Having Nothing is Living Free, 1

In early March, 2019, I flew to Miami for the first time in my life where I met the rest of a tour group bound for Cuba the next day. Eight of us in the group took a tour with Mario, a Cuban-American bus driver, to see downtown Little Havana, a rough and tumble place. He bought Cuban coffee shots for those who wanted to try it from an outdoor café and we walked along the streets, finally arriving at a Cuban pub for a first experience with mojitos– and very loud salsa music. It was interesting to see the art hung around, even from the ceiling and watch young (or not so young) dancers. Though the lead vocalist, a woman from Puerto Rico, and  the percussionist were live, the main melody was a recording, so I would didn’t agree that it was live music. Toward the end of our stay, a guy joined in on the previously silent grand piano. Alas, the music volume was so cranked up, the piano was still unheard. I had not remembered earplugs, but started carrying them with me everywhere I went. However, I never needed them again. Cuban street music and performed music is genuinely live and is not limited to fortissimo volume.


A mural nearby showed some black girls in white, representing a weekly Sunday ritual in Havana, a silent protest against the communists in Havana.

The next day our group caught a flight to Santa Clara, Cuba. Our tour was a People-to-People tour sponsored by Road Scholar. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was ready for anything, to soak up the experience as research for the scenes from Sonata of Elsie Lenore that are set in Cuba. 

My first view of Cuba from the airplane was through clouds, but I identified agricultural fields, and a field of solar panels. The time was 4:45 pm EST. We landed at the Santa Clara airport* at 4:55, de-planed down a set of stairs and walked to the airport door. My first step in Cuba occurred at 5:02 pm.

It was a long day of waiting for a little bit of travel, but we had finally arrived and worked our way through Cuban customs. One lady’s checked bag was lost, but the rest of us gathered our bags, met our Cuban Guide Ilen (pronounced “Elaine”) headed to the waiting bus where we met our bus driver, Ernesto. Our first views along the road included horse-drawn wagons, rough dwellings, banana, guava, and maybe tobacco fields, and lots of palm trees. Trash was piled at intervals in the roadside ditches, or in waterways. Dogs scratched through the refuse. A dead dog lay in one ditch, with vultures gathering.

Then we arrived at our lodging, Los Caneyes, and WOW!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*In the last few months travel to Cuba has been restricted only to the Havana airport. Americans today would not be able to duplicate the itinerary we enjoyed.

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Chapter One

LENA VALDEZ CRINGED when her husband hammered the Steinway piano lid with his fist.

His rage growing, Enrique’s knuckle bones threatened to burst through his skin. “I told you,” he said, “no more of this Lecuona crap. Do the jazz. Tonight we want the best Cuban jazz.” The youngest of the three Diaz brothers punctuated every other syllable with his fist until the piano’s heavy bass strings vibrated with a rising cacophony.

She shrank from every blow.

“Understand?” he yelled.

, Enrique,” she said.

“Get to the jazz. I’m counting on you tonight. ¿Comprendes?

She looked down, her fingers rubbing the familiar ivory ridges of the piano keys.

“¿Lena?” he said.

She felt rather than saw his arm rise and spoke with haste. “Please, Enrique. Don’t hit the piano.”

“Jazz then. Hear me?”

She nodded. Yes, she heard him. How could she not? She could hardly recall a time he spoke to her without yelling. “, I will play jazz.”

“One hour. Then we dress for the show. No more Lecuona.”

She flexed her fingers, took a deep breath, and leaned into the keys. A recent island melody by Jorge Marin swelled from the piano. Swinging with the beat, Enrique danced out the door of the Caribbean Breeze, a nightclub in New Orleans.

Her hands flew over the keys as she coaxed melodious rhythms from the worn Steinway. It wasn’t that she hated jazz. After all, jazz expressed Cuba’s heart and soul. It sang of the courage and beauty of her countrymen. She loved jazz, but she loved classics more and she needed Lecuona right now. Their mother raised her and her brother on Lecuona, embracing classical Cuban tradition.

Lena completed the Marin number and stifled a sob.

“You okay Señorita?” Roberto, the bartender and manager of the nightclub, peeked in from a back room.

She nodded. “I will be fine.”

“I heard some yelling,” he said and cocked his head, inviting her to say more.

She forced a laugh. “Enrique. He’s always yelling,” she explained away the outburst. “It will be fine.”

“If you’re sure.”

She met his gaze with a grateful nod.

He turned back into the storage room. She waited a moment, gathering her nerve, her fingers silent on the piano keys. In a timid voice, she said, “Roberto?”

When he didn’t respond, she tried again, louder. “Roberto?”

He stuck his head through the swinging door again. “You say something?”

“I just wondered if you would tell me where I could mail a postal card.” She fished a postcard from her handbag.

“Sending greetings from good old New Orleans?” he said with a smile.

Sí. I want to contact my brother.”

“Stefano? How is he anyway? I heard he’d tied the knot with a beauty from up north somewhere.”

She nodded. “I just want to let him know I am here. Where could I mail the card?”

He extended his hand. “Leave it with me. I’ll make sure it goes out tomorrow.”

