For tourists, Cuba presents something of conundrum. On the one hand, it is a warm and inviting vacation spot with sunny beaches and an amiable population. On the other hand, it is a Marxist-Leninist, one-party state, that grants very little economic freedom to its people. How should travelers feel about enjoying a restaurant meal that would cost a typical Cuban family the equivalent of one or two months’ income?

In the context of modern Cuba, The Tropicana nightclub in Havana is a striking anomaly. Its building and grounds are a surviving relic of Cuba’s colonial past. Its extravagant excess is a jarring reminder of the country’s pre-revolutionary gangster era. Its slick packaging of Cuba’s most notable exports (music, dance, rum and cigars) into one entertainment experience serves as a glittering example of modern Cuba’s aspirations as a global tourist destination – past, present and future all rolled into one, while Marx and Lenin roll in their graves to an Afro-Cuban beat.

HISTORY

The Club opened on December 30, 1939, on the grounds of the colonial estate Villa Mina, as the brainchild of Cuban impresario Victor de Correa and two casino operators, Rafael Mascaro and Luis Bular. The name change to Tropicana was suggested by choreographer and stage director Sergio Orta. With the support of wealthy patrons, the Club flourished through the war years, and by the end of WWII, it had evolved into a showy meeting place, beyond the budget of most Cubans, but also beyond the reach of American law enforcement, making it an ideal place for criminals and politicians to freely conspire.

We are told that the Cuban Revolution wasn’t just a struggle between Marxism and Capitalism; it was equally a struggle between the Cuban people and organized crime. At the core of this struggle was Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s infamous dictator, who allowed the mob free rein in Cuba, as long as he remained on their payroll.

Both gangsters and celebrities were amply represented in pre-revolutionary Havana. The well-heeled clientele of the Tropicana included mobsters like Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante, rubbing shoulders with notables like Marlon Brando, JFK and, of course, Ernest Hemingway. If you were able to ignore – or possibly delight in – the club’s opulent sleaziness, you would have appreciated the Cabaret Quarterly report of 1956, calling the Tropicana

the largest and most beautiful night club in the world. … Tropicana has ample room for two complete sets of stages, table areas and dance floors, in addition to well-tended grounds extending beyond the night club proper. Tall trees rising over the tables and through the roof in some spots lend the proper tropical atmosphere.

– Wiki, quoting Cabaret Quarterly, Special Resort Number, Volume Five, (poss 1956), p56

Sixty years later, this is still an accurate description of the club. But getting back to reality, by the time the above review was published, the Cuban Revolution was already underway. CubanHistory.com tells us that

“As early as December 31, 1956 [perhaps shortly after the review was written], a bomb exploded at The Tropicana. Set by communist rebels, the explosion was contained to the bar area and one woman lost an arm.”

SPECTACLE

The Tropicana has been entertaining visitors in much the same way and in the same location, for almost 80 years, while all around it, everything was changing radically. It might even be said that, while the world didn’t change the Tropicana, the Tropicana may have changed the world. The characteristic live shows – extravagant mixtures of Folies Bergères and carnival parades – have served as the prototype for productions that we now associate with New York and Las Vegas.

The three of us, my wife, my younger daughter and I, had gone to the Tropicana two yeas ago, to inject a little authentic Cuban flavour into our all-inclusive seven-day resort vacation. My only previous point of reference was the fictional Copacabana nightclub that was Ricky Ricardo’s workplace in the I Love Lucy show – a fairly lame, low-budget example of what passed as Cuban culture on American TV during the 1950s. I wasn’t remotely prepared for the Spectacle that I was about to experience.

…I’m using “spectacle” to mean an event loaded with magical possibilities, one that inspires awe.

… a viewer becomes a participant with all of his or her senses engaged.

— David Rockwell, Spectacle. New York: Phaidon Press, 2006

The word “spectacle” barely hints at the choreographed explosion of costume, music, dance, colour, lights and stage sets that make up the Tropicana show. An enormous cast (up to 100) dance onstage, above the stage, beside the stage, on stairways leading to the stage, and on a three-tiered cascade on one side of the stage that changes colours, seasons and patterns throughout the show. Any additional dancers gyrate in the aisles and on balconies above the audience. The extravaganza takes place under the stars, with illuminated trees forming the backdrop to the main stage, providing the atmosphere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Caribbean colour.

The real stars of the show are the costumes, which feature metre-high head pieces that in most cases limit the choreography to swaying and careful grinding, since anything more athletic would send the dancers toppling. Some of the performers who were not wearing hats did acrobatic feats. There was an orchestra onstage, and singing – traditional, pop and operatic.

And then, there is the rum. For our visit, A bottle of five-year-old Havana Club formed a centrepiece for every table of four guests. Since our group contained only two drinkers, my personal ration was a half-litre. I left some in the bottle.

In addition to the music, the rum, the colour and constant rhythmic movement, the other distinctive feature is the aroma of expensive cigars. There are very few entertainment places in North America where cigar smoking – or any smoking – is tolerated. But it has occurred to me the smell of really fine cigars and the sound of Latin music form the essence of Havana.

If you are averse to either of those, it would be best to avoid the city and stay at your all-inclusive resort. If instead, you decide to explore Havana, you will find that from almost every restaurant or bar, there comes the faint, sweet smell of cigar smoke and live music. The music may fade as you stroll, but it returns as soon as you round the next corner.

MEMORY

Many spectacles rely for their impact on the fact that they are alien to, and divorced from, their surroundings. It’s not just the extravagance of a spectacle that sets it apart; it’s also the extreme contrast between the spectacle and real life. At a rock concert, for example, one minute, you’re sitting in a drab sports arena, in the next instant, the house lights go out and you are at the centre of a supernova. As a spectator, you are pulled into a new space and frame of mind, devoid of any familiar context.

This is where the Tropicana experience is unique. Yes, it is entirely separate from the faded Cuban architectural landscape, and the simplicity of daily Cuban life; however, it represents and epitomizes the soul of Havana – its history, its aspirations for the future and it’s pulsing multi-sensory present. It’s startlingly different from its context, but at the same time it is an intense expression of it. When you experience the Tropicana, you learn new ways of appreciating the city, the country, and its people – ways that you might not previously have imagined.

If you’re looking for a sunny beach holiday, take your choice from among the islands of the Caribbean. There are lots of them. If you’re looking for a cultural onslaught and an experience you’ll never forget, the Tropicana is by far your best bet.