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Interviews Cesar Lopez. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee. Cesar Lopez. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

César López: sincerity ensemble

My absent-mindedness has played tricks on me again. I had been sitting on the curb for 30 minutes until I decided to go and wait for him somewhere else, almost certain that he would no longer come. César López calls me on the phone, thinking that I probably took the wrong street. Is right. He apologizes to me for the delay: he had an emergency with his pet and rushed out. For a long time I have been planning a meeting with him, one of the most prominent saxophonists in the Cuban music scene.

However, his mastery as an interpreter was not what prompted me to contact him through a mutual friend. It was his testimony full of sincerity in a documentary about Irakere, a group of which he was a member for eight years.

Cesar is a jovial man. Without delaying a minute, he shows off his Camagüey origin. In the living room of his house, music, his birthplace and his sports passion gravitate in different expressions: allegorical paintings to Cuba and jazz, miniature saxophones, multiple Cubadisco awards, small clay jars and baseballs adorn the place. .

We started talking casually. He lights a cigar and, immediately, like the fire that consumes his cigar, with different intensities, weaves together memories of his parents and the circumstances that allowed his birth.  

His tone of voice acquires a romantic nuance. Accurate descriptions make Caesar an excellent storyteller. As he recounts his life, he himself cannot avoid falling prey to emotions. It is contagious and touching. 

His mother, a recently graduated stomatologist, was sent in 1964 to work at the Jaronú sugar mill in the former province of Camagüey. Then to the Florida municipality in 1965, to found the first public dental clinic in the territory and end the entrusted service.  

"That's where he met my father. Son of landowners and grandson of a colonel of the Liberation Army: Manuel Rivero Gómez de Avellaneda, who fought under the orders of Máximo Gómez”. 

He cannot avoid making a parenthesis about a relative that would make any Cuban proud: a great-grandfather from Mambí, first cousin of the distinguished Cuban writer Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda.

“My parents fortunately fell in love and, in 1966, they got married. My mother became pregnant and came to Havana to give birth. Although she and her family were from San Nicolás de Bari, they had lived in the capital since the 1950s. So, due to a family whim, I was born in Havana. But, a month later, they took me back to Florida. I am completely from Camagüey”. he proudly admits, acknowledging that he does not escape the vanity of having been born in one of the most important and defining provinces in the economic, cultural and sociopolitical history of Cuba.  

Before starting at the Vocational School of Art, César intuitively felt a connection with music. A cousin, trombonist of the Camagüey symphony was the main influence to start his musical path.

The boy Cesar Lopez. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

The boy Cesar Lopez. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

“I started singing and I had a teacher who belonged to a well-known trio from my town called Los Audaces. He gave me a lot of encouragement regarding music. A beautiful thing also happened, with which no one associates me. In 1980 the first children's troubadour festival was held in Tarará. My start in music was as a troubadour”. 

Among the members of the jury in charge of defining the four winners of the event were Sara González and Noel Nicola. The boy from Florida was making his debut in the world of music. In the free category, he won the prize with a song by the Cienfuegos troubadour Lázaro García (has a wound).

The decision was made: César would be a musician. But the inconveniences from then on would appear in his life as a circumstance that would always lead to transcendental moments for him.

At the recently inaugurated "Luis Casas Romero" Vocational School of Art in Camagüey, César passes the aptitude test without any setbacks. His guitar knowledge is decisive for this. Back in Florida, days later, a telegram arrives with the news: he had been chosen. Accompanied by his mother, he arrives at school and finds that his name is not on the guitar list, the instrument for which he auditioned. "I am a man with small fingers and it turns out that is why they did not allow me to study guitar, what i wanted. They were mistakes that were made. For me that is killing the illusion of a child. Although in another way, life was generous to me”, says the now also pedagogue and music teacher.

Then César is assigned another instrument: the saxophone. One of the people in charge of the aptitude test had observed in him ideal conditions. Julián Blanco was the name of the saxophone teacher who selected, without him knowing it at the time, the aspiring boy musician.    

“I had a fit and started telling my mom that I didn't want to study the saxophone. They sign me up and we go home, even with the idea that he only wanted a guitar. But my cousin, very far-sighted, insisted that I introduce myself and that is how I was awarded a scholarship to Camagüey”. 

