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.

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.

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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.

Harold López-Nussa: The next great Cuban jazz pianist?

Harold López-Nussa
photo: Eduardo Rodriguez

By Don Macica –

When producer and DJ Gilles Peterson went to Havana in 2009 to explore a new generation of young Cuban musicians for his first Havana Cultura project, he encountered plenty of vocalists with talent to burn. It was from that album that I first learned about Daymé Arocena, Melvis Santa, Telmary Diaz and Danay Suárez. Helping him find these talented artists was the Cuban-born pianist Roberto Fonseca, who had toured the world with the Buena Vista Social Club and released a handful of critically acclaimed albums. Tucked away among the many singers and rappers who populated the albums 27 tracks was one outlier: Jazz pianist Harold López-Nussa, who closed the album like a Cuban Herbie Hancock with the lively La Jungla.

Now, through some wonderful cosmic alignment, Chicago will host both López-Nussa and Fonseca in the next week. The latter is part of an all-star band supporting Omara Portuondo, but it’s Lopez-Nussa that is touring behind a brand new album, the terrific El Viaje (Mack Avenue Records), and leading his own trio at Evanston SPACE on October 19.

The conservatory-trained pianist has actually been on the scene for over a decade, and this is certainly not his first trip off the island. He can be heard supporting David Sánchez, Stefon Harris and Christian Scott on their Cuban excursion Ninety Miles, recorded in Havana in 2010. He, too, has toured the world with Omara Portuondo and other musicians associated with the Buena Vista Social Club. El Viaje, notably, is the first international release of a Cuba-based artist since the lifting of restrictions associated with the longstanding trade embargo between the U.S. and Cuba, and López-Nussa’s subsequent U.S. tour follows in its wake.

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But enough of context. On to the music!

López-Nussa is a superb pianist regardless of whether he is hewing to traditional Cuban folkloric sources or straying farther afield to straight ahead jazz, pan-African influences (his bass player and sometimes singer Alune Wade hails from Senegal) or even into tango and other South American sounds. Tracks alternate between the serene and introspective (the title track and the breathtakingly lovely Oriente) to lively and percussive (Bacalao con Pan, Feria), but overall the feeling is relaxed, not frantic. It feels as though López-Nussa has already figured out that he doesn’t need to show off his virtuosity, but just play. To these ears, the record sounds something like Weather Report in their prime, with its comfortable coexistence of global influences residing in the same song, propelled along by Wade’s electric bass.

The same tune opens and closes the album, Me Voy pa’ Cuba. It appears first as a bright and cheerful danzón that morphs into some furious piano runs, then returns as the framework for a boisterous rumba jam. In between are stops on a journey that begins and ends in Havana, but finds plenty of inspiration along the way.
_____

Harold López-Nussa Trio, Wednesday, October 19, 7:30pm, Evanston SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave, Evanston. Tickets at evanstonspace.com

Interview: Otura Mun brings his future Afro-Caribeña group ÌFÉ to the Chicago World Music Festival

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By Don Macica –

When I last spoke with Otura Mun, founder and director of the Puerto Rico-based future Afro-Caribeña group ÌFÉ, in early May, we discussed the group’s origins as well as Mun’s personal journey from being Mark Underwood, an African-American born just outside of Chicago, to Puerto Rico and finally Cuba, where he became a Babalawo in the Yoruba religion, a transformation that is inextricably intertwined with his learning of traditional Cuban rumba and further evolution of the electronic artistic concept that would become ÌFÉ. You can read that Agúzate interview here.

ÌFÉ is about to embark on their first European tour, but before they do so they are coming to Chicago to make several appearances connected to the Chicago World Music Festival, starting this Thursday at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center when Mun and other members of the group talk about their individual musical projects and how they were drawn to the concept of ÌFÉ. The evening will end in a jam session with ÌFÉ and musicians from Chicago’s Afro-Caribbean community.

Otura Mun and I spoke by phone earlier this week, so I asked him what was happening with the group, including when we might get to hear some new music beyond the spectacular one-two punch of 3 Mujeres (Iború Iboya Ibosheshé) and House of Love (Ogbe Yekun), both of which were released earlier this year.

“At this point I have enough material for an album,” says Mun. “We spent a lot of time in our home studio in Santurce, Puerto Rico laying down tracks. That’s how I write songs. We record all the drum patterns and electronic sounds, basically jamming to see what happens. Later on I comb through all of that to look for ideas for songs. I’ll take it apart, write lyrics, record the vocals and put it all back together.

