Tag Archive for: music

HAVANA, march 25th  The band known in Cuba as “Los Rollings” have arrived in Havana.

Following in President Obama’s footsteps, the Rolling Stones touched down ahead of a huge free concert on Friday.For decades rock music was denigrated on the communist island as “ideological deviation”. On Thursday the British band were officially welcomed by officials from Cuba’s Cultural Ministry and the UK ambassador to Cuba.

Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts stopped on the tarmac to speak to reporters.

“Obviously something has happened in the last few years,” Jagger said, as Richards interjected: “That’s what happens when you ban things”.

Jagger went on: “So, time changes everything and so we are very pleased to be here and I’m sure it’s going to be a great show… Tomorrow, I think it is, God is it really tomorrow? We’d better get ready!”
In contrast to the relatively recent political rapprochement, the musical thaw between Cuba and the West has been developing for some time.

Fidel Castro reportedly regretted the censorship and attended the unveiling of a statue of John Lennon in Havana in 2000.

Even so the concert, which comes at the end of the Stones’ Latin American tour, will be a first for Cubans.

“(It’s great) that the youth interact with music they don’t know, so that youth can interchange, recognize and compare cultures, to incorporate them and also to share their energy, because Cubans, especially young Cubans, have a lot of energy to give,” said one woman in Havana.

Back in the 1960s when Rolling Stones cover band Los Kent tried to play in Cuba, soldiers stopped the gig at gunpoint.

Some 50 years later, today’s military will be helping to provide security for the hundreds of thousands of fans who are expected in Havana.


Arturo O’Farrill performing in Havana, where he recorded the recently released “Cuba: The Conversation Continues.” Credit David Garten

HAVANA, 2August  22  (NYT)  As the American flag was raised over the United States Embassy in Cuba last Friday, the pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill could be found in the immigration area at José Martí International Airport in Havana. Footage of the ceremony, symbolizing the restoration of diplomatic relations severed in 1961, was being piped into the room.

“So I’m waiting on line to enter Cuba, and I’m hearing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ ” Mr. O’Farrill said this week, speaking from the MacDowell Colony for artists in New Hampshire. “I’m looking around me at the people in the immigration hall. The guy who took my passport really smiled broadly, because he understood that there was a new relationship.”

Mr. O’Farrill, who was born in 1960, needs no convincing on that point. His father, the brilliant composer-arranger Chico O’Farrill, was a prominent Cuban émigré, leaving Havana in 1948 for New York City, where he worked with Dizzy Gillespie and Machito, among others. (He died in 2001, at 79, without ever returning to his homeland.) The younger Mr. O’Farrill has extended his father’s legacy, notably as founder and artistic director of the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance, a nonprofit arts and education organization whose most visible outlet is the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, an acclaimed big band.

In December, Mr. O’Farrill brought the orchestra and a coterie of guest artists, producers and support staff to Havana, to make an album with the theme of dialogue across a cultural and political divide. Within two days of their arrival, President Obama made his startling announcement about the United States moving “to end an outdated approach” to relations with Cuba, casting the project in a hopeful and historic light.

“Cuba: The Conversation Continues,” just out on Motéma, is an album worthy of its moment, an ambitious statement that honors deeply held musical traditions while pushing forward. Spread over two discs, it features a range of pieces commissioned from both Cuban and American composers, including the drummer Dafnis Prieto and the pianist Alexis Bosch. Some tracks — like “El Bombón,” featuring Cotó, a master of the guitarlike trés — feel bracingly familiar, while others venture onto new terrain.

As it happens, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra also released a pertinent double album this week: “Live in Cuba,” recorded at the Mella Theater in Havana. This concert recording — the first title on Blue Engine Records, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new label — is a memento of the organization’s visit to Cuba in 2010, which included workshops as well as performances, and brought its own bureaucratic challenges.

“Live in Cuba” offers a fine portrait of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at work, performing a mix of jazz repertory, by Duke Ellington and Benny Carter, and new works by its members. There are four pieces by Wynton Marsalis, the band’s artistic director, including a movement from the “Vitoria Suite,” which bears his distinctive idiomatic signature as a composer and arranger. But for a substantial portion of the album direct engagement with Cuban music feels like an afterthought; the orchestra mostly hums along on its standard frequencies.