At school he continues as a troubadour in parallel to his saxophone classes. Three months into the school year, César begins to feel that he misses home too much. One night, he decides to elope and end the art school nightmare for good. On the 114, the bus in which he was traveling, arrives at the Camagüey railway terminal and with the ingenuity of someone who trusts everyone, asks a taxi driver to take him to Florida, where his parents would pay for the trip.

“I arrived with that man at my house around nine at night. The first thing my mother said was: `What happened?!' I started crying, saying I didn't want to be in school anymore." 

The parents did not blame the child for the fright, nor for the escape. César thought, because of the calm that reigned in his home, that he would no longer go back to school. Even the taxi driver was invited to eat with them. But, almost immediately, they took him back to Camagüey.  

“My father did not have the level of education of my mother, but he was a very sensitive man. When we arrived at the school, the lady who took care of the children's shelter was on the verge of a fit, crying”. 

César's father explained everything and promised to convince him during the weekend. Far from expecting some scolding, he began to be encouraged with the new instrument and to appreciate the place where he studied. 

 “Now I think it's the most adorable school I've ever been to. I have done for her, but I feel that I need much more”. 

César expresses himself moved. His voice changes tone, between the nostalgia of the child he was and the defining learning that would start his musical life, the feelings towards his mother school have become more intense. “This pisses me off. That way you will see me two or three times”, he reaffirms with his tobacco in hand sitting in front of me and returns to the fray with more memories.

“Nothing was missing. Just to tell you that I premiered two Selmer Mark VII saxophones, which were among the most expensive in the world. At school I met one of the most beautiful souls I have ever met in my life: the teacher Mario Lombida”. 

He is already in the ninth grade and César, together with one of his classmates, participates in the Amadeo Roldán national contest, where all the elementary art schools in the country competed. The contest consisted of three eliminatory rounds. From the beginning of the competition, the two Camagüeyans were prefigured as winners of the event. 

 “The great competition was with my partner Quirino Guevara, a farmer from Vertientes. We were both on the same level on the saxophone, but he was a better human being. The competition was tight. During the break, one of the deliberating contest judges, a friend of my teacher, told him: ʽYou have fucked up this here, because we don't know who we're going to give the first prize to'

César was the winner in the strong deliberation. Regarding the verdict in his favor, although today he remembers it with satisfaction, he feels that he is not interested in having won. The parity was more than defined and the affection for his friend has only increased over the years.

 “I think that no great musician gets rid of the ego. You have to know how to control it so that it does not become sick. The influence of parents is very important to stop this in time. But no one can get on stage without a little ego, just the necessary dose "  

You have to light your tobacco again. "Remembering all this again is an injection of life for me," he confesses.

He stayed in Camagüey to study intermediate saxophone, but one of his teachers, Jorge Luis Almeida, insisted on transferring him to the National School of Art in Havana (ENA). The distance helped the budding teenager become more independent. To feel that, from that moment on, the consequences of all the decisions he made were his sole responsibility. "I did about three doctorates and three master's degrees in fucking through the hostels I went through," he says with humor.

Small in stature and quarrelsome by nature, César formed part of his personality away from home, where spiritual and physical independence, as well as respect, were sometimes measured with fists first. “I never liked to abuse. I couldn't tolerate it either. Of course, I was always giving leather. Maybe as a defense mechanism because of my size. Today, I meet several of my brothers from those years and we remember those times without any rancor.”  

César turned 16 in Havana while he was studying at the ENA. The renowned jazz player Bobby Carcassés, who liked to promote the careers of young musicians, met him then through a mutual friend.

“Bobby invited me to his house and I started playing in his group. At that stage, students could not have professional contracts or charge for presentations. All of this was done hidden from the school.”      

in 3rd. and D in El Vedado, Bobby Carcassés founded a jazz club in which he was in charge of the programming. In this new space, César López has his first presentations as a jazz player. Since he couldn't get paid directly, the professional musicians collected a part of the money and gave it to him. With 80 pesos in his pocket, plus the allowance his family sent, and at only 16 years old, temptations began to appear for him. Although without major consequences, beyond some absences from classes.

