Wednesday, August 27, 2008

if cuba had been a crown colony...

Cuba, like the rest of the Western hemisphere, was traditionally considered by the USA as its back yard. In fact, as far back as the Early Republic, Thomas Jefferson could assert that Cuba was "the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States" and after "liberating" the island from Spanish rule in the "splendid little war" of 1898 , the so-called Platt Amendment added to the Cuban constitution transfered essential aspects of the nation's sovereignty to the US. A playground for gambling US tourists and mobsters after WWII, Cuban suffered under the ruthless dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, a long time darling of Washington. As so often in Central and South America, the US failed to support democratic alternatives and its seriously incompetent policy ultimately lead to Fidel Castro's triumph, his turn towards hard-line Marxism-Leninism, JFK's Bay of Pigs misadventure and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In popular culture, however, the romantic image of mid-century Cuba, and especially Havana, has prevailed, aided by the economic stagnation under the Castro regime which has ironically preserved the city in picturesque (for visitors) poverty. The Buena Vista Social Club clearly trumps the more limited visibility of independent Cuban film makers or critical reportage and the imagery of fine cigars, rum-soaked nights, hot tropical rhythms and rusty pastel-colored vintage cars will probably be with us forever.

Considering the above history it is fitting that a US company would have produced a perfume called Havana , aiming to evoke precisely this kind of atmosphere. A heady mixture of bay rum, citrus, spices, florals, woods, resins and, naturally, tobacco - just about everything the perfumers had lying around, really - it is the quintessential machismo fragrance. Though released in 1994, it is very much in the style of 1980s male powerhouses and considered a classic by many fragrance lovers. All the more surprising that it was discontinued and now only seems easily available in South Africa, though a small minority, including yours truly, has indeed always complained that it is too much of too many good things. The public seemed to agree.

Since 2002, there has been an alternative to the American Havana . It is British luxury aromatics house Czech & Speake's Cuba, which works the iconic images of the island into a completely different olfactory story - one in which Cuba became a British colony in 1850 or so. In marked contrast to the excessive density of Aramis Havana, C&S Cuba blends the cool refinement typical of traditional English fragrances with the exotic smells of the old capital (the slightly modified coat of arms of which you can see above). The opening is an amazing feat, in which a strong civet note's fecal aspects are perfectly balanced out by a refreshing mint note, which in turn is kept from going all gaudy by the animalic element; all this is perfectly framed by unobtusive citrus and a subtle rum note. It's a mojito on a colonial-style porch, with the smell of the street wafting up from below. Masculine, but not chest haired and rugged - the panama hat is pristine and the white dinner suit was cut on Savile Row. There follows a wonderful, present, yet subtle blend of green tobacco, clove, bay and restrained florals and a warm base said to contain tonka, cedar, vetiver, and, this is very evident, frankincense.
This is what the British governor of Cuba smelled like around 1955, in some strange parallel universe not necessarily worse than ours. The fact that the bottle bears a red star represents the kind of British/niche humor which would not have worked too well for a US corporation such as Estée Lauder, who chose a tropical feather theme for Havana (no less ironic, though, considering how heavy that perfume is). Then again, holding Socialist ideas while running an empire was precisley what Britons were doing at midcentury, so the pieces of our alternative history actually fit together quite nicely.

Cuba is a worthy, in my opinion even superior, successor to Havana, as it manages to take the concept of a rich Caribean-style fragrance into the 21st century by reaching back to English perfume traditions. The result is, in fact, suitable for both men and women.
Now, is there anything missing in this story? Indeed, there is: Santa Maria Novella's Acqua di Cuba, for starters. But we will entertain the fantasy of Cuba as an Italian colony at some other time.


Anonymous said...

Great entry Duke. I don't get a genuine civet (like mouchoir de monsieur of vintage givenchy gentleman) from cuba, more of a grapefruit accord really. It is very fine stuff though and I too like it much better than the clutter which is havana.
As for Cuba, there are various ways of measuring poverty. I think that people's lives are unlikely to improve when the USA finally succeeds in exporting Mcdonalds there.
Long live the revolution.


dukeofpallmall said...

Perhaps they could have handled the poverty (which has been a lot worse in non-socialist South American countries) if it hadn't been for the government sloth and repression. One has to face the sad reality that Cuba was economically dysfunctional without Soviet subsidies - of course the US embargo has something to do with that, too. Perhaps, due to the current strength of Left reform movements across South America, the transition to a social democratic model will be possible in Cuba, rather than a plunge into free market anarchy. Either way, most folks there will be having other things on their mind than perfume, I'm afraid.