“Sometimes I have a very specific idea about what I want to write about. Other times, the rhythms might suggest certain themes like freedom and what that means in the context of my Puerto Rican existence. The subject matter tends to be more spiritual and philosophical rather than political.”

A new single, UMBO, is coming out soon and there have been brief snippets posted on social media all summer, all of which makes this writer very eager to hear more.

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“It was great to get invited to the World Music Fest for our U.S. debut. Many of the members of ÌFÉ have family and friends in Chicago. I myself was born in Hammond, Indiana, so it will be something like a homecoming to perform here at such an important festival.”

ÌFÉ will officially perform twice at the fest. Friday night finds them at Chop Shop paired with Chilean rocker Nano Stern, and Saturday will feature them alongside the great Ethiopian jazz legend Mulatu Astatke and DJ AfroQbano at Concord Music Hall.

It’s unusual for a band without a deep professional history, or at the very least a commercially available recording, to get booked at the prestigious fest, but Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events programmer David Chavez leads a double life as the forward-thinking DJ SoundCulture. He heard ÌFÉ’s music through the global bass community on SoundCloud, where the band gave both of their songs away as free downloads, and he realized their potential to create truly groundbreaking music.

I asked Mun about Thursday’s event at Segundo Ruiz Belvis. “All of the group members have journeys that led them to ÌFÉ. I was a DJ and producer of several groups in Puerto Rico. Other members come from more traditional musical backgrounds, but all of us unite here around Cuban rumba, which I fell in love with back when I first moved to San Juan in 1999. So, we’ll talk about that a bit, play a bit acoustically, maybe listen to a track or two as samples of our work as a demo of how ÌFÉ’s sound relates to tradition. We’ll finish with an open jam session where people from Chicago’s great rumba and bomba scenes can join us. It’ll be a lot of fun.”

ÌFÉ returns to Segundo Ruiz Belvis Saturday morning for a percussion workshop (that’s right, you, too, can get lessons from these terrific musicians) in preparation for a musical ‘Polyrhythmic Procession’ taking place the following Sunday, September 18th at The 606 and the Humboldt Park Boathouse.

While ÌFÉ will not be part of the procession on 9/18 as they continue their North America and Europe tours, local acts like Los Hermanos del Tambor and The Four Star Brass Band will lead the early festivities, culminating in more CWMF international acts, including Herencia de Timbiquí, Rocky Dawuni, and Rajab Suleiman & Kithara.

I finally ask Otura Mun about the European tour. “We’re starting small, just four major cities: Paris, London, Madrid and Barcelona. But they are important cities in a cultural sense, so we’ll build from there.”

Now, if they would just release that album, all will be well in the world.
___

All events are free.

Unidos por el Tambor: ÌFÉ Residency in Chicago: Thursday 9/8 at 7:30PM. Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage Ave, Chicago. Info here.

ÌFÉ with Nano Stern: Friday 9/9 at 10PM (9PM doors). Chop Shop, 2033 W. North Ave, Chicago. Info here.

Polyrhythmic Procession Workshop: Saturday 9/10 at 11AM. Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. Info here.

ÌFÉ with Mulatu Astatke and DJ AfroQbano: Saturday 9/10 at 10PM (9PM doors). Concord Music Hall, 2047 N. Milwaukee Ave. Info here.

 

 

ÌFÉ: A spiritual fusing of traditional and modern sounds

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By Don Macica –

In late 2015, a YouTube video appeared and immediately started shooting around the internet via Remezcla, LargeUp and other ear-to-the ground sites that track Latin and Caribbean music and culture.  3 Mujeres (Iború Iboya Ibosheshé) by ÌFÉ was both straightforward and a bit mysterious at the same time. I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but I loved it. Luckily, there was a free download from SoundCloud too, so I immediately put it into my iPod rotation.

3 Mujeres is a rumba workout, except it’s not, exactly. Almost all of the sounds come from electronic instruments, played by hand by expert percussionists. The production is ultra-modern, yet the vocals have a very traditional feel, mixing Spanish and Yoruba languages. The video explains things a bit via a lengthy prelude in which we are introduced to each member of the group before the song proper even begins. The whole thing is a live-as-it-happens take recorded at the studio and home of project leader Otura Mun in Santurce, Puerto Rico.

