Queens of Havana

By ALICIA CASTRO

The 1920s and ’30s were the heyday of Cuban jazz and son, and Havana’s clubs were overflowing. But the music was all made by men, until, during the hard years after a crash in the sugar market, the daughters of a half-Chinese greengrocer began playing around Havana to raise money. Loaded with verve, talent, and plenty of moxie, the Castro sisters named their septet after a native princess who resisted the Spanish, and became Cuba’s first all-girl band. After shocking and delighting Havana, they took the world by storm. Now in her 80s, Alicia Castro, the band’s saxophonist, recounts the band’s adventures, chronicling voyages from Puerto Rico to Paris to Broadway to Rio, and travels among some of her generation’s jazz greats. In doing so she uncovers wellsprings of Cuban music, in sugar plantations, African Orichas, Chinese operas, and beyond — ultimately, a history of Cuba itself. As the jazz years give way to the Fidel years and the more troubled present, the book offers an intimate portrait of an era, told with the charm and flair of a practiced performer, and the loving humor of a beloved aunt. This is a story to savor. -