(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 17, Number 3, 1998)
[Note: Linked text indicates photos]
That's the first time the plane's been on time" remarked Lyng, our fixer, when he picked me up at the Havana airport. It was my first time in Cuba, checking out what was happening there with Tumi label manager Martin Morales. Thinking later about what he said, I wondered whether it had something to do with my magnetic personality: I seemed to bring the power with me. Twice when we turned up for group rehearsals there had been an electricity cut, but when we arrived, it mysteriously came back on. My guardian angel was definitely trotting along with me, easing the way. March 17-24 was one of the most intense musical weeks I ve ever experienced.
Havana was a blast. It was nonstop au-go-go from the moment I got off the plane. I have never seen a place so steeped in music. I was staying in Old Havana down by the Malecon, in the Hotel Lincoln, a basic funky place where the frequent hilarious episodes included occasional breakfasts, an interesting bar and a dead rat. Old-fave group Rumbavana play there on the roof terrace on the weekends. Old Havana reminded me of some long-forgotten war zone, a place bypassed by time. Some of the buildings are just shells; rubble spills out and is dumped all over the badly potholed streets.
People collect water from tankers parked on street corners. The hotel had its water delivered by tanker at night. Old Havana itself is very run down now, but the soul of the place shouts out from the faded paint and crumbling brick work. If Old Havana is the heart of the place, the burbs are the arteries, where faded old mansions in multiple occupation jumble with standard box-like Caribbean concrete and color, quite nice and very pretty.
I dumped my bag at the hotel and hit an open-air event at Casa de la Cultura, a big open space with a stage where the Havana Jazz Festival is held. AfroCuba is playing here tonight. I had not seen them since the mid-80s when I used to work at Ronnie Scott s and they were annual visitors there. They had lots of new faces, but were still hard, jazzy and rootsy. Hung out and there saw jazz trumpeter and artist Bobby Carcasses receive a series of awards for his many decades of contribution to Cuban music. His band was due to play tonight but he explained they were still in rehearsal and not ready yet. So he did an impromptu couple of numbers with AfroCuba, showing off his scat vocals.
Then we moved on to a bolero club, above a Italian restaurant, a kind of supper-club affair with resident and guest women singers blasting out slow sentimental songs. A old sonero called Manolo del Valle dropped in to do his usual guest spot. He was incredible, doing a storming version of Dan Den's "La Chica de Nieve," a big hit here on the radio, despite not actually yet released in Cuba.
After the electricity came back on they did a bit. Then we cruised out to try and find something to eat. We found a good little restaurant near the rehearsal place, Viejo Gringo, one of those places that is in someone s front room! But a very rare commodity: good food, top quality.
We then headed off to see Juan Carlos Alphonso, the leader/arranger and piano player of Dan Den. Out came the beers and rum, and we started babbling on. He is very smart and intelligent with a deep grasp of the music world outside of Cuba, which reflects in the music he makes. He played us bits off his next recording. His latest release Salsa in Atare (Tumi) will be out in June this year, but he is already working on the next one. It sounds tough and hard. Then he droves us down to Atare, a barrio down by the port, rough, it would be easy to get into problems here. Even Juan Carlos forgot where he was for a moment and it was only when some woman stopped him and told him to put away the gold chain round his neck that he realized it. Even a well-known face and musician like him could get into trouble there. That was a great afternoon. He eventually dropped us off on the Malecon, the famous seafront in Havana. Martin and I sat on the wall and watched the sun go down over Havana.
Our evening port of call was a venue called Habana Cafe, which would have been remarkable in London. It was a vast place with old American cars and bikes dotted around on podiums. There was even a plane hanging from the ceiling. Amazing. It must have cost millions. We then zipped over to the Palacio del la Salsa, a great big glitzy club in a massive tacky anodyne "you could be anywhere in the world" hotel. The Palacio was a serious blast, expensive but a blast. We saw Yumari, who used to be in the chorus of Los Van Van, playing there. Not bad, but this is where we got our first experience with prostitution. No sooner had we sat down with a beer than we were besieged by exquisitely beautiful girls wanting us to buy them a drink and more. "Yo no tengo dinero" became the mantra.
We then grabbed a 1953 Chevy that had been beautifully restored, metallic blue paint job, looked almost like new, even smelled almost new. Rolando, the driver, took us to the other art market by the cathedral where I found an another interesting original picture among lots of the same type of pictures and variations thereof, i.e., street scene with Chevy or with a Plymouth, or with no car!