That introductory tease was followed up this spring with another video and SoundCloud track, House of Love (Ogbe Yekun). It’s much less traditional sounding, yet still deeply rooted. With its shifting and seductive rhythmic bed and floating vocals, it is practically an R&B slow jam, something like Sade at her most minimalist. It’s gorgeous, and the accompanying video is mysteriously seductive as well, beautiful black and white imagery that follows Otura Mun through a space that is equal parts spiritual and sensual, blurring the distinctions between them.

As it turns out, before Otura Mun put together ÌFÉ, he was musician, DJ and producer Mark Underwood, sometimes known by his identity as DJ Nature. Before that, though, Underwood was an African American raised in Indiana and living in Texas. His move to Puerto Rico in 1999 was, as they say in what has become an overused term, transformative. In the case of Otura Mun, however, it is completely apropos. It was there he discovered rumba as well as the spirit world at its foundation, the practice of Ifá, the African Yoruba religion in the western hemisphere.

I was heading down to Puerto Rico last week for some cultural exploration (OK, I was on vacation), so I e-mailed Otura / Mark in advance with a few questions. We met at Mareabaja, a small restaurant and bar in Isla Verde, where he was playing traditional rumba sets with friends. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

My first question was “Should I call you Mark or Otura?”

OM: Otura Mun is better. It’s my name in Ifá.  All Babaláwos (ed. note: a Babaláwo is a priest of the Yoruban Ifá religion. Mun became a Babaláwo in April 2015 in a ceremony in Havana, Cuba.) receive a letter or sign in Ifá from the 256 possible Odu Ifá that defines them and becomes their name moving forward. Mine is Otura Mun.

DM: Did your understanding of the roots of rumba and batá lead to your interest in Yoruba spirituality, or was it the other way around?

OM: I’ve been interested in both since the very first time I saw a rumba in San Juan and heard my first Orisha songs, all on the same night played by the same group, Grupo Carabalí. But I also sensed an implied level of devotion and dedication that both the music and the spiritual practice seemed to require or demand. When I finally reached a place where I felt like I was ready to embrace the music, rumba specifically, I was also at a point where I felt that I wanted to find a way to explore the “invisible world” and my spiritual self.  I chose Ifá and La Regla de Ocha as my way to access that world. So yeah, I guess you could say they happened simultaneously.

DM: I’ve read that you moved to Puerto Rico on a whim, but that doesn’t seem quite complete to me.  Were you seeking anything other than island style fun and an opportunity to work as a DJ? Was there a culture, attitude or scene that attracted you that didn’t exist in the U.S.?

OM: It was definitely a big change culturally for me. I’m African American and I didn’t speak Spanish when I moved in ‘99. Old San Juan put me in the mix with Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Haitians, Colombians, Argentinians, Venezuelans….  San Juan in the late 90’s was a vibrant place. The island’s music and art scenes were centered in that small beautifully built Spanish colonial city. Music seemed to be a huge part of the cultural expression of everyday people and there seemed to be a sort of unquenchable thirst for it. Learning the language presented a welcome challenge and helped me, I think, to re-envision the world I had been living in from the bottom up. [I was] literally constructing a world vision with these new words and sentiments as the building blocks. I have a Spanish language personality now that doesn’t really read like my English self.  I saw the people in Puerto Rico as culturally different from myself and the folks I knew both in Texas and Indiana and their attitudes and expressions of that culture were attractive.  There seemed to be a conscious sense of Africaness in the music, a strong sense of the importance of family and brotherhood or sisterhood in general, and a love for life, for the moment, youthfulness. Puerto Rico in 1999 called to me in a clear enough way that I picked up and moved from zero, no family, no points of reference and not much of a plan. I saw the move as an opportunity for self-improvement, an opportunity to build a cultural bridge that I could use later, and I think in that sense I’ve been quite successful.

DM: Were there Latin sounds and beats in your DJ sets before you moved to Puerto Rico? Could you differentiate between the Afro-Latin sounds and rhythms of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Colombia, Dominican Republic etc.?

OM: Before moving to PR I wasn’t so in touch with Latin music. I listened to primarily Hip Hop, Dancehall Reggae and Jazz. I studied a semester or two of Brazilian samba and batucada at the University of North Texas and had heard a little bit of salsa and rumba through friends. I really heard, saw and experienced Latin music for the first time on a 2 week trip to San Juan in 1997. There I saw rumba, salsa, bomba, plena, flamenco, charanga live for the first time. I heard merengue, bachata, reggaeton.  When I moved to PR in ‘99 I didn’t know the difference between merengue and salsa.

DM: Why, as you were in Puerto Rico, were you inspired by rumba and batá instead of bomba and plena?