 “I graduated from the ENA and entered the Higher Institute of Art (ISA). But Bobby was on tour in Panama and applied for a permit so he could go with the group. In the first semester of ISA, things were not going very well for me. ʽCésar con su 3', they told me, parodying the song Quirino with his three

A month out of Cuba. The first international experience dazzled him in many ways. However, he did not forget his classmates and, when he returned, he brought each of them a present from his trip. The reunions for César work like a machine of emotions. He is a man who values friendship as a vital necessity.

His second year at ISA looked like it was not going to have a happy ending. His grades were not the best and the instability in teaching, due to work with Bobby, threatened his permanence in school. “My teacher, Miguel Villafruela, the first Latino to graduate in saxophone at the Paris Conservatory, was very angry with me. . I went to the first semester exam without practically rehearsing and failed. It was the only time I failed."      

César had to face an extraordinary test to continue on the course. This time he felt like he was on a forked road, where the option he chose would forever determine his career as a musician. 

 “While I was preparing for the exam, I was still playing with Bobby at the jazz club. One night, a man who loved me very much, an inveterate music lover with a lot of culture, called Carlos Bernard, who was a hydraulic engineer, came to the club and told me: ʽCésar, I bring you a message from Chucho Váldes'”.

The young saxophonist was only 19 years old that December 1987 and the surprise message caused more than just skepticism in him. “Chucho is waiting for you tomorrow at La Tropical. They want to give you an exam to see if you fit into their gang.” He thought that call was a joke. But the man's seriousness left no room for doubt. Under some pretext he said goodbye to Bobby. I had to rest. The next day would be the ultimate test of his career.

Iraqere. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

Iraqere. Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

“I went to my aunt's house. He had to be at 10 in the morning at La Tropical, Irakere's rehearsal room. I got up at 7:30. I had breakfast and began to try a reed for the saxophone. I warmed up for almost an hour and went out there.”

The efficient operation of transport in those years allowed it to arrive 10 minutes before the appointed time. He, who inexplicably has trouble managing time —something that has improved thanks, above all, to his Japanese wife, who carries accuracy as part of her idiosyncrasy—, was punctual that day. 

 “When I arrived, Chucho was already there. I had put on my most decent clothes for the moment. I introduced myself and the impact was total. The difference of 1.93 meters against 1.68 was quite significant. That was incredible. Chucho asked me to play a bit of stand-up. Jazz songs with harmonic movements that are used to study the skill of the musician”.

Everything was going perfectly. to the second stand-up observe gestures between the musicians of Irakere and Chucho. Signs of approval. The young man thought that the die was cast and that his entry into the group was imminent. 

 “Then they did another test. The strongest one. Sight reading. I had to read a sheet music in an instant. They played me a fragment of a song called Monkey, which I later played several times. I think the stars were aligned. When they gave me that paper I thought: this is an abuse! Some time later I told him. Chucho told me that he had already decided for me. But that was to confirm his choice.”

The circumstance that made it easier for César to half understand the challenge in the form of notes placed in front of him was a call from a journalist to talk to Chucho. Oscar Valdés, singer and manager of the group, called the audience to explain that the group's repertoire was not only concert music, but also dance numbers. 

Caesar would have another major test ahead of him. His predecessors in that position were none other than Paquito D'Rivera and Germán Velazco, two essential saxophonists in national musicography. But the decision had been made and from that moment on he was an official member of one of the most important groups in the history of Hispanic music.

 “Iraqere's performances at La Tropical and at carnivals throughout Cuba were something I really enjoyed. Imagine what it meant for me to go from being with the fellows on the scholarship listening to a Chick Corea cassette, to being with the Irakere playing close to Chick Corea at the world's great jazz festivals”.

The passage through Irakere was for the young man a baggage of extraordinary emotional and musical experiences. The real university. However, his commitments to the band prevented him from continuing to study at ISA. Which is paradoxical because, at present, works composed by him and postgraduate courses —which he has designed— are taught at a university from which he did not graduate. 

 “They have promised me that they are going to give me an honorary title. If they don't grant it to me, it doesn't matter, but I would like to and it would make me feel very proud”, he affirms hurt by his incomplete transit through that study center. 

