By: Ciro Bianchi Ross
The story of Cuba’s first cabaret or night club is set against the background of the Ten Year War (1868-78), when Havana seemed more like a garrison under siege than a city and its residents took refuge in theaters, bull runs and the circus for some light relief.
This was when the city’s first singing cafe opened on Havana street, on the corner of Amargura. It also brought with it the introduction of something we are now familiar with in our night lives; a minimum price rule.
For the twenty five cents paid to the doorman, clients could enjoy the show and a guaranteed soda.
The cafe’s bill was not essentially different to that of the night clubs that would follow suit and even those today.
The shows that lasted for about an hour were a cocktail of joyful songs, cheeky dancing, a bit of comedy or operetta and a satyrical element entitled “What’s Happening in the Woods” that took on current affairs issues.
These were rowdy, smoke-filled, noisy affairs where the audience expressed delight through cat calls and shouts while others smoked a pipe, drank cognac and immersed themselves in memories of better times, intent on temporarily leaving the world outside.
The bar was situated to the right of the room which was interspersed with tables and chairs, occupied by a most eclectic array of clients. The small stage was at the back and behind the bar was another essential element of pre-1959 Cuban nightlife; a speakeasy gambling room.
The heat was asphyxiating. Windows set high in the walls let street air in, and with it the din, exhaust fumes and cries of street traders. Emergency exits were kept closed to keep unpa ying guests at bay and the porter kept the main door ajar. There were all types to be found in the crowd: blue-blaze red sailors with anchors on their back-facing caps, laborers and street sellers. The best of the bare-chested stained by sweat and grease. Soldiers returning from the war alongside those soon to face it. Recruits eager to relish the city’s delights but unable to mask their anxiety because their time on leave had passed. Loose women drinking, smoking and making noise. Hardworking merchants enjoying the fun after their day’s toil.
Risqué and lewd jokes went down better than the piano-backed soprano giving her best with the songs of the day.
This cabaret café, a place for fun and entertainment which was born in France and came to Cuba via Madrid, would soon be followed by others such as El Infierno (Hell) on the corner of Amistad and San José, Tokio on San Lázaro and Blanco, and the Eden Concert in front of the Hotel Plaza on Zulueta, the first outdoor cabaret in Havana and predecessor to the now world famous Tropicana.