OM: I’m just more into rumba as a genre. I’ve fallen in love with rumba. It consumes me. I respect and appreciate bomba, but I’m much more drawn to the musical conversations I hear between the drums, singers and dancers in rumba personally.  The genres are just so different. I try not to compare them. Yes I heard rumba first in Puerto Rico, and yes I learned to play it in Puerto Rico, but I’m a student of the music and admirer of the Cuban musicians who created and built this beautiful form we rumberos live to play.

DM: Is it accurate to say that ÌFÉ is electro-rumba?

OM: I would never say that what ÌFÉ is doing is rumba. We’re drawing heavily from that established musical dialogue. We’re using the rumba clave, the drummers are playing parts similar to the language of the 3 main drums, but the singing, the song structure, the intent, cadence are all quite different. We’re breaking too many rules to call it rumba since a large part of what makes that genre work so well is that all the players are respecting the basic rules of the conversation. ÌFÉ draws heavily from there, but what we are doing is something different.

DM: There is a fairly established nu-cumbia movement that’s swept Latin America and the Global Bass community in the U.S., especially from a DJ standpoint but also live bands. Were you listening to any of that when you started to consider what to do as an artist/bandleader rather than a producer or DJ?

OM: No I wasn’t. I really just listen to rumba, Orisha music and Jamaican Dancehall. If anything else sneaks in there it’s probably Coltrane or Art Blakey, something very straight bebop. I try not to look outward as much as possible when creating. Lately my inspiration comes from a more visual place or from reading.  I don’t listen to music at the house as a general rule. I wasn’t trying to make something that was going to fall into an established movement or community at all. It was really just about making something that was powerful to me first, with the hopes that some folks could feel the message and sentiments in the music. It’s been sort of cool seeing where ÌFÉ has gotten played and who has really responded to it. There’s definitely a Latin American Bass music community that I’m just now discovering that have supported the songs. They’re doing great things. It’s refreshing to see what else is going on in music right now. And I have discovered artists via shows that have played ÌFÉ’s music that I have quite liked.

DM: The two songs that are out so far are almost entirely constructed of processed percussion and vocals, very minimal, close to a very traditional rumba ensemble.  Is that the foundation from which you’ll be building, or is that the sound itself?

OM: I would feel confined if I were to say that that’s the definitive sound itself but it’s certainly a place I like to be. The minimalism is intentional.  I like the restrictions that are implied there. Set board sounds, clave, percussion as basses, no keyboards, vocal and chorus heavy, one solo acoustic instrument. There are boundaries there, but the beauty is in how you navigate them.

DM: Are the musicians and singers in the 3 Mujeres video the working band? Could we expect to see them live in concert? After all, you go through a lot of trouble to introduce them one by one.

OM: For the most part yes. One of our members, Jhan Lee Aponte, moved to LA a few months back so I convinced Anthony Sierra, a great young rumbero who I had just met in San Francisco to move from the Bay to Puerto Rico to play with the group. He’s an incredible player and we’ve had a lot of fun exploring the island while working on new material for our upcoming EP. So yes, what you see in 3 Mujeres and House of Love is the crew. We may travel a little lighter on chorus singers outside of PR but yes. This is the group. Blessed to be working with such talented folks, all leaders of their own projects who have come together to be part of this group. I’m a lucky man.
____

Word has it that Chicago might get to see and hear ÌFÉ live later this year, and Otura Mun assures me that they are recording songs for a debut EP this summer. So there’s a lot to look forward to.

This evening in Isla Verde, however, there’s a final set of rumba to be played. I recognize people from the 3 Mujeres video in both the ensemble and the audience. I’m awestruck by the sheer complexity of the interlocking drums. The Orishas are invoked. Women are dancing at the bar. It’s a sweaty, sexy and, yes spiritual experience. The mojitos are strong and the garlic shrimp arepas are delicious. It’s heaven.

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Intercambio: Orbert Davis and Cuban cultural diplomacy

group color & crop
photo by Zoe Davis

By Don Macica.

In October of 2012, jazz trumpeter and Chicago Jazz Philharmonic founder/leader Orbert Davis traveled to Havana, Cuba to do research for a project he was creating with Frank Chaves of the River North Dance Company. A year later, the product of this research became one of the best multi-discipline concerts of 2013: Havana Blue.

