Tag Archives: Cuban music

Artist Profiles: Xiomara Laugart

Xiomara Laugart

Xiomara Laugart was born in Guantanamo province of Cuba in 1960. She began her career at the age of 15, performing several different expressions of traditional and contemporary Cuban music. In the 1980s, she entered the Adolfo Guzmán Contest for Cuban Music where she was granted the highest award. She went on to win other international awards at Poland’s Sopot Festival in 1985, and at Germany’s Dresden Festival in 1986.

After recording self-titled albums in Cuba, she moved to Rome and later to New York. Soon after, Laugart was invited to be the guest singer on Deep Rumba by Kip Hanrahan, Latin Lullaby by Ellipsis Art, and on Jacky Terrason’s album What It Is.

Laugart is known for her work with the group Yerba Buena, whose first album President Alien was nominated for a Grammy Award. Yerba Buena’s second album Island Life, a brilliant mix of rhythms to which Laugart added her African and Caribbean legacy, was released in 2005.

Laugart was cast in 2007 as Celia Cruz in the Off-Broadway musical, Celia: The Life and Music of Celia Cruz, a tribute to the life of the late Cuban-American singer, which ran at New World Stages until May 2008.

On Tears and Rumba, her third album on Chesky Records, Xiomara Laugart performed some Cuban classics from the golden era of the 1920s. Tears and Rumba is an introduction to the singer-songwriter’s driven trova style from the city of Santiago and features works by two extremely influential composers of that era, María Teresa Vera and Miguel Matamoros. Axel Tosca Laugart, the singer’s son, was responsible for the new arrangements.

Discography:

President Alien, with Yerba Buena (Razor & Tie, 2003)
Island Life, with Yerba Buena (Razor & Tie, 2005)
Xiomara (Chesky, 2006)
La Voz (Chesky, 2010)
Tears and Rumba (Chesky, 2015)

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Spontaneous, Free-Flowing Cuban Guitar Sessions

Ortega, Silveira and Elizarde – Espontáneo: The Abdala Session

Ortega, Silveira and Elizarde – Espontáneo: The Abdala Sessions (Ansonica Records, 2018)

Guitarist and producer Dayron Ortega Guzmán invited his Cuban colleagues Maykel Elizarde Ruano (tres guitar) and Eduardo Silveira (percussion) to a jam session at Abdala Studios in Havana. As the title indicates, the music recorded in Espontáneo: The Abdala Sessions is a set of spontaneous jam sessions captured in the studio

Dayron started by playing melodies. Maykel and Eduardo listened and responded with embellishments. The music is a sampling of the best of Cuban music, bringing together Afro-Cuban rhythms, rural traditions and Spanish influenced guitars.

Espontáneo: The Abdala Session delivers a beautifully-crafted of Cuban guitar pieces.

Buy Espontáneo: The Abdala Session

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Les Moncada Chats with Cuban batá Master and Conguero Román Diaz

Román Diaz

Batá drumming is getting more and more popular these days. With a lot of the masters who transmitted the tradition of batá drumming having passed away, the one living master today is Román Diaz, born in Cuba, now residing in New York City.

In Cuba, Román performed professionally with the Cuban legend of Afro Cuban folklore, female vocalist Mercerditas Valdés. She was known for her grand knowledge and recordings of Afro-Cuban folklore and Orisha songs. She recorded with the late master batalero Jesús Pérez. (batá master Francisco Aguabella’s dear friends from Cuba.)

Mercerditas Valdés

Merceditas Valdés is also renowned for having been a part of Pablo “Okilakpa” Roches Batá Ensemble in Havana, Cuba that included masters of masters, Pablo Roche, Trinidad Terregoza, Raúl Diaz and a young okónkolo player Francisco Aguabella. This ensemble was unsurpassable and not many bataleros or musicians can say that they performed with them.

In Havana, Cuba, Pablo “Okilakpa” Roche’s batá Ensemble with vocalist Merceditas Valdés, behind the bataleros, front left on bata, Trinidad Terregoza, middle Raul Diaz, and on the right on okonolo is Francisco Aguabella. Legendary ensemble of batá. Those who have performed with any of these musicians have become legends.

To perform with one of their members, as in Merceditas Valdés is in itself “without words.” Merceditas Valdés spread Afro-Cuban Folkloric history and knowledge, along with her vocals, lyrics, dance steps and drummers that performed and recorded with her.

Román Diaz was one of those drummers, relocating from Cuba to New York, to furthermore blossom his career and to spread the word, music, history and Afro-Cuban folklore to New York City and the world in its entirety.

