Home Music Music News

The Cubans are coming! The Cubans are Coming!

Hot Jazz succeeds where diplomacy fails

Cuban percussionist

During the Havana Festival, this percussionist is gaily playing his drum. Music and dance play a major role in the Cuban folklore which is encouraged by the Castroist regime, July 1976.

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty

Flying over Cuba at two a.m. in a twin-engine Cessna: darkness, blinking instrument lights, Havana talking us in by the radio, the pilot telling us about the Russian bombers he sees on the ground during the day. CBS Records Division President Bruce Lundvall and some assistants had touched down in a Lear jet a few hours earlier.

Back in July, CBS Records had signed Irakere, a Cuban jazz-rock group, the first such event in nearly 20 years. Now Lundvall and company wanted to spend a few days tying up loose business ends and scouting the island for more talent. They were also talking with the Cuban government about holding a big music festival in Havana sometime this spring, with Cuban and North American groups playing their own sets and jamming together.

Jerry Masucci, president of Fania, the leading New York Latin label, came along to investigate some Latin pop groups. An agent from International Creative Management (ICM), a major booking agency, was already in Havana signing up classical musicians for U.S. tours. The island that spawned the rumba, the mambo, Desi Arnaz, conga drums, Afro-Cuban jazz and modern salsa was about to export more music to the U.S. for the first time since the missile crisis and the U.S.-imposed embargo on Cuban trade in 1962.

Havana’s José Marti airport has just one long runway, with a railroad track running across it at midpoint. As we taxied toward the terminal, we saw uniformed men with guns waiting for us. “Now,” said our pilot after we’d come to a stop, “I’ll just hand them our passports out the door.” He opened it gingerly. A soldier checked our papers and nodded, and we clambered out. A very trim, very black young man in a crisp white shirt shook our hands and said, smiling, “Welcome to Cuba.”

After a bumpy ride down palm-lined avenues in two black Fifties Fords, we found ourselves in the lobby of the Havana Riviera, built by the reputed mobster Meyer Lansky shortly before Fidel Castro and his army walked into Havana. The Riviera is a monument to Mafia taste that has been maintained in pristine condition by the Cubans. In the bar, the floor show had just wound up. Bruce Lundvall, his assistant Bill Freston, Columbia A&R man Jock McLean and publicist Bob Altshuler, Jerry Masucci and several officials from Empressa Grabaciones y Ediciones Musicales (EGREM), Cuba’s stateowned recording industry, were plastered to their seats. The table was full of empty glasses and cigar butts. Stirring, the party began to get up, in slow motion it seemed, and I looked around. Except for one or two honeymoon couples, we were the only people in the place. “We have a meeting at nine,” said Lundvall on his way out the door.

By the next morning it was evident that nobody was going to get much sleep for the duration of the visit, and that Cuba intended to do everything in its power to get some of its music on the U.S. market. After a morning business meeting, I asked, Julio Espinoza, the president of the Advisory Council for the Ministry of Culture and the highest official Lundvall had dealt with, why his government was going out of its way to help Columbia, a capitalist record company, release the Irakere album.

“I can tell you,” said Espinoza, a white-haired man in a white tunic who could have been mistaken for a Riviera Hotel waiter had he not exuded an air of relaxed authority, “that our government is interested in encouraging cultural exchange, especially with music. We think Cuban music and North American music have many similar aspects, due to our histories, the plantation regimes, slavery. North American music is enjoyed here, especially jazz, and historically our music has been enjoyed in your country. So we think it is very important to encourage this exchange.”

At lunch, after drinks, red and white wines and brandy had taken their toll, EGREM executive Pepe Gutierrez explained further. Adopting a patient, schoolmasterly tone, he recited a detailed history of Cuba’s struggle to free itself from Spanish and then American domination. “In Latin America,” he said, “it’s always mañana [tomorrow]. Here we have no mañana. We’re in a hurry. We have been fighting this revolution for 20 years, and we’re Cuba still fighting. We need medicines, machinery. Yet just this year Congress voted to renew the blockade. They say we owe your country a lot of money for all the property that was nationalized after the revolution. What about the money and other wealth the Americans took out of Cuba for so many years? Marxism hasn’t changed us; our revolution is a Cuban revolution. But we have had to make our revolution alone. Why?”

A little later, Gutierrez apologized for his outburst (“I am not supposed to talk about the embargo or to criticize American policy”), but he had made his point. The struggling Cuban economy demands a more normalized relationship with the U.S., and the Cubans hope their music will at least get their foot in the door. (After I returned home, I talked to several Cuban experts at the State Department, who indicated in no uncertain terms that the embargo would not be lifted anytime soon.) The Cubans are on solid ground when they stress the musical ties that bind Cuba and the U.S. During the next few days, I found evidence of those ties everywhere — at a recording studio, a concert, an after-hours jam session, several nightclubs and performances of Cuban folklore.

