Musical Bridges II: Cuban
I had the opportunity to visit Havana, legally, in May of 2001. My friends Howard and Pat were going on a cultural exchange visa, as members of the Riverdale Choral Society, for an international choral festival. They were allowed to invite friends and family to come along on the trip as associate members of the chorus. I jumped at the chance to spend four nights in Havana. I called up my travel buddy Harold in Minneapolis and asked him if he wanted to be my roomie in Cuba. He said, "Yes!" before I even finished the question.
Cubadisco music expo, a combination industry fair and Cuban Grammys. So, in addition to the usual music to be heard all over this very musical city, there were numerous concerts by some of the country's top performers. I actually skipped the shows by the artists associated with Buena Vista Social Club and other well known artists like Chucho Valdes and Los Van Van, since I'd seen them all in North America. Harold and I went to four different concerts, and in addition we went to a jazz club with some members of the chorus.
We didn't really spend too much time with the chorus. While they were at rehearsals, receptions and concerts, Harold and I were seeing the city by day and concerts at night. The one performance we did attend by the Riverdale Choral Society was the one they gave at a synagogue. It was an orthodox congregation, with women seated separately from the men. There was no full-time rabbi, so the service was conducted by one of the men from the congregation. We were told that there was a circuit-riding rabbi in Cuba who would visit Jewish congregations around the country, and, I assume, officiate at events like bar mitzvahs and weddings. The chorus sang a range of music, including a Sephardic song in Ladino. After the service we had a chicken dinner in the community room. The bland chicken reminded me of the kind my grandmother used to make. Then a bunch of us went to the Jazz Café, one of Havana's top jazz clubs. After a set by a Latin jazz combo a salsa band took over for late-night dancing.
The first night, Harold and I saw an outdoor concert that presented a wide range of artists, young and old, including Cuban rap, reggae, timba, and the current version of the great Conjunto Chapotin, a classic combo from the '50s, now led by Chapotin's grandson. Another outdoor concert at the Casa de EGREM (EGREM is the national record label), in the garden of a beautiful state-appropriated mansion in the once-wealthy Miramar district, featured mostly older styles of music, including the classic son ensemble Septeto Nacional.
Our last night in Havana, an early-evening concert by nueva trova singer Sara Gonzalez also featured the tres virtuoso Pancho Amat. The nueva trova movement (along with nueva cancion in other parts of Latin America) has been compared to American folk music of the 'sixties. If singers Silvio Rodriguez or Pablo Milanes may be compared to Dylan, then in a sense you could call Sara Gonzalez the Joan Baez of Cuba, but that would be a great insult to Sara Gonzalez, as it would be to just about any singer. Later that same evening we saw the gala concert at the Teatro Nacional. The concert featured both Cuban and Brazilian musicians, Brazil being the "guest of honor" at the expo. Brazilian sambista Nei Lopes was featured with his own group as well as jamming with some Cuban musicians. The highlight for me was an all-star, multi-generational charanga. Also featured was the great flautist & bandleader Orlando "Maraca" Valle's salsa group.
Food in Havana was generally pretty bad, with the exception of one meal at a paladar, a small, private restaurant in a family's apartment, with limited license from the government to serve small groups of diners. Harold and I did go to the legendary bar-restaurant La Bodeguita del Medio, where Hemingway went for his mojitos and where, in the '50s, the trio of Carlos Puebla, later the voice of the revolution, used to perform. At La Bodeguita in 2001 a son trio performed many of those same songs by great soneros like Miguel Matamoros and Nico Saquito. They did some of the classics of the repertoire, like "Son de la Loma" and "Lagrimas Negras," which we had probably heard done by a dozen little combos around town just in our peregrinations. They also took requests. One young couple requested the bolero "Cuando Calienta el Sol," which you probably know as "Love Me with All Your Heart." Then I requested "Cuidadito Compay Gallo," a Nico Saquito composition. The band members were surprised that I knew the tune, but I happen to be very familiar with Cuban music. They asked me where I was from and I told them New York. While they sang the song the leader improvised a lyric about "nuestros amigos de Nueva York." Later I made another request, "Pare Cochero," made famous by Orquesta Aragon. The leader sternly said, "No!" I realized immediately that I had made a faux pas. I had asked a trio to do a tune from the charanga repertoire!
* * *
(Tell me what you think.)
Trio Matamoros. Several tunes performed live by the quintessential Cuban son trio.
Septeto Nacional - Suavecito. With Septeto Nacional, Ignacio Pineiro added a lead trumpet to the son sexteto (which had augmented the guitar, claves and maracas instrumentation of the original trios with tres, string bass and bongos). Out of this grew the conjunto, which added the piano as well as additional horns and percussion and became the basis for salsa. Pineiro's composition "Echale Salsita" is often credited as the inspiration for the use of the word "salsa" to describe a musical style.
Conjunto Chapotin - Canallon. Featuring Miguelito Cuni on vocals. Chapotin is the trumpeter.
Conjunto Hatuey - Cuidadito Compay Gallo. From a 1938 film. The song I requested at La Bodeguita del Medio. The band includes Compay Segundo a mere 58 years before his appearance on Buena Vista Social Club.
Carlos Puebla - Hasta Siempre. His most famous song of the revolution.
Charanga Habana All Stars - Pare Cochero. The song is a cha cha cha. I think this is the group I saw in Havana. Among the musicians are Pancho Amat and the great percussionist Tata Guines, who died earlier this year. Piano player Guillermo Rubalcaba is the father of jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. The distinguishing instrumental features of the charanga are violins and flute, which grew out of the instrumentation of the Danzón orchestra.
Silvio Rodriguez & Sara Gonzalez - De una Vez. Two of the leading lights of nueva trova.
Trio Irakitan - Cuando Calienta el Sol. I'm not familiar with this group. Apparently they're Brazilian. The song is Mexican, but it's known throughout Latin America, and any Cuban trio can likely do it on request. Love me with all your heart.
Bebo & Cigala - Lagrimas Negras. I just had to share this version of one of the most famous Cuban songs, a Miguel Matamoros composition. It features the Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes (father of Chucho) and the Spanish flamenco singer Diego el Cigala. Filmmaker Fernando Trueba (Calle 54) had the brilliant idea to bring these two together to do classics of the Cuban repertoire. The results are exquisite.
Orishas - 537 Cuba. Buena Vista Social Club reintroduced the world to classic Cuban son, but there's much more to Cuban music these days than old men finally getting their just recognition. There's a vibrant contemporary Cuban music scene, and Orishas, though based in Europe, is one of the most popular bands, blending hip-hop and Afrocuban rhythms. This song incorporates Compay Segundo's tune "Chan Chan," which appeared on the original Buena Vista Social Club album.
Los Van Van - Tim-Pop con Birdland. Los Van Van is the most popular Cuban band of the past thirty years and a favorite of Fidel's. They play timba, which is a style related to salsa, but with a more aggressive sound. This tune incorporates Joe Zawinul's "Birdland," from the Weather Report repertoire.
Los Zafiros - Y Sabes Bien. Back to the 'sixties for a little Cuban doo-wop.
Note: My apologies for the lack of accents throughout. Too much trouble with a U.S. keyboard.