Román has performed and directed many ensembles, too many to mention in this interview and has continued to perform and direct ensembles here in the United States, previously in Europe and now in New York City.

Román Diaz – L’ó dá fún Bàtá, Diaz’s latest album released in 2015

Let’s see what Román Diaz has to say about his life and times in Cuba, and times with Merceditas Valdés and his present movement in New York City.

Román, can you tell me a little about your past, where you were born.

I was born in the City of Havana, Municipality of Central Havana in the Barrio “La Victoria”.

Ekpe/Abakua encounter, Brooklyn, NY 2001. Left to right: David Oquendo, Román Díaz, José “Pepe” Hernández (Ísue of Efori Nandibá Mosongo), Vicente Sanchez.

Can you tell me if any of your family members had a musical history or were musicians?

I had an uncle that was a percussionist/drummer and my grandfather a trovador (troubadour).

Right to left: Chekere: Luis Medina; next: “Kikirito”; José Fernando Almendares “Pito el Gago”, Román Díaz – Havana, Cuba, 1984
Díaz on quinto, participating in a Havana comparsa during carnival 1983 with the group los Marqueses de Atares, who are the subject of a film by Gloria Rolando.

Román, can you tell me how you started to drum or become a drummer in Cuba?

I used to go to the comparsas (groups of musicians and costumed dancers that participate in parades and celebrations) and play bell. It was a friend from school, that motivated me to play in the comparsas. He lived in Solar de Africa, his name was Conrado Lam.

With Yoruba Andabo in Colombia, early ’90s. Román is in the middle on Iya. At right is Mario Garcia Arango.
Román Diaz with Melvis Santa & Ashedi

I would like to ask you about the vocalist whom you used to perform with in Cuba, legendary female Afro-Cuban Folkloric Vocalist, Merceditas Valdés.

Well, it was always a dream for me to play with Merceditas. As a young kid I would dream, just to play with her (Merceditas).

Yoruba Andabo (an Afro-Cuban Folkloric Group) that I was performing with, she came to our group to sing. Yoruba Andabo was already formed, it was formed in the 1960’s. I was given this opportunity to perform with her. (since she was in our group).

Cuban master rumba players performing in New York City, playing Abakua. Left to right: ‘Goyo’ Hernandez, Román Díaz on bonko, ‘Maximino’, Pedrito Martinez, Miguel Chappotin, Juan de Dios (Director of Raices Profundas)

Who first started you on batá?

I learned with Humberto La Pelicula. He lives in Italy. When we lived in Cuba I used to go to Mariano #110, 10 de Octubre (October), that is where I learned.

What does the future bring for Román Diaz?

At the moment, I try to play in the best position that I can perform in, to keep studying music (drumming), because there may be something that I could learn.

The above video is Juan De Dios, filmed by the late Jerry Shiligi, courtesy of Michael Pluznick who also went to Cuba. This was from the year 1985. I, Les Moncada, along with other San Francisco Bay Area musicians sponsored the Cuba trip. This was at the cabaret inside Hotel Cabri, Salon Rojo (in the Red Salon). Román Diaz is playing tumbadora (conga) , he is the drummer in the middle.

Musical Credits for Román Diaz

Percussionist, Cuba:

La comparsa Los Marqueses de Atarés. La Habana. 1983-86.

La comparsa Componedores de Batea. La Habana. 1983-86.

Escuela Nacional de Instructores de Arte. La Habana. 1983-86.

Grupo Raíces Profundas. La Habana. 1984-86. Juan de Díos, director.

Grupo “T con E”. La Habana. 1986-88. Lázaro Valdés, director.
Concerts in Panamá; Madrid and Barajas (Spain); Peru.

Orquesta Sublime. La Habana. 1988-89.

Grupo Yoruba Andabo. La Habana. 1989-1995.
Performances in Bogota, Colombia; Toronto, Canadá.

Grupo Añakí. La Habana. 1995. “Pancho Quinto,” director.

Percussionist, Europe:

Zurich, Switzerland.
Escuela de percusión de Zurich de Billy ‘Cotún’. 1995.

Paris, France.
Private percussion school. 1995.

Ekpe-Abakuá encuentro en Paris, 2007. Musée Quai Branly.

Percussionist, United States of America:

“Domingos de Rumba,” Esquina Habanera, Union City, New Jersey. 1999-2003
David Oquendo, director.