The ties go back a long way. For an island that even now has only around 10 million inhabitants, Cuba has had a disproportionately pervasive and long-lasting effect on our popular music. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the island’s habanera rhythm spiced North American ballroom dance music, both directly and as the basis of the wildly popular Argentine tango. It turned up in ragtime sheet music, in some of the bass patterns developed by early black boogie-woogie pianists and as the so-called “Spanish tinge” in Jelly Roll Morton’s New Orleans jazz. During the Twenties and Thirties, Cuban pop became fashionable in New York society circles and some Cuban composers wrote big U.S. hits, among them “Siboney” and “El Manicero (the Peanut Vendor).”

In a sense, modern Cuban music has been a blend of two great traditions. As the site of some of the earliest permanent European settlements in the New World, Cuba had plenty of time to cultivate refined classical music, having its own conservatories and native-born composers. And, as an island that gave up slaveholding late and grudgingly — it is likely that slaves were still being imported from Africa in the 1880s — Cuba has one of the strongest and purest African musical roots in all the Americas.

The Cuban flute-and-fiddle orchestras, called charangas, are an example of the more European side of Cuban pop. The rumba, which swept the U.S. in the Thirties, developed out of the black Cuban son, a form of string-band music with African percussion. The mambo, a staple of U.S. dance-band music beginning in the Forties, was derived directly from the island’s Congolese religious cults. And from the son, rumba and mambo came New York Latin music, or salsa, which is almost wholly Cuban in style even though many of the musicians who play it are Puerto Rican.

As percussionists began experimenting with the island’s rich legacy of African cult rhythms, an improvisational drumming style flowered. Chano Pozo, a cult drummer from one of the poorer black districts in Havana, brought this style to the U.S. in the Forties. He performed with Dizzy Gillespie’s seminal modern jazz big band and collaborated with him in the composition of several modern jazz standards, among them “Manteca.” Cuban percussion and Cuban percussionists became standard ingredients in U.S. jazz, largely through the work of men like Mongo Santamaria and Armando Perrazza.

The afternoon following my arrivalin Cuba, weheadedfor the EGREM headquarters in Centro Havana. On the outside, EGREM was just a glass double door in a pinkish facade, sandwiched between apartment buildings and small bodegas on an utterly nondescript street.

Once inside the glass door we passed a reception desk, a small sofa and some blown-up photographs of Castro’s entry into Havana, negotiated a wrought-iron staircase and squeezed into the small office of Medardo Montero, EGREM’s director. People sat wherever they could and Bill Freston, a jovially businesslike man with a mop of brown hair who was wearing a red EGREM T-shirt, produced some Columbia artists’ suggestions for possible Irakere album covers. Montero put on a video cassette of a Cuban song-and-dance team to keep everyone entertained. Lundvall lit a cigar.

“Now this particular logo,” Freston said, pointing to an almost indecipherable squiggle on a wash of sherbet colors and straining a little to make himself heard over the television, “is nice, but it could be difficult to read in a retail store. It should pop right out at you. . .” A charanga band came on the screen, playing elegantly but heatedly and diverting everyone’s attention. “Most Americans have a hard time pronouncing Irakere [ear-ah-keer-eh], anyway,” Lundvall volunteered. (Irakere means jungle in the language of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, quite a few of whom ended up in Cuba.) Gutierrez laughed wryly. “It took us a long time to learn to pronouce it,” he said.

I’d been agitating to hear some music, so I was sent down the street to another, similarly anonymous-looking building occupied by EGREM. There, jazz pianist Emiliano Salvador was getting ready to overdub a coro, the traditional Afro-Cuban vocal chorus — two harmony singers pitting a fixed refrain against an improvising lead — on some tracks he’d cut a few weeks before. The prerevolutionary studio was beautifully preserved, with wooden acoustic paneling on the ceiling and walls, and a plank floor. No rugs or carpeting were evident, and the sound in the room was rich and resonant. The microphones were old, reliable Neumanns, and the rest of the equipment was part American (probably purchased from Canada), part German, part Japanese.

