed centre of Havana street art, its walls are covered in bright murals the size of tennis courts, and every corner is filled with sculptures made from engine parts, horse shoes or bathtubs.

Music fills the air. It’s the rhythmic chant of voices singing to the tippity- thump of a double-ended batá drum and the rasping rattle of a shekere – a polished gourd strung with cowrie shells.

In a small courtyard off the Callejón de Hamel, a young woman in a headscarf is twirling in a dress of red, black and white. She stamps her feet on the rough-paved ground, her face alive with an infectious grin. Soon she’s swept up in a circle of fellow dancers. They all spin in their silken dresses, raising their arms in the air.

This foot-thumping and drum-beating is much more than a simple performance. Callejón de Hamel is a centre for Havana’s Afro-Cuban community, and this display is a fervent prayer, a communion with the orisha, the gods brought to Cuba in the 16th century by slaves from what is now Nigeria.

Thairumy Rangel Chirino emerges from the dance and sinks into a plastic chair, happily out of breath. “You see here,” she says, “in this dance, each person is not just a person. They represent a god, an element of nature. For example, my blue colour represents the water of the sea.” She indicates her sapphire skirt and towering headdress – she is Yemayá, the mother of all living things and goddess of the ocean.

Thairumy’s grandmother and mother passed down these sacred songs and rhythms to her when she was three years old, as part of her Santería religion – a unique Cuban meld of the West African Yoruba faith with Roman Catholicism.

The music draws curious passers-by to peer through the courtyard’s wrought- iron gate. She beckons them inside. “I love to share this with people,” she says. “This dance is my life. How can I explain it? It makes me so angry when people dance without heart, without passion. When I dance, I feel it singing in my blood.”

2. MEET THE OLYMPIANS AT HAVANA’S HISTORIC BOXING CLUB

It’s a mild day in Havana, but Emilio Correa Bayeux Jr is slick with sweat. It beads on his face and chest, running in rivulets down his spine. After a 7am start, he’s just completed his morning session of training – the first of two for the day – and he catches his breath, leaning against a chipped blue wall in the Gimnasio Rafael Trejo.

This boxing gym in the heart of Old Havana is no stuffy indoor affair; it’s an open-air space where crowds gather to watch bloody bouts on Friday nights, lining the bare wooden benches that rise in grandstands either side of a well-worn boxing ring. There’s no fight today, but pairs of young boxers take turns to spar and pound at bags, practicing their feints and jabs with small, noisy huffs of breath.

The gym first opened in the 1930s, and has barely changed since. Every surface is mottled with damp or shows evidence of a dozen repaintings, and the ropes around the ring are patched and frayed. But, despite its humble appearance, this gym is a beloved Havana icon and a pilgrimage site for boxing enthusiasts from across the world.

Cubans are fervently passionate about the sport – and successful, with a world-beating haul of 38 Olympic gold boxing medals. Many of Havana’s champions have trained in this ring, and Emilio is one of them. The 31-year-old is an Olympic silver medallist, following in the footsteps of his father, who won the welterweight Olympic gold in 1972.

“Boxing is a way of life in Cuba, it’s so special for us,” Emilio says. He is an imposing figure – almost six feet of solid muscle capable of lightning ferocity within the ring – but he believes it’s his bone-deep defiance that has made him a champion. “Cuban people are adapted to struggle,” he says. “From the time we’re very small, we know that we have to fight for our future. We live with passion and we fight for principles, fight for pride – and that’s true not just in boxing, but for every Cuban.”

The gymnasium is a fitting stage for Emilio’s pugnacious words – it was named after a Cuban revolutionary martyr, Rafael Trejo, who was shot in a student protest in 1930.

To explore Havana further, check out LPMI’s July 2017 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.