An American's Havana Adventure of Discovering Cuba Through Music


I was walking through a market in Havana when I saw him kicking back, relaxing and absorbing life with a guitar next to him that accentuated his swagger.

"Hola señor, mi nombre es Ibrahim. ¿Puedo tocar tu guitarra? Hello sir, my name is Ibrahim. Can I play your guitar?

Without a word, he nodded, motioned for me to sit next to him, and handed me his guitar.

Sitting in silence, I wrapped the strap around my neck, warmed up with a couple of scales, and began to play my first song.

"'Fade to Black,' Metallica?"

"Si, señor, es mi canción favorito." Yes sir, it's my favorite song.

After watching me play for a few minutes, he broke the silence to ask where was I from and how long had I been playing for.

I'm a Pakistani-American studying at Boston University, and I just started playing the guitar a year ago.

And how could I speak Spanish? I've been learning it since elementary school.

"Bueno," he asked me to play more songs and a couple of minutes in, we drew a small crowd who gathered around to see two musicians from different parts of the world harmonize through music.

At the end of my song, we were applauded and approached by a teenager dressed from top to bottom in all white.

"Tocas la guitarra muy bien." You play the guitar well.

"¿Gracias, mi amigo. Tocas también?" Thank you, my friend. Do you play as well?

"Sí," he nodded, and added that he's a musician who combines freestyle rap with the acoustic guitar.

Blown away, I urged him to show me what he can do.

Yet when he asked me to give him a beat, I froze; I've never experimented with hip-hop before -- I didn't even think it was possible on the guitar!

Sensing my nerves, he proceeded to teach me a couple of hip-hop chord progressions.

And there we were, having just met a couple of minutes ago, jamming out on the streets of Havana with me on the guitar as he freestyled uninterrupted for 10 minutes.

When we finished, we high-fived, congratulated each other and rejoiced over how awesome making music felt.

"What's your name? And how long have you been rapping for?" I asked him in Spanish.

"Sergio," he replied and added that he had only been rapping for a year.

"A year!?" Amazed, I told him how talented I thought he was and how someday, I hope to be just as good as him.

Brushing my praise aside, he said that I played well and implored me to show him what I could do.

Despite my nerves, I cleared my throat, stretched my fingers out, and began to sing and play "All of Me" by John Legend.

By the time I arrived at the chorus, he shook me in excitement exclaiming,

"¡Conozco este canción!" I know this song!

Ecstatic, I urged him to sing along with me; I even put my hat out in front of us and told him we could make some spare change.

But he didn't know the English lyrics. In fact, he told me that he had just started learning my language a few months ago.

Sensing my disappointment, he proposed that we try to translate the song into Spanish.

When I agreed, he ran to a street vendor, bought a notebook and returned ready, with pen and paper in hand, to translate John's song word for word into Spanish.

But we didn't have much success. My Spanish is not that good.

So instead, I taught him "All of Me"'s chord progression so that I could sing while he played along.

And there we were, back at it again; A Pakistani-American singing an American pop song while his newly-made Cuban friend strummed along on a stranger's guitar.

After we finished and I was preparing to leave, Sergio remarked how much fun he had and that I was the first American he had ever met; and that someday he hoped to visit my country and play music for my people -- a dream I expressed as well.

We exchanged emails, promised to stay in touch, and as he bid me farewell, I found myself walking away smiling.

I might look different, speak a different language, hail from a different country, and see the world from a completely different perspective than he does. But none of that mattered to Sergio; what mattered is that we both share a common passion for music.

And that passion brought together a Pakistani-American and a Cuban onto the streets of Havana to make music.

A week after my trip, I'm back in Boston, reading the news about Obama's visit to Cuba, and I find myself thinking,

"We're not all that different from the Cuban people -- Sergio is just like me; the Cubans are just like us."

And it's about time that we start treating them as such, because we're all human, right?