Salvador, who looked Spanish and was in his 20s, asked the engineer to roll a tape. He was working with a small group, just saxophone, piano, bass, drums and percussion. The music was a blend of McCoy Tyner, a dash of Herbie Hancock and Cecil Taylor, and hot Afro-Cuban drumming built around the traditional clave, a rhythm pattern that is the foundation of most Cuban music and sounds something like “shave [and a] hair cut! Six bits!” with the (and a) just a split-second pause. The piano work was swinging, fluid and inspired, despite the essentially derivative nature of Salvador’s style. The rhythm section was relentless, and the soprano saxophone solos, by Irakere’s Paquito de Rivera, were original and incendiary.

Like all professional musicians in Cuba — jazz, popular, folk, classical — Salvador gets a monthly paycheck from the government, which also pays for all education. “Once we finish our studies,” he elaborated while the tape was being rewound, “we have an evaluation, which happens again once every year or two. There are different categories: A, A-1, A-2, B, B-1, B-2 and C. With the letter A you have the best in all the arts — music, dance, painting and so on. And with the different letters you have a different salary.” In return for the government’s largesse, musicians are expected to work up to 26 days a month, and they are sent all over the island to perform in schools and public parks as well as in more traditional settings such as concert halls and nightclubs.

Essentially, I suggested, you’re working for the people. Does that prevent you from being really innovative, from playing the kind of music that only a few knowledgeable fans might appreciate now but that could influence all musicians in the future? “I try to make a balance with this,” Salvador said carefully, after a long pause. “You have to give the public what they want and teach them what they don’t know. But jazz and Cuban music come from the same sources more or less, so the public here understands very well, even when the music is very sophisticated.”

That night, after a quick meal, we drove to the Karl Marx theater, a spotless, modern, 4800-seat hall that was called the Chaplin, after Charlie, in prerevolutionary times. The theater was sold out for six performances by Irakere and the classical guitarist Leo Brouwer. (Actually, sold out isn’t quite correct, since in Cuba concert tickets are free and one simply has to line up at the box office and ask for them — first come, first served.)

The audience was restrained during Irakere’s first few numbers, and the band was restrained, too, as restrained as Irakere gets. The group — four horns, electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, a drummer and three percussionists — plays music that can range from traditional Cuban dance music to jabbing, brassy jazz to heavy electric rock riffing to pure African chants, sometimes all in the course of a single number.

Irakere’s leader, chief composer/arranger and conceptualist is the keyboard player, Chucho Valdez, a tall, imposing man of African descent whose virtuosic playing is as eclectic as his arrangements. His keyboard trademarks are classical filigree, dazzling runs that would make Oscar Peterson sit up and take notice, driving AfroCuban dance rhythms and daredevil improvising that hurdles apparent technical cul-de-sacs at breakneck speed. In Paquito de Rivera he has a saxophone soloist of remarkable drive and inventiveness, and in Arturo Sandoval he has a trumpeter who, though still in his early 20s, plays rings around almost any American brass player in terms of sheer technique, even if his ideas, rooted in the hard bop of Clifford Brown, don’t always keep up. There are other fine players in the band — Oscar Valdez, a percussionist and singer; Carlos Averhoff, a Coltrane-inspired tenor saxophonist; Enrique Pla, a ferocious drummer; electric guitarist Carlos Emilio Morales — but it is as a team, playing Valdez’ mercurial, kaleidoscopic music, that Irakere really shines.

Irakere first visited the U.S. last summer, when Columbia and EGREM were wrapping up one of the most complex contract negotiations in the history of the record business. (Because of the trade embargo and a law forbidding the making of business deals with Cuba through a third country, it is impossible for CBS to pay Irakere royalties. Instead, the group’s earnings from the album are earmarked for a fund, to be kept in the United States, that will support future American tours by Cuban artists.)

They blew the house down as a last-minute addition to a Newport-New York Jazz Festival concert, did special performances at the United Nations and at one of Columbia’s studios, winged out West for the CBS records convention and finally appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, where their forthcoming album was recorded. The LP, scheduled for January release, must be one of the hottest live sessions ever captured. The music is a series of tough, whiplash collages of various jazz, rock and Cuban elements, and this eclectic style is clearly going to be the basis of the group’s stateside appeal.

At the Karl Marx theater, though, the audience seemed to prefer Irakere’s straighter dance tunes and, especially, their collaborations with Leo Brouwer, a diminutive, studious-looking guitarist with a rich sound and a wonderfully refined sense of dynamics and phrasing. “It seems to be a pop audience,” one of the Columbia people remarked, a little disconsolately I thought, and when Irakere was not playing out of its fusion book, the music’s conceptual level was not equal to their musicianship. This was especially true when Brouwer played a selection of Beatles songs, which the crowd loved, and joined Irakere in improvisations on Villa-Lobos, “Concierto de Aranjuez” and “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin. I had heard that prerevolutionary Havana salon music was infected by a certain middlebrow banality, but I was surprised to find the tradition surviving so tenaciously.