Research, however, was only part of the reason for Davis’s visit. There were both personal and musical goals as well, and they were not unrelated. Davis, an African-American, was also seeking to learn more about another branch of the African Diaspora in the Cuba as a way to better connect with his own African heritage. The musician in him, inspired by the jazz that emerged as perhaps the signature cultural contribution of Africans in North America, wanted to get to know firsthand the African-rooted music of Cuba and the people who made it.

One of the places that Davis visited on the trip was one of the country’s top performing arts schools, the Universidad de las Artes (ISA), “akin to our Julliard” as Davis puts it. Students here are trained to be classical musicians – there is little jazz instruction. Thoroughly impressed by the student’s sheer talent and quick adaptability to jazz improvisation, Davis vowed to return, which he did in December 2014, with members of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, to perform a with the students at the Havana Jazz Festival.

‘Timing is everything’, for a jazz musician, is sort of insider talk about the importance of rhythm. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Of course, it also applies in general use to more or less mean being at the right place at the right time. For Davis and his CJP cohorts, it meant being in Cuba and working closely with the students and faculty of ISA on the historic day when Presidents Obama and Castro announced their mutual intention to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba after over half a century of recrimination and hostility.

At the Havana Jazz Festival, the young students “became” the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic with the help of workshops and master classes from Davis and other CJP members including Steve Eisen, Ernie Adams, Leandro Lopez-Varady and Stewart Miller. The concert was a huge success, and almost immediately upon returning home, Davis & company went about the work of bringing the students to Chicago to help perform a new Davis composition, Scenes From Life: Cuba!, which will have its premiere on Friday, November 13 at the Auditorium Theatre.

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Leandro Lopez-Varady with ISA student Beatriz Arias – photo by Zoe Davis

One of the students, 17 year old violinist Beatriz Arias, said this when asked why she gave up her Christmas holiday to be in the project: “My motivation was to exchange with different countries, play and learn about jazz and other popular music besides classical,” adding “I didn’t learn improvising at school. It was mainly from my father who plays the tres, so he was like my school for improvisation. But I’ve never done this before. It was all an inspiration in the moment.”

It says something about both the Cuban educational system and the Cuban soul that someone so young who had never played jazz could hang and improvise with these top shelf jazz musicians and shine.

According to Orbert, it was a quality shared by all the students. He attributes this to the Cuban experience and sensibility. “We invited a pair of traditional Cuban drummers to work and later perform with the students. They began by discussing and demonstrating a rumba rhythm. It quickly turned into a jam session with the students singing and dancing. All of the kids knew the chant, they knew the song. They didn’t learn that in school. It was part of who they are at home.”

Davis goes on to praise the educational system. “We tend to think of Cuba as the third world. They’re poor, they need our help… I’ve been in music education a very long time, but there were two things there that I never experienced before. First, the teachers and administration give the students everything they need and want.” The second thing relates to the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic itself. “CJP is a third stream orchestra: 100% jazz, 100% classical. Many of our string musicians come from a strictly classical background, and there is a process of training and adaptation for them to understand jazz. What was astonishing in Cuba was that these classically trained musicians adapted to swing and improvisation so quickly. It was phenomenal what these kids were playing in just a few days. You’d never in a million years think that it was all brand new to them. They are truly third stream musicians.”

Davis will, in a sense, use these young students as teachers and vice-versa in the upcoming CJP concert. “The string section seating will alternate: American, Cuban, American, Cuban… Whatever we do will rub off on them, and whatever they do will rub off on us.”

This concert, like the 2014 trip that preceded it, will truly be an intercambio, a cultural exchange in which both parties will have much to give and receive. Orbert Davis alludes to this near the end of our conversation.

“These students are the future, and we want them to know what this new relationship is about. It’s not about when American companies get down to Cuba and make all this money. There’s some anxiety in Cuba about change, a sense of being conquered again, but this time by money. But for us, it’s about people; it’s about sharing what’s most important. The students will go home knowing this.”

Friday’s concert will be preceded by nearly a week of rehearsals, but it won’t be all work. In all, 36 Cubans are coming, including the president of the University, and there will be time to visit cultural institutions like the DuSable Museum of African American History and the National Museum of Mexican Art. They’ll also partake in that Chicago culinary institution, deep dish pizza. They will go home knowing the best of Chicago. Native Chicagoan that I am, I feel that they’ll experience the best this country has to offer. Judging from what Orbert Davis says, we’ll get to experience the best of what Cuba has to offer us.

Sounds like a good deal to me.