Collaboration with the Horacio ‘El Negro’ Hernández album, New York City, 2000.

Grupo “Omi Odara.” ‘Román Díaz, director. Lecture demonstration with Dr. Ivor Miller. Amherst College, Amherst, MA. April 2002. Funded by the Georges Lurcy Lecture Series Fund and the Willis D. Wood Fund, Amherst College.

Grupo “Omi Odara.” ‘Román Díaz, director. Lecture demonstration with Dr. Ivor Miller. The Bildner Center for Cuban Studies, CUNY Graduate Center, New York City. March 2002.

Grupo “Omi Odara.” ‘Román Díaz, director. Lecture demonstration with Dr. Ivor Miller. African Studies, Columbia University, New York City. February 2002.

Collaboration with Juan-Carlos Formell. New York City, 2003. “Misión Cubana.” Club Jazz Standard, Manhattan.

Grupo “Omi Odara.” ‘Román Díaz, director. Lecture demonstration with Dr. Ivor Miller. A multi-disciplinary conference. April 2003. DePaul University, Chicago. Sponsored by the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.

Lecture demonstration conwith Dr. Ivor Miller. Román Díaz, singer. Black Studies: Methodology, Pedagogy, and Research. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. New York Public Library, February 2003.

International Festival of Yoruba Culture. San Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. 2004.

International Ekpe Festival. Calabar, Nigeria. December 2004. Collaboration with Dr. Ivor Miller. Sponsored by the Department of Tourism of Cross River State. Donald Duke, Governor.

Collaboration with Oriente López, pianista. Garden City, New Jersey. 2004.

Collaboration with percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo, singer Marlon Simón, saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera. Philadelphia, 2004.

Collaboration with Paquito D’Rivera, director. “Obra Panamericana.” 2004. New York City; Newark, NJ.

Grupo “Omi Odara.” Lincoln Center, New York City. Román Díaz, director. August 2003. August 2005.

Latin Percussion representative. 2001. 2005.

“Noches Cubanas.” World Music Institute, New York University. April 2005. With Candido Camero, ‘Chocolate’ Armenteros; Orlando ‘Punilla’ Ríos.

Recordings:

Espíritu de la Habana, with Jane Burnett. Toronto, Canada. Won Juno award in 1992.

El callejón de los rumberos with Yoruba Andabo, Havana: (PM Records, 1993).

Aché IV with Mercedita Valdés, Havana (Egrem, 1995).

Aché V with Mercedita Valdés, Havana (Egrem 1996).

Del Yoruba al son with Yoruba Andabo, Havana (Magic Music/ Universal, 1997)

Montvale Rumba, New Jersey. (LP Productions, 2001)

Wemilere. Román Díaz, director. Recorded in 1996, Habana. Produced in 2002, Paris.

“Calle 54,” a 2000 documentary film and CD about Latin jazz by Spanish director Fernando Trueba.

Ay! que rico” with José Conde (2005)

Habana with Gema y Pavel (2006)

(R)evolucion” with José Conde (2007)
In Case Your Missed It, with Marlon Simon and the Nagual Spirits (2007)

Ye-dé-gbé – The Afro Caribbean Legacy with Yosvany Terry (2008)

Yo Se Que Te Gusta with Grupo Irék (2008)

Time Travel. With Raphael Cruz (2008)

Hot House: Cuban Tribute To Charlie Parker with Steve Gluzband (2008)

Herencia Judia with Benjamín Lapidus (2008)

Fiesta Percusiva with Victor Rendón (2008)

Across the Divide with Omar Sosa (2009)

Rumbos de la rumba with Pedrito Martínez, New York (2009)

Okobio Enyenisón with Proyecto Enyenisón Enkama (2009)

I would like to thank the Maestro Román Diaz for his patience & time he spent for this interview, Román is from Cuba and speaks Spanish. Therefore, I translated the interview as in many cases. Gracias Román for his preservation of the batá and Afro-Cuban folklore.

Me gustaría agradecer al Maestro Román Díaz por el tiempo que dedicó a esta entrevista y gracias por la preservación del batá y el folklore afrocubano.

Les Moncada

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Artist Profiles: Julio Antonio Montoro Curbelo

Julio Antonio Montoro Curbelo

Producer, composer and guitarist Julio Antonio Montoro Curbelo Julio studied the Cuban tres as well as the guitar at the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory in Havana. He graduated in 1991.

While at school, he performed in jazz festivals playing with various bands. In 1993 he joined the group of singer Mireya Escalante on keyboard and guitar and also as musical director.

