Afro-Cuban Art and Traditions in Havana's Callejón de Hamel
In between the beauty and decadence of the authentic Centro Havana, just a five-minute walk from the famous sea promenade, is El Callejón de Hamel. Though it is a mere two blocks, this vibrant alley offers an unparalleled glimpse into Afro-Cuban culture, with its rhythmic and powerful rumba and music, its colorful arts and syncretic religion—Santería.
Afro-Cuban Art and Traditions
Upon entering the alley, one is first and foremost overwhelmed by the surrounding buildings and murals covered with paintings in bright colors and the number of creative sculptures made out of used objects.
Visiting the alley on Sundays at noon gives the visit an extra dimension, as at that time there are different groups and Santería priests dancing to the rumba rhythms. The sounds from the drums invoke the spirits of the Santería gods, the Orishas.
Santería, which means "worship of saints", grew out of the slave trade in Cuba and is a mix of Yoruba traditions and beliefs and Roman Catholicism.
Though the alley has become very popular for tourists, it has not lost its authenticity. The atmosphere is very vibrant, and one can visit an art gallery, check out small shops which sell different pieces of handmade Cuban art and attributes of Santería, or just sit down and enjoy a tasty meal and have something refreshing to drink. For a two-block alley, there seem to be endless things to see and do!
Cuba's political system and strict embargoes from parts of the outside world do not seem to get in the way of Cubans' creativity. Instead, it may appear to have grown in light of the lack of materials and goods, as they have been forced to reuse found objects and to think creatively with what was available.
It is said that while Americans have ten choices, Europeans have five, and Cubans have two: to think and to do it.
Salvador's Cultural Project: Callejón de Hamel
It was Salvador González Escalona (1948–), a Cuban sculptor and muralist, who started the cultural project with Callejón de Hamel as it appears today—a creative center and an emblematic place representative of Afro-Cuban art and culture.
The project was born on April 21, 1990, when Salvador painted a mural in the house of a friend. After a while, neighbors began to join and more murals ended up being painted until the alley was full of colors.
In the same way that the sculptures have a message to the people, the graffiti and the pictures on the walls also seek to transmit messages of Afro-Cuban culture with elements from both its culture and Santería expressed in a sometimes surrealistic way.
Salvador has his own Art Gallery in the alley and is a well-known artist both in Cuba and in several countries abroad.
The name of the street was given in honor of Fernando Belleau Hamel, a French-German citizen, who created a business within the raw material and smelting industry in the area in the beginning of the 20th century. He gave work to a lot of African and Chinese people, and he also built houses for many of them within the alley.
José Martí and the Fight for Cuban Independence
Among the sculptures in the area of Callejón del Hamel stands the bust of José Julián Martí y Pérez (1853–1895), known as José Martí—the Cuban people's national hero and the 'Apostle of the Cuban Independence'.
The poet and writer dedicated his life to fighting for Cuban independence from Spain and died on the battlefield in Cuba after many years abroad in exile.
As a man of letters, he wrote the lyrics to one of the most popular songs from Cuba, which has become popular throughout the world: 'La Guantanamera'. After the death of Martín, the Cuban composer Joseíto Fernández put music to his words, which first was a poem in Versos Sencillos.
Arte soy entre las artes / En los montes, monte soy.— José Martí
A Vibrant and Colorful Must When in Havana
One of the main reasons to visit this vibrant and colorful area may be the amazing and frenetic rumba music and dance which start every Sunday around midday. Even though the area may be crowded, Callejón de Hamel still has its very own charm, with its bright colors, rhythms and fragrances. It is a very lovely and powerfully emblematic place for Afro-Cuban culture in Havana, and a must-visit when in the Cuban capital.
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© 2019 Gro Kristina Slaatto