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Exploring my inner Fernandis - Joel Hall

My grandfather was kind of an epic character, someone who I wish I had gotten to know a little better.

From what I know of my grandfather, he was a merchant marine who immigrated to Virginia by way of Grand Cayman. His native tongue was Spanish, so I always imagined he had relatives in Cuba, because the two islands, one English-speaking, and one Spanish-speaking, are so close.

My grandfather succumbed to liver cancer when I was very young. While I never learned his native tongue, I did hear many stories about him.

My mother told me that when she was a little girl, she was hit by, and pinned under a car. With strength he mustered from some higher power, he was able to lift the back end of the car off my mother's neck.

He was a lover of music who played over a dozen instruments, including the guitar, the piano, and the violin, all of which I play. As a child, there was hearsay that he was an heir to a great sugar cane plantation somewhere in the Cayman Islands.

The grandfather I knew loved eating turtle soup, watching "Garfield and Friends," and singing songs in words that were foreign to me. I share his middle name, so for a long time, I have desired a way to get in touch my "inner Fernandis."

Two weekends ago, the Afro-Cuban All Stars came to the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta. The concert was the first time they had been able to play in Atlanta in six years due to all of the passport difficulties associated with being Cuban.

That day, Juan de Marcos González, a key member of the Buena Vista Social Club, led four generations of Afro-Cuban drummers, brass players, singers, and pianists in front of an intimate audience of about 500 people. I paid $60 to attend the concert, knowing it may be a long time before I got to see something like that again.

The room was filled with electricity. Many of the people sitting in chairs rushed to the dance floor as soon as the band began. I found myself standing up because the people in front of me couldn't contain the rhythm inside themselves.

There was a three-minute cowbell solo that sounded good. There were piano solos that sounded amazing. I saw people playing bongos with their elbows and feet as well as their hands.

There was plenty of humor, laughing, interaction with the audience, and even a few political jokes aided by the musicians. At one point, González picked up his cell phone and pretended to call President Obama after the pianist tapped out a familiar ring tone. He basically asked Obama to end the embargo which has existed between the U.S. and Cuba since the early 1960s.

It was very timely because it seems like Obama was listening. This week, Obama lifted all travel restrictions on relatives traveling to Cuba. He also granted them the ability to send their dollars back to the impoverished country.

While Americans still cannot travel to Cuba, the move creates a great opportunity for cultural exchange. As more dollars come to Cuba, there may be more entrepreneurs who can eradicate the systems which have created poverty there. Cuba may even be able to export to America some of the things that it can be proud of, such as its music and advanced medicine.

While I enjoyed seeing the Afro-Cuban All Stars perform live in my backyard, I would one day like to be able to see them play on their native soil. Perhaps, within my lifetime, I will be able to take that trip and see and hear some of the sights, and sounds, my grandfather came to love while he was alive.

Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at jhall@news-daily.com.