HAVANA - Clarinets, reedy and thin, played something I'd never heard before.
The low whine hung like humidity up and down narrow Consulado Avenue in Old Havana. I cocked my ear and detected the music coming from somewhere upstairs, through windows of a decaying, Spanish colonial-looking apartment building within sight of the national opera house.
Brightening with each step as I drew closer, the sound wove an unforgettable sonic tapestry somewhere between laughing klezmer and the noble shriek of bagpipes.
"Welcome to Havana," I thought, a city that has bewitched me three times now.
There's been a tourism ban in place since 1963, when President John F. Kennedy's trade embargo effectively barred Americans from visiting Cuba. But over the years, its implementation has softened. Today, visitors may come for cultural, artistic, scientific, and other reasons. And tour operators are ready to take practically anyone to Cuba - for a price ranging from $3,000 to $6,000 and up.
I'm a photographer, and a cheapskate. I just fly over on the cheapest flights I can find. I stay at simple B&Bs for about $30 a night. The rooms are usually in someone's house, some without air conditioning, or WiFi, and sometimes with no electricity at all when the whole grid fails.
But just out the door, I can explore this one-of-a-kind city at my own pace. Walking everywhere, I hear the rhythms and music, feasting on miles of colonial architecture frozen and battered by half a century of decay under Castro's rule and the U.S. embargo. It's all mine.
On Consulado Avenue, each side of the street - one in shadow, the other in brilliant sun - features baroque and neoclassical fronts two to five stories high. Many are draped with overhanging balconies, with wrought-iron things poking out everywhere. Shaded entranceways lead to discrete arcades and dim courtyards hardly visible from the street.
Then a skinny old man in a red baseball cap and blue T-shirt emblazoned with the American flag came around the corner. Nodding to me, he bought a coffee from a small storefront cafe. Actually, the cafe was just a street-level apartment repurposed to private enterprise in this communist country.
Capitalism took bloom a few years ago, when Castro loosened communist regulations. Here, the owner threw open the windows and hung a sign offering to sell coffee and snacks. You could see sofa, chairs, family pictures, personal belongings and a bed farther back in the shadows.
Whatever its definition, the cafe's fresh-roasted beans and rich, brewed-coffee aroma crept into the street to blend with cigar smoke on a still February afternoon - an aroma and cliche both true and nearly ubiquitous in my visits to Havana.
It would be nice if my wife enjoyed this kind of travel. She'd probably love the pretty but confining World Heritage Site restorations in the colonial core of Havana - a picture-perfect restoration from a time when Havana was the richest city in the Caribbean. Little wonder that more than a million tourists visit annually, most from Europe and Canada.
"Have a good time, darling," is the best she can do when I head out the door, even as sons Timothy, 12, and Evan, 6, roll their eyes at their eccentric old man.
In truth, there's something strangely personal and convoluted about Havana for me. I grew up in the former Soviet Union, and was actually thrown in the slammer for a couple of weeks when I was 16 and trying to practice English with some American tourists walking around Kiev. The communists also threw me out of Komsomol - the youth wing of the party that most kids are forced to join - and when communism fell, I took the first flight out.
The only flight was to Havana, my first experience in the New World. From there, I flew to Mexico City, took a bus to Los Angeles, and finally a flight east to begin a new life. Walking around Havana, taking photos, listening to the people - even though I don't know Spanish - resonates with memories of Kiev. It, too, was safe - no gangs, no narco state - but politically locked down.
Call me a romantic, but the Russians I knew, like the Cubans I have met, seemed to live "open to each other," watching out for one another. It's an emblem of what I see as a vibrant community under economic distress.
A pealing of clarinets over the avenue led me to enter a grand old building, with marble stairs inside a cool arcade just off the street. On the second floor, I tapped on a door.
Music stopped, and a second latter a shirtless man with a clarinet appeared. I said, "Hello," and "English?" He replied, "Hola."
We couldn't talk with each other, so, pointing and smiling I explained that I heard the music on the street and, pointing to my camera, asked if I could take some pictures of him playing. He gestured to enter.
He was Vicente Monterrey, it turned out, a member of the Cuban National Symphony Orchestra and the Grand Theater of Havana, which plays down the street at the opera house. With him was his student, Ailet Roque Monqin.
The tiny apartment had a small kitchenette, a Murphy bed, a bicycle, an antique television, books everywhere, and music stands. On them was sheet music for Andante and Allegro Vivace for Clarinet, by Bernhard Henrik Crusell, a Swedish-Finnish composer (1775-1838).
Wordlessly, they resumed playing, and a sleepy dachshund named Roki tracked my movements with his eyes as I maneuvered for camera angles. I think I spent 30 minutes taking pictures and just sitting on the floor, listening to the wonderful music.
If someone asked me to name the perfect place to live, at that moment I would have said Havana, and would probably have traded the glories of my suburban colonial for this humble life of art and communal simplicity and beauty.
But then, my wife would strangle me.
A year later, the photos were packed and ready for delivery to Havana. You always have to have a reason to visit this crumbling communist city - and I had another one.