In 1996 he joined the group Kemell y la Barriada as pianist, recording several albums and participated in various international tours. He toured Europe with several Cuban ensembles, including Reve, Charanga Habanera, and later joined Felix Baloy of Afro-Cuban All Stars.

Since 2013 he has worked with Edesio Alejando and his son Cristian performing in Cuba and producing music television and film scores.

In 2014, Julio Antonio became the musical director and arranger of the band Tomezclao. They toured the UK, performed at Glastonbury festival and produced 3 CDs for Tumi Music.

He has worked as the guitarist with vocalist Laritza Bacallao, performing at the “Cuba Mucho Gusto” festival in Brasilia, Brazil. While in Brazil, he also worked with the famous Brazilian pianist Joao Donato at Club Do Choro.

In 2014 Julio Antonio released his debut album Alma Latina with Tumi Music. This was quickly followed by the CD Guajira Mas Guajira with Eliades Ochoa. In 2017 he set up his Alma Latina Studio, where he recorded albums for Candido Fabre, Reina y Real, Arturo Jorge among others.

In 2017, he participated as the guitarist and tres player in the CD “Tronco Viejo” with Johnny Ventura and also worked with Silvio Rodriguez.

In 2018 he recorded the “Black Roots” album.

He currently lives in Havana with his daughter “Sady” and his wife. His daughter, 4 years old at the time, contributed towards the Black Roots CD.

Discography:

Alma Latina (Tumi Music, 2014)
Guajira Mas Guajira (Tumi, 2015)
Black Roots (Tumi, 2018)

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Artist Profiles: Dany Noel

Dany Noel

Dany Noel was born in Havana, Cuba. He began his performing career at only 8 years old singing and playing guitar. After taking up acoustic and electric bass, he began to play with the top son, salsa and timba groups from Cuba. Ultimately, he left his native country to settle in Torino, Italy.

Dany is a renowned bassist, musical director, arranger, composer, producer, singer and graduate of classical guitar at the Conservatorio Ignacio Cervantes de la Habana. He has collaborated and recorded with prestigious musicians such as Celia Cruz, Omara Portuondo, Chucho Valdés, Pio Leyva, Xiomara Laugart, Iovanny Hidalgo, Richie Flores, Jose Alberto El Canario, Richie Rey, Rey Sepulveda, Mayito Rivera, Roberto Van Van, Changuito, Alexander Abreu and Jerry Gonzalez among others.

He moved to Europe in 1997, first to Italy. Along with Cuban drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, he formed Italuba as bassist, musical director, arranger and composer.

Dany is currently living in Madrid and has worked with Spanish, Argentine and Greek artists Luz Casal, Victoria Abril, Lolita Flores, Ainhoa ​​Arteta, Mariza, Arvanitaki Elefteria, Fito Páez, Ojos de Brujo, José Luis Perales and film director Fernando Trueba in his movie Chico y Rita.

He has also entered the pop and flamenco scene, which has led him to record with artists such as Niño Josele; Concha Buika on her album Niña de Fuego, winner of a Grammy Award, produced by Javier Limón; and Limón’s project Son de Limón, as bassist, voices and arranger.

In his 2017 album, Por La Habana , Danny focuses on the roots of Cuban music, his ancestors and his own words: “It’s an album so that my parents and my people won’t stop dancing”.

Discography:

Mi Sentir (2006)
Dime Si Tú Sabes (2006)
Proposicion (2011)
Confidence, with Dario Chiazzolino (2014)
Tinta Unida (2014)
Por La Habana ‎(Abanico Records, 2017)

With Italuba:

Italuba (Timba Records, 2002)
Italuba II (Cacao Musica, 2006)

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Interview with Daymé Arocena

Daymé Arocena

There’s a revolution happening on the music front in Cuba led by a visionary group of millennials that’s banging down post-Buena Vista Social Club doors with an intoxicating mix of Santeria/Afro-Cuban roots, jazz, hip-hop, soul and funk.

In the vanguard of this new movement, alongside such as Roberto Fonseca, Danay Suarez and the project Havana Cultura, is Daymé Arocena.

In her mid-20s, this smoky voiced young songstress follows a 60-year conga line of Cuban musicians influenced by Caribbean Yoruba traditions. As she explains: “We have had limited information about musical activities internationally, so we’ve had to research our roots to create something new.

Now, she declares, her generation is looking for a link with the world: “We wanna make Cuban music universal again by mixing the traditional with our young spirits. This new era is mixed and fresh.”

