James Sparshatt exhibits at Romerias de Mayo arts festival 2012

From the top of the tower I looked out over a sea of smiling faces.  The sun was at its zenith, I was hot, sweaty and a little bit burned but damn I was happy.

I was also very thirsty.   I watched as a petrol truck snaked its way up the hill.  It stopped amidst the throng and three burly individuals clambered on to the roof to open the covers.  Buckets were passed, filled and then lowered by ropes slopping liquid on to the crowd below.  As I drew closer the smell hit me  –  not the acrid tang of fuel but the sweet smell of hops  – a mobile bar Cuban-style.

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La Entrada

It was a few months into the new millennium and I was on my second visit to Cuba.  Tourism outside of the main beach resorts was still a relatively new commodity and in the heart of Havana the experience was at times sullied by swarms of jineteros drawn like bees to the honey of foreign visitors’ supposed wealth.  Jinete or jockey had been coined as a term to describe those Cubans who chose to ride on the backs of tourists to escape the economic deprevations caused by the combined whammy of the collapse of the Eastern bloc and US sanctions in the early 90s.

But here in Holguin, a provincial capital at the eastern end of Cuba, I’d discovered something entirely different.  I’d stumbled almost by accident onto Las Romerias de Mayo festival, a celebration of and for young Cubans’ musical and artistic talent.  The annual event seemed a well-kept secret.   I’d met no foreigners in town – seen no group tours, no coach loads of beach vacationing tourists bussed in for the day or armies of camera toting photographers.

Instead I was treated like an honoured guest, welcomed wherever I went.

There was music, dance, lots of rum and a remarkable camaraderie.  For the rest of the week I spent my time in a state of bleary bliss – listening to poetry, trova, salsa, son even the occasional rap or thrash rock band, a camera always in one hand and glass, if not a bottle, of rum in the other.

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Israel Rojas of Buena Fe

Late at night we would gather on the roof of the Caligari, an arts centre on the main square.  Groups that had played music of wildly different styles across the town would mix and play together, guitars were passed from hand to hand, and the celebrations, below a star speckled night, would often continue to dawn and beyond.

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Dream fulfilled

On each of the first three nights a group of teenage girls waited patiently to perform, and on each night the more established bands would eat up the available time and they would be told to come back tomorrow.  On the 4th night it was finally their turn.  They set up their equipment, sound-checked and announced the first track and then the heavens opened.  The look of disappointment on their faces was profound, but the other musicians were determined that they be given their chance.  Over the protests of the organisers a room was rapidly cleared and the instruments installed and my love affair with Cuba began.

The girls were amazing but the pleasures of the previous days were as nothing when compared to the next six hours of unrelenting music, of laughter and dancing.  It seemed that I was the only non-musician there as the baton of entertaining was taken up by each and everyone in turn.

I found my way back to Holguin six months later for the Festival Iberoamericana.  By that time I had started a photographic course at the London College of Printing and I was in love with the darkroom and the alchemistic pleasure of printing from my negatives, of giving rebirth to my memories of long afternoons and late nights.  I showed a few prints to the festival directors and they invited me to exhibit in Holguin at the Romerias in 2001, then again in 2002 and 2003.

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Diego Cano

The musicians I met then have mostly moved on, many to live and work in Europe.  I watch their progress on YouTube with huge pleasure.  Rolando Berrio, Diego Cano, Eduardo Sosa, Frank Delgado, Buena Fe, Aceituna sin Hueso… the list is long and full of exceptional talent.

The Romerias de Mayo is no longer a secret.  The Facebook group is global and I’m sure this week the city will be filled with people from all over the world.  My work has also travelled back for an exhibition this year, sadly without me, I hope to return in 2013 to a changed but I hope still wonderful world.