In June of 2012, I found my way to the land of rum, baseball, and Castro. Yes, we really can go to Cuba if we pull the right (educational) strings. After a few weeks of kicking around Havana, my classmate had gotten close with one of the secretaries at school, Yanet. One day that classmate, Rafa, ran up to me and begged me to help him out— he was going on a date with Yanet, but he needed someone to occupy her friend. A Cuban double date? Sure, why not, I thought. I had completely underestimated what I was getting into.
Her name was Yessica. She had wild blue eyes and a rose tattoo peeking seductively from the strap of her black dress. My tough-guy machismo failed immediately, and I sputtered to say hello and keep my cool. She graciously put up with it, and as I struggled to pick my jaw up from the sidewalk, she assured me that our night would be fun. We were going to a Willem el Magnifico concert for some reggaeton.
Reggaeton? Daddy Yankee music videos and obnoxious car horns immediately came to mind. It sounded painful… at best. I shook my head as I ducked into the cab.
Twenty pesos at the discotech door for my date and me (chivalry isn’t dead after all), and I found myself plunged deeper into Cuba than ever before. Women in glittery spandex and ankle break heels swished past me attached to men in tight guayaberas and enough gel in their hair to make the Leaning Tower of Pisa stand straight. A group of ‘unattached’ girls looked over with hungry eyes, eager to see how much money the gringo was willing to spend. I knew I’d be a disappointment to those mamacitas, because unlike the older tourists present for the human buffet, I was dead broke, and there for the music.
The club was outdoors on a deck above crashing waves. An ocean breeze provided needed buffer against human heat as the dance floor slowly filled in.
Suddenly, as the sound check wrapped, the skies opened up, sending 300 spandex-clad Cubanas to the space’s limited awnings. If there’s one thing Cubans don’t do, it’s rain, and this storm all but signaled the end of the show. I was bummed. All of this effort—and a first date with a beautiful Cuban girl—dashed by a little precipitation. Then came the lightning. The neon bolts zapped my remaining hopes as they lit up the Atlantic sky.
But nobody moved towards the exits. The speakers sat under tarps and rainwater cascaded off stage, yet still the crowd stayed put, sipping their drinks under packed overhangs. I remember thinking that whoever this Willem el Magnifico character was had some serious pull, and that maybe, just maybe, this would be worth it after all.
Minutes stretched into hours, until finally the rain subsided enough for soundmen to uncover the speakers and get the DJ spinning. The crowd wasn’t buying it. Only a few ventured out from their protected corners, Yessica was one of them. She turned and waved to Rafa, Yanet, and me, but the two next to me didn’t move. I shrugged my shoulders and gave in to the girl with the rose tattoo, following her out into the drizzle.
That was the best move I made all night. While others hesitated with the finicky weather, we made our way front and center. It was only minutes until a figure straight from a Mad Max film—complete with shoulder pads, chainmail, and a bleached shock Mohawk—stepped onstage flanked by two equally ridiculous backup dancers. Shrieks from the crowd confirmed that this was indeed Willem el Magnifico—the one we’d been waiting for all night.
The bassline dropped and it got grimy. Real grimy. The repetitive reggaeton thump ignited the crowd, and it was clear the animals had come out to play. The first song was a dance song that featured a move that could only be described as an earthquaking hip thrust. The mass knew every word, and as I watched the crowd’s collective forward push, I was swallowed up in a mass of bodies under el Magnifico’s spell.
Midway through the second song, the rain returned. El Magnifico paused for a second, then kept right on playing. The crowd mimicked him, and instead of running for cover, they danced on. We became a mix of hot breath, sweat, and hair gel. My lack of rhythm was swept up in the mob of Magnifico fans, rowdy but fluid—a beautiful disaster. As the rain fell and bodies rubbed, the lightning became our natural light show, thunder harmonizing with bass. I closed my eyes and let go. I was exactly where I needed to be.