Then it was off to a Papi Oviedo rehearsal up by the Tropicana club. Incidentally the cast of the Tropicana Revue was on my flight to Cuba, buzzing after the sell-out success of their season at the Royal Albert Hall and looking forward to getting home, which made for a very entertaining flight.
The rehearsal was on a front porch, again, no electricity till we turned up. They set up speaker boxes and the bare chassis of an amp that looked like it should not work, but did. The rehearsal started, as soon as the two trumpets kicked in we knew this was going to be a mega session. The street soon started to fill up with people dancing. The children came home from school and started dancing in the park opposite. A lorry drove by with people standing on the back; as soon as they heard the music they started dancing.
Papi was in good form. Cristina their vocalist is certainly one of the best on the island. We all chugged a few beers and chatted and it turned out one of the trumpet players used to play with famous old band Charanga Casino.
Next music session was at one of the best places I found, Cafe Cantanta, a dark subterranean venue. It was 5:30 on a Friday afternoon and the place was packed and swinging. A totally unpretentious place that was right up my street with some of the prettiest girls, and no hustlers. A woman called Omara Portuondo was playing. She was once known as the Billie Holiday of Cuba, but now she has reinvented herself with a kicking young band. The group got the crowd really steamed up. They were very hard and again the musicians kept moving around and swapping instruments. A revelation.
Came out into a tropical storm in full spate. Roads like rivers, a bad sign as we were on our way up the road to this wonderful old mansion now called Cafe Amistad, a very smart venue. It would be smart in Paris, Madrid or Barcelona, let alone Havana. Jovenes Classico del Son were supposed to be doing an open-air session here tonight, but this was a serious storm and it was not going to stop. So the sound equipment was relocated inside the venue and we were entertained by the Cuban National football team s ball-control skills. One guy evidently holds the world record for keeping it up and bouncing for 12 hours or so. One geezer kept bouncing the ball on his head then he took his shirt off while still bouncing the ball. What fun.
Then the band started and they were everything I expected and more. The tres player they had head-hunted from Santiago was incredible, he stepped forward and soloed, dropping all these jazz-sounding licks. All the group bobbed around and changed instruments, Palma the leader and double-bass player was running around like a lunatic. Their young attitude to playing the traditional son is very refreshing and the new twists they bring to the presentation and music are very interesting. They have toured a lot in France and Spain and I can see these guys are going to be big. They could even be big in a pop way.
Then on to Habana Cafe again to see some guys Martin is supposed to meet and see old charanga group Orquesta America. Despite being two violins short they put on a cracking show. The guys bought a bottle of rum for us all and we chugged through that. Palma joined us, and we all got well charged on the rum. Then it was back to the Palacio. Paulito was playing. When we arrived he was on his first set. I just steamed straight down to the dance floor, no messing, just said "see you later" to Martin and Palma and I was lost in a sea of timba bump and bore.
Paulito was really great: He is a great singer and a charismatic leader with a huge, big, very, very tight band, and a top-notch female vocalist in Ana Alaida Lopez. The words to his songs may not be obviously profound--songs about mobile phones and all that kind of guff--but the groove is deep and long and very funky. I can see why I like his recorded music now. Wow, I had a time! And also he is adored as the new young star.
Los Hermanos performed three songs for us. Riding above the tres, conga, tambor, percussion and exquisite gut-wrenching harmonies is a very jazzy sax, which gives the music much texture and color. They said they wanted to save their voices for the recording session ma§ana, so no more songs. Then one of the wives put on a ghetto blaster and we all had a good dance and everybody was getting nice and loose, then they said they will play one more song and we all ended up doing a huge great conga line around the small flat. The neighbors thought it all very funny, hanging off the balconies opposite watching us having a good time partying in the flat, with great interest and amusement, while down below in the street the kids playing baseball went on oblivious despite sharing the same space with outbreaks of dancing.
Continuing the party, it was on to Casa del la Cultura again for a local rumba session, and another bottle of rum. We continued having fun, the wives turned up and we all started rumba-ing on a balcony, watching the groups, dancers and singers perform on the stage. I zipped off to a record shop for 10 minutes (literally). It must have been my fastest-ever visit to a record shop. I had a lot of the stuff already plus running near empty on the cash front, so I just got six or seven things. Then back to the rumba session which was getting pretty wild.
