Concert preview: Diego El Cigala’s Love Letter to Salsa

– by Don Macica –

Asking the question “Why did one of the world’s leading flamenco singers make a salsa album?” overlooks 500+ years of history, migration and adaptation. Salsa, even after 50 years of development, exists more purely as an idea and a movement than a single musical genre. The sound that grew out of New York City in the 1960s and 70s was an urgent mix of all things Afro-Caribbean (plena, rumba, son, mambo, merengue) thrown together in an urban environment that also felt the force of rock and R&B. It expanded from there across the world as well as back to the place of its musical DNA. If subjected to a saliva test, salsa’s DNA would reveal West & Central African, American indigenous and European strains. Following the Spanish European strain farther back would lead to North Africa, the Middle East and even India. That strain’s contemporary musical signature is flamenco.

Yep. Flamenco is in salsa’s DNA.

Diego El Cigala is one of the most popular flamenco singers in the world. He is also one of the genre’s most curious and adventurous minds. He’s 100% Gitano from the “Old World”, but also very much interested in how his heritage and culture have played out in the New. He rocketed to international attention and a Latin GRAMMY Award in 2004 in his first foray into Afro-Cuban sounds with pianist Bebo Valdés, Lagrimas Negras. That album also served to help reclaim the legacy of Bebo as a major figure in Cuban music history.

Lagrimas Negras is a lovely, spare album that gradually builds toward a satisfying finish, highlighting Cigala’s powerfully raspy voice and Valdés’ piano in a flamenco-infused journey through Cuban son. Cigala revisited Cuban music in 2008 for Dos Lagrimas, but then also traveled to Argentina for investigations of tango and Argentine folkloric music. He relocated his home to the Dominican Republic in 2014, all but guaranteeing that Afro-Latin sounds would never be far from his ears.

When he set out to record Indestructible, his third exploration of Afro-Latin music, he took things a step further by jumping to the 1970s and New York City. The title track is taken from the landmark Ray Barretto album and song that features singer Tito Allen. Cigala’s album is a high-energy celebration of the Fania Records era that also includes dips into a few pre-salsa tunes like Beny Moré’s Como Fue.

Recorded in New York, Miami, San Juan and Cali as well as in Spain, Indestructible features a superb cast that includes figures such as Venezuelan singer Oscar D’Leon, pianists Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Larry Harlow, trumpeter Luis “Perico” Ortiz, and many of the original Fania studio musicians. That diversity of recording locations highlights the global phenomenon that salsa became and remains.

Remember when I said that salsa was more of an idea than a genre? That is both true and not true in that, after the initial explosion of the 70s, salsa did indeed become codified into a certain commercial style, all of its rough edges smoothed into slick contours for maximum sales. What Cigala does brilliantly with Industructible is reclaim the urgency of the 70s by interpreting it through the passionate prism of flamenco. It’s sensual and earthy, an honest reflection of salsa’s legacy.

Cigala’s voice is a remarkable instrument, powerfully expressive, strong and vulnerable, seemingly fraying at the edges. It invests these songs with the same raw authenticity that Hector Lavoe’s Puerto Rican jibaro roots brought to Willie Colon’s brassy Nuyorican arrangements. Two of Lavoe’s signature tunes, Juanito Alimaña and Periódico de Ayer, are interpreted here, as is Sonora Ponceña’s Moreno Soy and a classic Cheo Feliciano tune, El Ratón. Many of the songs are composed by the unmatched Puerto Rican songwriter Tite Curet Alonso.

When Diego El Cigala arrives at Symphony Center this Friday, April 6, he and his 10-member band will draw much of the repertoire from his three Afro-Latin projects. Expect salsa fireworks for sure, but also intimate boleros like Como Fue.

At the same time, Cigala will remain Cigala, 100% Gitano, flamenco to the core.
______

Diego El Cigala: Indestructible – Friday, April 6 at 8pm. Symphony Center, Chicago. Tickets at cso.org

The Spirit Flows: Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita’s Transparent Water

– by Don Macica –

There’s little chance that, on encountering him for the first time, you would mistakenly guess that Omar Sosa is anything other than Cuban. Dressed in white, he’s a practicing santero whose personal Orisha is Obatala, the deity of purity, wisdom and the light of consciousness.  He often begins his performances with a lighted candle which he then extinguishes, wafting the dissipating smoke over his piano as something of a blessing to the instrument. In the santería faith, music and ceremony are one.