Arocena is both saddened and perplexed by the fact that international audiences and reviewers seem to expect all Cuban musicians to be in the old school mould.

The Buena Vista Social Club represents the music of the pre-revolution period, but it’s crazy to think that we haven’t done anything else since 1959. We’re a little island full of music, because Cuba is a country with a mix of races, languages, religion and culture. People can’t just talk about Cuban music being in Spanish with one clave.”

The fast-rising diva – a disciple of Nina Simone and Marta Valdés — is on a mission to change preconceived ideas about Cuban music, but insists she’s not alone in that aim. “I just got the opportunity to do it with an international response, but there are a lot of us fighting.”

While Arocena’s acclaimed albums, Nueva Era and Cubafonía, contain a range of styles, she says her master plan is simply to make “Cuban jazz music for everyone“.

Her self-composed songs are imbued with the spirituality of Santeria: “It’s really the national religion of Cuba because it’s the only one that was born here. It’s the result of the mixing of Yoruba and other West African roots and Catholicism with other Cuban native, Asian and European influences. I’m crowned Yemeya — the saint of the sea — so I’m a practitioner and my music and my life are connected with it.”

Arocena proudly wears the traditional dress of Santeria and is bare-footed on stage: “It’s my way of keeping protected,” she informs.”

The singer, arranger and composer regards English producer Gilles Peterson, the man behind Havana Cultura that helped launch her international career, as part of the family. She says that Peterson and the Havana Cultura project gave her the freedom to be herself.

Music has been Arocena’s calling since the tender age of four, when she performed on dusty street blocks across Cuba.

At age 9 she was accepted into one of the country’s most prestigious music schools, where she studied choir directing rooted in Western classical tradition. By 14, she was the principal singer in the prestigious Cuban big band Los Primos, impressing the likes of jazz heavyweight Wynton Marsalis.

Arocena ascribes her love of jazz and hip-hop to the southern US, where rappers and musicians alike have affiliations to the Afro-Christian Church. She describes hip-hop as the urban spirit of the street. “As a creator and performer you have to be plugged into it; it’s the best way to understand the worries of the people.”

Daymé Arocena namechecks Herbie Hancock and Kendrick Lamar as musicians she’d one day like to work with. If her international profile continues to grow at its current rate, she may soon be able to cherry-pick her collaborators.

• The above interview first appeared in Rhythms, Australia’s only dedicated roots music magazine.

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An Excellent Black Atlantic 2019 Festival

The second edition of the Black Atlantic series brought an excellent sampling of African and Afro-rooted music to Durham, North Carolina.

Kinobe, Derek Gripper and Jaja Bashengezi – Photo by Angel Romero

The first concert featured South African musician Derek Gripper, Congolese guitarist Jaja Bashengezi and Ugandan multi-instrumentalist Kinobe. Classically-trained Gripper has adapted the kora technique to the guitar. Kinobe played a fascinating Baganda harp called ndongo. This was a relaxed, virtuosic concert, focusing on the melodic side of African music. Derek Gripper has two albums related to his kora reinterpretations: One Night on Earth (2012) and Libraries on Fire (2016).

Fatoumata Diawara – Photo by Angel Romero

One of the highlights of the festival was Malian artist Fatoumata Diawara. I had seen her a few years ago when she was a rising artist. Years later, she has blossomed into one of the finest acts from West Africa and the world music scene in general. Her sold-out concert featured an explosive mix of modernized Malian traditional music, Afrobeat and Afro-rock. She speaks English very well and engaged the audience easily with her charisma and charm.

What surprised me (and the audience) the most is when she picked up her electric guitar several times and started soloing, ranging from Malian desert blues to Afro-rooted rock. Clearly spectacular. Fatoumata’s recent albums include Fatou and Fenfo.

Noura Mint Seymali – Photo by Angel Romero

The third concert in the series featured the captivating, trance-like Western Saharan sound of Mauritanian singer and ardine player Noura Mint Seymali along with her electric band. Her discography includes Tzenni (2014) and Arbina (2016).

Daymé Arocena – Photo by Angel Romero

Next was another highlight, spectacular Cuban singer Daymé Arocena. She also expressed herself in English very well, encouraged dancing and call and response interaction with the audience, and explained how Cuba is proud of its African and Spanish roots. Daymé bridges traditional Cuban, Afro-Cuban and American jazz. Her dazzling band featured world class Cuban instrumentalists, who obviously love jazz-rock fusion when they get opportunities to jam. Daymé’s highly recommended albums include Nueva Era (2015) and Cubafonía (2017).