Scenes from Life: Cuba! Chicago Jazz Philharmonic with special guests from the Universidad de las Artes. Auditorium Theatre, Friday, November 13, 7:30pm. Tickets at auditoriumtheatre.org.

 

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

Chucho Valdés: Irakere 40

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By Don Macica.

2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of Cuba’s true supergroup, Irakere. The band led by pianist Chucho Valdés didn’t labor in isolation for long. In 1977, a jazz cruise left New Orleans carrying musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and a young Ry Cooder (yes, the same Ry Cooder whose curiosity led to the rediscovery of the Buena Vista Social Club 20 years later) and dropped anchor in Havana. After catching an Irakere performance and being blown away by what they heard, they engaged in some jazz diplomacy back in the U.S. and soon Irakere was known around the world.

In addition to Valdés, the group also featured the young Paquito D’Rivera on sax and Arturo Sandoval on trumpet. Paquito defected to the United States in 1980 and Sandoval followed 10 years later, yet Chucho stayed the course and Irakere continued as a band until 2005, recording classic albums like Misa Negra along the way.

Chucho is now 74, but if that seems at all elderly to you, remember that his father, the legendary Bebo Valdés, lived to the age of 94 and was producing music until the end, providing the inspiration (and soundtrack) for the wonderful animated film Chico and Rita. Irakere may be no more, but Chucho is still going strong, as evidenced by his work as a solo artist and two recent recordings by his current group, the Afro-Cuban Messengers. Anniversaries being what they are, though, 2015 finds Chucho honoring the groundbreaking group he founded with the brand new album Tribute to Irakere –Live in Marciac (Jazz Village) and subsequent tour with the Afro-Cuban Messengers, which will bring him to Symphony Center on November 6.

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The members of the Afro-Cuban Messengers are young enough to count Irakere as influences on their musical development, so you have something of a dream matchup on the Tribute album: Young disciples led by the maestro himself.

Unlike their equally innovative contemporaries Los Van Van, Irakere were first and foremost a jazz ensemble, not a dance orchestra. Their first appearances outside of Cuba were at the Newport and Montreaux Jazz Festivals respectively. Nonetheless, Cuban audiences want to dance, and Irakere’s first big hit was the funk burner Bacalao con Pan, brimming with electric bass, blaring horns and rock guitar wedded to folkloric Cuban percussion and the incandescent virtuosity of Valdés, D’Rivera and Sandoval’s solos. Later on, as the sheer firepower of D’Rivera and Sandoval departed, Valdés reconceived the ensemble’s dynamic by writing stronger arrangements that emphasized the group sound, resulting in extended works like the four-part suite Misa Negra.

This approach to writing and arranging now carries over to the Afro-Cuban Messengers, the name of which is Chucho’s nod to legendary drummer Art Blakey’s long running Jazz Messengers. Both of the group’s previous albums, Chucho’s Steps and Border-Free, are unmistakably jazz albums. The former serves as Valdés’ tribute to American jazz while the latter digs deeper into Afro-Latin folklore, but each is clearly the work of a fluid and seasoned jazz ensemble.

On Tribute to Irakere, the Messengers grow from a sextet to a 10 piece orchestra, adding tenor and alto sax plus two additional trumpets, the better to approximate Irakere’s 11 member powerhouse lineup. The album contains a mere 6 selections, but two of them stretch over 17 minutes and none are shorter than 7. Instead of filling the album with old Irakere hits, 4 of the 6 tracks come from the previous Messenger albums, but now arranged to take advantage of Irekere’s trademark sound: A tight and punchy horn section, deeply spiritual Afro-Cuban chants, percussive grooves and powerful soloing, all performed with blow-the-roof-off intensity. There’s also one Irakere classic, Juana 1600, and what you might call a ‘new’ Irakere song as imagined by a younger generation called Afro-Funk, which sounds exactly as you think it would with a title like that, but better.

It’s this 10 member Afro-Cuban Messengers that will hit the Symphony Center stage November 6, and it can be safely assumed that roofs will again be blown. There is a chance that other Irakere classics will be played, as they were in Marciac. I, for one, relish the very idea of hearing Misa Negra live. Whatever comes, though, will be good enough for me.

Chucho Valdés, Irakere 40: Friday, November 6, 8pm at Symphony Center, Chicago. Tickets at cso.org

 

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

The door is open. What’s next from Cuban music?

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Roberto Fonseca and Danay Suárez

By Don Macica.