Even so, César became the youngest musician to make up the Irakere payroll: “The youngest musicians in the group inherited a great responsibility, due to the high level of those who had been part of Irakere. Since I joined the band, my relationship with Chucho was like that of father to son. I have many memories of that stage. Imagine being 19 years old and traveling around Europe in various jazz festivals and sharing with the greats”.  

One of the most exciting moments for César while he was in Irakere, and of his entire career, occurred on March 31, 1990. They were in Chile. Night came and time was short for the start of the concert by a man whose music had been, since 1973, banned in that country. Thousands of Chileans shared for more than a decade, passing them secretly, on cassettes from hand to hand, the songs of a young Cuban singer-songwriter.  

A week before, the legendary Rolling Stones had appeared in the same place. Not even the majesties of rock They had then filled the stadium with the public, which kept an indelible memory of prison and death on its lawn.

Cesar was only 22 years old. 

 “Silvio went to see Chucho and asked him to accompany him with the band in this great concert that he was going to give in Chile. We spent a month preparing at the Café Cantante of the National Theater. When we arrived, that was inexplicable. Silvio Rodríguez returned to Chile after 17 years. The National Stadium was the place chosen for a massive, unforgettable concert.

“Outside the hotel where we stayed, the streets were full 24 hours a day because they had said that Silvio would be there with us. But Silvio stayed at a friend's house. We musicians were the ones who experienced all that phenomenon every time we left the hotel”.      

It wasn't even noon and the National Stadium was already completely full. The Red Cross distributed water and food among the attending public. “I don't remember ever being in a concert of such magnitude. It was something incredible. We went on stage and played a song, before leaving Silvio. There were so many people that I even think I felt afraid. Anyone can listen to the story and become aware, but that had to be experienced. All the songs were applauded. It was an unforgettable cultural event for that nation and for us.

“I have returned to Chile several times with Habana Ensemble and when I mention that I was at that concert, people are moved, even young people who were not even born. Never again in my life have I played for such an audience or felt the emotion of that day again”.

In 1997 Chucho decides to renew the group and César stops being part of Irakere. Members of the first generation such as Enrique Plá and Carlos Emilio were also dismissed. A change that then seemed inexplicable. Caesar did not demand justifications. He assumed the new condition that life imposed on him. Two months later, Chucho himself summons him.  

 “He started talking to me about upcoming tours. Irakere practically did not stop in Cuba. I expected some explanation of why he had removed me from the group. He never explained it to me. I replied that I was not interested. That I was immersed in a new project”. 

Apart from any past disagreement, César continues to see Chucho Valdés as a father in all instances. Today, he appreciates his unexpected departure from Irakere from a different perspective. Even with gratitude. The new reality he was facing required him to assert himself.

“I could have continued with Chucho and be just another musician. I began to walk alone, disoriented and tormented. Until I found my way. But I will never forget my great teacher and tutor: Chucho Valdés”.

Several former members of Irakere then decide to form a group and Carlos del Puerto, bass player and founder of Irakere, assumes the management part. Later, commitments in Europe prevent Carlos from continuing to lead the new group. “Then they give me the template. I decided to take a chance on a rather complicated matter. Not only from the musical, also with people. I have not yet fully learned in that aspect”, he confesses with humor.

Habana Ensemble was the result of the union of several musicians after the dismemberment of Irakere. It is the group that helped César fully understand the role of a director. Without their own instruments, except for personal ones, several people helped with equipment loans for the group's rehearsals and presentations. The help of Jorge Alfaro, Irakere's first manager, would be definitive at the beginning of the project.

 “Manolito Simonet lent us the instruments from time to time. Enrique Álvarez —director of La Charanga Latina— also. Just like Georgia, from Anacaona. The group began to go down very well. Several of us were young but we were already tested. Four months after starting, they hired us to do a tour of Venezuela.” 

The iconic Teresa Carreño theater was one of the stages where Habana Ensemble presented itself as a group that sought to impose itself, with a renewed style and unstoppable desire to create from all the experience accumulated, after the break with Irakere. “It was a baptism that left sequels. In the newspaper The National received a harsh criticism as our repertoire included latin jazz and the audience in one of the squares where we performed expected dance music”. 

The next destination was Barbados. A jazz festival where César felt that the bittersweet taste of the tour of Venezuela was in the past. In Cuba, the peña at the Café Cantante of the National Theater every Friday would serve as a gauge to know that the group had reached the necessary quality in a short time and stuck with the public.