Yet Sosa is very much a global citizen. Though born in Camaguey, Cuba in 1965, he’s lived abroad since 1993, first in South America, then the San Francisco Bay area (where he established himself as a major force on the local Latin jazz scene) and now Barcelona, Spain. More than that, though, he tours and records around the world almost without pause, releasing albums at an astonishing rate of almost two a year, ranging from solo piano to big band sessions.

Transparent Water, his collaboration with Senegalese musician Seckou Keita that he’ll bring to the Old Town School of Folk Music on March 15, isn’t even his newest album. That would be Es:sensual, recorded with Germany’s NDR Bigband and arranged by the legendary Brazilian producer Jaques Morelenbaum. Both albums are the product of Sosa’s globetrotting ways and ceaseless artistic curiosity, as is yet another already recorded album that will be released this September. (More on that below.)

Fortunately for Chicago, Sosa has found time in his schedule to put together a tour for Transparent Water with kora player Keita and a frequent collaborator, Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalle. As you might imagine from the title, Transparent Water is a meditative invocation of the flowing of the human spirit, and the Old Town School’s flawless acoustics and reverent audiences are a perfect match. (It was at OTS where I first heard Omar Sosa live almost 15 years ago, and that indelible performance remains my favorite.)

I reached out to Omar Sosa with a few questions about the album and the creative spirit that brought it into existence.

DM: The last time you visited Chicago, it was on the heels of your album ilé with your Quarteto AfroCubano. And while that album was billed as a “homecoming” because it celebrated your Cuban roots, it was anything but inward looking or strictly bound to Cuba. Now, with Transparent Water, you are directly engaging with Africa in the form of kora player Seckou Keita and extending that to Japan by utilizing the koto and China with the sheng and bawu.  What are you looking for in these sounds and collaborations?

OS: I first heard and played with Seckou Keita in London in March 2012, when I was invited by drummer Marque Gilmore to a special show he was producing called Exhibiton of Sound.  I was completely captivated by Seckou’s kora playing – it’s propulsive but gentle rhythmic qualities, its sophisticated but accessible melodic and harmonic elements.  I felt a really good chemistry with Seckou that night, so I was inspired to invite him to join me for a recording project.  About a year later, we gathered at a studio in Osnabrück, Germany and shared song ideas and co-created and prepared the music we recorded that same week.

Just prior to meeting Seckou in Germany, I had been invited to participate in a multi-artist residency in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, curated by Spanish bagpipe player Christina Pato.  One of the musicians there was Wu Tong from Beijing, who plays a traditional flute-like instrument from China called the sheng.  Again, I was captivated, and the extraordinary bending sounds of the sheng stayed in my head and I started hearing them mix with the recordings that Seckou and I made.

As fortune would have it, I was invited to a festival in Shanghai in September of 2013 with my Quarteto AfroCubano, and was able to arrange to travel to Beijing after the show and visit with Wu Tong in his home studio and record tracks that we used in the mixing of the basic tracks with Seckou, and Wu Tong and I recorded a few new pieces as well.

At some point during this process, I saw a show in Paris of the Vietnamese guitarist, Nguyen Le, who has long been a hero of mine.  In his ensemble was Mieko Miyazaki, the koto player from Japan, and yet again, I was captivated by her sound and expressiveness.  As I was planning to mix the Transparent Water tracks in Paris with my producer friend, Steve Argüelles, I was able to invite Mieko to come to Steve’s studio and contribute a few parts to the project.

So, to a large extent, I do not have a fully formed conception or vision of a musical project mapped out in advance.  I am open and susceptible to incorporating sounds into the creative process that I hear along the way.  It’s a matter of being flexible and curious about how various sounds can combine.

DM: Similarly, you’ve gone back to Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles multiple times. What is it about his playing that works with your approach to music?

