Cuba has some of the best festivals in the Caribbean region across a wide spectrum of culture and the arts, of which the most prestigious are the Latin American Film Festival in December, the Habano cigar festival and the ballet and jazz festivals. Visitors also flock to ‘fringe’ style events which on discovery turn out to be real gems, such as the Cine Pobre (low budget) film festival in Gibrara.
To go back to the origins of the special magic which permeates the Cuban music scene today, you need to imagine the musical spark that was generated initially when newly freed Cuban slaves emigrated to New Orleans in the 19th century, then just think of the legacy left by that incredible duo, the Cuban drummer Luciano Pozo and American jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, later evolving into the widely recognized ‘Latin jazz’, whose sounds were to be heard in famous clubs worldwide, such as Ronnie Scott’s on London’s Frith Street. Now Cuban musicians are prominent among the great virtuosos of contemporary jazz, and they themselves have been the driving force behind the festival, held in Havana annually (but check the dates), and featuring such Cuban stars as Armando Romeu, Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Ruvalcaba. Soak up that unique Havana sound in one of the smoky, rum-soaked hangouts of the city, or enjoy a concert given by one of the international stars on a grand scale at one of the major venues.
For Cubans, dance is a passion. Folkdance, classical ballet, contemporary dance, flamenco and street performances are all represented within the cultural events calendar of the island as well as being visible as an everyday occurrence in the streets, in clubs and in schools and academies. The 83-year-old Alicia Alonso, a founder and Director General of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, is a seminal figure in the world of ballet. She became a superstar with the American Ballet Theatre in New York, only to lose her eyesight. Despite her blindness, Alonso defied her doctors and continued to dance. After the Revolution, Castro welcomed Alonso and her then husband Fernando, a pivotal figure in his own right, and financed their ballet company. They also joined forces to create a grass roots outreach program breaking class and racial barriers and fueling the current popularity of ballet in Cuba. Since 1960, Alonso has presided over the International Havana Ballet Festival which brings together international soloists and companies alongside the Cuban National Ballet in Havana and other venues across the island. It is usually held in the Autumn season.
Havana has been the venue for the renowned New Latin American International Film Festival since 1979. Millions of film buffs across Cuba attend the event which has served as a launch pad for Latin American cinematography and become one of the most important film festivals of the region, held usually in November/ December. The variety of films shown at the Havana Film Festival every year has attracted celebrities such as Steven Spielberg, Pedro Almodóvar and Francis Ford Coppola, among many others.
Away from the world of performance and high culture, the week-long raunchy street party known as the Fiesta del Fuego takes place during July in Santiago on Cuba's east coast. Celebrate Caribbean culture by dancing all night long, fuelled by a steady supply of the delicious Cuban Havana Club rum. The fiesta offers all sorts of entertainment: traditional bands and music, as well as sound systems playing more familiar international dance music; processions of decorated vehicles and curiously-attired dancers.
As the end of the year rolls around, the little colonial town of Remedios gears up to host Las Parrandas, one of Cuba 's grandest street parties and religious carnivals. Everything culminates on Christmas Eve in an orgy of drums, floats, and fireworks.