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What is Son ?

From: Prairie Schooner
Volume 79, Number 2, Summer 2005
pp. 93-99 | 10.1353/psg.2005.0080

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Prairie Schooner 79.2 (2005) 93-99

Lon Otto

This is my cathedral, she says in Spanish, sweeping her hands to embrace the tenement rooftop, the wire clotheslines strung overhead from canted, rusting poles, the ponderous arch of tropical night sky. She's María Haidí, the Afro Cuban woman who is going to teach these Lutheran pastors and professors and college administrators to dance in Old Havana. From a corner of the roof, a tower and part of the façade of Havana's baroque cathedral a few blocks away is visible, though the visitors are so disoriented still from their first day in Cuba that they barely get her joke. María Haidí opens her palms to the spidery tangles of two television antennas, one strapped at its base to a crumbling brick chimney, the other screwed to the little shed at the top of the dizzyingly steep stairway that led them up to the roof: These are my bell towers. Welcome.

There are fifteen of them in the delegation from Duluth, Minnesota – nine men and six women, seated in a ragged semicircle. Tom Vogel had grabbed one of the folding chairs farthest from the cleared space in the center of the roof, where María Haidí is beginning to explain the essence of Cuban music, which she says is the essence of Cuba, and the instruments, and the rhythms, while their tour leader translates into English and three other Cubans – musicians, apparently – stand around behind her and periodically hand her instruments – ebony claves, maracas, a little drum, a ridged gourd rasped with a stick, a bead-encrusted rattle the size of a watermelon – or step forward themselves to demonstrate. The tres with its three doubled strings. A waist-high conga drum.

The band members may be members of her family, though none is nearly as black as she is, whose skin is the color of a freshly-blued gun barrel. A wiry, gray-haired man may be her husband, a teenaged girl in spandex shorts may be her granddaughter. María Haidí's long print dress sways over her ankles and bare feet as she sails through her lecture, clinking the claves against each other in various complicated rhythmic variations, singing scraps of melody.

The musicians take up instruments, and the group plays a guajira, traditional country music, then something salsa, then something else. And son? What is son, again? Tom wonders. It's confusing but pretty in the soft January night atop a decaying colonial mansion, and when a little girl comes out and hands everyone slender paper cones full of peanuts, and an older girl serves mojitos in plastic glasses from a rusty cookie sheet, and Jorge, the tour leader, translates the gist of María Haidí's sweet, sly jokes, it's easy to forget that something scary is inexorably sweeping toward them.

Tom Vogel cannot be the only one braced behind a mask of laughter and applause and tipsy appreciation. These aren't the first mojitos they've been served today. During one of the songs, a beautiful young man and woman slipped out of the stairway shed and are perched now on the rooftop's wall like cats. Tom edges his chair back a little to get a better look past the thick, bobbing shoulders of Jack Olson, the college chaplain, who arranged the Cuba trip. And suddenly he feels himself toppling backward toward the empty night air and the cobblestone street three long stories below. Before he has a chance to cry out, a stone balustrade catches him, stops his fall. It holds him there, the rear legs of his chair sunk in a kind of gutter, staring up at the dim stars and horizontal sliver of moon.

Heart banging in his chest, he stays that way for a minute, tilted back as if he could not be more comfortable. Half of his mojito sloshed out, but most of it ended up on the tar and concrete roof rather than on his trousers. He sips the sweet, watery drink. The young man is watching him from across the rooftop. No one else seems to have noticed...

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