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Swing and sway to the beat of Cuban music on Long Island

From the Tropicana show at The Cuban in Garden City to a trio of concerts by Havana's hottest All-Stars, Cuban rhythm is everywhere.

Dancers find a Cuban beat during the Tropicana

Dancers find a Cuban beat during the Tropicana show at The Cuban in Garden City. Photo Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

The red, yellow and green neon palm trees and candy-hued vintage Chevys parked outside The Cuban restaurant in Garden City only hint at how colorfully the night spot captures the spirit of old Havana. Inside, waiters in white fedoras and traditional untucked guayabera shirts serve Cuban classics such as ropa vieja, or pulled beef. The restaurant’s pastel-colored walls have murals of the city’s bygone street scenes.

But the star attraction is The Cuban’s Tropicana shows, which happen  Friday and Saturday nights. As drummers pound rhythmic beats on their congas and dancers in barely-there  costumes and plumed headdresses shimmy, the overflow crowd can’t get help but hit the dance floor, even when there’s barely room to rumba.

“Cuban music is a celebration,” said Rey Rodriguez, 72, of Elmont, who joined a conga line threading around the crowded tables. “It just makes you want to dance.”

Mambo, salsa and the lesser known son, which originated in rural eastern Cuba and combines African and Spanish rhythms, are among the styles luring Long Islanders to come in from the cold for a taste of a hot Havana night. Headlining is crooner Orlando Iturriaga, a Cuban émigré known as La Voz (“The Voice”), who warms up the room with a mix of salsa, merengue, bachata and classic ballads.

“A Tropicana show is something that you see in old movies and on ‘I Love Lucy,’ but you don’t see a lot here on Long Island,” said Marlene Vazquez, 48, of Wheatley Heights.

“The drums brought me back to Havana,” added her fiance, Brian Pellettieri, 43, of East Meadow, recalling the couple’s October 2017 cruise to Cuba.

An All-Stars show

Cuban culture will also be center stage when the Havana Cuba All-Stars, a nationally touring Cuban band, brings some Latin flair to Staller Center in Stony Brook on Saturday, as well as shows at the Patchogue Theatre on Feb. 2, and Tilles Center in Brookville on Feb. 3. 

The 12-member group plays son style, and powers its music with conga drums, bongos, guitars and brass. A special guest is Identidad, a dance troupe from Cienfuegos, Cuba, that moves to the catchy tunes in styles ranging from traditional to contemporary Cuban dance.

Unlike mariachi or salsa, however, Cuban music doesn’t have indigenous roots. “The principle ingredients of our music are African and European,” says Michel Padron, the band’s trumpet player and musical director.

Rediscovering Cuba

Padron credits the surge in interest in Cuban culture to the 1999 documentary, “Buena Vista Social Club,” which assembled musicians who had been virtually forgotten under Fidel Castro’s rule, to record an album and perform concerts. Padron said the Oscar-nominated film introduced many Americans to the unique music played by his band.

The Cuban’s banquet manager Caroline Barrucci said “Cuban culture really took off” with eased travel restrictions to the Caribbean isle bringing in customers fresh from or planning cruises to Havana. “Since we started the Tropicana show three years ago, the crowd has tripled,” Barrucci said.

Adding to the atmosphere at The Cuban, female customers can have their photo taken wearing a feathered headdress. Men can pose with a straw hat with The Cuban's logo. 

“I can’t wait to go to Havana,” said Adina Tunkel, 50, of Port Jefferson, sipping a mojito from a cabana-style bar stocked with 30 brands of rum. “I love a warm place on a cold winter night — it’s an escape.”

Orlando La Voz and The Tropicana Show

WHEN | WHERE 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (La Voz also does a preshow at 7:30 both nights), The Cuban, 987 Stewart Ave., Garden City.  

INFO Free with dinner or drinks; 516-222-0295,  thecubanny.com

'Asere! A Fiesta Cubana'

WHO  Havana Cuba All-Stars

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Saturday, Staller Center, Stony Brook University; also 8 p.m. Feb. 2, Patchogue Theatre, 71 E. Main St. and 3 p.m. Feb. 3, Tilles Center, LIU Post, Brookville

INFO Staller Center: $44, $22 ages 12 and younger; 631-632-2787,  stallercenter.com

Patchogue Theater: $29 to $59, 631-207-1313, patchoguetheatre.org

Tilles Center: $35 to $65; 516-299-3100, tillescenter.org

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