Cuba is world famous for its music, and rightly so. Everywhere you walk in Cuba, music pours out of the buildings, whether it's the sound of a live band serenading tourists in the Casa de la Música, the booming bass of a hi-fi pounding out rumba down a back street, or the tinkling of a piano from behind shutters in the suburbs of Camagüey. Music is in the blood of the Cubans, whether it's salsa, son, timba, danzón or cha cha cha, and it makes travelling through the island a pleasantly aural experience.
What you don't hear so much is western music, which is a delight after travelling through other, more tourist-influenced societies. There are two universal languages on this planet, and you come across both of them in spades throughout most of the known world; they are, of course, Bob Marley and football (or, if you're a Norteamericano or Australian, soccer). In Cuba, though, neither of these is apparent, which is a particular surprise given that one of Cuba's closest neighbours is Jamaica. Instead of Cuban boys kicking a football round the back streets of their home town, you'll find them practising their baseball swings with sticks for bats and rocks for balls; and instead of yet another plug of 'Jamming' and 'I Shot the Sheriff', Cuba hops to the beat of its own unique music.
The exception seems to be in the casa particular, where western music has seeped into their CD collections in a strange and rather unpleasant form. Music from the 1980s has found its spiritual home in Cuba, and our first two casas entertained us with a nostalgic trawl through the depths of 1980s pop, interspersed with local music that sounded all the fresher for being sandwiched between Phil Collins's 'Another Day in Paradise' and Bryan Adams's 'Everything I Do (I Do it for You)'. Toto's 'Africa' is acceptable enough, but I will forever remember sitting in Trinidad, listening to those housewives' favourites Chris de Burgh and George Michael; yes, I'm talking about 'Lady in Red' and 'Careless Whisper', which made my bones creak and my teeth ache. My only hope is that they played this music in a mistaken attempt to put on something they thought we would like. Following it with the Scorpions and their candles-in-the-air ballad 'Wind of Change' was, surely, a mistake even our hosts couldn't have made out of politeness.
The doorbell in our Camagüey casa was little better. Every time anyone came to visit – and in Cuba, that's every few minutes – the doorbell played out a plinky-plonky electronic tune, varying from 'London Bridge is Falling Down', 'Frère Jacques', 'Happy Birthday' and 'There's No Place Like Home', to 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat' and 'Clementine'. At times it felt like the inside of an ice cream van rather than the suburbs of Cuba.
But the prize for the most amazing use of western music came on our penultimate morning in Camagüey, when we were sitting in the back yard of our casa, tying to summon up the energy to go out into the midday sun for lunch. The cleaning lady was mopping the kitchen floor, humming merrily to herself, when the opening chords from Procul Harum's 'Whiter Shade of Pale' rang out of the hi-fi in the front room. But instead of skipping the light fandango, the sound of Spanish lyrics floated out across the porch, and the cleaning lady filled her lungs and sang her little heart out, her mop slopping on the tiles in time to the music.
It looks as if, even in the land of salsa, the oldies are sometimes the best.