Ever since Presidents Obama and Castro made their historic joint announcement in December 2014, many have been wondering, “What’s next?” Here at Agúzate, of course, we cover music and culture, so our thoughts have turned to what is presumably a coming wave of Cuban music. Early signs are good. Both Buena Vista Social Club and the legendary Los Van Van visited Chicago this summer, while the Festival Cubano presented Miguelito Cuni, Jr. and Pedrito Calvo. Chucho Valdés is coming to Symphony Center this fall.

Conspicuously absent, though, is a younger generation of Cuban artists. Recent appearances have been few and far between. Mayne Stage presented pianist Roberto Fonseca last fall, and the last year or so has also seen shows from singers Melvis Santa at Sabor a Café and Danay Suárez at the Unisono Festival in Pilsen. And, of course, the French-Cuban sister duo Ibeyi, who are garnering tons of stateside attention, were just at Thalia Hall. But as the recent multi-million dollar international deal recently signed between entertainment giant Sony and the Cuban label EGREM demonstrates, both record companies and concert promoters are clearly looking to Cuba for a good return on investment.

Young artists are, of course, the key to any future that includes Cuban music. The point was driven home to me at the recent Chicago Jazz Festival, when Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett, who has been traveling to Cuba since the 1980’s, brought the young all-female Cuban ensemble Maqueque to the Pritzker stage, where their performance prompted multiple standing ovations and the only audience demanded encore that I had witnessed all weekend.

Here, then, is my list of Cuban artists you are likely to hear more of soon.

Descemer Bueno – Much of the Spanish speaking world has likely already heard singer-songwriter and producer Descemer Bueno without realizing it due to Enrique Iglesias’s recent reggaeton-tinged cover of his song Bailando. Bueno has been splitting his time between the U.S. and Cuba for several years, having first come to notice way back in the 90s as a member of Yerba Buena. At the age of 44, Bueno isn’t a kid anymore, and some of his recent output reflects a slight drift toward adult-contemporary blandness. However, his recent song Habana would not have sounded out of place performed by Yerba Buena.

Diana Fuentes – Already signed by Sony, Diana Fuentes is perhaps a step ahead of some of her Cuban colleagues in terms of reaching a U.S. audience. It probably doesn’t hurt that she’s married to Calle 13’s Eduardo Cabra and that he produced her latest album, Planeta Planetario. But she’s been making music in Cuba for over 15 years, working with stars like Carlos Varela and X Alfonso. Her early work showed influences of soul and R&B, but Planetario places her squarely in the singer-songwriter camp, where her music would be right at home alongside alt-Latino artists like Gaby Moreno, Julieta Venegas or Carla Morrison.

Los Aldeanos – Before the U.S. door to Cuban music slammed shut during the Bush presidency, it seemed that the hip hop group Orishas was ready to make a big impact. They even had a song featured in the mainstream Hollywood film Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights. Unfortunately, Orishas broke up in 2010. Into the breach steps Los Aldeanos. You might recognize the duo of Aldo and El B from their collaboration Si Te Preguntan on Ana Tijoux’s La Bala. Like the best hip hop, their lyrics take unflinching aim at society’s injustices, so much so that they’ve endured criticism from the Cuban government.

Daymé Arocena – While the recent Maqueque concert at the Chicago Jazz Fest was dominated aurally by Jane Bunnett’s virtuosic saxophone, it’s very likely that the eyes and ears of the audience were often riveted on the woman standing front and center, Daymé Arocena. A powerful, deep voiced singer in a jazz vein, she also channels the santos with every syllable and move. If there wasn’t a category for santería jazz before, there is now.

Danay Suárez – Another jazz-influenced singer is Danay Suárez, an MC who moves more in the hip hop side of things, though her new EP finds her singing more and backed by a jazz combo led by Roberto Fonseca.  Her flow and rapid musical evolution draw favorable comparisons to Ana Tijoux. Both Suárez and the previously mentioned Daymé Arocena were featured prominently on DJ/producer Gilles Peterson’s series of Havana Cultura recordings.

Roberto Fonseca – Although he was just here in October 2014, I’d be remiss if I didn’t return to Roberto Fonseca for a moment. The pianist and composer effortlessly straddles several musical worlds. He’s worked with legends like Omara Portuondo and the late Ibrahim Ferrer, but also the dynamic young Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara. He’s largely responsible for putting the band together for and producing the aforementioned Havana Cultura sessions of young Cuban artists. His own music freely combines elements from jazz, Cuban son, electronic sampling and African rhythms to startling effect.