The few exceptions, not surprisingly, feel supercharged. “2/3’s Adventure,” by the band’s bassist, Carlos Henriquez, deals persuasively with mambo rhythm. (Mr. Henriquez will lead the orchestra in a concert called “Back in the Bronx” on Sept. 12, at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts. A week later he’ll release his debut album, “The Bronx Pyramid,” on Blue Engine.) And an arrangement of the bolero “Cómo Fué,” with the venerable Cuban singer Bobby Carcassés, is a suave delight.

Mr. Carcassés also appears on “Cuba: The Conversation Continues,” irrepressibly singing and scatting through his own tune, “Blues Guaguancó.” The tune opens up to a dynamic round-robin of solos, including one by the young Cuban trumpeter Jesús Ricardo Anduz; its expression of Cuban-American dialogue leans heavily to one side, but that’s perfectly fine in the larger context of the album.

One hallmark of Mr. O’Farrill’s style as a bandleader is the drive to collaborate, and he elicits mostly excellent work from his artist coalition. Mr. Prieto’s piece, “The Triumphant Journey,” suggests a whirring contraption, an engine of polyrhythm. The pianist Michele Rosewoman, a bandleader on the vanguard of Afro-Cuban jazz in New York, brings a beautifully nuanced piece called “Alabanza,” with hypnotic Yoruban drumming and shimmery figures for flute and horns. And Mr. O’Farrill’s son Zack, a drummer, contributes a surging closer, “There’s a Statue of José Martí in Central Park.”

Setting aside a tune called “Vaca Frita,” which features an extraneous DJ Logic, Mr. O’Farrill’s own new music bursts with vital purpose. The centerpiece of the album is “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite,” whose title broadcasts its claim to self-definition. Strikingly, the suite is structured as a showcase for the alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose bladelike, bittersweet tone has no direct precedent in Cuban jazz.

And yet Mr. Mahanthappa, slashing and skittering through the four movements of the piece, sounds extraordinary. (He also performed “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite” with the band at the Newport Jazz Festival earlier this summer, and it was among the highlights of the event.) Mr. O’Farrill lays out the piece in a loose thematic arc: Its first movement, “Mother Africa,” could almost be a suite unto itself; the second movement is “All of the Americas.” The fourth and final movement, which builds on a phraseology traceable to Mr. Mahanthappa, is pointedly titled “What Now?”

That’s a timely question, especially as it pertains to a new, freer musical exchange between Cuba and the United States. “We’ve just scratched the surface, as far as I’m concerned,” Mr. O’Farrill said, sounding both elated and determined. “I’ve been going down to Cuba for 14 years, and I never saw this day coming. My father would have been overjoyed.”

havana-liveAs the U.S. and Cuba re-establish diplomatic relations, Latin music execs are scouting the island for crossover hits.

HAVANA, August 1 (By APRIL CLARE WELSH)  Musically, Cuba is like a paellera—the pan in which locals cook up their take on the Spanish paella—filled with flamenco licks, Jamaican dancehall riddims, West African drum beats, and club-ready blends like cubaton and reggaeton.

It’s a broad sonic spectrum that was borne painfully from Cuba’s blood-stained legacy of Spanish colonizers and imported African slaves, with Afro-Cuban percussion providing the backbone to many of the country’s diverse musical styles. Cuba is often seen as the ultimate music mecca, however, thanks to fraught Cuban-American relations, there’s been little chance of experiencing it in person for over fifty years.

It was a different story in the early ‘50s, when Cuba’s capital Havana was a playground for America’s rich and hedonistic: hop aboard a short flight, hit up venues like the Tropicana Club in the city’s Marianao neighborhood, famed for popularizing the mambo and the rumba, and be in with a chance of rubbing shoulders with Hollywood A-listers like Marlon Brando and Ava Gardner.

However, diplomatic relations were put on ice back in January 1961––following divisive revolutionary Fidel Castro’s 1959 takeover of the U.S.-backed Batista government and the country’s subsequent shift towards communism––and a trade embargo was imposed that same year. The good times ground to a halt.

On July 1st 2015, a historic deal saw Cuba and America formally restore diplomatic relations.

