Back in the closing years of the 20th century, when the Buena Vista Social Club ruled the international roost, Cuban music was all the rage. Now, two decades on, an Australian musician/producer is not only following the footsteps of the great American facilitator Ry Cooder, who guided that collective’s high-selling Havana-recorded album, award-winning documentary and sell-out overseas tour, but he’s also taking an extra bound by blending son, salsa and rumba with reggae, dancehall and dub from Cuba’s Caribbean island neighbour, Jamaica.
In what is a mighty musical and logistical achievement that he’s claiming as a world-first, Melburnian Jake “Mista” Savona has amassed a star-studded cast that includes both lauded Buena Vista players and reggae royalty. His Havana Meets Kingston concept has already yielded an album and several world tours.
Surprisingly, Savona says no master plan is involved, and he insists it is all the better for that. “To be honest, the whole project hasn’t been quite as pre-meditated as it may seem from the outside … and I believe this is actually what makes it so special. It evolved step-by-step over many years. The seeds were planted well before I had even envisioned the possibility of bringing together Jamaican and Cuban musicians in Havana.”
The project had its genesis back in 2004 when Savona made his inaugural visit to Jamaica to record Melbourne Meets Kingston, the first album-length collaboration between Australian musicians and Jamaican vocalists. That led to a series of return trips between 2004 and 2013 for further recordings.
He says the turning point came after a friend returned from a 2014 trip to Havana with some persuasive photos, and he realised a visit to Cuba was well overdue. “When I looked at the map I couldn’t believe how close the two islands are — literally only a few hundred miles apart. I was heading to Jamaica in April that year for a quick promotional trip, so I decided to visit Cuba for ten days or so.”
Savona fell in love with the people, music and culture. “Towards the end of the trip, I was sitting in a cafe in Havana, a great place called Chanchurello. They were playing a CD of traditional Cuban rumba, mainly percussion based. I was daydreaming and imagining how the sounds of Nyabinghi drums from Jamaica would sound mixed with the rumba. I realized it would be very special to mix the two styles, and wondered if it had ever been done before.”
After returning to Kingston a few days later, he bumped into the veteran Jamaican percussionist Bongo Herman, who convinced him to setup a recording session that night at Tuff Gong, Bob Marley’s studio in Kingston. Drummer Sly Dunbar was there, of the world-famous rhythm section, Sly & Robbie. They ended up recording until sunrise. “He loved my piano playing, and I, of course, was amazed by his musicianship.”
Following some research on his return to Australia, Savona realised there had never been a project bringing Jamaican musicians into Cuba or vice versa. “I started to think how it could be done. I called Sly and he loved the idea, and he gave me Robbie’s phone number in Miami.” He also called Bongo Herman and Winston ‘Bopee’ Bowen, one of his favourite Jamaican guitarists. “Everyone was saying ‘yes’ without hesitation, and it just felt like a project that wanted and needed to happen.” So Savona started to look at how it might be organised.
A year later — in June 2015 — the producer flew seven Jamaican musicians into Havana. They had 10 days booked at the famous Egrem Studios, where the Buena Vista Social Club recorded their famous album.
As word spread about the initial sessions, Savona says over 30 Cuban musicians came through the studio, including members of Buena Vista, Los Van Van, the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Irakere and Havana Cultura.
“It was an incredible 10 days,” he recalls. “I hoped to record one or two tracks a day to complete a fifteen-track album, but we actually recorded enough material in that time for almost three albums. The energy and inspiration was incredible. I had prepared sketches for all the songs, and these master musicians took the arrangements into hyperspace.”
Havana Meets Kingston has continued to exceed Savona’s expectations. “This project is so much bigger now than just my initial vision. It’s a joyful celebration of Caribbean music and culture that’s opening new doors for everyone involved. With our introductory music video going viral earlier this year, it’s also inspiring a lot of new tourism to the Caribbean.”
Looking back at the logistics of the exercise, Savona says the knowledge he gained from previous trips to survey Kingston’s music scene gave him the confidence to organize the Jamaican side of things. With his Cuban experience limited, he enlisted the help of Melbourne percussionist Javier Fredes, a master conga player, who, having lived in Cuba, had a deep knowledge of the musical landscape there.
“I couldn’t have organized the sessions in Havana without his help,” Savona admits. “The biggest unknown for me was Cuban immigration, which is somewhat of a mystery. Did we have the right visas for the Jamaican musicians? Would Cuban customs mind that we were bringing so much musical and studio equipment into Havana? Thankfully, this side of things went smoothly, and once we had everyone safely in Havana, I knew we were good to go.”
The only real issue that Savona encountered in the studio was that the Jamaicans didn’t speak Spanish, and the Cubans had very little English. However, once the musicians were sitting with their instruments, he says the language barrier simply melted away.
When the Jamaican musicians returned to Kingston, there were more sessions in both Havana, Santiago de Cuba and later on in Kingston to complete the recording. Savona also later travel led to London to record with one of his favorite reggae artists, singer Randy Valentine.
The project leader spent close to a year on the arrangements and mix downs, utilizing this time to also find the right record labels for his album. “Although at times I realized I was working quite slowly, I didn’t want to rush anything. Now, I have no regrets because we needed this time to actually fit all the right pieces of the puzzle together.”
All up just over 60 musicians were used on Havana Meets Kingston. “Famous older legendary musicians are playing alongside young new talent, some of who had never been in a recording studio before,” he points out.
