THEATRE REVIEW: Havana Rakatan

Gordana Andjelic-Davila

'Havana Rakatan' has a veneer of a ‘regular’ Cuban music variety shows, but once it is stripped away, it reveals a beautifully innovatively choreographed and thoroughly modern Cuban dance extravaganza.
THEATRE REVIEW: Havana Rakatan
Christopher Columbus discovered the island of Cuba in 1492. The Spanish colonized it during the next several centuries and assigned it Castilian (Spanish) as the official language. However, Cuba’s culture is a far cry from being purely Spanish. Many ships with African slaves from Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, Cameroon, Benin and the Congo were sailed to this fertile tropical island, for the slaves to work the coffee and sugar plantations. It is in Cuba that, the marriage of two very different cultures occurred and as a result, introduced the world with a type of music which is like no other, and has overflowed into all of our lives no matter where we live, even as far as Australia. Tribal Africa rich in superstitions, lively dance and rhythmic music, blended with the rigid colonial Spain, and they together created the Cuban culture. They birthed a colourful mosaic of infectious music which does NOT allow one to sit still while in its presence. Many a person has described the music’s effect as a means of “sacar los demonios” extracting the demons... maybe not so far from the truth, since the ‘Santeros’ (Saint worshiping holy people, who pray against the evil forces of the world – religious practice brought over by slaves) sing and dance to the drum’s rumble to exorcise the evil spirits from people who ask for their aid. Last night I discovered Havana Rakatan at the Arts Centre in Melbourne. I feel as though I should etch 19 February, 2009 in stone, as it is an important date to remember. This is the day that, I was whisked away from the rough ocean waters of Australia to the calm tropical waters of Cuba. This is the day when my body embraced and danced to the vivacious beat-infused music and my eyes were mesmerized by the dancers’ seemingly gravity defying steps which conveyed passion, passion and more passion. Havana Rakatan has a veneer of a ‘regular’ Cuban music variety shows, but once it is stripped away, it reveals a beautifully innovatively choreographed and thoroughly modern Cuban dance extravaganza. Interpretative dance steps and even a bit of break dancing, have been successfully intertwined with traditional ones in such a smooth way that, watching it all unfold before me, made me sit at the edge of my seat, longing for the experience to last longer than the forecasted two hours. The story of Cuba was conveyed. First, a striking raven haired flamenco dancer and her partner pounded their feet passionately on the wood floor, artistically gestured with their hands, dawning severe and determined facial expressions, danced symbolising the Spanish colonization of Cuba. A group of dancers representing the African slaves, joined them on stage. A different music was introduced to the traditional Spanish, one laden with drum beats and heavy rhythms. Scene after scene, the dancers and the music took the audience down a journey depicting how the two polar opposite cultures eventually merged into one. Songs were in some instances familiar old friends like “El Manisero” (the peanut seller) illustrating a familiar Havana street scene, where a woman peddles peanuts from house to house, alongside a pimp, a witch, street seller, gossip and a drunk. Other songs were difficult to understand because of the Papiamento-like language they were sung in, but equally emotion provoking. In the ideal world (as I’ve heard it said)... super titles would be above the stage, for the audience to understand the tale being woven before them, with the Spanish language songs. Some messages were lost on the crowd. Such was the case for the duet where a mock comparison is being debated about men and women by the two singers. What one has and the other does not. But, I was surprised to see how well the singers were able to have the audience participate by clapping and dancing without a word of English being uttered. “Arriba, hagan asi. Aqui abajo, hagan asi.” (Up there, do this. Down here, do this.) Havana Rakatan provided it all. Entertainment for the young and old. For the Salsa enthusiast and for the Latin music curious. The only thing missing was the smell of Cuba. Maybe the next time around the venue hosting Havana Rakatan can provide the audience with some ‘scratch and sniff’ cards with scents of fried plantains and the experience will be an even more authentic one. Havana Rakatan 17 Feb – 21 Feb 2009 At The Arts Centre

About the author

Gordana Andjelic-Davila is an Arts Hub contributor based in Melbourne. Find her on Twitter @flyinggondola