After the concert, at one of those interminable receptions — flooded with daiquiris and mojitos, of which the Cubans are so fond — I talked to a few of the musicians. Carlos Averhoff seemed surprised when I asked him about access to American jazz. “We have a daily jazz program here on the radio,” he said, “two on Sunday, so we’re always hearing jazz, not just from America but from Germany, Japan, other countries.” And what about the history of Irakere? “Chucho, Paquito and a few of the others have been together for 15 years, and they’ve been playing with Enrique, the drummer, for 11 years. We all have known each other for a long time and often used to play at jam sessions. About seven or eight years ago we got together in a big band, the Cuban Modern Music Orchestra. Irakere came out of that.”

I remarked that the group seemed incredibly well rehearsed. “We practice very hard. Of course we can practice very hard because we don’t have to worry about money.” Rivera and Sandoval, the group’s improvising firebrands, came over to invite us to an after-hours session at a nearby club, but Valdez, who always looks very serious, declined.

We headed for the jam session, along with the Columbia folks and several ministry officials, in hopes that something a little more spontaneous might happen. It was at the Club Rio, a low building at the end of a residential street, with a small, packed-earth parking lot that’s filled with Russian and old American cars, and a grove of palms where the street deadended.

“This is a very special club,” said Rivera on the way in, “the best place in Havana for jazz. Every Monday there’s a regular jam session, but the people who play here are friends, so we can come in and play anytime.” Inside, the club was murky — every man, woman and child in Havana seems to smoke cigars or cigarettes constantly, and the Rio was dimly lit and poorly ventilated. Off in the gloom, on a bandstand behind the bar, a group with two tenor saxophones, flute, piano, guitar, bass, drum and congas was just starting to play. “This group is called Afro-Cuba,” said Rivera. Their music was hard bop, right out of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Birdland 1958, with Cuban rhythms and some creeping modernism in the flute, electric guitar and Fender bass work. (The guitarist turned out to be an American, the son of activist folksinger Barbara Dane.) The music was sinewy and heartfelt, if not particularly original; the best thing about the scene was watching the dancers who move out onto the floor, following the ups and downs of every solo, adapting to tempo changes with aplomb and moving freely from cheek-to-cheek couple dancing into more inventive solo turns.

After Afro-Cuba played a few numbers, with several additional musicians sitting in, they left the stage, and some of the musicians from Irakere took over. For the first time there was real electricity in the room. They tore into long blues with a kind of Cuban boogaloo rhythm, Cuba and Rivera improvised a heated saxophone solo that had great eloquence, followed by a screaming trumpet break. The tempo changed every few choruses — during Sandoval’s more free-form moments it splintered altogether — but the dancers kept up. By the time the set was over it was three a.m., but another bunch of musicians was ready to start a percussion jam. “You like it?” Rivera asked as he came off the stand. “You going to write something nice about us in the Rolling Stone?”

I followed Altshuler out into the street and we got a ride back to the hotel in Sandoval’s patched-together Russian sedan. Smoking a huge cigar, his shirt unbuttoned almost to the waist, Sandoval looked every inch the macho trumpet hotshot. When the car sputtered and groaned he seemed distinctly irritated. “Quite a car you’ve got here,” said Altshuler. “It runs,” said Sandoval grimly.

There was so much more to hear in Cuba, and we lost a lot of sleep hearing it. One night we went to the Tropicana, the most elaborate of Havana’s prerevolutionary nightclubs. It was an openair place with trees sheltering the tables and a multi-tiered stage with elaborate rows of flashing lights, dozens of chorus girls, comedians, an impersonator and several pop singers.

The orchestra played a bizarre but charming mixture of Copacabana schlock, light Latin and Ellington-style “jungle” music complete with growling trumpets. During the climactic moments of the floor show jets of steam went off. Another section of the show was devoted to the music of Cuba’s African religions, performed by the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional and featuring some hot drumming and two of Cuba’s finest singers of Yoruba ritual chants, Mercedita Valdez and Lazaro Ross. As a finale, the drummers and a trumpet player marched through the audience in carnival costumes.

One day we lunched at a modern restaurant in the sprawling Lenin Park outside Havana. The restaurant is called Las Ruiñas, not because its prices bring on financial ruin, as several Havana wags told us, but because it has been built around moss-encrusted Spanish ruins, with marble floors, graceful colonial furniture and plenty of crystal and fine china.

