So long, Jimmy Cuba
Yesterday, Jimmy Cuba left the market for ever. He is a widely respected and popular figure who has traded here continuously since 1992, after the fruit & vegetable market left. This Sunday, as Jimmy packed up his stall of Latin & World Music for the last time in Spitalfields, the other traders came over to shake hands and make their regretful farewells. Old friends of Jimmy and a string of musicians had been turning up all through the day to greet the man who has become a legend in the Spitalfields Market.
It was an emotional moment, but everyone maintained a dignified composure and let the soulful lyricism of the music express what we were feeling. Yet when Jimmy increased the volume and took the rhythm uptempo, a party broke out spontaneously as people submitted to the irresistible Latin beat, with couples dancing in the market. There was a surreal delight to this extraordinary spectacle, which incarnated the passion and idiosyncratic poetry which Jimmy brought to this market that he loved over all these years.
We shall miss his mischievous good natured presence, his witty slogans on cardboard signs and, of course, we shall all miss that Latin pulse which has been the soundtrack to market life for the last two decades. We learnt something from Jimmy Cuba, because through his open-hearted manner he constantly reminded us that Spitalfields is more than a marketplace, it is a community of people and an arena for cultural exchange.
Months ago, Jimmy summoned me for breakfast to Dino’s Cafe in Commercial St to reveal his sober intention to quit on the last Sunday of trading before the stallholders are temporarily moved out of the market into the street while another event takes their place in the building. It was the last straw for Jimmy who has endured the whims of successive managements in the market over two decades. Growing up in Romford Market and beginning trading in music when he sold his record collection in Leather Lane thirty years ago, Jimmy has a strong feeling for markets as a collective human enterprise. He understands the drama of chaos and banter that brings the best markets alive.
With an inborn sense of levity, Jimmy is an unrepentant free agent who is never afraid to speak his mind. An innately decent person, he has a personal sense of justice that has led him to stand up for the traders on innumerable occasions over the years. And the corporate style of the new management – with executives who stick to their offices and will not even make eye contact with traders when they walk through the market – was too much for Jimmy. They did not like his cardboard signs, they thought his music was too loud and they did not like his attitude. Jimmy rolled his eyes in outrage to recount a recent incident when the traders arrived to set up their stalls in the morning, only to discover that the management had “forgotten” to tell them there was a promotional event happening, and they were sent away, losing a day’s income. “The market management, they only care about making money and they don’t see people, they are just interested in pounds per square foot. Spitalfields Market had so much more than that, but it’s been sanitised,” he admitted to me reluctantly on Sunday, as if it hurt to speak this way of a place that meant so much to him.
“I’m going to buy a boat and live on it for half the year,” continued Jimmy, looking to the future with brave confidence, “And I’m going to get back into DJing.” Because, as everyone who knows Jimmy Cuba is aware, he has become friends with many of the legendary performers of Latin Music, creating a mutual respect that has led to some dropping in on his stall in Spitalfields when they come through London. “I’m going to be spending a lot of time in the States because that’s where the artists are going to be.” explained Jimmy with a sprightly grin, looking forward to being able to travel once he is not stalling out every week, and can spend more time pursuing his three passions, boating, fishing and Latin Music.
On Sunday, Jimmy had a double size stall with all his favourite record sleeves on show and it made a fine display. I stayed on with him as the crowds thinned out and he went through the modest routine of packing up his CDs in their boxes while the music played and all around him other weary stallholders were closing up at the end of a long day. Jimmy cast his eyes around taking in the familiar picture, privately gathering his memories and emotions to carry them away with him. We all wish Jimmy Cuba well – one of the great characters of of Spitalfields Market – even if we regret that a little of the soul of the place has gone too. As one of the market traders said to me, “It’s going to be quiet without him around.”
Jimmy Cuba packed up his stall in the Spitalfields Market for the last time on Sunday.
Off Long Beach, California, 1986. An image from the past that gives a vision of Jimmy’s future.
Teddy Manhood & his wife at Romford Market, 1974. Jimmy worked on their stall from the age of twelve and Teddy, who became a second father to Jimmy, used to bring him up to Spitalfields to buy stock.