My Favorite Havana Moment is In “The Tank”

Written by Mark McElroy

Find out why this vibrant community center will charm you like nothing else in Havana.

The morning after the Tropicana’s assault on my senses, I found myself in the raw, crumbling neighborhood of Lawton, standing in a concrete water tank.

Early in the 20th Century, the tank supplied water for steam trains. When diesel engines rendered it useless, it became the neighborhood trash dump, and by the 21st Century, the tank was literally buried in garbage. But then, folks from the Muraleando community collective convinced local leaders to give them the tank.

Steps leading up the outside of El Tanque, decorated by community members and students.

They dug it out. They painted the walls vibrant colors. They raised a tarp roof to shield themselves from the sun. They inlaid the walls with murals fashioned from shattered tiles and found objects: irons, chains, ornaments. They strung a web of lights around the top of the tank. In the space beneath it, they added an art gallery and a classroom.

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Soon, the tank became “El Tanque” — an arts center funded exclusively by the local community, offering classes in drama, music, singing, art, and film making that the local schools could not offer. The pride the neighbors take in the place is evidenced by the fact that, on a street rife with graffiti, not one of the many murals at El Tanque has ever been defaced.

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While we were there, students and instructors took to the stage to perform a song they had written themselves. The lead singer, a dark-skinned young man in a jaunty hat, tight grey t-shirt and grey jeans, bent his knees, rolled his shoulders from side to side, and belted out lyrics in a loud, masculine voice. A young woman with a wild mane of hair and a heart-shaped face (she writes the lyrics to many of the songs the team performs) picked up the rhythm and sang accompaniment. In the back, the young men on drums, keyboards, and guitars, caught up in the moment, closed their eyes and nodded, losing themselves in the music.

Instead of the earnest high school band performance you might expect, their guitars and keyboards and tom-toms and voices fused together into a distillation of pure joy.

I am struggling, even now, to relate how hard this performance hit me. I was moved by it, possessed by it, enlightened by it. It had an energy, a vitality, an authenticity that very few performances do. It was skilled, but simple … professional, but honest … raw, but real.

In quiet moments, I still find myself thinking about those kids. I wonder if the little strands of white Christmas lights are turned on tonight, if children are painting in the downstairs gallery, and whether the music of that little band of you people is drifting out in the warm Havana evening.

When I asked fellow travelers what they liked best about their trip to Cuba, several immediately said, “My trip to El Tanque.” If you’re headed to Havana, add El Tanque to your must-see list. Highly recommended.

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Mark McElroy

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