At eight o’clock on a Thursday night, Ray Fernández has sung — guitar in hand or slung across his shoulder — his own songs, traditional Cuban trova numbers, Mexican corridos, and maybe a hit or two from the so-called "década prodigiosa".
You could say that this is what he’s been doing for nine years now, every Thursday at eight, at the venue Piano Bar El Diablo Tun Tun, part of the Casa de la Música in Miramar, Havana. In fact, it’s the ninth birthday of his regular performance, or peña, known as Quimbombó que resbala [“Like water off a duck’s back”].
Right then, when all the regulars believe they’ve and heard everything, something happens. Something that seems to break with the dynamic of the concert, but that regulars suspect is part of the drama that rules the life of a guy like Ray Fernández. From the audience he comes, wearing tight jeans and artificial braids woven to his head: Ramón Lavado Martínez, also known as El Chacal, making his way to the stage. As a duo, Ray and El Chacal sing In the darknessby José Tejedor, and, surprise, as everyone applauds, Ray Fernández quotes: “You have to help the talented ones,” he says, “because the mediocre triumph on their own.”
One thing I’ve always been sure of. With Ray Fernández, either you love him or you hate him. There’s no middle ground. A guy who has made sarcasm, ridicule and irony his most infallible weapons does not tend to evoke sympathy. And that is his music: a whole series of sacrilegious verses, sometimes pitiless, other times consoling, where nothing, not even his own life, is sacred.
He himself recounts how, after burning 30 chickens in the Old Havana restaurant where he worked and being “dishonorably discharged from the culinary ranks,” he decided to earning a living playing his guitar along Havana’s seawall, the Malecón. As luck would have it, on one of those late nights, Ray bumped into the folks from The Bearded Caymanwith Bladimir Zamora, the guru of Cuban trova. And Bladimir signed him up, he says.
Soon they began doing their peña together. Bladimir – “El Blado” – would read poetry and Ray would strum his guitar. Eventually — then without “El Blado,” now all of them without “El Blado” – Quimbombó que resbala [“Like water off a duck’s back”] At least, from the time I began going in 2010.
There, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., alcohol in the mix, with son and trova and “batangas taínas” and congas turning into tangos or vice versa, you can be the person you really feel like being. Ray takes the stage at seven, and the world outside the nightclub is nothing but a blur through the window. As he goes along, Ray improvises a set list dedicated to anybody and anything from Gastón Baquero to the ration book. And everyone follows, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. As if you were allowed to laugh at how awful things are going for us in this life surrounded by water. And to warble with everyone: “The waterline’s / is all full of holes/ and the staff is busted./ The sail is as patched can be/ and the anchor’s rusted/ and not a single peg leg/ and not a single peg leg/ is free of termites.” Or: “Half the cannons/ are swimming in pee/ there’s no more rum in the barrels/ and the powder keg’s dry./ That bad northern wind/ put the stopper in the bottle/ and you can forget about the treasure/ because the map’s blown away.”
While it’s not the cheapest event (the cover charge for Cubans is 2 CUC and beverages are almost always more than 1.50 CUC per drink or beer), the Tun Tun is an oasis for certain groups, mostly college students, who are looking for a place to dance without reggaeton, the genre that dominates almost all dance floors in Havana and Cuba.
And then the Tun Tun is also a space for the convergence of many trova musicians, to whom Ray cedes or shares the guitar as they lead some very surreal jams together, some of which are never recorded even on cell phones. David Torrens, Oscar Sánchez, Samuel Águila, Adrián Berazaín, Fernando Bécquer, Mauricio Figueiral, Jorgito Kamankola, and a long list of etcetera’s, can be found on Thursdays there. And not just trova musicians. Others who have taken the stage range from Eliades Ochoa to El Noro, from a Spanish diplomat dubbed “Niño Bravo” by Ray, to a Rumanian band, to a couple from the United States who were touring Havana and made the Tun Tun explode in applause for their version of Billie Jean.
So, it’s not so hard to believe that no two Thursdays are alike. That even though Ray may play four or six songs four weeks in a row, it’s never the same. It’s not boring. In the middle of a song, Ray might start reciting his décima poetry, or take off his shirt and start beating time on his belly, or throw out compliments to his wife Lenia — an extremely important key figure in this whole story — or incite the audience to vote for him in the upcoming elections.
It is perhaps his facility for reinventing himself that has kept him afloat for nine years. And what give you the urge to yell for them to limit how many people can get into the club; they should close the door for overcapacity once in a damn while.
One thing I’ve always been sure of. With Ray Fernández, either you love him or you hate him. There’s no middle ground.
At the Tun Tun you dance with whoever is dancing with you, you scream out the chorus “china/ dale consíguete un rabo/ de nube/ pa que se lleve lo malo,” you leave your purse on the ground, you elbow your way through the jam-packed hallways, you don’t pay the bathroom tip if you don’t want to, you almost never get a table, and you smoke outside.
And as somebody who’s been doing this for years — so many that I’m sometimes asked whether they’ve made me a VIP who gets in for free — you also keep an eye on your watch as the night goes by. Calculating the number of songs that remain and thinking about the ones you want to hear and dance to, but that Ray inevitably leaves for next Thursday. Then waiting for closing time, a closing that only really closes when they play The King Reguetón of Havanaa house classic.
It’s a song that is many songs all at once. It has what we could call a premise — it hates reggaeton and incites everyone else to hate it, too, and based on that all else follows: a whole series of verses and phrases taken from all sorts of places, which Ray adds as he goes along. No version of “King reguetón” is like any other, but when a verse begins, everyone knows how to join in. From “how the kite flies high,” to “María Cristina wants to rule me.” Ray-style, of course. And so it goes, with lyrics from Gente de Zona, El Chacal, Chocolate, and any other reggaeton artist who’s big these days. If you consider it, “King reguetón” works like a vaccine, made from the virus itself.
The bad thing is that, like almost everything from Ray, “King reguetón de La Habana” doesn’t fit on an mp3. Three albums and a DVD later, the real Ray Fernández still needs the lights, stage and adrenaline of a venue like Tun Tun to be himself. Until he invents an “offline” version with the same performance and satire qualities as at the Tun Tun, you’ve got to be there every Thursday, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
And if once inside, almost at the end of the night, someone says "Reguetón", I do not know about you, but I scream "Fuck it! "