While we ate, Frank Emilio, a blind pianist, played such Forties pop tunes as “Sentimental Journey,”light classics and Cuban danzón music that sounded like sugary ragtime, revealing a brilliant technique and a flair for decoration that Art Tatum might have admired. Then a woman named Alina Sanchez sang with a jazz quintet. She had a striking voice with the pinched, hair-raising sound of Yoruba cult singing in it, but she moved easily from an African chant into improvisational scatting, ballads and some hornlike wordless improvising that was reminiscent of Flora Purim. The band played light, cooking backup with an elegant flow. The group echoed of Chick Corea, but even its most Brazilian and gringo-sounding playing retained a strong Cuban flavor.

After the set, Jerry Masucci talked to several of the musicians. “They said that everything they played was in clave,” he reported. You mean they were superimposing Brazilian samba accents over the three-two clave rhythm, I asked, astonished that such rhythmic legerdemain could sound so relaxed. “Right,” said Masucci, “I couldn’t believe it either. But the rhythm of the popular music here is a whole new thing. It isn’t disco and it isn’t salsa, but it’s still in clave. At Fania we’ve tried to copy it, but we haven’t had much success. These people have been developing it on their own for almost 20 years and they seem to be the only ones who can play it.”

Masucci, who lived in Cuba briefly before the revolution and returned this past January for a visit, is in the thick of the emerging U.S.–Cuban musical interchange. He has acquired rights to bring out EGREM records in the Cuba U.S.–CBS is releasing the Irakere album by arrangement with him — and sent one of his finest New York Latin bands, Tipica 73, to record in Havana last November. His representative in Cuba, Rene Lopez, a dedicated historian of Latin roots and a top Latin music producer, has been combing the island, arranging for groups to audition for Fania and recording folk and cult music in the field.

Before we left Havana we were able to squeeze in an evening at the rehearsal studio of the National Dance Company of Cuba, where we saw some riveting acrobatic dancing based on Nigerian and Congolese roots and heard the company’s orchestra, an African-style percussion ensemble under the direction of Jesus Pérez. “He is one of the greatest bata drummers anywhere,” said Rene Lopez, referring to the sacred hourglass-shaped drum of the Yoruba. “He is admired all over the world, and especially among the Yoruba people in Nigeria.” I had never heard a percussionist play one drum with such musicality, rhythmic invention and consummate authority.

Later, we were invited to stay over for a few more days and fly south to Oriente province, birthplace of the revolution and of Afro-Cuban popular music. Though Lundvall and most of the Columbia people had to get back, it was an opportunity the rest of us couldn’t pass up. So at five in the morning, five of us, along with Gutierrez and an interpreter, straggled down to José Marti airport and got on a noisy Ilyushin prop airliner. In a few hours we were in the Sierra Maestra mountains, the place where Castro had launched the revolution. After a jeep ride up above the tropical vegetation, into groves of fir trees and spectacular vistas that stretch as far as Jamaica on a clear day, we drove down into the narrow streets of Santiago, Cuba’s oldest city. We stopped at a little storefront hall, subsidized by the government, where older musicians still play the son, Cuba’s original fusion music.

The place was something like Preservation Hall in New Orleans, with paintings and photographs of revered Cuban musicians on the walls, but the audience that had crowded into the place was made up of country and working people. Even though the musicians were in their 50s and 60s, there was nothing musty about the music; it was straight from the soul. Several men took turns singing Spanish laments and love songs in richly expressive voices while two guitars, a string bass, bongos and conga drums embroidered a fluid rhythmic tapestry around a straight clave pattern, played by an old man with two polished ebony strikers. A trumpet player stepped to the front of the tiny stage, struck a heroic pose–one hand on his hip and the other supporting his instrument–and began answering the singers with a series of short melodic phrases, some of them embellished with rasps or shakes.

“The son was born here in Oriente from the African and Spanish traditions,” Gutierrez said, “maybe sometime in the nineteenth century. And it wasn’t African or Spanish anymore, it was Cuban. This is when the Cuban began to think of himself as a Cuban. Even today, the people here don’t really accept Havana as the capital of Cuba. Havana has the high culture, but everything popular–the music, all our revolutions–started here.”

A familiar strain caught my ear. One of the guitarists was improvising and had hit on a phrase from “Stormy Weather.” He kept reworking it, weaving it into his playing. The music was indescribably sad, but it was also strong, resilient. The earliest jazz, wrested out of the same mixed African and European, but mostly Spanish, heritage by groups that used the same instrumentation, must have sounded very much like these Cubans. I couldn’t help thinking that this was as close as I was ever going to get to being back in New Orleans at the time when jazz began. And then I felt that I was incredibly close to Cuba’s heart. 

In This Article: Coverwall

Show Comments

Newswire

Powered by
Close comments

Add a comment