Seventeen years ago, artist Salvador Gonzalez started painting Afro-Cuban motifs on the walls of a run down alleyway in Havana. That is essentially how the Callejón de Hamel, or Hamel's Alley, was reborn, transforming into a place of colour and feeling. This was appropriate because in the 1940's and 50's, one of the houses in the area was owned by the famous Cuban singer Tirso Díaz. His home was a meeting place for singers and songwriters who, together with Tirso's sons, founded a new style of Cuban music called filin. This passionate and emotional way of singing was named after the English word "feeling" and has produced several classic songs known worldwide. It may even be that this small street has the power to inspire. Salvador González certainly believed that.
As a dreamer, he says that he was following the Yoruba saying: "Unhappy is the man who does not listen to the rocks whistling to him." "I listened to the whistling and the singing of this alley," said Salvador.
He shows his work - a mixture of cubism, expressionism, surrealism, baroque and primitive styles - at his studio gallery named "Merceditas Valdes" located in the alley. He is not worried that people will think that he is kitschy. "As a creator, I am self-taught and didn't study in any academy. I mix and I have created my own style. I used to work with leather and metals but I needed another way to express my art and I decided to start my work on the walls of the alley in April 1990."
His international career blossomed after that with a vast program of exhibitions, murals and sculptures. The great mural in the alley is nourished by the lives of the neighbors making it that much more appealing to visitors. Now Salvador has finished another mural on the corner of San Rafael and Hospital Streets, close to Hamel's. While fascinating on its own, the unique aspect of the alley is the gathering of rumberos, or rumba musicians and dancers, which takes place every Sunday afternoon. Anyone who wants to experience what Cuban dance really is must go there. There is never enough space to contain so much joy.
Rumba is a very old style which emerged from the western region of Cuba, mainly in the province of Matanzas, and . the urban areas of the Cuban capital. It is a music that originated amongst poor blacks, alienated people who found in this rhythm a way of expressing themselves. It has an irreverent character and three variations of music and dance: the Guaguanc6, Columbia, and Yambu.
The Yambu is slow and the movements are less aggressive . . The Columbia is faster and only danced by then and, finally, the Guaguancó is pure sensuality and is a dance of conquest. It is synonymous with rhythm, sweat, flirtatiousness, and passion. To understand Rumba better, we can look to a verse from a poem by Nicolas Guillen, Cuba's greatest folk poet. He created a metaphor for the drum saying: "Even the most refined man in the room answers my call."
And before the drums of the Callejón de Hamel, no one escapes or is left unmoved. As Cubans like to say, we all have at least a little piece of us ready for joy and rumba provides all you can handle.