“We began to stand out, with Leo Vera for the dance aspect. But the problems came too. On tour, some musicians left the group. Something that made me very angry because I thought I was fighting for everyone. It was a long struggle, many beautiful things and others disappointing. Like life”.  

In 1998 the first album by Habana Ensemble arrived, with arrangements by Alfred Thompson. The work was a tribute to the main promoter of mambo worldwide, Dámaso Pérez Prado. The phonogram allowed the doors of the foreign market to open for them. Signed by Latin World, the demands of international work pushed all the effort put in by César and his colleagues in the project towards success.

 “As the album took flight, we also began to consolidate. It had good sales abroad. That helped a lot. We did concerts in New York, Europe and we were invited to festivals in South America. Those tours of South America opened many doors for us. Especially in Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro we played in a place that has already disappeared, a temple of music called Canecao. Then we went to Mexico opening for Compay Segundo. Something that makes me very proud."     

The first of the concerts with the author of the Chan Chan It was at the National Auditorium, one of the most prestigious venues in the Aztec country. With a planned stay of 15 days, Habana Ensemble stayed three months in Mexico. However, despite the success achieved, César would again face setbacks. Two of his companions and key pieces in the ensemble, Alfred Thompson and Mario Hernández The Indian, decide to settle outside of Cuba. 

César chose to restructure the group in its format and the music to perform. With the new structure of Habana Ensemble, he would also assume the musical direction. The role as double director would help him to focus on one of the tasks that he is most passionate about: composition. 

“I had to prevail against all the setbacks and in the end it was magnificent. Since then I have changed the formation of the group several times. Not because of disagreements, rather because of adjustments in musical intentions”. 

In the different formats that he designed for the grouping between septet and quartet, César shaped the sonorities that he conceived for the group with his new structures. Nine musical productions are the record of Habana Ensemble. Each of them different, from the work in the different stages through which the project has gone through. 

 “Also on each album I have been including one or two tracks as a singer, because that is how I started in music, as a troubadour. All those alleged problems have been nothing more than tests, I was adapting to the circumstances. Living them taught me that change is necessary. As long as it is in favor of noble interests and for the better.”     

Habana Ensemble, in addition to popularity, began to be recognized by the specialized press of other countries. Several Cubadisco awards, the same ones that adorn the room a few meters from where we talked, have been the academy's recognition of the musical work of César López and Habana Ensemble. One of them, the Grand Prize awarded in 2007 for the instrumental album with the Chamber Orchestra of Havana, Cuban Classics

César appreciates his transit through music as a journey of struggles and nostalgia, but above all of experiences that endorse a truth. “The work of each artist must start from sincerity. I always defend my aesthetics in art from what I am”.       

But his work has also been extended to collaborative projects where Cuban music is the guide to embark on new paths. The Akokan orchestra, made up of musicians from the United States and Cuba, is another of the multiple works that it carries out in parallel.

 “Akokán arrives in Cuba and Jacob Plasse together with Pepito Gómez give me the task of looking for leading musicians, who lived in Cuba, to record an album in a studio here. The sound is from the 40s and 50s, but not versions vintage, rather that type of music brought to the contemporary. The work was so successful that it was nominated for the Grammys of the North American Academy. In England he won a Latin music award. Thanks to that we have traveled the world. Its musical director is a key piece, for me he is a genius: Mike Eckroth. He even has a doctorate in Cuban music. I have a lot of love and respect for this orchestra, because of the strength it has”.

The Cuban Sax Quintet is another of the projects to which he dedicates part of his busy time as a musician. Together with his predecessor in Irakere, Germán Velazco, he devised this ensemble made up exclusively of saxophones, where he works as musical director and composer. 

“We play our own music and covers from our perspective. We have recorded a single album, which was the Cubadisco Grand Prize in 2018 and was nominated for a Latin Grammy. We are now in the process of recording a new one. All the pieces of this are composed by me. It flirts with classical music, so we will be accompanied by the orchestra of the Lyceum Mozartiano de La Habana”.   

César López teaching classes. Photo: Roberto Chile.

César López teaching classes. Photo: Roberto Chile.