“I had no idea in the beginning that I would be able to work with such legends as [Jamaican guitarist] Ernest Ranglin, or Barbarito Torres of Buena Vista fame. Recording at Egrem Studios, he says, gave his album some of the same unique, “warm woody-room sound” that helped the eponymous Buena Vista Social Club release to become a huge seller around the world in the late 1990s.
Savona strongly refutes any notion that revamping songs such as ‘Chan Chan’, ‘El Cuarto de Tula’ and ‘Candela’from the revered Buena Vista album with beats, raps and manifestations of reggae amounts to any disrespect.
“That album is incredible; it was recorded over twenty years ago but stands the test of time. However, roam the streets of Old Havana today and all you’ll hear are Cuban bands in the bars and hotels mostly rehashing the ‘same old’ classics. Although this is what many tourists want to hear, it’s not great for the evolution of Cuban music. Music will lose its relevance and passion if it’s frozen in time. We made the Havana Meets Kingston album with so much respect for the roots music of both islands, involving many of the same legends that play on these old classic recordings.”
In order to blend together rhythms as diverse as Jamaican reggae/dancehall and Cuban son/rumba, Savona prepared sketches of all the songs, focusing on what he describes as interesting chord changes and strong funky riffs.
“I left them quite open, rather than preparing overly complicated charts. This, in hindsight, is the best thing I could have done, because it meant the musicians could really get inside these songs and breathe, rather then being glued to the written music. It also meant they could easily imbue the music with their own style and touch.” As a result, he says, the songs evolved quickly and came alive in unexpected and exciting ways.
One goal was to bring the sounds of Jamaican soundsystem culture together with the virtuosic Afro-Cuban jazz traditions. “Robbie Shakespeare’s incredible rolling bass lines made this possible,” says Savona. “His playing mixed with the Cuban percussion of Yaroldy Abreu, Oliver Valdés and Changuito to really bring the sounds of the Kingston and Havana streets together in a way never heard before.”
Savona reports that both Sly and Robbie were fantastic to work with: “They’re very relaxed and confident in the studio. They were happy to take my musical direction, and at the same time bring their own style and sound to my arrangements. They’re an integral part of the album for so many reasons — no one plays like them.”
The first Havana Meets Kingston album, which comprises predominantly fresh original compositions, presents a bona fide mix of musical cultures that’s relatively free of studio artifice. As Savona says: “It’s all about the performances, and less about the post-production, which I’ve kept as simple and natural as possible. You could argue that contemporary music is becoming increasingly sterile, with the focus in pretty much all genres now on post-production and auto-tuned, synthesised vocal performances, which I believe actually stifle and repress deeper human expression. For me music should be about uplifting people, not brainwashing them.”
What Aussie festivalgoers saw on stage at WOMADelaide and elsewhere on the 2018 tour was the core band that played on the initial Havana sessions. Besides key vocalists, English-Jamaican Randy Valentine and Cuban Francisco ‘Solis’ Robert and Brenda Navarette, one of Cuba’s rising singers, the 15-piece line-up in Adelaide included Sly & Robbie, Jamaican guitarist Bopee, the legendary Cuban percussionists Yaroldy Abreu and Oliver Valdés and the great trumpeter Julito Padrón. Laud player Barbarito Torres and virtuoso pianist Rolando Luna of Buena Vista fame were other world-renowned Cuban musicians in the line-up.
Savona is justifiably proud of the fact that it was his stewardship that facilitated Jamaican musicians flying into Cuba to record and collaborate with Cuban musicians for the first time. He says a combination of political, social, economic and linguistic reasons conspired to prevent that in the past. “Additionally, both islands have such potent and unique music scenes that they’re really captivated by their own music to a large degree. Until two years ago, there were no exchange programs between the islands. Jamaica’s music industry is its biggest export, and yet the government still doesn’t invest in it properly. There’s not even a museum in Jamaica dedicated to their incredible contributions to the world’s music.”
The financing of such an expensive and ambitious project as Havana Meets Kingston was problematic: “As a full-time musician, with a variable income to say the least, there was no way I could have financed this on my own,” he concedes. “But, I was very fortunate to have so much assistance along the way to bring this dream to life.” Savona managed to submit what turned out to be a successful application for an Australia Council ‘International Pathways’ grant in the nick of time. That, he indicates was pivotal. A Kickstarter campaign raised funds to take a film and photographic crew to document the project in Havana. “A few generous friends of mine were also happy to lend me money to help with the final mixing and mastering stages later on.”
Savona concedes there are still some outstanding debts from Havana Meets Kingston, but he’s confident in time that his project will become fully self-sufficient. He plans to tour the live show elsewhere around the world, including free outdoor concerts in Jamaica and Cuba. The second volume of the album is on the drawing board, along with a documentary, and a third installment of the record is expected to follow at a later date.
“What amazes me about this project,” says Savona “are the synchronicities that kept happening, again and again. Looking back, I can see these countless little miracles that happened along the way that made it all possible. It just felt like an idea that wanted to happen, a project that wanted to be born. And all these great musicians loved the idea of the project. That’s what made it all possible.”
While there’s understandable pride in local music circles that an Australian is behind a project as bold as Havana Meets Kingston, Jake Savona stresses that it’s first and foremost an international collaboration. “This is an album by Jamaican and Cuban musicians, and it is an album for the people of Jamaica and Cuba, first and foremost. This is the real strength of the project.”
• The above interview first appeared in Rhythms, Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine.