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.
The second edition of the Black Atlantic series brought an excellent sampling of African and Afro-rooted music to Durham, North Carolina.
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).
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.
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).
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
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
“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.
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 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
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
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.
Explicaciones (Explanations) is the new solo album from Cuban composer and skilled flute player Magela Herrera. Currently based in Miami, Magela Herrera performs music rooted in American jazz and Cuban rhythms and melodies. She has a charming, highly expressive style as a flutist.
The musicians on Explicaciones are some of Miami’s finest jazz players: Tal Cohen on piano; Nestor del Prado on bass; Dion Keith Kerr on bass; Hilario Bell on drums; David Chiverton on drums; Greg Diamond on guitar; Jean Caze on trumpet; and Philbert Armenteros on batá drums.
Although most of the tracks are instrumentals highlighting the flute, Magela also sings on a couple of tracks. She includes the Spanish language romantic classic “Bésame Mucho” (“Kiss me a lot”), written in 1940 by Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez and popularized by Los Panchos.
Explicaciones is a delightfully-crafted album showcasing the talent of a young composer and superb instrumentalist.
Madera is Ruben Bades’ fascinating tribute to the great Cuban soneros. He does
this by creating an alter ego, a character that sings with a different, unrecognizable
voice. Rubén changes his voice
surprisingly, using a different timbre than we are used to and it’s all done without
gentleman on the front cover, Medoro Madera is a new persona as well. It’s a
superimposed picture of Rubén Blades’ 93-year old father and Rubén himself.
Medoro Madera features the superb Panamanian Roberto Delgado & Orchestra, although in a scaled down version to resemble a traditional son cubano ensemble. Additional Cuban flavor is added by Panama-based Cuban tres guitar virtuoso Mayito Travieso and conguero Juan Zelada.
on the album includes Medoro Madera (Rubén Blades) on lead vocals, chorus; musical
director Roberto Delgado on double bass, guitar and choruses; Bolívar “Bomy”
Román on tres; Juan Berna on piano; Marcos Barraza on congas; Carlos Pérez-Bidó
on timbales; Raúl “Toto” Rivera on bongo, bell, güiros and maracas; Juan
Carlos “Wichy” López on trumpet; Alejandro “Chichisín”
Castillo on trumpets; George de León on chorus; Mayito Travieso on tres; and Juan
Zelada on congas.
Medoro Madera is an irresistible and savory neo-traditional Cuban album by the multi-faceted and extremely talented singer-songwriter and actor Rubén Blades. “The most danceable album I’ve ever done.”
Julio Montoro y Alma Latina – Black Roots (Tumi Music, 2018)
and composer Julio Montoro and his band Alma Latina dedicate Black Roots to the
African-rooted music of South America , the Caribbean and North America.
Black Roots features
one of the rising stars in Cuban music, vocalist Dayana Botello as well as
guest appearances by Congolese guitarist Papa Noel and vocalist Nolita Golding.
The album is a multifaceted set that includes an effervescent mix of reggae, Afro-Cuban, funk, hip-hop, Cuban son and salsa. Unfortunately, a very melodic smooth jazz saxophone appears throughout the album. It may make the music more accessible to wider audiences, but it also makes it less appealing if you are seeking fiery Cuban music.
includes Dayana Botello on lead vocals and chorus; Julio Montoro on guitars,
chorus and keyboards; Roger Reina on bass; Yosvany Betancourt on drums, congas and timbales; Ivan Reyes on percussion; Juan
Lázaro Pompa Zamora on piano; Abel Hernández on alto and soprano saxophone; Juan
Kemell on trumpet and chorus; Raul Hernandez on congas; Amaury Balzan on double
bass; Leonardo Milian on piano; Javier Chacon on piano and keyboards; Osmel Cuellar on tenor saxophone; Osmel Cruz
on tres; Nolita Golding on vocals; Papa Noel
on guitar in Sambembere; Jose Luis Hernandez (El chewi) on tenor saxophone; and
Esteli Roz and Maydenis Palomino on chorus.
Acclaimed Cuban singer-songwriter Polo Montañez died in a car accident in Cuba 16 years ago, on November 26, 2002. He was one of the leading artists of música guajira (Cuban rural music). In his memory, Lusafrica has reissued “Guajiro Natural” and “Guitarra Mia” in a double album.