Within all of César's occupations, there is one in particular that he exercises as a debt of gratitude: teaching. That is, for him, one of the noblest professions that exists. “Transmitting what you have learned can say a lot about you. Before, I dedicated myself more to giving lectures at universities in Latin America. Teaching is an art. There are people who are very talented interpreters, however they do not have the ability to teach what they know. I am not a man with the gift of teaching. But almost 10 years ago the Ministry of Culture asked me to join the faculty of the ENA. I accepted, not at the ENA because I don't have the experience of dealing with young people. Instead, I asked to join an elementary school. It's easier for me, because it allows you to mold the kids and guide them."     

César is a professor at the “Manuel Saumell” Elementary School of Music. With several graduate students under his guidance, the experience has served to broaden his vocation for teaching and better understand life. “When you start training a child from scratch at 10 years old and you see him graduate at 14 or 15 years old, that work and result is only yours. If they are successful, the satisfaction is very great and a compensation for everything they did with you.

In César's life, one factor has been key to channeling all the works he projects and managing his life from an emotional point of view: Buddhism. Before he never professed or practiced any religion, but after meeting his wife Seiko Ichii, born in Japan, the spaces where he attended to accompany her to Buddhism sessions captivated the musician.

“I saw a cleanliness in all that, until I decided to start practicing it, in 2006. Now I am totally immersed. One of our sermons is world peace and I think it is something very necessary. Among the things that I am grateful to my wife, in addition to having given me a family and a son, is having learned through her this philosophy of life”.     

César López with his wife and son. Photo: Roberto Chile.

César López with his wife and son. Photo: Roberto Chile.

And it is that, although all the responsibilities are important for César, the time with the family is a space that he venerates. “When I don't have time I make it up. I am always looking out for my son. He is a 15 year old teenager. He was studying music and wanted to quit after five years. He was very worried about my reaction. But he came to this world to be happy and I support him in all his decisions. He will have other ambitions. As a parent, you have to understand that they also have their own desires and we must support them”, he says, proud and understanding.

Since the beginning of the conversation, apart from tobacco, several baseballs around us have accompanied us. César is a fan of the ball. His first passion as a child was baseball: “Luckily I realized in time that at this size I couldn't be a good ballplayer,” he comments with a smile, “but from time to time I still like to put together a ball pit with my partners. Baseball to me is a fascinating thing."  

Various Camagüey team jerseys and Cuba team uniforms are some of its prized treasures. Among them, the shirt worn by pitcher Vicyohandri Odelín that afternoon in March 2006, when a strikeout by the player from Camagüey sentenced Cuba's game against Puerto Rico, which gave Cuba the pass to the semifinals of the largest of the Antilles in the World Classic . A very exciting day for the entire country and probably one of the most significant triumphs of Cuban baseball in the last 20 years. 

Regarding tobacco, he comments that a meeting with Fidel Castro was the beginning of a custom that is almost an identity in César. “I had never smoked a cigar, but if Fidel gave them to me, then I had to smoke them. I gave three to a Puerto Rican friend and the rest I left for myself.     

César is currently an ambassador for Habanos, the brand that sells the most coveted tobacco on the international market, one of the most luxurious gifts that can be given in any field. 

“Every once in a while I go to the factories and play for the torcedores. I interact with them. They ask me a lot of questions. Of course, I always leave with my cigars”.    

As if he had time to spare, he speaks to me with some pride about his foray as a character in fictional narrative. The popular Uruguayan writer Daniel Chavarría —author, among others, of the novel The red in the parrot's feather— places him as a friend of Bini, the protagonist, who attends a concert by Habana Ensemble. By way of thanks, César accompanied the novelist's last goodbye with his saxophone.

He is silent for a moment. I sense that he has told me almost everything transcendent and everyday of his life. I watch as the smoke from his tobacco rises, vaguely, towards any site. Moved by the ghosts of time and difficulties, the creative work of this short man with gray hair acquires another meaning for anyone who listens to him. Magnificent conversationalist, sincerity is another of the arts that César López defends, from the unmistakable sound of his saxophone.   

Escobar Trail Escobar Trail Industrial engineer and writer. Talkative by nature. More posts

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  1. Alberto Miguel says:

    What a beautiful story, it smells of Cuba through the four coasts

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