In another land and another time, inside the swirl of blue smoke traffic, horse cart vendors and roadside travelers, there floats a song. The lyrics are Spanish — the melody universal. It plays in the open fifth intervals of women talking to men, the minor triads of women talking to women and the subdued fourths of man speak. It’s also sung by a voice that is, at once, all of these.
I had been wandering through the narrow passages of Havana Viejo, the old part of Havana, Cuba, where history has left deep footprints.
I had just walked across these wooden madera tiles and had come out into the Plaza Vieja. Towering limestone enveloped the walkers who were being channeled toward the hub of an ancient wheel of roads. I stood apart and watched the steady stream of pedestrians providing the necessary backdrop to street hustle. I listened as the million sounds of a beehive became one. And then, suddenly, one sound became a million.
“Mani! Manicero mani!”
A song — The Peanut Vendor Song. With alarmed confusion, I searched for the source of what I was hearing. With ears and eyes tuned, my search continued as, at last, the song pulled me out of the square and onto a narrow stone side street. A red flash brought my ears into focus. Fearing I would lose sight of the sound, I walked in double time until I managed to circle my target and approach carefully from the front.
Her proud dark face boldly met the bright day from inside a canary yellow silk scarf.
Her dress was a deep carmine red base fringed with wrappings of tropical orange. The large straw basket slung over her left arm was loaded with paper cones filled with peanuts. I approached her with my eyes. Contact.
“Hola amiga. Cuanto cuesta los mani?” I managed.
“Tres CUC,” she replied.
A CUC was the Cuban currency used by tourists like me. I tried to hide underneath the questions that were rolling over in my mind but the look she was giving me made it plain that she’d already read my book.
Falling inside her eyes I saw a song. It sounded of self reliance, slavery, generations working under the hot sun and long days selling Spanish peanuts.
I peeled off a three CUC note and handed it to her with one hand, accepting her offering with the other.
“Como se llama?” I was charging in for my story.
“Elise,” she enunciated. She pronounced the “s” as a “z”, making the word at once captivating and alluring. I wanted more.
“Your voice. Canta como………como………” I was struggling to name the unnamable in a language that was holding back my words.
“Como es del cielo,” she offered. I watched as she lowered her eyelashes and put on a demure smile, enjoying our game.
We joined smiles in a mutual celebration of a tournament well played. I then closed with a string of words that I found hiding in my past.
“Si, eso es! He oído la voz de un ángel.” Yes, that’s it! I have heard the voice of an angel.
I then impulsively did something that I had never done before. Bending at the waist as would a chivalrous knight, I gently took her free hand in my own and kissed it. Her eyes acknowledged my action with aloof dignity, that complete acceptance of praise so common among royalty.
She then turned and resumed her journey, following her song back through the ancient cobblestone streets of a timeless city. As her voice once again became one with the stone, I realized that I had become one with a song. It was a song of empty, a song of full, a song of Cuba.
Dave Munsick | Guest columnist