OS: Gustavo’s exceptional musical sensitivity playing the folkloric percussion instruments from his homeland and the closeness of those instruments to their roots in Africa has always attracted me greatly.  He is a master with the maracas, and quitiplas, and culo’e puya.  And he’s such a swinging ensemble player, always listening carefully, and never trying to overplay, which can happen with drummers.  Gustavo will also be joining me on the touring portion of an upcoming project with Cuban violinist / vocalist, Yilian Cañizares, who lives in Switzerland.  Yilian and I have recorded a CD called Aguas which will be released in September this year.

DM: You’ve put out close to 30 albums is a little over 20 years. Why are you so prolific? Is there a common theme that runs through all of your projects?

OS: There is so much amazing music on the planet, and everywhere I go (upward of 100 shows on five continents a year) I’m inspired by the new sounds and new instruments I encounter, often in traditional and folkloric contexts.  So many of these sounds inspire me to want to create new music!  So there really isn’t a common theme involved, except the expression of my own musical roots in the ritual melodic and rhythmic elements of African music that came to Cuba on the slave ships.
____

Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita, Transparent Water | Old Town School of Folk Music, Thursday, March 15. Tickets at oldtownschool.org.

Preview: Two Cuban piano masters together at Symphony Center

– By Don Macica –

It can be argued that Cuba has produced more innovative pianist/composers per capita than any other country on earth. A distinctly syncopated Cuban style emerged out of the blending of European classical music seasoned with African rhythms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Perhaps the most famous composer of this era is the orchestra leader Ernesto Lecuona, who wrote the classic tune Siboney, among many others. By the 1940s jazz was flavoring the stew along with a more overt reference to rhythms of African origin, leading to the development of mambo. When the descarga scene, marked by lengthy improvisational jam sessions, emerged in the 1950s, pianists Peruchín and Bebo Valdés often were often leading the band. It’s a tradition that continues to this day in the person of young pianists like Alfredo Rodríguez and Harold López-Nussa.

In between those early days of mambo and the emergence of this new generation, however, there are two pianists who tower over the rest.

Bebo Valdés’ son Chucho emerged in the 1970s as a founding member of the groundbreaking Irakere, arguably one of the best and most influential bands to emerge from post-revolution Cuba.  The group, which also included trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, might very well be called Afro-Futurist today in the way that they combined deeply spiritual Afro-Cuban rhythms to forward thinking jazz and electric rock band energy. Chucho Valdés kept Irakere going after Sandoval and D’Rivera left Cuba for the United States, but he also grew as a solo artist and leader of several jazz ensembles, moving over to acoustic piano as his main instrument.

Chucho Valdés & Gonzalo Rubalcaba | Photo credit: Softglas

Meanwhile, another pianist from a musical family, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, was growing up listening to Valdés and Irakere. In the 1980s, he formed Grupo Proyecto, one of several young fusion bands inspired by the pioneering Irakere. By the end of the decade, Rubalcaba also turned to acoustic piano and was soon part of a trio that included American jazz giants Charlie Haden and Paul Motian (later Jack DeJonette). He made his international debut in 1991 with the album Discovery: Live in Montreaux. That album was put out by the legendary jazz label Blue Note, who also released Chucho Valdés’ U.S. debut Solo Piano the same year.

Both pianists went on to stellar jazz careers that nonetheless have the heartbeat of Cuba at their center, regardless of whether they are playing solo, small ensemble or big band dates. Both have proved adept at the two-piano format. Chucho’s 1998 duet album with his father Bebo, Juntos para Siempre, is a gorgeous masterpiece that stands as a testament to what can happen when you get two Cuban pianists in a room together.

On February 23, that room will be the stage at Symphony Center when Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdés, two brilliant pianists and composers with a historic relationship within the Cuban piano tradition, present Trance, a collaboration that explores the profound spiritual connection at the very heart of Cuban music. Expect an open-ended, respectful conversation between two friends whose mutual admiration for each other leads to careful  listening and thoughtful response, adding as needed until ultimately they almost speak as one.

And lest you think this will be some laid back recital, be assured that there will be plenty of sonic fireworks from these master musicians. After all, their hearts beat to the rhythm of Cuba.

Chucho Valdés & Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Trance
Friday, February 23 at Symphony Center, Chicago Tickets at cso.org.