That was until July 1st 2015, when a historic deal between U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro saw the two countries formally restore diplomatic relations. (Last Monday saw the reopening of Havana’s embassy in Washington.) The tide was already turning last December: a statement issued by The White House had unveiled Obama’s intentions to unpick the fraying stitches of Cold War history, “normalizing relations” between the two countries in the hope of providing “more opportunities for the American and Cuban people.”

Since then, Obama has already begun lifting travel blockades. Any American wishing to travel within one of 12 approved categories or purposes––including participation in public performances, visits to close relatives, and professional research––is no longer required to apply for a case-by-case license from the OFAC, which had previously been a lengthy and convoluted process.

Now you just have to tick a box and keep your receipts for five years. Although tourist travel is still currently prohibited by statute, people-to-people programs (which fall within the remit of education as far as the 12 categories of general-license travel are concerned) could offer a way around the holiday ban as they do not discriminate on eligibility.

However, they come with a strict itinerary and will set you back thousands of dollars as the trip must be booked through a certified organization like Blue Note Travel.

Cuban nationals, on the other hand, have been able to visit the U.S. freely since the island eased travel restrictions two years ago, but how will they fare from this renewed relationship? For starters, despite the trade embargo still being in place, Obama and Castro have eased import restrictions from the U.S., allowing more American telecommunications and technological goods into Cuba.

This should help make the country better connected; according to independent watchdog organizationFreedom House, only between 5%-26% of the 11.3 million people currently living in Cuba have access to the internet, with hourly connection costs amounting to as much as 20% of monthly wages.

“There’s just so much enthusiasm for anything Cuban at the moment.”—Michel Vega

So what does all this mean for the Cuban music industry? According to Latin music executive Michel Vega—the former head of Latin music at ​William Morris Endeavor, the first major talent agency ​to have a department ​dedicated to the Latin market, and now the CEO of songwriter/producer Marc Anthony’s new entertainment company, Magnus Media LLC—many of his colleagues in the U.S. music industry have been treating the new relationship a little like a gold rush.

“We’ve heard of a lot of A&Rs and writers going over to Cuba and doing scouting trips,” he tells me over the phone from his home in Miami. “It just seems that every day you hear about someone having gone or planning to go. With a rise in Americans traveling to Cuba, the ball is now rolling and there’s just so much enthusiasm for anything Cuban at the moment.”

Vega says that, historically, U.S. record labels have been unwilling to sign Cuban artists, largely on account of the politics and the complexity of traveling between the two countries. Since 1988, the congressionalBerman Amendment​​​ has exempted “informational materials” like records ​f​rom the trade embargo––meaning Americans could legally license recordings by Cuban artists that had already been produced––but performing in the U.S. has been a different story.

The majority of Cuban artists have to hire a lawyer to organize their artist visa, which is an expensive and arduous process that can sometimes take up to four months. What’s more, if they do get their travel authorized, performers are not entitled to any kind of fee, only small “per diem” payments which amount to a maximum of $188 a day, per group. However, this could change in time if the​ trade​ embargo is lifted by congress.

“All the A&Rs have started rushing here and I think that the labels are very interested in capitalizing on what’s going on.”—Javier Otero

Havana-born Javier Otero, the founder of music production company Blue Night Entertainment, says that he has also noticed an increased flurry of industry activity directed at Cuba. “All the A&Rs have already started rushing here and I think that the labels are very interested in capitalizing on what’s going on, although I think they’re still a little bit cautious about the legal aspects,” he explains.

“But it’s like anything––what will happen eventually is that Cubans will end up being viewed just like people from anywhere else in the world, in as far as the musicians are concerned anyway.”

Otero is looking ahead to the day when Cuban music will be widely embraced by the U.S. commercial mainstream. Although there are a few obstacles to overcome before the path is cleared completely, a number of Cuban artists have already broken through. Take popular reggaeton actGente de Zona, for example, just one of the acts that Blue Night represent.

The Cuban duo mix the rap/reggae hybrid with more traditional rhythms like son––a melding of classical Spanish compositions with Afro-Cuban percussion––and have triumphed in the current climate. They won three Latin Grammys for their collaboration on Enrique Iglesias’ 2014 hit“Bailando,” which topped the Latin Charts for 33 weeks.