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the Friday and Saturday concerts, although a colleague reported that the Dafnis Prieto Big Band concert was stunning. The show featured a 17-member big band performing Afro-Cuban jazz and ballads. This format appears in Dafnis Prieto’s album Back to the Sunset.

Kudos to Duke Performances for this highly successful series and special thanks to Eric Oberstein and King Kenney for their support.

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Artist Profiles: Havana Meets Kingston

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.

Various Artists – Mista Savona Presents Havana Meets Kingston

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.”

Jake Savona with Sly & Robbie

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.

Havana Meets Kingston

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.

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The Timelessly Crafted Cuban Musical Poetry of Eme Alfonso

Eme Alfonso – Voy (independent release, 2018)

Voy is the third album by the multifaceted Eme Alfonso. She is one of the most extraordinary young artists in Cuba. She’s a singer-songwriter and composer that grew up in one of the most influential music families in Cuba. Her parents founded Síntesis, a highly innovative band that started as progressive rock band that brought together classic English progressive rock and Cuban music. Síntesis evolved into a formidable group that mixed Afro-Cuban music and jazz-rock and Eme grew up listening to this band and later joined it as a very young singer and keyboardist.

Eme Alfonso – Voy

Eme has been involved in the celebration of the Cuban melting pot, a cultural diversity project called “Para Mestizar, where she celebrates Cuba’s African and Spanish roots and other influences.

Voy was recorded in Havana (Cuba) and Sao Paulo (Brazil). The recording includes some of the finest musicians in the Cuban music scene and a superb Brazilian percussionist.

Masterfully-crafted and elegant, Voy showcases the talent of a groundbreaking artist that incorporates roots music which is not nostalgic, and looks forward, creating an edgy sound that injects captivating Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian percussion, rock, soul, jazz and European music elements.

Eme Alfonso writes beautiful, charming poetic songs that hook you in. Her exceptionally expressive vocals are primarily in Spanish although she also adds Yoruba chants with choruses provided by her parents, who are regarded are the best chorus singers in Cuba.

Personnel: Eme Alfonso on vocals; Jorge Aragón on piano and keyboard; Harold López-Nussa on piano;  Roberto Luis Gómez on electric and acoustic guitar and banjo;  Alain Ladrón de Guevara on drums; Julio César González on electric bass; Yaroldi Abreu on Cuban percussion; Luizhino Do Jeje on Brazilian percussion; Ruy Adrián López-Nussa on drums; Yandi Martinez on acoustic bass; Carlos Alfonso, Ele Valdés and Carlos Angel Valdés on choruses; Arístides Porto on clarinet; Aylin Pino on violin; Benda Chávez Aguiar on violin; Maria Angélica Pérez on viola; and Claudia Carrillo on cello.

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Artist Profiles: Roberto Fonseca

Roberto Fonseca

Multi-instrumentalist and composer Roberto Fonseca was born on March 29, 1975 in Havana, Cuba. He made his debut at the Havana International Jazz Festival in 1990 when he was 15.

Fonseca also played with Buena Vista Social Club, joining great the cast of stars such as Ibrahim Ferrer, Orlando ‘Cachaíto’ López, Rubén González, Guajiro Mirabal and Manuel Galbán and also recorded and toured with another of its stars, Omara Portuondo.

Throughout his career, Roberto Fonseca has collaborated with Mayra Andrade, Regina Carter, Anat Cohen, Carlinhos Brown, Vicente Amigo, Kepa Junkera, Snarky Puppy, Michael Brecker, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Nils Petter Molvær; performing in Palais des Congrès (París), Royal Albert Hall (London), Beacon Theatre (New York), Sydney Opera House (Australia), Frankfurt Alter Oper (Frankfurt), Jazz in Marciac, Festival de Jazz de Montreaux, the New York City Center Hall, Festival Jazz de Tokyo. He was also co-producer along with British Dj Gilles Peterson of Havana Cultura New Cuban Sound Vol I and II.

Discography:

Tiene Que Ver ‎(Egrem, 1999)
No Limit ‎(JVC, 2001)
Temperamento (Yemayá, 2007)
Zamazu (Enja Records, 2007)
Akokan (Enja Records, 2009)
Live In Marciac ‎(Enja Records, 2010)
Yo (Concord Jazz/Jazz Village, 2012)
At Home – Live In Marciac (Jazz Village, 2015)
ABUC (Impulse!, 2016)

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