Concert Review: Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band

| By Don Macica | Photos by Charlie Billups –

Eddie Palmieri brought what was, for the celebrated salsa orchestra leader and NEA Jazz Master, a smallish ensemble with him to the Old Town School of Folk Music on Friday night, but the joyful noise that they made together was a testament to the power of Eddie’s playing, composing and arranging skills. When you add in the charm and personality that El Maestro carries with him always, you have the recipe for a truly special night. Mixing references to both family and his beloved Puerto Rico into the between songs commentary, Eddie engaged the audience emotionally as well as musically.

The evening opened with a solo piano meditation on Palmieri’s late wife, weaving together two compositions, Mi Novia and Life, together in her honor. From there on, though, it was time for el ritmo.


As Eddie said in last week’s Agúzate interview, the man absolutely refuses to indulge in mediocrity. He reiterated this at the show, noting that the harmonic complexities of jazz wed to the African derived rhythms of Cuban drumming are pretty much everything that’s worth doing musically. And, of course, he had a band with him that was spectacular at both.

The all-Puerto Rico rhythm section of bassist Rubén Rodriguez, timbalero Camilo Molina, conguero Vicente “Little Johnny” Rivero and El Rumbero del Piano himself absolutely killed it all night long. Meanwhile, Alex Norris’ trumpet and Louis Fouché’s alto sax burned with fire and grace.


In addition to selections from his latest album Sabiduria, the group went back to the 70s several times for recasts of classic Palmieri tunes like La Libertad Logico, Puerto Rico and Chocolate Ice Cream (written with the great Cuban trumpeter Chocolate Armenteros). Each was introduced with an anecdote from Palmieri’s life about the origins of the song. Some were humorous. Others addressed the tragic situation of Puerto Rico’s slow recovery from Hurricane Maria but also the strength, resilience and pride of the Puerto Rican people, even suggesting that it was time for the island to resume its pre-conquest name of Borikén.


All in all, it was an extraordinary night. Today, as I go back and listen to classic records like Vamanos Pa’l Monte and Sentido, I’ll also have photographer Charlie Billups‘ images from the concert to remind me of just how extraordinary it was.




 

Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñeiro at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center


Photos by Charlie Billups, commentary by Don Macica –

Hundreds of people filled Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center last night while one of the most important bands in Cuban music history, Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñeiro, performed a style of classic Cuban son that they practically invented in 1927 when they added a trumpet to the traditional tres Cubano, guitar and percussion. Of course, 90 years later, the band is in its fourth generation. While hardly innovative by 21st century standards, they provide a near perfect evocation of a sound that laid the foundation for what would become salsa 40 years later. If, as El Gran Combo has sung, “Sin Salsa no hay Paraiso (Without salsa, there is no paradise)”, then without Septeto Nacional, there is no salsa.


This was only the fourth time that Septeto Nacional has visited Chicago: Three since the Obama administration re-opened cultural exchange with Cuba and, before that, the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair. That made it something of a historic night as well.


At the SRBCC show, at least three generations of folks, from retirees to children, filled the dance floor with varying degrees of skill but equal measure of joy. Meanwhile, the back of the room was filled with round banquet tables where friends and strangers alike gathered like family. All in all, it was an atmosphere more akin to a community party than a concert. Adding to that feel was that Septeto Nacional invited saxophonist Roy McGrath, a Puerto Rico native who runs SRBCC’s youth Afro-Latin jazz program, to join them for a song. He responded with an improvised solo that evoked another genre that likely wouldn’t exist without Septeto Nacional: Latin jazz.


When I spoke with Old Town School of Folk Music’s Mateo Mulcahy a few months ago about their Extended Play series that partners with SRBCC, he talked about how Chicago’s network of cultural presenters allows the city’s residents to experience world renowned artists that any one organization could not afford to bring to town on their own. Septeto Nacional’s appearance was co-presented by HotHouse, who hosted the band the night before at Alhambra Palace. It is partnerships like this that allows an organization like SRBCC, whose main business is neighborhood youth services, to also be a place where people can come to hear world class music from Latin America.


Like the show by Colombia’s Herencia de Timbiquí just 2 weeks earlier, there was a sense of the barrier between performer and audience dissolving altogether, a vibe that SRBCC is increasingly adept at conjuring, as more and more people discover with each presentation. It is, I believe, a force that gives energy to the whole, resulting in an elevated experience on and off the stage.


Future shows at SRBCC include artists from Puerto Rico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and more. I suspect there are many more elevated experiences to come.

