New Orleans played a large part in why I wrote a book on the greatest figure in all of Cuban music. It was something of an accident that sent me on the search for Benny Moré, a chance hearing of Qué Bueno Baila Usted, one of the best songs to come from any recording studio on the island of Cuba. Throughout her history, New Orleans had lots of cultural contact with her old penpal, Havana. Trading between these Caribbean sister cities included French opera, brass band instruments left over from the Spanish-American war, and continued to 1940s American jazz 78s. For centuries the Crescent City even provided refuge to more than a handful of Cuban coup attempts founded and funded in the coffee shops and absinthe bars of the French Quarter.
But why would a gringo with a Slavic last name acquire such an obsession to follow the life of a man who had been mostly forgotten by his own country, and lost in the politics that came from both sides of the Mango Curtain? The simple answer is because I heard Benny’s music at a dinner party one night in the Lower Garden District in New Orleans.
I found other faint hints of Cuba in New Orleans. When I taught at UNO, I had a student with an unusual combination of names in one of my classes; I would learn that his parents weren’t the only Jewish Cubans who left in the 1960s. And as a graduate student in New York before I had moved to New Orleans, the precious few restaurants I could afford had been Cuban-Chinese, a seemingly unlikely combination where men who looked Hispanic speak Chinese and other old waiters who looked Chinese spoke rapid Spanish. All this information kept placing itself in a folder in my brain about Cuba—to the existing file “See Chinese in Cuba,” I added “Jewish Cubans?”
In the slave quarter behind my house on Royal street lived a Cuban man in his 70s, almost totally deaf yet still amazingly virile and quite attractive to women. Though he had to sweep up at an Irish bar a few blocks away to subsidize his retirement pittance, Juan José was an excellent cook, an expert in every Cuban dish. We became best friends after I hooked up his cable television to pirated versions of the Spice channel and other adult entertainments. He repaid me for several years in a row by treating me to his Cuban cuisine. I’ve given up searching for the equal of his ropa vieja, which we shared on the balcony for countless evenings with the red wine he kept chilled, as Cubans prefer.
New Orleans never really stopped whispering to me about Havana. I found that the parties in New Orleans were merely basic training for my visits to Havana. Once in Havana, my first wanderings kept reminding of my similar wanderings among the African-influenced, Caribbean colored shotguns of Louisiana. And among the grander townhouses and alleyways and oldest parts of Havana, I kept expecting a second-line parade to come around the corner at any time. Curious children on the streets of both cities not only look alike from similar racial mingling, but approach you in the same open and warm way. The smell of beans cooking, and roosters in the backyards, scents of coffee, music from nearly every window—close your eyes for a minute in Havana and you are sure you’ve gone back to New Orleans.
Even from a distance, New Orleans had a final Cuban lesson for me after Katrina. By 2005 I was back in New York. On the eve of the storm, my sons’ mother had finally agreed to return to New Orleans with me and our then 6-month-old baby, to leave the New York cold for crawfish boils, and to trade the subway for shrimp poboys. But just before we left, suddenly my now-homeless friends who belonged nowhere else but New Orleans had scattered across the country, as we would have too if we had arrived only a week before. My sister had gone unhappily to Atlanta, and now the New Orleans I knew was lost.
It only seemed right for me to write the preface to my Benny book during a stay at my sister’s quiet house near the fairgrounds in New Orleans. While I wandered through my favorite neighborhoods, dearly missing those Havana-like smells from now empty kitchens, I was visited by a painful realization. I suddenly knew that with very small children to care for (by then, there was a new baby), I could never move back to New Orleans. That’s when it dawned on me what it must feel like to be an exiled Cuban, one who knew that you can never return to a memory, no matter how powerful.
When I got home to my family, I did the only thing I should. First I put on Louis Armstrong, and then Benny’s music. We toasted New Orleans and Benny Moré both, and danced with the children in the living room just before their bed time.