Gracias, Roberto.”

The bartender disappeared into the back room with her card. Lena took a deep breath before she continued her rehearsal. If only Stefano would meet her here. Would he even get the postcard in time? He didn’t know she was booked at the Caribbean Breeze, their old favorite nightclub. Maybe he wouldn’t even believe she was here, set to perform on Mama’s piano, “Elsie Lenore.” He sure didn’t know she’d married into a family of drug smugglers or that she was miserable.

He didn’t know.

She launched into another Marin number. At its close, she whispered into the keys, “Elsie—Elsie, what will I do?”

Unexpectedly, her mother’s voice whispered in her mind. “We do what we must.”

In a flash of recollection she visualized the lewd sneer of her former stepfather as he appraised her youthful body and her mother stepping between them— “Not my daughter, you bastard!” Her mother had split up with that man before the next week passed.

A year later a new gentle suitor presented her mother with the same Steinway she’d lost after the Revolution. A gift from her father when she was young, she had fondly dubbed the piano Elsie Lenore. It was offered as a wedding gift for the woman he’d loved all his life and Lena’s mother could not refuse his proposal. Lena and Stefano had grown to love that piano as much as their mother did.

Her mother’s voice whispered again. We do what we must.

“Yes, we do.” Lena’s hands teased the keys as she pondered her limited options. Elsie Lenore and her brother Stefano offered one thin thread of hope. Surely he would understand. He had to.

Her fingers caressed the keys and cajoled an Afro-Cuban piece from the belly of the piano. The melody grew, and then waned. She dropped her left hand and allowed her right hand to sketch a rhythmic melody up the keys as she diverted her left hand to the piano case.

Following the melodic sequence, she ran her fingertips to the treble end of the mahogany trim at her waist and pried upward. With a full-keyboard glissando, she moved to the bass end and inched up the trim until the keyslip was free of its mounting screws. She placed it across the music desk without the slightest click.

The music soared again when her left hand joined in. She strummed repeated staccato chords, lifted her hands at the finale, and froze, listening.

Silencio.

Roberto must have gone out for a few moments. Nobody remained inside the club.

She retrieved a set of dining utensils and a paper napkin from the nearest table and spread the napkin beneath the bass keys. Slipping the knife tip underneath a key, she scraped against the key frame, teasing a fine white dust to the edge. She repeated the process under four keys, and scraped the powder onto the napkin. Tossing the knife to the floor, she lifted the napkin’s corners, cradled the powder into its middle, and with a sigh folded it into a tiny envelope. Her brother would have been proud to know she’d learned some intricacies of piano construction. She, for her part, was grateful for his fascination with the technical side of the instrument.

Gracias, Stefano,” she whispered.

She tucked the parcel securely into her cleavage, replaced the trim, and lost herself in the music.

Will Stefano get the postcard? What did she write to her brother? What exactly did she decide she must do? What’s the white powder she collected from the piano? Find the answers: Sonata of Elsie Lenore premiering today at the 2020 Keyboard Duet Festival.

On the Courthouse Lawn

The annual Flint Hills Folk Life Festival was held last weekend on the shady lawn surrounding the historic Chase County Courthouse in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. Each June, the organizers of this event plan it to coincide with the Flint Hills Symphony concert performed by the Kansas City Symphony.

“The Earth Has Music”

A freak storm on the eve of the symphony weekend ended up cancelling the big musical performance, but the Folk Life Festival continued. Wandering music lovers discovered music on the lawn, just a few miles up the road. There was even a bit of dancing.

If you took a closer look at the exhibits, you’d find artists demonstrating skills from the nineteenth century. You might find a basket weaver. Or an artisan busy making handmade soap. You’d find a field station for a frontier army, and Union soldiers patrolling the grounds. A mountain man displayed crafts and toys made from feathers and skins. A row of tents under the elms held many textile crafts with artists hard at work. And you might even be invited to try your hand at various activities. I helped with a quilting bee, learned about Tunisian crochet and rug twining, as well as conversion hints to turn my grandmother’s old red-eye Singer 66 treadle sewing machine into a hand-cranked version.

You could find a potter, busily throwing new kitchen pots on an old-fashioned kick-wheel or a woodworker making spoons from chunks of firewood. If you get thirsty, how about some homemade lemonade, or even root beer? And to remedy the nibbles, some kettle corn, hot and fresh. You might even find a book or two written by a prairie author, featuring life in those Flint Hills surrounding the historic courthouse.

If you took some time to sit in the shade a spell, and exchanged pleasantries with some of the other visitors, you would encounter people from several nearby communities–Council Grove, Americus, Emporia–as well as Wichita and Kansas City. You  might even find folks from as far away as Minnesota and Texas, who had chosen this weekend to explore the Kansas Flint Hills.

Disappointed symphony fans who took the time to look around returned home with an unforgettable memory from picturesque Cottonwood Falls. With nature weirding into increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather events, the skills on display at the courthouse might even come in handy in the not-so-distant future. Take cues from the youngsters dashing around the courthouse, inventing games, twisting ropes, and flying feather kites. Life without all those electronic gadgets might have its upsides too.