Next we hit Los Van Van who were playing in a car park next to a football stadium. This was a banging session--the sound was incredible, a big booming bass and crystal-clear treble heaving out. The dancing was very intense--this was Havana out there having fun, lots of it, with great gusto. Van Van finished their set on a high point with "Te Pone la Cabeza Mala," and the crowd went nutty. It was a privilege to share the craziness.
We headed off to an open-air place called La Cecilia to see a hot new band, Danny Lozada y su Timba Cubana. It was their first gig, and they are good. The lead singer has a soulful voice a bit like Jose Alberto. Keep an eye on them in future. The rain started again so this session was off. We did not fancy going to the Palacio again to see Manolin El Medico, so we hit Cafe Cantata again, where Adalberto Alvarez was playing. He always puts on a fantastic show, nonstop groove. The cafe was its usual funky self. I hit the dance floor. Well, Saturday night in Havana, what else can you do?
Good novels on the deep substance of the music business are not exactly lying thick on the ground. Because of the very nature of the biz, where fact, fantasy and money are intensely malleable commodities, any fictional effort has to work hard to really reach the true madness. The real perverseness is the reality of the biz.
I m talking about actual works of real fiction here. You can easily find any combination of the usual cliches: exploitation, insider dishing the dirt, or just pure fantasy, an individual view explaining stuff never explained before. Ever rarer is a novel about the West African music biz. So, I was intrigued by a new novel, The Music in My Head (Jonathan Cape) by young English novelist Mark Hudson. It is a stylishly written romp through the West African music business and politics through the eyes of one Andrew "Litch" Litchfield, the protagonist and narrator, an African music fiend with a huge record collection, a loose-cannon producer, maverick label owner and a mess of a man, still discovering the meaning of Africa.
Set in the fictional country of Tekrur and its capital city N Galam, many of the big players in the Senegalese/West African/Western world music biz get a thinly disguised airing: Youssou N Dour, Salif Keita, Ibrahim Sylla plus many other figures from over the years. Peter Gabriel gets a roasting as "Mike Heaven" the demon of and ultimately the savior of Litch s life. The fiction is skillfully and seamlessly mixed in with the fact. As well as the good-read factor and depth of understanding, this book also offers insights into African peoples psyche and character that I have rarely seen.
A novelty has been the soundtrack to the book. Compiled by Hudson himself, it is subtitled "Indispensible classic and unknown gems from the golden age of African pop" (Sterns). Some of the selections are stretching the point a little too far and could not honestly be considered classics. But it does feature some real dead-on good stuff too. Like the 1980 acidicPunkitudinalfreakedoutJimiHendrixness of Etoile 2000 s "Boubou N Gary" where the tama strikes like multiple lightning and El Hadji Faye s guitar fuzzboxes straight into nuttysville at maximum speed. But then you do also get real rare classics like Franco s 1970 "Kinsiona," a majestic funeral lament to his brother. Interesting idea that, making a soundtrack to a book. Next they will be making films of soundtracks.
Henri Dikongue cast his diasporic magic over my various dance floors. "Ndol asu" is the one getting the best response. Definitely the best thing in this area of African music since Lokua Kanza first stepped forward. Banging out in my reggae selection are several new versions of "Stop That Train" (Greensleeves). An old fave of mine, Al Campbell shows he has lost none of his roots talents with a call to unity called "No Love," while Red Rose, Jack Radics, Bounty Killer and Anthony B take the call for peace further on the hard-hitting "Dancing," saying that the youth should "Leave the violence and crime behind" and should have been "Dancing to their own heartbeat." Then President Brown steps forward with a U Roy soundalike toast called "Unity Train." Great stuff.
Trombonist Jimmy Bosch cut his still-young teeth playing with the legendary timbales player Manny Oquendo y Su Libre. Now he has a solo record out, Soneando Trombon (RykoLatino). It is packed full of cracking hard-core tuff Puerto Rican stuff, his playing and that of the many guests is fantastic. The newies I got in Cuba included Paulito y Su F.G.'s Con La Conciencia Tranquila (Nueva Fania). Top notch. And Tamayo Y Su Salsa AM with Guapa Que me Matos (Inspector del la Salsa).
Cracking newies that have landed on my turntables in the last few weeks
include pianist/arranger Isidro Infante, Licencia Para Enganar
(RMM), which features a swinging new version of "El Pito (I
ll Never Go Back to Georgia)." Packed full of good grooves including
the big jump-up tune, "Esto Esta de Pinstripes."
Copyright 1998 Dave Hucker