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Callejón de Hamel – Street Dancing in Havana, Cuba

In 1990, Cuban artist Salvador Gonzáles Escalona began painting the depressing urban exterior of his little apartment in the dangerous Cayo Hueso neighborhood. The self-taught artist had travelled the world living and creating art from northern Europe to North America and Venezuela. But it wasn’t until he came home that he created what will prove to be his legacy.

The narrow alleyway of Callejon de Hamel is adorned from the pavement to the rooftops with Escalona’s Afro-Cuban abstract art. Part Pablo Picasso, part Frida Kahlo, part Salvador Dali, Escalona’s art stretches across two blocks. Made up of paintings, sculptures made from bikes, flowers, pinwheels, bathtubs and hand pumps, colorful mosaics and emotional murals Escalona’s work – augmented by that of his neighbors – is now spilling out into the surrounding streets.

In the 1940s this alleyway birthed the Cuban musical tradition known as “Filin”, emotional songs. One of these singers that Americans will know is Omara Portuondo who appeared in Buena Vista Social Club. The Callejon de Hamel was already a very musical place with the street bands known as comparsas roaming the neighborhood long ago. The area has also long had a Santería presence given that many of its residents were and still are of African descent.

The concept of “build it and they will come” was never truer than it is here. Before long Callejon de Hamel became a gathering place Afro-Cuban musicians and rumba dancers, children’s art programs, psychedelic art shops and playful cocktail bars (order the Negron at the Palador). Creativity flourished. Community members began contributing their own art. Escalona changed the whole feeling and nature of his neighborhood through his art.

Salvador himself still lives right in the center of it all. In a grotto-like flat he sells his watercolors and charcol drawings. Troops of boys hang around just outside his door hawking CDs of the groups that play in the Sunday rumba sessions. The main attraction on Callejon de Hamel is the Sunday street dancing. Kicking off around noon a wild, raw and enchanting off-the-cuff rumba show blasts down the narrow alley. The protracted rhythmic chants and interlacing drum beats are meant to summon up the Santería deities known as orishas.

Never mind that other tourists come to see the Sunday dances. It is still a one-of-a-kind experience. On the Havana Imagined Photography Workshop we visit Callejon de Hamel both for the photos and simply to soak up the ambiance…and Negrons. The next Havana Imagined Workshop is November 3-10, 2018. Sign up now!

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