Album review: ÌFÉ, IIII+IIII


By Don Macica –

I think it’s fairly safe to say that, here at Agúzate, few album releases have been more anticipated than the debut from ÌFÉ, IIII+IIII. As a concept, the group seemed to come out of nowhere just a little over 15 months ago when the single and video dropped for 3 Mujeres (Iború Iboya Ibosheshé) and quickly attracted the attention of electronic dance music fans, especially followers of the global bass movement. The track was something of a digital rumba, a deeply spiritual groove that sounded like a ceremonial field recording from the future.

That song and video was followed a few months later by a second, House of Love (Ogbe Yekun). We’ve wanted more ever since. As it turns out, there is a deep connection between ÌFÉ and Chicago. The group is from Puerto Rico, and this publication’s roots were first watered there. We interviewed ÌFÉ leader Otura Mun about his spiritual and cultural journey that led to the group’s founding when we visited the island in May 2016 (read that here), then caught up with him again (read that here) just before the group made their U.S. debut at World Music Festival Chicago in September.

Some snippets of music surfaced here and there, including a third full song, UMBO (Come Down), but we were as surprised as anybody when we learned in early March that a full album would drop at the end of the month.

It was worth the wait. IIII+IIII is a minimalist masterpiece built on Afro-Cuban rumba, but thoroughly infused in a warm electronic bath. In a sense, it is nothing more than percussion and voice, like you would experience in a traditional rumba performance, but wired and sonically processed. Within that very tight framework, however, emerges a fairly expansive sound that integrates bits of R&B, Afropop, Jamaican dancehall and Nyabinghi ritual drumming, and even one certified 80s pop hit, Steve Winwood’s Higher Love. It sounds entirely authentic and lived in, the very opposite of the cultural anthropology that global bass movement often dabbles in. ÌFÉ isn’t borrowing sounds and styles. They are the thing itself.

ÌFÉ at World Music Festival Chicago – photo by Charlie Billups

Group leader Mun is a Babaláwo of the Yoruban Ifá religion. But he’s also a techno-savvy DJ and producer who happens to be an African-American who was born in Hammond, Indiana. Other members of the group include full time rumberos Beto Torrens, Rafael Maya and Anthony Sierra; powerful singer Kathy Cepeda and Latin Alternative musician Yarimir Cabán (MIMA). The entire album was recorded at Casa ÌFÉ, a house in Santurce that is also Mun’s residence. There are no outside producers and the album was released on the group’s own label, Discos Ifá. When they were in Chicago for the World Music Fest, they took time to stop by Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center to jam acoustically with local rumberos and bomberos, and then returned two days later to lead a percussion workshop.

By and large, the album simmers rather than boils. One notable exception is Bangah (Pico y Palo), Mun’s reflections on Ogun, the Yoruban orisha of war. The lyrics alternate comfortably between Spanish, English and Yoruban. Many of the tracks stretch out beyond the 6 minute mark, the better to let the groove take its time inviting you in to explore. They thoroughly mine the hints of Afro-Cuban rhythms that seasoned the aforementioned Higher Love, and the song’s spiritual underpinnings and positive message are brought to the fore.

That positivity may be the key to the spiritual uplift that this music provides, much the same way that Chance the Rapper’s gospel influences power his vision. In the specificity of its Yoruban cosmos, it delivers a universal and much needed message of humanity.

ÌFÉ, IIII+IIII (Discos Ifá)

Interview with Omara Portuondo: “I’m grateful to do what I love most.”

Omara Portuondo 2014
Photo credit: Fernand Forcade

By Don Macica –

Many of us made it out to Ravinia last summer to catch the Buena Vista Social Club’s “Adiós Tour.” By this time, sadly, several of the legends who rocketed to worldwide fame in the 1990s were no longer with us, most notably Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer and Rubén Gonzáles. Still, it was definitely worth the trip up to Highland Park to revel in nostalgia one more time.

There is one member of this club, however, who not only still walks the planet, but has no intention of saying adiós: Omara Portuondo. This year finds the legendary Cuban vocalist back out on the road for her “85 Tour,” named for the birthday that she will celebrate later this month. Don’t mistake this for another nostalgia fest, though. The world tour, which comes to Symphony Center on October 21, finds her accompanied by an all-star band of first rate jazz musicians, including American violinist Regina Carter, Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen and Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca, whose band (Yandy Martinez, Ramsés Rodríguez and Andrés Coayo) powers the rhythm section.

