Photo courtesy of Michael L. Flower

Havana Carbo


Singer, Composer: Cuba

Escorting singer Havana Carbo through the clamor of Manhattan streets stirred a curiosity within. I’d wanted to ask her throughout dinner why she didn’t simply reside in New York, instead of having to return at this twilight hour to her home in New Jersey. As we dodged hustling pedestrians, I finally asked.

    In reply, she introduced Times Square:

“As soon as you start walking, you get hot dog in your hair, ketchup in your hair, knish in your hair…”

    The good feeling provided by that statement echoed what I’d felt very early on in my correspondence with Havana. Back then, as she first thought of her experiences and how they might be woven into my project, she wrote:

“As for my story, there are several, depending on time and circumstances. But none can accuse me of ever being bored, so I can't complain.”

    I was left with that carrot dangling before me – for as timing had it, months would pass before we’d finally be able to meet. What else could I do in that time but continue to listen to Havana’s voice and her music; anticipation building from the thoughts and daydreams of what stories she’d tell me; where she’s been, what she’s done, what she’s doing?

    When we finally met, the first thing we shared was a thought on poetry. With the help of her brother she’d recently acquired a book of poems, from the 19th century, written by her great-grandfather.

“It’s the last book my great-grandfather wrote. Some of the poems are just hilarious. I’ve been reading it a little every night. It’s fascinating because when I read him I see the connection between us. He writes about the vicissitudes of people and somehow he finds humor. The way he doesn’t take himself too seriously is just amazing. I can really see how I can be his great-granddaughter, because that’s how I live.”

“He went to Cuba in the middle 1800s. My mother never met him. But I’m reading something that I’m familiar with. I know how his mind works. I feel so close to him.”

    As the hours passed, Havana shared many fascinating memories: of owning an haute-couture clothing boutique; living in Paris; conversations with Jobim. It wasn’t until three months later that I closed my eyes during a live performance and discovered something even more fascinating in her voice. Listen to Luna de Varadero or Acariciame, and you’re bound to get it.

“Acaríciame, acaríciame
Que se incruste en mi ser tu perfume divino
A ti me entrego, es mi destino
Haz de mi vida y de mis cosas
Lo que quieras tú.”

(Caress me , caress me
Let your divine perfume be inlaid into my very being
I give myself to you, it's my destiny,
Do with my life and with my things
What you wish.)

    There are times when a note she sings quickly flees from the room, almost as if it were a young admirer too nervous to stay and voice its true feelings. But at other times she holds a note and allows it to linger; drifting away as slow as a sunset.

And I think in both cases what I hear in her voice is a sort of fatigue. An aching.

    It’s the weariness only love can bring. At times it’s an awful weariness, at times it’s a wonderful weariness. But this is the authenticity in her heart – what makes her a masterful storyteller.

“A good lecturer is not a person who likes the sound of their own voice. It’s someone who is so into their topic that they get you involved. You might have an outline. I’ve heard the most boring people with the perfect outline, but this monotone voice. Everything can be faultless: their language, their grammar. But there’s no love, they’re so worried about sounding wrong. Who cares? Sound interested! That’s what I want.”

    In a way, perhaps there’s also something unpleasant about singing faultlessly all the time. That first take, with some small imperfections, can be so much more believable than a perfectly accurate version of the same song, can’t it?

“Shirley Horn…I believed every single word she ever uttered and every note she ever played. She was amazing. I have almost all her albums. I get the chills when I think of it. That’s what I want to hear.”

    Havana also reminisced on Chet Baker.

“Chet was really my favorite ‘non-singer’ singer. What I mean is that he lived a very troubled life. He was all about when he was gonna get the next fix; married several times, terrible father, terrible husband. I had to learn to separate the man from the music. Once I did that, I really loved him. Even through the end, when he lost his teeth, he sang the most amazing Funny Valentine.”

    In the past, Havana has arranged performances in tribute to Chet Baker and another musician dear to her heart, Antônio Carlos Jobim. She played two songs by Jobim the night I watched her perform – and smiled throughout both of them. Perhaps Havana has special memories of Jobim she’s keeping to herself, and can’t help but smile when she sings his music.

    Just as there are some stories Havana shared with me that I’m going to keep to myself. And when I think of those stories and Havana’s alluring voice, perhaps I’ll smile, too.

A thought:

    One morning, months after I met Havana, I sat on my terrace and listened to the tape of our conversation. A blue jay flew across the street, directly toward me, and perched himself atop a telephone pole nearby. He turned a curious eye in my direction for just a few moments before flying off.
    Washington Irving might have suggested that nothing other than the enchantment of Havana’s voice on the tape caused the approach of this beautiful, winged creature.
    I would have agreed.

{june 2007}