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.