The standard narrative that accompanies the BVSC phenomenon is that these amazing artists were rescued from obscurity by Ry Cooder and filmmaker  Wim Wenders. There is some truth in that, but it doesn’t apply to all of its members. In fact, Portuondo was actively performing and recording in the years immediately preceding the release of the BVSC album and movie. She has been active separately from the group in the years since as well, singing with everyone from the flamenco star Diego El Cigala to American avant-garde saxophonist David Murray and Brazilian singer Maria Bethânia.

Magia Negra
Omara Portuondo circa 1959

Omara Portuondo was kind enough to answer a few of my questions via e-mail. The following responses have minor edits for clarity.

Don Macica – The common assumption in the United States is that your career, along with many of your colleagues in the film and album Buena Vista Social Club, was revived, even rescued by that project. It’s true that world wide fame followed it, but tell me a bit more about the years from 1967 up until the late 1990’s.

Omara Portuondo – Well, some of us were active. Actually I was invited to join the band because I was recording and they invited me to sing with Ibrahim Ferrer. I started [my career] dancing with my sister at the Tropicana, and from then I joined the Loquibamba, Cuarteto las D’aida, until the moment I recorded my first solo album in 1959, Magia Negra. I joined Orquesta Aragón in the 1970s [and] recorded albums with Adalberto Alvarez and Chucho Valdes… Some people do not know that, but I toured a lot before the success of Buena Vista.

(Editor’s Note: I did a bit of research, and there’s even more to the pre-BVSC years, including a 1983 documentary and being awarded an Alejo Carpentier Award for artistic achievement in 1988.)

DM – After over half a century of singing, what keeps you going? Has your work with younger musicians like Roberto Fonseca introduced another phase?

OP – Music is my life. It’s the source to keep going, along with my son and my granddaughter. I love what I do, and when this happens things are easier. Well, it does not mean that you have to be lazy. You have to work hard, but when things comes from your heart, people can feel it.

DM – You’ll be accompanied by a pair of incredible jazz musicians, Regina Carter and Anat Cohen, who aren’t particularly known for playing Latin music, although Cohen loves Brazilian choro. What can we expect from this collaboration and concert?

OP – Oh, I’m so excited and happy about this. For my 85th anniversary tour I wanted to invite artists that I admire and that could give a personal touch to the music. They are very talented and they understand perfectly the music connection. Your know, music is universal and we are simply enjoying so much of the reunion.

DM – Last summer’s BVSC tour was the “Adiós” tour, but you are still going strong. Any plans for retirement?

OP – Retirement? I’m just a young girl! There are some good things happening, a documentary movie, a lot of ideas, recordings… I’m grateful to do what I love most.
________

Omara Portuondo at Symphony Center. Friday, October 21 at 8:00PM. Tickets at cso.org.

Agúzate Interview: Melvis Santa

By Don Macica –

Melvis Santa has been a professional musician for over half of her life. At the age of 14, she and a group of friends in Havana, Cuba formed the all-female vocal ensemble Sexto Sentido. No less than Chucho Valdés called them “the best Cuban vocal quartet of the past 30 years.” After 12 years of success, she left that group in 2008 to try her hand at a solo career. She spent some time touring and recording two CUBADISCO Award-winning albums with Interactivo, a all-star fusion band in Cuba lead by pianist and composer Robertico Carcassés.

She then formed her second group, Santa Habana, that was a bit more jazz oriented, but with a pop feel permeated by deep Afro-Cuban grooves. The debut album was released internationally via the BIS label.

Meanwhile, she launched a second career as an actress, appearing in a number of short Cuban films and the full length feature 7 Days in Havana in a segment by Spanish director Julio Medem.

In other words, Melvis Santa is kind of a big deal in Cuba. Why then, in 2014, did she move to New York City?

“In Cuba, you get to a point where you are in a comfort zone. It’s a small country, so you get recognized, people like what you do. It’s very easy to forget that you have to continue to push yourself and grow. That’s what I like about New York. I have to push myself there.”

