Ladas, the boxy little Russian cars from the 1970s are ubiquitous in Havana. They have been an important part of my Cuban experience because they serve as taxis – sometimes legal, sometimes under the radar (as with many things in Cuba, the rules are ever shifting). When you first encounter Ladas, it can be a bit frightening as door handles often don’t work, there are no seatbelts, and the car chugs along as if it might die at any moment. Nonetheless, I love these cars and have come to appreciate their resiliency, so decided to write a tune about them. What better style than the original Cuban mambo style. Lada Mambo, lada mambo, es mi car!
(An aside about cars in Cuba. They are precious– not just those old American cars from the 40s and 50s, but all cars, because they are rare and you can’t just go down the street to the used car lot and buy one. Ladas were actually gifted during the early years of the revolucion as a reward for peoples’ actions and good work. Then cars get passed down from a parent to child, or you share with a friend who trusts you because you can fix the car. The cars have to be kept alive, so mechanic skills are at a premium. Amazingly, if you try to buy a used Lada from an individual in Cuba these days, I will cost about $22,000! Crazy, given that the average monthly salary is $30)
I wanted to make a video to go with my song, but of course I needed some Ladas. A friend directed me to Ileana for assistance because her mother has a Lada. Ileana checked with her mother who said she could use the car. I went to house to meet up with Ileana and the Lada. (Another aside. Arrival at the house. Cuban homes rarely have a “doorbell” and there is usually a big old fence around the house, so you can’t just knock on the door. I just stand in the street and holler from the street “Hola, hola, Ann-ita está aqui”) I got the attention of Ileana’s husband and he told me to go around the side to get let in. Ileana was very agitated. She said she couldn’t find her mother (I thought, “oh no, no mother, no Lada, this is not going to work”). But we went into the house and with a quick look in the downstairs, there was her mother, asleep. We woke her up so she could watch the 4 year old and we could all go and do a video shoot of Ladas.
We happily set off on our adventure. As we passed a road on the right, Ileana pointed down the street “There’s one of our Ladas”. Next street on the left, “There’s one of our Ladas”. This continued as we gathered up 5 Ladas and went to a nice neighborhood park that Ileana had picked out for the shoot. With some puzzled looks from the people hanging out at the vegetable stand, and in the company of a little boy juggling and his friend, I set up my tripod and shot the Lada “parade” to show off these sweet little cars. We let all but one driver go home after that scene. The one who remained, Ricardo, had offered to stage the car dying and then getting a push start. “Ricardo with the blue Lada” became our star. He swung around the corner, choked out the car, and 4 guys got out of the car to push. I turned to Ileana to ask who these guys were. She didn’t know. They just were hanging out in the park and offered to get in the car and do this scene. They were our “extras” without going through any audition and they were great. This is real, folks. You are seeing life in the neighborhood.
Ricardo went further. He drove up to our filming spot, popped the hood and I thought, “oh no, is there a problem with the car? What is he doing?” We started the camera rolling and got footage of guys checking out the engine, puzzled by the problem (real or not?) This was their improv. Very Real. The expression on Ricardo’s face is priceless.
The mambo dancing was done on a separate day, when I got Ricardo and the blue Lada and dancer Titi to meet up in a rare patch of shade on a beastly hot Havana day. I put the music on for Titi so he could hear the song. After about 45 seconds, he said, “OK, let’s do it”. So he danced mambo to the music he was hearing for the first time. Just like that. Real. I wanted this video to illustrate the fun mambo steps, so I made sure to give you extended footage of the dancing. I hope you enjoy watching the dance, get inspired to dance, and take a ride in a Lada when you are in Cuba.