Of course, any list of six artists is going to leave off a lot more than it includes, but that’s the beauty of it, yes? There are quite literally hundreds of young, creative Cubans that deserve to be heard. So head to the beach, and wait for the waves to come in. After all, they start a mere 90 miles away.

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

Concert preview: “You can’t imagine Cuban music without Los Van Van.”

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By Don Macica.

Cuba lives large in the American imagination. Likewise, Cuba has been fascinated by its neighbor to the north. After the revolution, the U.S. government kept Cuban culture out of our view. On the island, though, antennas were up and pointed north. Juan Formell, founder of Los Van Van, was among those listening.

Los Van Van was born out of something of a mutiny when Formell, then the arranger of the popular charanga group Orquesta Revé, had a classic case of “artistic differences” with the orquesta’s namesake, Elio Revé. Formell had joined the already existing group in 1967 and immediately set about tinkering with the charanga formula, which at the time was dominated by the great Orquesta Aragon. Formell was as familiar with jazz and the Beatles as he was with Cuban son and began introducing rock into the mix. Even as Revé increased in popularity, the orquesta’s leader seemingly chafed at these changes, prompting Formell to leave just two years into his tenure. Several kindred spirits in Orquesta Revé followed suit, and in December 1969 Los Van Van was formed around this core.

The rest, as they say, is history. And what a history it is!

“The violinists, pianist and flutist all came with me,” recounts Juan Formell in a terrific interview with Cuban writer Leonardo Padura for his book Faces of Salsa. “At the outset I introduced the electric bass and the electric guitar… and instead of the timbal I used a complete drum kit, and later we enhanced things with synthesizer and trombones. In sum, I carried out a series of transformations that complemented the music mélange we were creating: rock, Afro-Cuban music, beat…” The style that they created was dubbed songo, and later it formed the roots of timba.

Formell goes on to say that in order to excite young audiences and get them to dance, he recognized that the Beatles and rock had forever changed the course of music. Being the first to incorporate those modern sounds into the charanga format likewise changed everything that followed in Cuba, and is what led historian and ethnomusicologist Ned Sublette, author of Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo to say, “You can’t imagine Cuban music without Los Van Van, any more than you can imagine the world’s music without Cuba.”

In a contemporary context, think of bands like Novalima or Bomba Estéreo, both of whom recently visited Chicago. In each, they began with a base that is purely local to their home countries, but then amped things up with the latest in tools, technology and global trends. That is precisely what Los Van Van began doing over 45 years ago, and continues to do today.

And yet, for those first few decades they did this largely out of sight of the U.S. because of the embargo imposed on Cuba. Things began to thaw a bit in the 1980s as more U.S. musicians began to re-discover Cuba, but this opening was largely confined to jazz. I first heard of Los Van Van in the early 90s through a pair of compilation CDs, Sabroso: Havana Hits and another assembled by the Talking Heads’ David Byrne, Dancing with the Enemy. Shortly after that, the same Ned Sublette quoted above, then a producer for Afropop Worldwide, founded Qbadisc Records and began releasing CDs of Cuban music here, including one by Los Van Van. The flowering that followed Buena Vista Social Club helped make Cuban music fashionable in the late 90s, even if the throwback nostalgia of BVSC harkens back to an older style. Meanwhile, Los Van Van kept evolving and updating, winning a Grammy Award in 1999 for Llegó… Van Van (Van Van is Here). The group was earning the nickname the Rolling Stones of Cuban music, an odd reference when you consider Formell’s reverence for the Beatles, but perhaps appropriate because Los Van Van, like the Stones (but unlike the Beatles), are going strong after nearly 50 years, even if they disappeared from view after George Bush slammed the U.S.-Cuban door shut again in the wake of 9/11. In recent years, the door has swung open again and, lo and behold, Los Van Van is still here.

Los Van Van is a rare cultural phenomenon that broke through boundaries of nation, generation, politics, and genre. Juan Formell passed away last year at the age of 71, but he has left his orquesta in good hands. For the last 20 years, Los Van Van’s drummer has been the founder’s son, Samuel Formell, and he has taken over leadership of the group.

All of the above should be enough to convince you that missing Los Van Van this Sunday at Thalia Hall would be a serious mistake. If not, I’ll leave you with one more quote, this one from the Los Angeles Times:

“The controlled frenzy that is a Los Van Van concert hasn’t calmed down in more than 40 years.”

Prepare yourself.

Los Van Van, Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport Street, Chicago. Sunday August 9, 8PM. Tickets at TicketWeb.
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About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.