I’m speaking with Melvis after a rehearsal for her performance later that evening at Sabor a Café, and intimate music venue in Chicago, where she will present her new Ashedí Project with a hand-picked group of some of Chicago’s best jazz and Latin musicians, including trumpeter Orbert Davis, guitarist Mike Alemana, bassist Brett Benteler (who recently left Chicago for New York as well, but returned for this show) and conguero Frankie Ocasio.


Steeped in Afro-Cuban tradition, Melvis is also fully immersed in the wider music world. She cites Cuban artists like Merceditas Valdés and Marta Valdés as influences, but also Erykah Badu, Billie Holiday, Shirley Horn, Rosa Passos and Ella Fitzgerald.

“New York is the best platform for a creative artist. Not only are the great living jazz artists there, but also important Cuban artists as well, like Roman Diaz [a master Afro-Cuban percussionist who made his own Havana-New York transition in 1999], a deep repository of Afro-Cuban knowledge and rhythms, who I now get to learn from first hand. Not only do I get to learn the old ways, but also the new, because in New York even traditional musicians are very open.”

I ask Melvis what the Ashedí Project is.

“Ashedí is an idea that I had. In my case, it’s a new stage in my career where I’m embracing influences from my childhood such as Afro-Cuban tradition, and connecting them with jazz and other genres of music in Cuba and the world. Ashedí is an Afro-Cuban Yoruba word that is used as an invitation. In a Yoruba ceremony, when we talk about the ashedí, it is an invitation to other practitioners to be part of the ceremony. And that’s exactly what I want to do with this project. So what you hear today, in this music, is an invitation to these particular musicians. I told them in the rehearsal, yes, look at the notes on the paper, but then play and do what you love. I’m looking for that vibe that is ashedí.”

The performance later that evening validates this approach. In rehearsal, the basic structure of each composition (almost all of them are new, although she did dip into Santa Habana for Inmensidad, a gorgeous evocation of the orisha Yemayá) was sketched out as Melvis directed from behind a piano, allowing each musician to find their way into the melody. In performance, it was quite literally night and day as the musicians found their footing. Bentler and Ocasio were subtle and effective, keeping the pulse grounded in Afro-Cuban tradition, while Davis and Alemana were given free reign to improvise and did so with incisive and sometimes spectacular solos. Depending on the needs of the song, Santa split her time between supporting the melody from the piano or out in front, where her voice and charisma riveted the audience.


Santa is a very good songwriter, but two of the highlights of the evening came in what were essentially tributes to the two sides of Santa’s ashedí: An alluring duet between Santa and guitarist Alemana on Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life and the encore, an incandescent cover of Marta Valdés’ En la Imaginación.

Orbert Davis, who is not only a trumpeter but also a composer, bandleader and founder of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, summed it up perfectly the next day: “It was one of the most musical nights of my life.”

The latest development in Santa’s career is joining the dynamic all-female Afro-Cuban jazz group Maqueque, led by Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett. Bunnett has been traveling to Cuba and working with Afro-Cuban musicians for several decades, recording the landmark album Spirits of Havana in 1989 with Yoruba Andabo, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and the very same Merceditas Valdés that Santa cites as an important influence.

“Because Jane has spent so much time in Cuba, she knew of my work with Sexto, Interactivo and of course Santa Habana. It’s almost like a family, we are very close. I am a bit older than the other members [of Maqueque], but when their singer Daymé Arocena, who was once a student of mine, left to concentrate on her solo career, Jane called me. I went to see Maqueque at the Blue Note in New York and it went from there.”

Santa tells me Maqueque is recording a new album with her, so I ask if she is recording herself.

“Moving to New York was a very big step, and I only did it two years ago. I spent the entire first year just absorbing everything and going to concerts of musicians that I had always admired. So, yes, I am thinking about recording again soon, but I am still learning and there is still a lot of work to be done, and I don’t want to rush it.”


It would seem that Melvis Santa has some pretty big artistic ambitions, but is willing to take some time in getting there. The rest of us will have to be patient. Meanwhile, though, we can hope for more perfectly musical nights like the one at Sabor a Café.
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About the author: Don Macica is a marketing consultant to the performing arts community and a contributing writer to several online publications. When not traveling, he lives a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.