Decaying, plant-straggled Spanish houses falling into dereliction; old banged up cadillacs roaming the streets; rum, cigars; geckos; the music – I have never been to Havana but would love to, as I imagine I would be in my element…..
Sometimes perfumers are given briefs in which they are asked to try to conjure up specific places (YSL’s Paris; Biagiotti’s Roma; Kenzo’s Tokyo, the entire Bond No 9 range, geared to capturing every nook and cranny of New York), and any scent attempting to convey a sense of Cuba will have to incorporate the torrid generalities that the popular imagination associates with the place. For most, Havana is surely all about smoky dance halls and sultry locals; that curious contradiction of control, extroversion and unrepressed repression, that energy (which, incidentally, dazzled my parents when they went there a few years ago to celebrate my father’s successful operation to have both knees replaced; the fantastic thing being that despite his recent convalescence, he managed to come second in a dance contest, twirling and sashaying about on metal joints with a Cuban lady in habañera dress, my mother clapping and cheering with great enthusiasm as the crowd voted them for the runner up, all revved up into wild and generous hilarity…)
Cuba, the perfume, captures this sense of Caribbean ease succinctly. It is an intriguing scent from London-based Czech & Speake’s ‘aromatics’ range that is perhaps unfashionable in its sly referencing of 50’s hunk-papa aftershaves, while nevertheless avoiding being overly retro. The blend attains a very sensual, defence-lowering aura that is perfect for an unbuttoned, flamboyant shirt on the dance floor where it really blooms with sweat and heat.
A smooth blast of bay, tobacco and some distinctly rude animalics is overlayed in Cuba with a mojito – themed top accord of rum, lime and mint – like sipping an ice-cold cocktail in some tucked-in corner of a Havana bar. This then dries down to a heart of clove, vetiver, cedarwood and frankincense; quite hairy-chested and self-assured, but in a warm, benevolent mode that is charming and irresistible: a million miles away from the priapic abrasion of most men’s contemporary scents (which this is, I suppose; though it is not stated directly on the bottle or box, and I can imagine some offbeat girls smelling pretty dapper in it as well).
We were staying in a hotel in Tokyo in September and Duncan sprayed on a few good doses of Cuba before we left for the night. The perfume filled up all the space around us with a full, balmy orchestration that you could smell from top to bottom in its full range of timbres and aromas, from the tingling lime and bergamot-mint head to the overtly sexual base that quite frankly interferes with the rational thought process. It hung in the air before me, fully fledged as a tapestry, and was startling, though I must say that this bottle, which I bought for him recently, seems diluted compared to the samples we had when it was first released ten years ago. Perhaps the startling intensity of that first edition – which seemed to have more humidor clout – was just too off-putting for some people. Even in this version the initial smell is intoxicating.
Cuba is a night scent. It is not something you would (or even could) wear to work unless you want your colleagues panting in the elevator (Duncan was once literally physically accosted – much to my amusement – on the streets of Shinjuku one roasting summer evening by two guys walking past who were shouting out WOW WHAT IS THAT INCREDIBLE SMELL), but to be honest I think a half of that half would be panting from revulsion as well; this is one of those perfumes that probably goes too far for the contemporary nose, and I have read some very disparaging comments on it (to put in mildly) on several blogs and websites, so tread carefully if you are being reeled in by this review.
To me though, Cuba is simply a natural and very free-smelling composition: uninhibited, lithe, and while subtle in its own surreptitious way (only the initial spray makes a big noise), it lets you stand out from the madding crowd. It works best on weekends, best kept perhaps for dancing and celebrations, when its soft but emphatic tones – savoury, spiced, and full of self-confidence – will rise up from the body; convince, and melt you.