Then, just last month, a recording of their track “Homenaje Al Beny (Castellano Que Bueno Baila Usted)” was played at a conference celebrating Apple’s new streaming service, chosen by Eddy Cue, Senior Vice President of Internet Software and Services and an American of Cuban descent.havana-live-gente-de-la-zona

“Gente de Zona didn’t have this kind of ideological weight on them as much as the previous generation. I think that could be a precedent for future Cuban musicians.”—Billboard’s Judy Cantor-Navas

Billboard’s Latin music specialist Judy Cantor-Navas has nothing but respect for Gente de Zona for opening more ears to what Cuba has to offer. “They have learned to use all the skills they have but to do a sound that’s more international and has all the things that everyone loves about Cuban music,” she says, over a Skype call from Barcelona.
“What’s more, Gente de Zona didn’t have this kind of ideological weight on them as much as the previous generation to say they couldn’t do it and I think that idea could be a precedent for future Cuban musicians.”

Otero says that Cubans are excited about what the future might bring. “The relationship between Cuba and the U.S. has been broken politically for years, but the U.S. has not abandoned Cuba and has helped support it by providing food and aid during times of need.” he says. “A lot of Cubans see America as a great country.
I believe that large record companies, like Sony, will now want to establish offices in Cuba because Cuba is one of the most culturally rich countries in the world and Cuban music is known everywhere.”

Cuban hip-hop, in particular, has been flourishing since the early 1990s, when the government announced the implementation of periodico especial, or the “Special Period.” This was a time of austerity which coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s long-term communist ally to whom it had always turned to for economic and political support, as well as trade.
The economic depression saw many raperos, or rappers, turn to music as a vehicle for their discontent. Despite the political divide of the time, the influence of U.S. rap in Cuba was very present, even though it wasn’t always the easiest to come by.

“I believe that large record companies, like Sony, will now want to establish offices here because Cuba is one of the most culturally rich countries in the world.”—Javier Otero

“It’s a myth that Cubans never listen to American music,” says Cantor-Navas. She has been going back and forth to Cuba since the ‘90s. “Whether it was a case of people bringing records in when they went abroad back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, or via pirate satellite dishes. They used to—or still do—make homemade antennae so they can listen to American radio stations from Miami, and that’s how so many things got in. Then there was a point in the ‘90s that the hotels started to get MTV. I think many Cuban artists see the States as somewhere they should be.”

Unlike in the U.S., the Cuban music industry is regulated by the government, with the majority of artists on a salary. If the Cuban-American trade embargo is lifted, EGREM—the country’s state-run record label since 1964—may find itself licensing more and more of its recording artists and songwriters to U.S. labels and, as Otero suggested, seeing those same major labels establish offices in its capital. The FADER reached out to EGREM and fellow Cuban label Bis Music for comment.

I asked Cuban sound engineer Ali Álvarez, the son of famous pianist and composer Adalberto Álvarez, whether he sees the thawing out as a chance for Cuban recording artists to make a bigger splash in the U.S. charts.
He says he’s unsure how easily they will fit in: “I think it will be a while before we see any massive surge, not necessarily because of politics but more because of mentality. Most Cuban artists and producers do not fully understand the American market per se. Their lyrics are extremely local and the level of production is poor in most cases, due to the lack of technological knowledge and expertise.”

“Cuba is like a rough diamond, but hopefully this change will be an eye opener for those on the island and they will start to produce works that compete with what’s coming from the U.S.”—Ali Álvarez

In more traditional circles, Cuba’s commitment to the arts is demonstrated by its prestigious conservatories, like the Amadeo Roldán, and its classically trained musicians like Roberto Urbay; some of the best in the world. “Cuba is like a rough diamond,” Álvarez continues, “but hopefully this change will be a big eye opener for those living on the island and they will start to catch up, producing works that are up to compete with what’s coming from the U.S. and other parts of the world.”

Where there’s youth, there’s curiosity, and it’s arguably a synthesis of the old and the new that creates the most exciting, forward-thinking music—and Cuba’s richly diverse musical heritage means there’s plenty for a younger generation of musicians to draw on.

Now diplomacy has been restored, it’s possible that sonic adventurers will find more opportunities to present their music to a U.S. audience. And if Cuba’s communication infrastructure improves, then the internet will, of course, be an all-important vehicle for casting the island nation’s myriad musical styles further afield.